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    Chapter 9

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    Chapter 9
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    Of late years I have often explained Wilde to myself by his family
    history. His father, was a friend or acquaintance of my father's
    father and among my family traditions there is an old Dublin
    riddle: 'Why are Sir William Wilde's nails so black?' Answer,
    'Because he has scratched himself.' And there is an old story
    still current in Dublin of Lady Wilde saying to a servant. 'Why do
    you put the plates on the coal-scuttle? What are the chairs meant
    for?' They were famous people and there are many like stories, and
    even a horrible folk story, the invention of some Connaught
    peasant, that tells how Sir William Wilde took out the eyes of
    some men, who had come to consult him as an oculist, and laid them
    upon a plate, intending to replace them in a moment, and how the
    eyes were eaten by a cat. As a certain friend of mine, who has
    made a prolonged study of the nature of cats, said when he first
    heard the tale, 'Catslove eyes.' The Wilde family was clearly of
    the sort that fed the imagination of Charles Lever, dirty, untidy,
    daring, and what Charles Lever, who loved more normal activities,
    might not have valued so highly, very imaginative and learned.
    Lady Wilde, who when I knew her received her friends with blinds
    drawn and shutters closed that none might see her withered face,
    longed always perhaps, though certainly amid much self mockery,
    for some impossible splendour of character and circumstance. She
    lived near her son in level Chelsea, but I have heard her say, 'I
    want to live on some high place, Primrose Hill or Highgate,
    because I was an eagle in my youth.' I think her son lived with no
    self mockery at all an imaginary life; perpetually performed a
    play which was in all things the opposite of all that he had known
    in childhood and early youth; never put off completely his wonder
    at opening his eyes every morning on his own beautiful house, and
    in remembering that he had dined yesterday with a duchess and that
    he delighted in Flaubert and Pater, read Homer in the original and
    not as a school-master reads him for the grammar. I think, too,
    that because of all that half-civilized blood in his veins, he
    could not endure the sedentary toil of creative art and so
    remained a man of action, exaggerating, for the sake of immediate
    effect, every trick learned from his masters, turning their easel
    painting into painted scenes. He was a parvenu, but a parvenu
    whose whole bearing proved that if he did dedicate every story in
    'The House of Pomegranates' to a lady of title, it was but to show
    that he was Jack and the social ladder his pantomime beanstalk.
    "Did you ever hear him say 'Marquess of Dimmesdale'?" a friend of
    his once asked me. "He does not say 'the Duke of York' with any
    pleasure."

    He told me once that he had been offered a safe seat in Parliament
    and, had he accepted, he might have had a career like that of
    Beaconsfield, whose early style resembles his, being meant for
    crowds, for excitement, for hurried decisions, for immediate
    triumphs. Such men get their sincerity, if at all, from the
    contact of events; the dinner table was Wilde's event and made him
    the greatest talker of his time, and his plays and dialogues have
    what merit they possess from being now an imitation, now a record,
    of his talk. Even in those days I would often defend him by saying
    that his very admiration for his predecessors in poetry, for
    Browning, for Swinburne and Rossetti, in their first vogue while
    he was a very young man, made any success seem impossible that
    could satisfy his immense ambition: never but once before had the
    artist seemed so great, never had the work of art seemed so
    difficult. I would then compare him with Benvenuto Cellini who,
    coming after Michael Angelo, found nothing left to do so
    satisfactory as to turn bravo and assassinate the man who broke
    Michael Angelo's nose.
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