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'Ugly Meanings in Beautiful Things': Reading the First Wilde Trial

James, Simon J.



Michael O'Neill

Mark Sandy

Sarah Wootton


What might it entail to speak or write in words of beauty, especially of physical beauty? Is it the case that the literary arts can never portray beauty itself su ciently, but only the e ects of beauty (wonder, sexual desire , envy)? If it is admitted that beauty is beyond the power of words to capture, then is beauty itself in a literary text emptied of meaning, or at least of the power of meaning anything other than itself ? According to Lord Henry Wotton, in Oscar Wilde’s e Picture of Dorian Gray (1890-1) ‘beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins. … e moment one sits down to think, one becomes all nose, or all forehead, or something horrid’; even the painter Basil Hallward agrees that Dorian’s physical ‘beauty is such that Art cannot express it’.2 e ineffability of beauty in language o en produces in literary texts that attempt to represent the beautiful a frequent recursion to this kind of romantic irony – a confession of silence where a representation should be. e aesthetics of the late Victorian period were still, at least genealogically, Romantic in striving to maintain an epistemological connection between the beautiful, the true and the good (although such a connection was o en deeply problematic, even for the Romantics themselves). Wilde revered ‘the god-like boy’ Keats especially among the romantic poets, and owned a Keats manuscript, but could burlesque his other Romantic predecessors in order to establish his own alternate standpoint:3 Wilde’s aesthetic therefore celebrates not the natural and true goodness of art, but rather its arti ciality, its unnaturalness. Far from truth and beauty being equivalent terms, he suggests in ‘ e Critic as Artist’ that ‘all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling. To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic’.5 He even downplays the aesthetic e ects of natural beauty as inferior to those produced by art, for instance in Vivian’s refusal to enjoy the spectacle of a sunset as visually no better than ‘a very second-rate Turner’.6 e signi cance of aestheticism in the history of the persistence of beauty lies in its e ort to break from the Romantic legacy by detaching the beautiful from the good on one side, and from the true on the other.7 Wilde defended the 1890 text of Dorian Gray in a letter to the Scots Observer thus: ‘An artist, sir, has no ethical sympathies at all. Virtue and wickedness are to him simply what the colours on his palette are to the painter’; (he also refers here to Keats taking ‘as much pleasure in conceiving the evil as he had in conceiving the good’).8 is for Wilde is what the maxim of ‘Art for Art’s sake’ entails – the assertion of beauty neither for truth’s sake, nor for the sake of the good, but above all for that of beauty itself.


James, S. J. (2015). 'Ugly Meanings in Beautiful Things': Reading the First Wilde Trial. In M. O'Neill, M. Sandy, & S. Wootton (Eds.), The Persistence of Beauty: Victorians to Moderns (45-58). Pickering & Chatto

Online Publication Date Apr 1, 2015
Publication Date 2015-04
Deposit Date Mar 18, 2015
Pages 45-58
Book Title The Persistence of Beauty: Victorians to Moderns.
Chapter Number 3
Publisher URL