Wilde and Eliot

  • Richard Shusterman
Part of the Macmillan Literary Annuals book series (MLA)


The close connection between Oscar Wilde and T. S. Eliot, for which I shall argue in this essay, is certainly neither obvious nor established and is more apt to strike one as fanciful and dubious.1 For, at least at first blush, these two figures could hardly seem more different.


Critical Theory Individual Talent Historical Sense Public Personality Personal Emotion 
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  1. 1.
    One may find vague suggestions of some affinity between Wilde and Eliot in a few scholarly works, for example: R. J. Green, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Intentions: An Early Modernist Manifesto’, British Journal of Aesthetics, 13 (1973) pp. 397–404CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. D. H. Erickson, Oscar Wilde (Boston: Twayne, 1977) p. 8Google Scholar
  3. F. Kermode, Romantic Image (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961) pp. 44–8. However, these (and other) works neither make a strong claim for extensive affinity, nor do they attempt to substantiate such affinity in a serious or systematic manner.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    For this aspect of Eliot, see H. Kenner, The Invisible Poet (London: Methuen, 1965) pp. ix-x, 82–6Google Scholar
  5. L. Gordon, Eliot’s Early Years (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977) p. 1. Most of the biographical data on Eliot in this paper are drawn from these excellent studies.Google Scholar
  6. 4.
    For these points, see H. Pearson, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit (New York: Harper, 1946) pp. 45–6, 230–2, 236. Biographical information on Wilde used in this paper is based primarily on this book.Google Scholar
  7. 5.
    O. Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in G. F. Maine (ed.), The Works of Oscar Wilde (London: Collins, 1948). Page references to Wilde’s works collected in this volume will appear parenthetically in the text after the abbreviation WOW.Google Scholar
  8. 6.
    O. Wilde, Reviews (London: Methuen, 1908).Google Scholar
  9. 7.
    For more on this point see E. San Juan, The Art of Oscar Wilde (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967) p. 105. It is perhaps also worth noting that both Eliot and Wilde wrote literature for children.Google Scholar
  10. 8.
    These theories, of course, are not systematically or consistently formulated, and as such do not perhaps deserve the name ‘theories’ but might be better described as themes. However, they have been so long and so well known as theories, that one reluctantly tends to follow this linguistic usage. Brian Lee, for example, recently labels them collectively as ‘Eliot’s Four “Theories”’. See B. Lee, Theory and Personality (London: Athlone, 1979) pp. 1–2.Google Scholar
  11. 9.
    For Wilde’s alleged borrowings or plagiarisms from these and other authors, see G. Hough, The Last Romantics (London: Methuen, 1961) pp. 199’203.Google Scholar
  12. 10.
    See M. Fodaski, ‘Oscar Wilde’s Swallow in The Waste Land’, American Notes and Queries, 14 (1976) pp. 146–8Google Scholar
  13. A. D. Moody, Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975) p. 274.Google Scholar
  14. 11.
    S. Spender, Eliot (London: Collins, 1975) pp. 60–1.Google Scholar
  15. 12.
    See C. Bell, Art (London: Chatto & Windus, 1913), chapter one.Google Scholar
  16. 13.
    T. S. Eliot, ‘The Function of a Literary Review’, The Criterion 1 (1923) p. 421.Google Scholar
  17. 15.
    For a detailed study of Eliot’s social criticism, see R. J. Kojecky, T. S. Eliot’s Social Criticism (London: Faber, 1971).Google Scholar
  18. 16.
    See M. Allan, T. S. Eliot’s Impersonal Theory of Poetry (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1974) p. 136.Google Scholar
  19. 17.
    T. S. Eliot, ‘Studies in Contemporary Criticism’, The Egoist, 5 (1918) p. 114.Google Scholar
  20. 18.
    T. S. Eliot, ‘A Sceptical Patrician’, The Athenaeum, 647 (23 May 1919) p. 362.Google Scholar
  21. 19.
    See Lee, pp. 75–90; and C. K. Stead, The New Poetic (London: Hutchinson, 1975) pp. 13–14,126–46.Google Scholar
  22. For a very thorough study of the notion of unity in Eliot’s poetic and critical theory, see F. Lu, T. S. Eliot: The Dialectical Structure of His Theory of Poetry (Chicago: University Press, 1966).Google Scholar
  23. 21.
    T. S. Eliot, ‘Marivaux’, Arts and Letters, 2 (1919) p. 80.Google Scholar
  24. 23.
    See R. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979) pp. 333–42Google Scholar
  25. J. Margolis, ‘Relativism, History, and Objectivity in the Human Studies’, Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 14 (1984) pp. 1–23.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 25.
    If, at this point, the unlikely objection is raised that despite the strong similarities between Wilde’s critical theory and Eliot’s there is no room to talk of influence, since Eliot was not sufficiently familiar with Wilde’s doctrines, let me dismiss this objection with the following facts. Eliot definitely taught Wilde’s critical theory in two of his Extension lecture courses (on ‘Victorian Literature’ and ‘Modern English Literature’) in 1917, and also discussed Wilde’s aestheticism in his 1916 course on ‘Modern French Literature’. All this, of course, is shortly before the blossoming of Eliot’s early and most seminal literary theory and criticism. See R. Schuchard, ‘T. S. Eliot as an Extension Lecturer, 1916–19’, Review of English Studies, 25 (1974) pp. 163–73, 292–304; particularly pp. 166, 293, 295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. 26.
    Elsewhere, I have presented Bertrand Russell as another of the unacknowledged influences on Eliot’s criticism and theory (See ‘Eliot and Logical Atomism’, ELH, 48 [1982] pp. 164–78). One might remark, however, that Eliot comes close to suggesting his debt to Wilde (albeit very vaguely and in a fugitive piece of journalistic criticism), when he claims that Wilde’s trial and demise ushered in ‘the vast background of death’ against which Eliot and his contemporaries had to struggle. ‘The effect of this trial upon English literary society was fatal…. Wilde and his circle stood for… a type of culture… urbanity, Oxford education, the tradition of good writing, cosmopolitanism…. I am much deceived… if the best of Wilde be not in Intentions’. See T. S. Eliot, ‘A Preface to Modern Literature’, Vanity Fair, 21 (1923) p. 44. Intentions, of course, is Wilde’s collection of essays in literary and critical theory, published in 1891.Google Scholar

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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 1990

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  • Richard Shusterman

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