Excerpts from Daniel Mendelsohn’s, Oscar Wilde, Classics Scholar, reviewing The Women of Homer, by Oscar Wilde, edited by Thomas Wright and Donald Mead, and the Built of Books: How Reading Defined the Life of Oscar Wilde, by Thomas Wright.
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Like a character in one of the Greek tragedies Oscar Wilde was able to translate so fluently as a student, his short life followed a spectacular trajectory from fame to infamy, from the heady triumphs of his post-Oxford days, when he was already famous enough to be lampooned by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, to the dreadful peripeteia of the trials and imprisonment. But to some of those who knew him at the time, Wilde’s emphatic rejection of the scholarly life must have come as something of a surprise.
He had, after all, shown a remarkable flair for the classics from the start. At the Portora Royal School, where he’d been sent in the autumn of 1864, just before his tenth birthday, he won the classical medal examination with his extempore translations from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (the tragedy he loved above all others) and the Carpenter Prize for his superior performance on the examination on the Greek New Testament. Later, at Trinity College, Dublin, he took a first in his freshman classical exams and went on to win the Berkeley Gold Medal for his paper on a subject that was, perhaps, not without augury: the Fragmenta comicorum graecorum, “Fragments of the Greek Comics,” the great scholarly edition by the early-nineteenth-century German philologue Augustus Meineke. (According to his friend Robert Sherard, he occasionally pawned the medal when he needed money, but managed always to redeem it, keeping it until the end of his life.)
Wilde’s activities immediately following his departure from Oxford suggest, if anything, a certain unwillingness to abandon the domain of “dried-up old dons.” While scrounging for ways to keep himself employed, he wrote his old friend George Macmillan, of the publishing family, offering to take on projects that would have daunted full-blown classics scholars twice his age: a new translation of Herodotus, a new edition of Euripides’ Madness of Hercules and Phoenician Maidens. He applied, unsuccessfully, for an archaeology scholarship; he had a hand in an 1880 production of Agamemnon that was attended by Browning and Tennyson.
Of that Wilde, the extant record affords us only a few tantalizing glimpses: a university prize essay, an unsigned review article, journeyman’s pieces that nonetheless reveal a characteristic bravura. This partial view has occasionally been enlarged over the years by the publication of fascinating bits of juvenilia (“Hellenism,” a fragmentary set of notes about Spartan civilization, was published only in 1979). Now we have The Women of Homer, a substantial although unfinished paper on Homer’s female characters that reminds us once more how strongly Wilde’s classical training underpinned the sensibility that would make him so famous.
Wilde’s copy of the Nichomachean Ethics, dated 1877, contains this suggestive gloss on the text:
“Man makes his end for himself out of himself: no end is imposed by external considerations, he must realize his true nature, must be what nature orders, so must discover what his nature is.”