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.”
While still at Trinity, Wilde was asked on one exam to translate a fragment of a text about Odysseus into Elizabethan prose, and then was required to translate selections from Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and Matthew Arnold into Greek.
Luckily, Wilde, whose linguistic abilities were certainly formidable—years later, a former Portora schoolmate recalled his ability to “grasp the nuances of the various phases of the Greek Middle Voice and of the vagaries of Greek conditional clauses”—was to fall into the hands of the right professors. His Trinity master was the Reverend J.P. Mahaffy, a distinguished classicist who had a special interest in later Greek antiquity, and who was, too, a celebrated wit—a quality that must have appealed to his young student. (Informed that the current tenant of an academic post he coveted was ill, Mahaffy replied, “Nothing trivial, I hope?”)