“Entirely misunderstood…by all other writers I have read.” The breathtaking self-assurance of this pronouncement suggests why Wilde’s long-forgotten text is intriguing, for reasons other than the glimpse it gives us of the road not taken by a significant cultural figure. The confrontation between Wilde and Symonds is, in the end, a confrontation between two eras. In Wilde’s dismissal of Symonds and the rest, you can already hear not only the voice of the mature writer, blithely dismissing the intellectual and social conventions of his age, but the voice of an as yet unborn criticism, one particularly willing to question prevailing assumptions about style, canons, and gender. Like the best of his mature work, this juvenile piece seems to leapfrog forward from the late-nineteenth to the late-twentieth century.

Not the least of the twentieth-century phenomena that Wilde so uncannily anticipated was the cult of celebrity; and indeed, soon after deciding against a career as a classicist, he was making his first serious effort at courting international fame. During his 1882 tour of America, he was already showing a shrewd understanding of the uses to which that most Greek of literary forms, the epigram, might be put in the age of the telegram and the newspaper. (“His sayings are telegraphed all over the world,” the Pall Mall Gazette bemusedly reported of Wilde’s American visit.) If he invoked the Greeks at all in his American interviews it was to compliment a local poet:

Whitman is a great writer…. There is more of the Greek residing in him than in any modern poet. His poetry is Homeric in its large pure delight of men and woman, and in the joy the writer has and shows through it all in the sunshine and breeze of outdoor life.

But as we know, it was in Wilde himself more than anyone that the Greek spirit resided. If no one today seriously wishes that Wilde had become an Oxford classics don, it’s at least in part because his own “Greekness”—the deep understanding of the rhetorical uses of style, the taste for piquant syllogism, the ever-evolving aversion to sentimentality (which reached its apogee in Earnest), and, in the end, the tragic understanding of the meaning of suffering—made itself felt so strongly in the work he produced as a poet, writer, and dramatist.