Homer, if not Symonds, clearly recognizes this, giving Penelope a number of scenes that show that she is in many ways ambivalent about the suitors—whose attentions, the poet hints, she unconsciously enjoys. In Book 19, for instance, Odysseus’ queen famously takes the mysterious beggar—actually Odysseus in disguise—into her confidence, telling him about a dream she has had in which a mountain eagle attacks twenty tame geese she has lovingly kept: there is no question that the geese are meant to represent the suitors, and the eagle, Odysseus.
Wilde bewails the failure of Symonds and so many other contemporary critics to recognize this conflicted aspect of Penelope’s character:
It is entirely misunderstood, however, by Mr Symonds and, indeed, by all other writers I have read. It shows us how great was her longing, how terrible the anguish of her soul, and it makes her final recognition of [Odysseus] doubly impressive.
The private desire behind the public repudiation, the anguished dissolution triggered by a long-awaited “consummation”: Wilde’s ability to discern, beneath the attitudes imposed on women by society, the sharp and surprising contours of unexpected emotions is what would make The Importance of Being Earnest the most original and most artistically successful of his works.
“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: