He stared hard at Frank Harris, harder than he ever had, because this fact Harris needed to understand, even if it had to be driven in with hammer and nail. If they were to continue to coexist in this hotel, to continue to pass weeks together exiled from their respective homes, Harris had to give up the expectation that Wilde might change. It was true that he was not writing. But to think that he would travel to the Mediterranean and not talk to boys, to think that forbidding him from so doing would make it more likely he could begin to work again… that was laughable. Also an insult.
Harris must have sensed that he lost the point because he began to tick and agitate in the seat, fritter away his glance this way and that, anywhere but Wilde’s face, as if looking for something he left behind the last time he traveled to Monte Carlo. Yes, Wilde thought at him, you did leave something behind. It’s called rational sympathy.
Finally, Harris’s head came back. He looked in Wilde’s eyes and said, “Then that’s your choice, Oscar. You are my friend one way or another. It’s your life to spend as you choose, despite everything that has happened.”
“When has it not been my choice?”
Harris blinked; in so blank-eyed a fashion Wilde wasn’t sure the man heard him. “I just hope—” Harris started “I mean—I wouldn’t want to see you get into any more trouble. You’ve suffered enough trouble for one lifetime.”
“No protest from me on that score. But you need to realize that I do not go around deliberately courting trouble. I am who I am, and thus be who I am. Courting trouble is the last thing on my mind. Have I ever struck you as a rebel or a criminal or an anarchist?”
“No, I dare say you’re more conservative than I am. Perhaps by much.”
Wilde smiled and bowed in recognition of the insight. Now this was the Frank Harris who had been his friend back in London. “On the other hand, I like to think I am also the kind of person who accepts what happens to him with the best of grace.”
Harris nodded slowly. “’No protest from me on that score’,” he parroted. “But you’re also the laziest son of a bitch I’ve ever met.”
Wilde laughed; now he was enjoying this tête-à-tête. “I’m not lazy, Frank, as much as profoundly out of energy. My body feels leaden. My heart is an echo chamber.” Okay, so now he was being too theatrical. But the man deserved it.
Harris’s hazel eyes went at, tinged at the ends with disappointment. “I thought if you’d stayed here for a while and rested you would feel like working again. I thought that something must strike your fancy. You almost promised me that, Oscar.”
This was true enough as it went. Wilde had in fact been sick of the capital, sick of the constant rejections by Englishmen and Frenchmen he’d once mattered with the designation of “friend,” sick of Bosie’s distant scoffing, sick most of all at the heart-heaviness that had set in as soon as his Gilbert had left for Africa. Wisely or not, he had confessed his bitter feelings to Harris, declaring that he was too heartbroken to write in Paris. Harris, with typical American pragmatism, had, instead of just listening to Wilde’s complaints, which is all Wilde had wanted, immediately declared his willingness to remove Wilde from Paris. Problem solved! Indeed it was a kind offer; Wilde could not deny it. But in exchange for his generosity Harris wanted some output in return. A play or a long poem or perhaps even a novel. For Jesus’s sake, Oscar, Harris had sawed with his odd combination of vocalizations, at least scratch out a sonnet once in a while. But Frank Harris had a lot yet to learn about Wilde’s inner motivations.
“Almost, yes. But there’s a great gulf between an almost-promise and an actual one. A gulf mostly filled with misinterpretation and coercion.”
He watched as Harris’s face went sour all over again. The man leaned far into his chair, dejected.
“Actually, something has struck me, Frank. I’ve got a subject and even some verses.”
“What?” Harris came forward, his shoulders alive, his face alert, his eyes shifted in an instant to bright lemony-green. “What is it? Tell me. May I read it?”
Wilde chuckled. It almost broke his heart to see the naked hope in Frank Harris’s eyes. All the poor man wanted was for Wilde to scribble some lines again—any lines. And not just that, but publish them. To become Oscar Wilde again. But there was no hope. That Oscar Wilde was dead the moment he was told to strip off his clothes at Holloway and let himself be examined. It was a very different, sobered Oscar Wilde who, while still locked up, was able to write a bitter, one hundred-page letter to Douglas that Robbie Ross had given the title De Profundis and floated as a next, new publication.
“For nothing is so frustrating as a piece of art that could and should have been of the highest caliber but never made it there, because the artist himself was incapable. Art that was simply bad was, by comparison, a relief.”
There was yet another Oscar who, during a slim period of anti-prison activism following his release, wrote a letter to the Daily Chronicle complaining of the state of affairs inside English jails and thereafter started a long, sad ballad about Reading—the poem that was the last piece of literature he’d felt compelled to finish; the poem that in some quarters was being heralded as the latest great poem of the English language but to Wilde was little more than an exercise of funneling his sadness into a fictional episode. As he’d written Reading Gaol he’d certainly had ambitions for the poem—high ambitions indeed—but when he looked at it now what he felt so keenly was not the ambition but the sadness. And he knew—although he would never admit this to a soul— that the poem was decidedly not a great one. There were too many passages of naked melodrama and verses that bordered on doggerel. At best—at best—it was only a near-great work; and in that case the world would probably have been better off if he’d never written it at all. Or written a fairy story instead. For nothing is so frustrating as a piece of art that could and should have been of the highest caliber but never made it there, because the artist himself was incapable. Art that was simply bad was, by comparison, a relief.
And since? Since finishing Reading Gaol any Oscar Wilde who had an inclination to put pen to paper was a ghost. Or at least an action. Certainly not the Oscar Wilde who sat upon this too across the face of Frank Harris.
“Well,” Wilde started tentatively, “I think of it as a companion piece to my Reading Gaol poem.”
“Really?” Harris could hardly contain himself. “Another long one? Will you finally tell the world what happened to you there?”
Wilde picked at his coat for a moment, trying to decide how better to explain this “composition,” and how to avoid the masculine wrath of Harris. “I probably should have used another word than ‘companion piece.’ I mean in my mind they are side-by-side, more for their differences than their similarities. These latest verses are not in any way a continuation of the themes of Reading Gaol. Indeed, they are a counterstatement against it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ve been thinking about all these young lads in the shining boats who come in off the sea every morning to hawk their catches.”
Now Wilde saw cutting disappointment on Harris; perhaps even fear. “What about them?”
“They are free in the broadest sense possible. Nothing is unavailable or inconceivable to them. Their lives exist on a plane of pure joy, pure possibility, pure enthusiasm. They are free from want, free from unhappiness, free from ugliness, free from disapproval. No one in particular is watching out for them, but far from provoking danger this has liberated them; it has made the whole world of experience available to them. They are like a new typological form of humanity: beautiful, exuberant, uninhibited, open-minded.”
As he waxed about these boys, Harris’s expression turned more and more sour. Now Harris looked positively solemn. Solemn and dour. “They don’t charge you money, do they?”
“You know what for.”
Frank Harris had a longstanding and instinctive habit of cutting to the chase. No wonder he was so indifferent to the law once he received his degree from the University of Kansas; no wonder he earned his success instead as a journalist and businessman. The law was too slow for him and too ornamental. Too many imprecise and debatable shades of meaning. Journalism was far more direct and capable of bringing quick results, quick changes of opinion. But in this instance, cutting to the chase had also led Harris astray. It didn’t matter whether he gave money, or some other payment, to the boys for their “attentions.” The exchange—and these verses in his head— finally wasn’t about the money; it was about the love.
“No, they don’t,” Wilde lied.
Harris nodded once, glad for that answer. Any money Wilde carried on this trip came from Harris, and Harris, Wilde knew, would not want that money going to renters. But that was just it. These creatures were not really renters; they were just free, beautiful boys.
Wilde cleared his throat. “And I assure you, Frank, I am not the only foreign gentleman here who enjoys their company.”
Harris clucked. “Oh, I don’t doubt that. Not at all.” His nervous energy was back, accompanying his dislike for the subject. Any moment, Wilde guessed, Harris would be out of the chair again, waving his arms, arcing high-minded pronouncements at him from across the room. Frank Harris was not a lounger. He was a fascinating, intelligent, and good-hearted friend, but he had no capacity for taking a day—or a minute—off. Instead of getting up, Harris changed the subject. “But what about this new poem. Tell me more. Will it be as long as Reading Gaol?”
“Remember, it’s a counterstatement not a repeat,” Wilde said. “Freedom, beauty, hopefulness. Liberty in- stead of prison, joy instead of sorrow, a kiss instead of an execution.”
“Check. And you’ve started on it already?”
“I have. A few verses.”
“May I read them?”
“You can listen,” Wilde said. Without explaining, he sat forward, straightened his chest and tilted his chin, ready to pronounce the verses that had first come to him a week ago while he lingered on the beach waiting for the fishing boats to come in. In the days since, in stray bored moment or in the middle of finishing a bottle of champagne or nibbling on something at a café, he polished them and whittled them, replaced some of the words with others, initiated pauses where before there had been none. Although he had absolutely no ambition for them, he was perfectly happy with the verses now; even proud to let them loose into the open air. It was the first time in almost a year that he’d recited poetry at all.
From The Last Days of Oscar Wilde. Used with permission of Burlesque Press. Copyright © 2018 by John Vanderslice.