As we journey farther into the New Year, we’ve been reflecting on all the wonderful books published in 2010, and in doing so, we’ve also realized there are some classics worth revisiting. The authors and friends of Oxford University Press are proud to present this series of essays, drawing our attention to books both new and old. Below, Anatoly Liberman (the Oxford Etymologist) encourages us to read The Portrait of Mr. W.H.
By Anatoly Liberman
Oscar Wilde is most often quoted for his infinite wit, and those who know him are mainly aware of his comedies. Some people are still charmed by his fairy tales (“The Happy Prince” and a few others; you should have seen how my undergraduate students – those poor products of popular culture – listen to this story!) and cannot shake off the attraction of The Picture of Dorian Gray. But usually he is mentioned, if at all, in the context of his innumerable mannerisms, the overblown cult of the beautiful, homosexuality, and tragic imprisonment. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a famous title, but I wonder who reads the poem today. More than anything else, Wilde wanted to sound brilliant, which did not cost him the least effort, because he was brilliant. His paradoxes have become proverbial. In the form of hundreds of familiar quotations they serve as epigraphs to articles and books by our contemporaries—an incautious idea, for beside such an epigraph the rest looks pitifully ordinary. Deafened by a cascade of paradoxes or touched to tears by sentimental dramas, even some of Wilde’s admirers did not notice that their favorite author was one of the cleverest men in the history of English letters.
My never-ending attempts to translate Shakespeare’s sonnets into Russian have recently returned me to many works I read years ago and remembered but dimly. One of them was Wilde’s essay The Portrait of Mr. W.H. It is a “novella” about the enigmatic man whom Shakespeare or his publisher called the only begetter of the sonnets. There have been countless attempts to discover the “beauteous youth,” Shakespeare’s main addressee. All of them failed, but it is obvious why Oscar Wilde was intrigued by the figure of the young man, the “master-mistress” of Shakespeare’s passion, the lord of his soul. I could repeat the main line of Wilde’s reasoning, but over the years the details have faded from my memory, and now that I know so much more about the sonnets and about those who tried to read them like Shakespeare’s diary than I knew decades ago, I am immediately struck by the ingenuity and elegance of Wilde’s reconstruction. He was familiar with all the important publications on the sonnets and studied them from the original editions. With his photographic memory, he, most probably, knew all 154 of them by heart. His arguments are irresistible. Of course, Shakespeare told us that the youth’s name was the same as his, that is, William, but from lines like “a man in hue, all men in hues controlling” Wilde concluded that the lover’s name was Willie Hughes, a boy-actor in Shakespeare’s company.
However, The Portrait of Mr. W.H. is a story with its own plot. It is about two people who hope to find some evidence that Willie Hughes existed. Then suddenly the young man’s portrait turns up, but it is a forgery produced under the most bizarre circumstances by the investigator himself, to convince his friend! The quest kills both men; yet they did not live for nothing. We are in the world of Oscar Wilde in which art is more precious than reality, for reality can only imitate art. No sacrifice is great enough if it is made for art’s sake. The deadly spirit of make-believe permeates the story. Willie Hughes never existed, the clinching piece of evidence is a hoax, the suicide of the first investigator is so silly as not to move us, and the second man promises to kill himself but dies of consumption in the most trivial way (and to add insult to injury, he dies in Germany, where, according to what we hear early on, the stupidest hypothesis about the meaning of the initials W.H. has been proposed). Everything is real and unreal at the same time. Both deaths are real, and (who knows?) Willie Hughes may have lived. The narrator keeps the blood-stained forgery in his library, and at the end of the story we read Wilde’s words: “But sometimes, when I look at it, I think that there is really a great deal to be said for the Willie Hughes theory of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.” Oscar Wilde undoubtedly thought so, for otherwise he would not have given the originator of the theory (the one who committed suicide) the name of his son Cyril. Unfortunately this time, life as a copy of art turned out to be a tiny bit amateurish.
Perhaps you have been casting about for what to read in 2011. Read The Portrait of Mr. W.H. You will find yourself in two great universes: one created by William Shakespeare, the other by Oscar Wilde, both possibly imaginary and therefore irresistible in their appeal.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”