The progress of literature has now arrived at the age of the memoir. (By “progress” I’m not implying that literature is always improving itself; it’s more akin to the stately, useless progress around the countryside of a late Renaissance monarch or archbishop.)
The memoir is an apt genre for a time when the world accepts, in fact applauds, narcissism – whether in the form of an obnoxious egotism, an obsession with one’s rights over everyone else’s, self-dramatization (self-melodramatization, if there were such a word), or just plain selfishness and greed – instead of viewing it, as it did not so very long ago, as the sign of boorishness in bores who were best shunned.
While it is easy to match the memoir in general to the zeitgeist, it is not so obvious why the memoir, in its early 21st century flowering, should take the form – for the most part – of the agony memoir. Almost every memoir published these days is centered on a trauma – childhood abuse, the death of a loved one, a struggle with disease or disability, a period of deep depression, etc. I know someone who has written a memoir about a happy childhood; it is deftly written, charming, warm, full of lovable eccentric characters in an interesting place at an interesting time. Some people who read it are confused, though: where is the mandatory childhood psychological trauma?
Perhaps the popularity of the agony memoir is based on nothing more than the desire of publishers to sell as many books as possible – something which, fifty years ago, would have ranked second or third on a publisher’s agenda – by appealing to the lowest level of an audience’s appreciation of literature: the histrionic. Are there deeper, sociological reasons for the preponderance of the agony memoir: the uncertainty of living in a complex reality? the tyranny of the unwritten table of appropriate expressions of emotion for different common experiences? the thrill of identifying oneself with someone more interesting? the boredom of everyday life?
No, these frustrations effect every generation, to one degree or another. So I’m going to blame it on the publishers. It’s not that they publish crap (although they might, if crap sold) – it is that they have perverted the genre, crippled it, in order to stimulate readers’ easiest and crudest reactions: sentimentalism, outrage, complacency (there, but for the grace of God go I), voyeurism. You don’t have to go and read a bunch of turgid books in order to confirm that I’m right about the plague of agony memoirs, just take a look at your next New York Times Sunday Magazine, and the next one, and the next one after that. If there is any agony to be squeezed out of any story, it will be wrung out to the last bitter drop. And as for the constant stream of memoirs written by television comedians, with their long, childish and cutely ambiguous titles – just a reminder: all comedy is based on agony.
These contemporary records of psychological trauma, which we think of as being so honest, so explicit, so intimate, so personal, so somehow embarrassing, are nothing – nothing – compared to the greatest agony memoir of them all – perhaps the only agony memoir that could be called “great” – Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis.
De Profundis is a long letter written from prison to Wilde’s lover, Sir Alfred Douglas. I assume you’re familiar with the whole sad story, but if not, you can check out “The Queensbury Affair” in Wikipedia. Suffice it to say that Bosie, as Douglas was called, was a vile, amoral egotist, whose emotions were ruled by an obsessive hatred for his own father. Wilde, in turn, was obsessed with Bosie or, more accurately, obsessed with his feelings for Bosie.
(De Profundis has had a complex publishing history. Likely, it was always intended more as a literary artifact than as a private letter. On his release from prison, Wilde gave the manuscript to his friend, Robbie Ross, instructing him to make two typescripts of it, one to keep and one to send to Wilde, and to send the original to Bosie. Correctly predicting that Bosie would destroy the letter [Douglas testified in court that he burnt it without reading it], Ross sent a typescript to Douglas and kept the original. The first time I read De Profundis, it possibly was the 1949 version, published by Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland. It is the full text of the remaining Ross typescript, in which Wilde’s longhand was clumsily interpreted, cursorily edited and carelessly typed.
According to everything I could find on the internet, the only complete, unabridged, unbowdlerized, unexpurgated, un-rearranged version appears in The Letters of Oscar Wilde, edited by Hart-Davis and published in 1962. A text close to, but not identical to, Hart-Davis’s – probably the Vyvyan Holland which I first read – can be found in Oscar Wilde - The Dover Reader. This, unlike Hart-Davis’ Letters, is available as an e-book, and is the source of these excerpts.)
De Profundis is so intimate, so personal a memoir that Wilde might as well be present, sitting on the sofa, blubbering – sometimes whining about Bosie’s treatment of him, sometimes excoriating himself, sometimes romanticizing his behavior, sometime rationalizing it, sometimes fully aware of Douglas’ shallow self-centeredness and indifference, sometimes so deluded about Douglas that he believes that the reading of this heartfelt missive is sure to fill Bosie with remorse.
De Profundis is not particularly well written, although Wilde was a master of the language. That may, in part, be ascribed to the fact that it was written in prison, in a limited time with a limited supply of paper and pen. There is not a trace of irony in De Profundis, although Wilde was a master of irony (“To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness”). This also may be ascribed to prison. While tragedy usually sharpens a sensitive individual’s sense of irony, it made Wilde utterly, almost stupidly, sincere.
There is a long middle section of De Profundis which is an essay on the nature of Christ. I suppose commentators are correct in accusing Wilde of unseemly comparing himself to Christ. Nevertheless, in doing so, Wilde comes up with an unusual and striking portrait of Jesus who – like all the great religious savants – was all things to all men.
Of the appalling results of my friendship with you I don’t speak at present. I am thinking merely of its quality while it lasted. It was intellectually degrading to me. You had the rudiments of an artistic temperament in its germ. But I met you either too late or too soon, I don’t know which. When you were away I was all right. The moment, in the early December of the year to which I have been alluding, I had succeeded in inducing your mother to send you out of England, I collected again the torn and ravelled web of my imagination, got my life back into my own hands, and not merely finished the three remaining acts of An Ideal Husband but conceived and had almost completed two other plays of a completely different type, the Florentine Tragedy and La Sainte Courtisane, when suddenly, unbidden, unwelcome, and under circumstances fatal to my happiness, you returned. The two works left then imperfect I was unable to take up again. The mood that created them I could never recover. You now, having yourself published a volume of verse, will be able to recognise the truth of everything I have said here. Whether you can or not, it remains as a hideous truth in the very heart of our friendship. While you were with me you were the absolute ruin of my art, and in allowing you to stand persistently between Art and myself I give to myself shame and blame in the fullest degree. You couldn’t know, you couldn’t understand, you couldn’t appreciate. I had no right to expect it of you at all. Your interests were merely in your meals and moods.
I blame myself for having allowed you to bring me to utter and discreditable financial ruin. I remember one morning in the early October of 1892 sitting in the yellowing woods at Bracknell with your mother. At that time I knew very little of your real nature. I had stayed from a Saturday to Monday with you at Oxford. You had stayed with me at Cromer for ten days and played golf. The conversation turned on you, and your mother began to speak to me about your character. She told me of your two chief faults, your vanity, and your being as she termed it “all wrong about money.” I have a distinct recollection of how I laughed. I had no idea that the first would bring me to prison and the second to bankruptcy. I thought vanity a sort of graceful flower for a young man to wear: as for extravagance— for I thought she meant no more than extravagance— the virtues of prudence and thrift were not in my own nature or my own race. But before our friendship was one month older I began to see what your mother really meant. Your insistence on a life of reckless profusion, your incessant demands for money, your claim that all your pleasures should be paid for by me whether I was with you or not, brought me after some time into serious monetary difficulties, and what made the extravagance to me at any rate so monotonously uninteresting, as your persistent grasp on my life grew stronger and stronger, was that the money was really spent on little more than the pleasures of eating, drinking and the like. Now and then it is a joy to have one’s table red with wine and roses, but you outstripped all taste and temperance. You demanded without grace and received without thanks. You grew to think that you had a sort of right to live at my expense and in a profuse luxury to which you had never been accustomed, and which for that reason made your appetites all the more keen; and at the end if you lost money gambling in some Algiers Casino you simply telegraphed next morning to me in London to lodge the amount of your losses to your account at your bank, and gave the matter no further thought of any kind.
But most of all I blame myself for the entire ethical degradation I allowed you to bring on me. The basis of character is will power, and my will power became absolutely subject to yours. It sounds a grotesque thing to say, but it is none the less true. Those incessant scenes that seemed to be almost physically necessary to you and in which your mind and body grew distorted and you became a thing as terrible to look at as to listen to: that dreadful mania you inherit from your father, the mania for writing revolting and loathsome letters: your entire lack of any control over your emotions, as displayed in your long resentful moods of sullen silence, no less than in your sudden fits of almost epileptic rage: all these things in reference to which one of my letters to you, left by you lying about at the Savoy or some other hotel and so produced in Court by your father’s Counsel, contained an entreaty not devoid of pathos, had you at that time been able to recognise pathos in its elements or its expression:— these, I say, were the origin and causes of my fatal yielding to you in your daily increasing demands.
Three months later, in June, we were at Goring. Some of your Oxford friends came to stay from a Saturday to Monday. The morning of the day they went away you made a scene so dreadful, so distressing that I told you that we must part. I remember quite well as we stood on the level croquet ground with the pretty lawn all round us, pointing out to you that we were spoiling each other’s lives, that you were absolutely ruining mine and that I evidently was not making you really happy, and that an irrevocable parting and complete separation was the one wise philosophic thing to do. You went sullenly after luncheon, leaving one of your most offensive letters behind with the butler to be handed to me after your departure. Before three days had elapsed you were telegraphing from London to beg to be forgiven and allowed to return. I had taken the place to please you. I had engaged your own servants at your request. I was always terribly sorry for the hideous temper to which you were really a prey. I was fond of you. So I let you come back and forgave you. Three months later still, in September, new scenes occurred, the occasion of them being my pointing out to you the schoolboy faults of your attempted translation of Salomé. You must by this time be a fair enough French scholar to know that the translation was as unworthy of you, as an ordinary Oxonian, as it was of the work it sought to render. You did not, of course, know it then and, in one of the violent letters you wrote to me on the point, you said you were under “no intellectual obligation of any kind” to me. I remember that when I read that statement I felt that it was really the one true thing you had written to me in the whole course of our friendship.
...after a series of scenes culminating in one more than usually revolting, when you came one Monday evening to my rooms accompanied by two of your friends, I found myself actually flying abroad next morning to escape from you, giving my family some absurd reason for my sudden departure, and leaving a false address with my servant for fear you might follow me by the next train. And I remember that afternoon, as I was in the railway carriage whirling up to Paris, thinking into what an impossible, terrible, utterly wrong state my life had got when I, a man of world-wide reputation, was actually forced to run away from England in order to try to get rid of a friendship that was entirely destructive of everything fine in me either from the intellectual or ethical point of view: the person from whom I was flying being no terrible creature sprung from sewer or mire into modern life with whom I had entangled my days, but you yourself, a young man of my own social rank and position, who had been at my own College at Oxford and was an incessant guest at my house. The usual telegrams of entreating and remorse followed. I disregarded them. Finally you threatened that unless I consented to meet you, you would under no circumstances consent to proceed to Egypt. I had myself, with your knowledge and concurrence, begged your mother to send you to Egypt away from England, as you were wrecking your life in London. I knew that if you did not go it would be a terrible disappointment to her, and for her sake I did meet you, and under the influence of great emotion, which even you cannot have forgotten, I forgave the past; though I said nothing at all about the future.
It may be strange, but I had once again, I will not say the chance, but the duty of separating from you forced upon me. I need hardly remind you that I refer to your conduct to me at Brighton from October 10 to 13, 1894. Three years is a long time for you to go back. But we who live in prison, and in whose lives there is no event but sorrow, have to measure time by throbs of pain, and the record of bitter moments. We have nothing else to think of. Suffering— curious as it may sound to you— is the means by which we exist, because it is the only means by which we become conscious of existing; and the remembrance of suffering in the past is necessary to us as the warrant, the evidence, of our continued identity.
I was trying to finish my last play at Worthing by myself. The two visits you had paid me had ended. You suddenly appeared a third time bringing with you a companion who you actually proposed should stay in my house. I (you must admit now quite properly) absolutely declined. I entertained you, of course; I had no option in the matter: but elsewhere, and not in my own home. The next day, Monday, your companion returned to the duties of his profession, and you stayed with me. Bored with Worthing, and still more, I have no doubt, with my fruitless efforts to concentrate my attention on my play, the only thing that really interested me at the moment, you insist on being taken to the Grand Hotel at Brighton. The night we arrive you fall ill with that dreadful low fever that is foolishly called the influenza, your second if not your third attack. I need not remind you how I waited on you and tended you, not merely with every luxury of fruit, flowers, presents, books and the like that money can procure, but with that affection, tenderness and love that whatever you may think is not to be procured for money. Except for an hour’s walk in the morning, an hour’s drive in the afternoon, I never left the hotel. I got special grapes from London for you as you did not care for those the hotel supplied, invented things to please you, remained either with you or in the room next to yours, sat with you every evening to quiet or amuse you. After four or five days you recover and I take lodgings in order to try to finish my play. You, of course, accompany me. The morning after the day on which we were installed I feel extremely ill. You have to go to London on business, but promise to return in the afternoon. In London you meet a friend, and do not come back to Brighton till late on the next day, by which time I am in a terrible fever, and the doctor finds I have caught the influenza from you. Nothing could have been more uncomfortable for any one ill than the lodgings turn out to be. My sitting-room is on the first floor, my bedroom on the third. There is no manservant to wait on one, not even any one to send out on a message, or to get what the doctor orders. But you are there. I feel no alarm. The next two days you leave me entirely alone without care, without attendance, without anything. It was not a question of grapes, flowers, and charming gifts: it was a question of mere necessaries: I could not even get the milk the doctor had ordered me: lemonade was pronounced an impossibility: and when I begged you to procure a book at the bookseller’s, or if they had not got whatever I had fixed on, to choose something else, you never even take the trouble to go there. And when I was left all day without anything to read in consequence, you calmly tell me that you bought me the book and that they promised to send it down, a statement which I found by chance afterwards to have been entirely untrue from beginning to end. All the while you are, of course, living at my expense, driving about, dining at the Grand Hotel, and indeed only appearing in my room for money. On the Saturday night, you having left me completely unattended and alone since the morning, I asked you to come back after dinner, and sit with me for a little. With irritable voice and ungracious manner you promise to do so. I wait till eleven o’clock and you never appear. I then left a note for you in your room just reminding you of the promise you had made me, and how you had kept it. At three in the morning, unable to sleep, and tortured with thirst, I made my way in the dark and cold, down to the sitting-room in the hopes of finding some water there. I found you. You fell on me with every hideous word an intemperate mood, an undisciplined and untutored nature could suggest. By the terrible alchemy of egotism you converted your remorse into rage. You accused me of selfishness in expecting you to be with me when I was ill; of standing between you and your amusements: of trying to deprive you of your pleasures. You told me, and I know it was quite true, that you had come back at midnight simply in order to change your dress-clothes and go out again to where you hoped new pleasures were awaiting for you, but that by leaving for you a letter in which I had reminded you that you had neglected me the whole day and the whole evening I had really robbed you of your desire for more enjoyments, and diminished your actual capacity for fresh delights. I went back upstairs in disgust and remained sleepless till dawn, nor till long after dawn was I able to get anything to quench the thirst of the fever that was on me. At eleven o’clock you came into my room. In the previous scene I could not help observing that by my letter I had, at any rate, checked you in a night of more than usual excess. In the morning you were quite yourself. I waited naturally to hear what excuses you had to make, and in what way you were going to ask for the forgiveness that you knew in your heart was invariably waiting for you, no matter what you did; your absolute trust that I would always forgive you being the thing in you that I always really liked best, perhaps the best thing in you to like. So far from doing that, you began to repeat the same scene with renewed emphasis and more violent assertion. I told you at length to leave the room: you pretended to do so, but when I lifted up my head from the pillow in which I had buried it, you were still there, and with brutality of laughter and hysteria of rage you moved suddenly towards me. A sense of horror came over me, for what exact reason I could not make out: but I got out of my bed at once, and barefooted and just as I was, made my way down the two flights of stairs to the sitting-room, which I did not leave till the owner of the lodgings— whom I had rung for— had assured me that you had left my bedroom, and promised to remain within call in case of necessity. After an interval of an hour, during which time the doctor had come and found me, of course, in a state of absolute nervous prostration, as well as in a worse condition of fever than I had been at the outset, you returned silently for money: took what you could find on the dressing-table and mantelpiece, and left the house with your luggage. Need I tell you what I thought of you during the two lonely wretched days of illness that followed? Is it necessary for me to state that I saw clearly that it would be a dishonour to myself to continue even an acquaintance with such a one as you had showed yourself to be? That I recognised that the ultimate moment had come and recognised it as being really a great relief ? And that I knew that for the future my Art and Life would be freer and better and more beautiful in every possible way? Ill as I was, I felt at ease. The fact that the separation was irrevocable gave me peace. By Tuesday the fever had left me: and for the first time I dined downstairs. Tuesday was my birthday. Amongst the telegrams and communications on my table was a letter in your handwriting. I opened it with a sense of sadness on me. I knew that the time had gone by when a pretty phrase, an expression of affection, a word of sorrow would make me take you back. But I was entirely deceived. I had underrated you. The letter you sent to me on my birthday was an elaborate repetition of the two scenes set cunningly and carefully down in black and white! You mocked me with common jests. Your one satisfaction in the whole affair was, you said, that you retired to the Grand Hotel, and entered your luncheon to my account before you left for town. You congratulated me on my prudence in leaving the sickbed, on my sudden flight downstairs. “It was an ugly moment for you,” you said, “uglier than you imagine.” Ah! I felt it but too well. What it had really meant I do not know: whether you had with you the pistol you had bought to try to frighten your father with, and that, thinking it to be unloaded, you had once fired off in a public restaurant13 in my company: whether your hand was moving towards a common dinner knife that by chance was lying on the table between us: whether, forgetting in your rage your low stature and inferior strength, you had thought of some specially personal insult, or attack even, as I lay ill there: I could not tell. I do not know to the present moment. All I know is that a feeling of utter horror had come over me, and that I had felt that unless I left the room at once and got away, you would have done or tried to do something that would have been, even to you, a source of lifelong shame.
While I am staying with you at Salisbury you are terribly alarmed at a threatening communication from a former companion of yours: you beg me to see the writer and help you: I do so. The result is ruin for me. I am forced to take everything you have done on my shoulders and answer for it. When, having failed to make your degree, you have to go down from Oxford, you telegraph to me in London to beg me to come to you. I do so at once: you ask me to take you to Goring, as you did not like under the circumstances to go home: at Goring you see a house that charms you: I take it for you: the result from every point of view is ruin for me. One day you come to me and ask me as a personal favour to you, to write something for an Oxford undergraduate magazine, about to be started by some friend of yours of whom I have never heard in all my life, and knew nothing at all about. To please you— what did I not do always to please you?— I sent him a page of paradoxes destined originally for the Saturday Review. A few months later I find myself standing in the dock of the Old Bailey on account of the character of the magazine. It forms part of the Crown charge against me. I am called upon to defend your friend’s prose and your own verse. The former I cannot palliate: the latter I, loyal to the bitter extreme, to your youthful literature as to your youthful life, do very strongly defend, and will not hear of your being a writer of indecencies. But I go to prison, all the same, for your friend’s undergraduate magazine and the “Love that dares not tell its name.” At Christmas I give you a “very pretty present” as you described it in your letter of thanks, on which I knew you had set your heart, worth some £ 40 or £ 50 at most. When the crash of my life comes and I am ruined, the bailiff who seizes my library, and has it sold, does so to pay for the “very pretty present.” It was for that the execution was put into my house. At the ultimate and terrible moment when I am taunted, and spurred on by your taunts, to take an action against your father and have him arrested, the last straw to which I clutch in my wretched efforts to escape is the terrible expense. I tell the solicitor in your presence that I have no funds, that I cannot possibly afford the appalling cost, that I have no money at my disposal. What I said was, as you know, perfectly true. On that fatal Friday instead of being in Humphreys’s16 office weakly consenting to my own ruin, I would have been happy and free in France, away from you and your father, unconscious of his loathsome card, and indifferent to your letters, if I had been able to leave the Avondale Hotel. But the hotel people absolutely refused to allow me to go. You had been staying with me for ten days: indeed you ultimately and to my great and, you will admit, rightful indignation, brought a companion of yours to stay with me also: my bill for the ten days was nearly £ 140. The proprietor said he could not allow my luggage to be removed from the hotel till I had paid the account in full. That is what kept me in London. Had it not been for the hotel bill I would have gone to Paris on Thursday morning.
You thought again that in sending a lawyer’s letter to your father to say that, rather than sever your eternal friendship with me, you will give up the allowance of £ 250 a year which, with, I believe, deductions for your Oxford debts, he was then making you, you were realising the very chivalry of friendship, touching the noblest note of self-denial. But your surrender of your little allowance did not mean that you were ready to give up even one of your most superfluous luxuries, or most unnecessary extravagances. On the contrary, your appetite for luxurious living was never so keen. My expenses for eight days in Paris for myself, you and your Italian servant were nearly £ 150: Paillard alone absorbing £ 85. At the rate at which you wished to live, your entire income for a whole year, if you had taken your meals alone, and had been especially economical in your selection of the cheaper form of pleasures, would hardly have lasted you three weeks. The fact that in what was merely pretence of bravado you had surrendered your allowance, such as it was, gave you at least a plausible reason for your claim to live at my expense: or what you thought a plausible reason: and on many occasions you seriously availed yourself of it, and gave the very fullest expression to it: and the continued drain, principally of course on me, but also to a terrible extent, I know, on your mother, was never so distressing; because in my case, at any rate, never so completely unaccompanied by the smallest word of thanks, or sense of limit.
Hate blinds people. You were not aware of that. Love can read the writing on the remotest star; but hate so blinded you that you could see no further than the narrow, walled-in and already lust-withered garden of your common desires. Your terrible lack of imagination, the one really fatal defect of your character, was entirely the result of the hate that lived in you. Subtly, silently, and in secret, hate gnawed at your nature, as the lichen bites at the root of some sallow plant, till you grew to see nothing but the most meagre interests and the most petty aims. That faculty in you which love would have fostered, hate poisoned and paralysed. When your father first began to attack me it was as your private friend, and in a private letter to you. As soon as I had read the letter with its obscene threats and coarse violences I saw at once that there was a terrible danger looming on the horizon of my troubled days: I told you I would not be the cat’s-paw between you both in your ancient hatred of each other: that I in London was naturally much bigger game for him than a Secretary for Foreign Affairs at Homberg: that it would be unfair to me to place me even for a moment in such a position: and that I had something better to do with my life than to have scenes with a man, drunken, déclassé, and half-witted as he was. You would not be made to see this. Hate blinded you. You insisted that the quarrel had really nothing to do with me: that you would not allow your father to dictate to you in your private friendships: that it would be most unfair of me to interfere. You had already, before you saw me on the subject, sent your father a foolish and vulgar telegram as your answer. That, of course, committed you to a foolish and vulgar course of action to follow. The fatal errors of life are not due to man’s being unreasonable. An unreasonable moment may be one’s finest moment. They are due to man’s being logical. There is a wide difference. That telegram conditioned the whole of your subsequent relations with your father, and consequently the whole of my life. And the grotesque thing about it is that it was a telegram of which the commonest street boy would have been ashamed. From pert telegrams to priggish lawyers’ letters was a natural progress, and the result of your lawyers’ letters to your father was, of course, to urge him on still further. You left him no option but to go on. You forced it on him as a point of honour, or of dishonour rather, that your appeal should have the more effect. So the next time he attacks me no longer in a private letter and as your private friend, but in public and as a public man. I have to expel him from my house. He goes from restaurant to restaurant looking for me, in order to insult me before the whole world, and in such a manner that if I retaliated I would be ruined, and if I did not retaliate I would be ruined also. Then surely was the time when you should have come forward, and said that you would not expose me to such hideous attacks, such infamous persecution, on your account, but would, readily and at once, resign any claim you had to my friendship. You feel that now, I suppose.
Nor is it merely that we can discern in Christ that close union of personality with perfection which forms the real distinction between the classical and romantic movement in life, but the very basis of his nature was the same as that of the nature of the artist— an intense and flame-like imagination. He realised in the entire sphere of human relations that imaginative sympathy which in the sphere of Art is the sole secret of creation. He understood the leprosy of the leper, the darkness of the blind, the fierce misery of those who live for pleasure, the strange poverty of the rich. You once wrote to me in trouble, “When you are not on your pedestal you are not interesting.” How remote were you from what Matthew Arnold calls “the Secret of Jesus.” Either would have taught you that whatever happens to another happens to oneself, and if you want an inscription to read at dawn and at nighttime, and for pleasure or for pain, write up on the walls of your house in letters for the sun to gild and the moon to silver, “Whatever happens to oneself happens to another.” Christ’s place indeed is with the poets. His whole conception of humanity sprang right out of the imagination and can only be realised by it.
To live for others as a definite self-conscious aim was not [Christ’s] creed. It was not the basis of his creed. When he says, “Forgive your enemies,” it is not for the sake of the enemy, but for one’s own sake that he says so, and because love is more beautiful than hate. In his own entreaty to the young man, “Sell all that thou hast and give to the poor,” it is not of the state of the poor that he is thinking, but of the soul of the young man, the soul that wealth was marring.
To me one of the things in history the most to be regretted is that the Christ’s own renaissance which has produced the Cathedral at Chartres, the Arthurian cycle of legends, the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the art of Giotto, and Dante’s Divine Comedy, was not allowed to develop on its own lines, but was interrupted and spoiled by the dreary classical Renaissance that gave us Petrarch, and Raphael’s frescoes, and Palladian architecture, and formal French tragedy, and St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Pope’s poetry, and everything that is made from without and by dead rules, and does not spring from within through some spirit informing it. But wherever there is a romantic movement in art there somehow, and under some form, is Christ, or the soul of Christ. He is in Romeo and Juliet, in the Winter’s Tale, in Provençal poetry, in the Ancient Mariner, in La Belle Dame sans merci, and in Chatterton’s Ballad of Charity. We owe to him the most diverse things and people. Hugo’s Les Miserables, Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, the note of pity in Russian novels, Verlaine and Verlaine’s poems, the stained glass and tapestries and the quattrocento work of Burne-Jones and Morris, belong to him no less than the tower of Giotto, Lancelot and Guinevere, Tannhäuser, the troubled romantic marbles of Michael Angelo, pointed architecture, and the love of children and flowers— for both of which, indeed, in classical art there was but little place, hardly enough for them to grow or play in, but which, from the twelfth century down to our own day, have been continually making their appearances in art, under various modes and at various times,