These three sides of paper contain some of Oscar Wilde’s most famous sayings in draft form. A ‘dogma’ is a belief, authoritatively laid down; the term has acquired a sense of religious prejudice. But Wilde’s famously memorable pithy statements of principles are more often referred to as ‘aphorisms’. This term is also derived from Greek, and indeed they tend to demonstrate Wilde exhibiting the subtleties of argument he learnt as a Classics scholar in Dublin and Oxford.
Why did Wilde write them?After first publishing The Picture of Dorian Gray in magazine form in 1890, Wilde came under critical attack from several corners of the press; one of the chief lines of attack concerned the book’s supposed immorality, particularly on sexual matters. As he explained to J S Little (1856-1940), the Executive Secretary of the Society of Authors (of which Wilde became a Fellow in 1887):
The attempt made by the journalists to dictate to the artist and to limit his subject matter is of course quite monstrous, and everyone who cares at all for Art must strongly protest against it.
The ‘Dogmas for the Use of the Ages’ were Wilde’s protest, and self-justification; retitled as ‘A Preface to “Dorian Gray”’, they appeared in a magazine called Fortnightly Review in March 1891, in advance of the publication of the book version of the novel. They were then published, in slightly revised form, at the front of the book. As Wilde continued in his letter to Little, the Preface was a kind of pre-emptive strike:
My novel appears in volume [book] form next month, and I am curious to see whether these wretched journalists will assail it so ignorantly and pruriently as they did before. My preface will teach them to mend their wicked ways
The reference to the ‘wicked ways’ of these critics seems to continue the preface’s argument that
The highest as the lowest form of criticism is a mode of autobiography.
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
What precedents are there for this document?
In 1866, Alegernon Charles Swinburne wrote a brilliant short pamphlet called Notes on Poems and Reviews, defending his recent Poems and Ballads ‘from the assault or charge of men whom, but for their attacks, I might never have heard of’. Swinburne, a great hero of Wilde’s in his Oxford days, had been faced with similar accusations of literary perversity, and defended himself with similar verve.
Similarly, The Fortnightly Review had previously published pieces by another of Wilde’s heroes, Walter Pater, whose ideas many of these aphorisms develop.
What effect did the Preface have?
Though they made clearer Wilde’s reasons for believing critics had no right to attack him on moral grounds, powerful people still failed to agree. During Wilde’s trial for gross indecency in 1895, the aphorism ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book’ was effectively used as part of the case against him.
For the use of the aged.
The artist is he who can make
a beautiful thing.
Behind Art man ^ one cannot find the
The critic is he who can write
^ [a]bout a beautiful thing.
√ All criticism is a form ^ mode of
Those who see ugly meanings in
beautiful things are corrupt without
being charming. This is a grave
Those who see beautiful meanings
in beautiful things are the elect.
These are not rare.
Χ There is no such thing as a
moral or an immoral book. Books
are either well written or badly
written. That is all.
The case of the nineteenth century
against Realism is the case of
Cal[i]ban on seeing his own face in
The moral life of man is part of
the subject-matter of the artist, but
the morality of art consists of ^ in the
perfect use of an imperfect medium.
The case of the nineteenth century
against Idealism is the case of
Caliban on not seeing his own face
in a glass.
√ No artist desires to prove anything.
Anybody can prove a thing. Even
things that are true can be proved.
To make fiction as lovely as a
Persian carpet is the aim of the
No artist has any Ethical sympathies.
Virtue as vice are to him ^ the artist what
the colours on his palette are to a
painter, what lines and masses are to
a sculptor, what notes are to a
maker of music.
√ Ethical sympathy in an artist is
an unpardonable mannerism.
An absolute diversity of opinion
amongst critics shows that the
work of art in question is rich,
complex, and vital.
√ When critics disagree, the artist is
in accord with himself.
The highest Art is at once
surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface
do so at their own peril.
Those who read the symbol do so
at their own peril, also.
It is the spectator, and not life,
that Art really mirrors.
√ It is not everyone who can be
misunderstood. To be misunderstood
one must have genius.
√ Genius is ^ merely one of the many forms
Every artist is extremely sensitive
to his own praise.
√ We can forgive a man who ^ for making
a useful thing, as long as he
does not admire it. The ^ only excuse
for making a thing that is useless
is that one should admire it
All Art is quite useless.
- Full title:
- 'Dogmas for the Use of the Ages', autograph manuscript drafts of epigrams. Later used as part of the preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray' in the March 1891 edition
- before March 1891
- Draft / Manuscript
- Oscar Wilde
- © Estate of Oscar Wilde
- Usage terms
- Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial licence
- Held by
- British Library
- Add MS 81635
- Article by:
- Carolyn Burdett
- Fin de siècle
‘Art for art’s sake’? Aestheticism and decadence shocked the Victorian establishment by challenging traditional values, foregrounding sensuality and promoting artistic, sexual and political experimentation. Dr Carolyn Burdett explores the key features of this unconventional artistic period.
- Article by:
- Greg Buzwell
- The Gothic, London, Fin de siècle
Dark desires and forbidden pleasure are at the centre of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Greg Buzwell examines the interplay between art and morality in Oscar Wilde’s novel, and considers its use of traditional Gothic motifs as well as the theories of the new aesthetic movement.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Fin de siècle, Popular culture
Andrew Dickson explores some of complexities of Oscar Wilde’s first hit play, Lady Windermere’s Fan.