Written when Oscar Wilde was only 26, this book by Walter Hamilton attempts to understand the ‘Aesthetic movement’ in which Wilde and his work were so embedded. It is partly an attempt to understand the phenomenon and partly an attempt to cash in on public interest in, and confusion about, the movement.
Beginning by mentioning the popularity of satires on Aestheticism such as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (1881), the book points out how few of these large audiences
have carried away any distinct idea of the actual meaning of the satires they contain, or who could form any clear opinion as to whether the class of persons therein held up to ridicule were actually existing literary and artistic men, or simply the creations of the fertile pens of a couple of dramatists […]
Accordingly, it set outs the questions ‘What then, is this school, – what are its aims, – and what has it achieved?’ The answers it gives are useful for understanding how the term was generally understood in the period, arguing that ‘One of the first principles of Aestheticism is that all the fine arts are intimately related to one another’ and
The term Aesthetic is derived from the Greek, aithesis, signifying perception, or the science of the beautiful, especially in art, and the designation has long been applied by German writers to a branch of philosophical enquiry into the beautiful, or more accurately, into the philosophy of poetry and the fine arts. The term appears to have been invented, or adopted, by Baumgarten, a German Philosopher, whose work Aesthetica was published in 1750.
As can be seen from the table of contents, the book covers a good range of Wilde’s influences, and indeed includes a full 15-page chapter on Wilde himself. Before we get there, we are told that ‘there are probably few literary men who would hesitate for a moment in assigning Swinburne the title of King of the Aesthetic poets’, and given a discussion of his book of poems Laus Veneris .
As with the movement in general, the tone is positive. After discussing how unprecedented Wilde’s fame is for one so young, the book argues that
the ridicule that has been lavished on his actions and dress is as unreasonable, as the excessive adulation which his poems have earned from some of the intense Aesthetes, who look upon him as the exponent of their most extreme ideas.
Arguing that much of the problem is ‘critics, who find it easier to laugh at his knee breeches than his poetry, which for the greater part they appear not to have read’, the chapter goes on to reprint a large sample of Wilde’s poetry and prose in full.