In this lecture, Wilde waxes lyrical, as was his wont, as he discusses the landscape of English arts (note Wilde’s use of the term ‘English’ rather than British). In his first paragraph alone, Wilde sets out his intention to discuss ‘Beauty’. Referring to Goethe, Wilde attempts to define beauty, saying that Goethe was the first to teach us to define beauty in terms ‘the most concrete possible, to realise it, I mean, always in its special manifestations’.
Wilde claims he will not try to give a formula for beauty, as the eighteenth century had tried to do, but rather to reflect upon the ideas which characterise what he described as ‘the great English Renaissance of Art in this century’ and with a view to trying, where possible, to evaluate this art’s potential longevity and value for us here in the future (which Wilde referred to).
For Wilde, the nineteenth century was ‘a sort of new birth of the spirit of man’, with a ‘passion for physical beauty’. He denied that the ‘Renaissance’ was ‘a mere revival of medieval feeling’: suggesting instead that the Victorians took its clearness of vision from Greek modes of thought, and the variety of expression and mystery of vision from medievalism. Wilde also astutely points out the momentary nature of modern life which he says art seeks to render.
Two spirits, the Hellenic and the Romantic, are the main features of Wilde’s thinking. Vitality in art is another, a reflection of the age of its creation. For Wilde, art is alien from political passions, preferring instead to be a ‘passionate cult of pure beauty’ with a ‘flawless devotion to form’. Curiously, although Wilde denies the political or revolutionary sensibilities of English art, he further qualifies its condition as being born from the French Revolution which he describes as ‘the first condition of its birth’. He slightly counteracts this gap by suggesting that revolutions are only ever evolutions, but much of this section of the lecture is Wilde waxing again, running away with his voice and words,and not really saying very much. This is part of Wilde’s quality and interest as a speaker though: his ability to communicate directly with his American listeners is doubtless what made him such a hit over there (and everywhere really).
After mentioning Goethe again, and Scott, Wilde goes on to mention Blake and Durer, and Michelangelo. This plethora of names does little more than pad out the talk without really taking much of the subject matter of ‘Beauty’ or the ‘English Renaissance of Art’ in hand. To quote Blake back at Wilde: ‘to generalise is to be an idiot’.
Blake is quoted mainly as a means of trying to hint at a style of art that is successful when it is distinct and has a defined boundary line. This ‘definite conception’ is the underlying characteristic of great work (by which Wilde includes poetry). It is at the base of all that is noble, realistic and romantic work, and in opposition to the ‘colourless and empty abstractions of our own eighteenth-century poets’.
Wilde sees artists as being bound by earth, by the realism which they see before them. He claims ‘symbolism, which is the essence of the transcendental spirit, is alien to him’. He next sets up a paragraph about revolution in order to introduce Keats’ poetry as being ‘the beginning of the artistic renaissance of England’ – born from European revolution, but only safely delivered after the storm had passed.
Wilde is somewhat condescending about the British public, suggesting their understanding of the word ‘aesthetics’ is merely in the French sense of ‘for affectation’. Referring to the by then well established Pre-Raphaelites, Wilde describes them as having been ‘an eccentric lot of young men to whom a sort of divine crookedness and holy awkwardness in drawing were the chief objects of art’. He then claims the English public would never forgive the Pre-Raphaelites for their ‘youth, power and enthusiasm’ before further demeaning the English man by suggesting knowing ‘nothing about their great men is one of the necessary elements of English education’. Is this a tinge of bitter Irishness perhaps? This undermining and demeaning of the English public section of the lecture comes across as being rather bitter: Wilde proclaims, with his typical aphoristic tone, that to disagree with the public was ‘one of the first elements of sanity’ (an odd thing to do on any level when giving a public lecture). Whilst his point has some substance, it is barbed, and creates a narrative of ‘us and them’: ‘us’ being the Irish and the Americans Wilde was talking to, ‘them’ being the English.
It is only at this point, half way through the lecture, that Wilde really attempts to define an aesthetic of his day. He says that, and it is worth quoting at length:
it is not enough that a work of art should conform to the æsthetic demands of its age: there must be also about it, if it is to affect us with any permanent delight, the impress of a distinct individuality, an individuality remote from that of ordinary men, and coming near to us only by virtue of a certain newness and wonder in the work, and through channels whose very strangeness makes us more ready to give them welcome.
He goes on to situate Nature as part of this aesthetic formula, which he suggests Burne-Jones and Morris substitituted for a more exquisite ‘spirit of choice, a more faultless devotion to beauty, a more intense seeking for perfection’.
It is not just art Wilde mentions, he also includes poetry, and particularly mentions Rossetti and Swinburne.
Their collective attempts to ‘blow the music of their many messages’ across the ages, is described by Wilde as being romantic. He describes the language of Swinburne and Tennyson as ‘a style flawless and fearless’ and encompassing something more than the ‘merely intellectual’. It is this intellectual approach to the romantic character of art and poetry that Wilde correlates with the romantic movement of France, and the likes of Gautier.
Wilde goes on to describe the conditions of the imaginative and poetic production faced by artists and writers in the nineteenth century, and although he denies that imagination has ‘lost its wings’ he obviously has reservations about its capacity to fly freely above politics, rational, and didacticism. He mentions Keats again and also Poe, in particular The Raven, ‘that supreme imaginative work’.
It is no good to merely feel or observe, any fool can admire a sunset, but not everyone can render it powerful or meaningful. Here Wilde once again uses the word ‘vital’ and it is also here that he stresses the term Renaissance, suggesting that poetic principles are the surest sign.
The next section of the lecture moves toward the choice of subject. Wilde here suggests that art is better to keep aloof from social problems (how thoroughly vacuous of him), and his reason for doing so is that his view of beauty was caught up within his own inability to live within the confines of real life. Art, for Wilde, was essential a beautiful escape. Regardless of this, no subjects were beyond the realm of the artists, ‘no subject out of date’. Nothing harsh or disturbing should be admitted into ‘the house of Beauty’. Beauty is a place of sacrality, not pain. Poor laws and taxations should be addressed in pamphlet, not lyric (what did Wilde make of Stanhope’s Thoughts of the Past (1859, Tate), I wonder?)
Wilde is in pursuit of a phrase Colvin had used in 1867, ‘perfect repose’. The toil of modern life should not intrude upon this rest, and as Wilde recalls:
I remember once, in talking to Mr. Burne–Jones about modern science, his saying to me, ‘the more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint: their wings are my protest in favour of the immortality of the soul.’
Wilde insists that whatever spiritual message an artist brings is a personal matter. Whether he comes with judgement, love, peace, or mourning, it is for us to accept his teaching, but he must deliver ‘flawless beauty and perfect form of its expression’. Wilde observes the West’s intellectual and spiritual doubts, and compares them to a more steady Eastern art, which he sees as resulting in a more steady pictorial condition (and this would seem to bear out, certainly at the time of Wilde’s writing at any rate).
Wilde then goes on to discuss value of pictorial or sculptural charm. He also acknowledges a difference in cultural value, e.g. he refers to the Dutch who value things differently than (e.g.) the English. Cultural value is also related to Wilde’s understanding of Cultural health. ‘There is more health in Baudelaire than there is in [Kingsley].’
Wilde toys though, he says one thing and undermines himself as he says another. A critic ‘should hold his tongue’, and yet was he not stood in front of an audience making and creating critical lines of enquiry / assessment? He implies that true artists reveal themselves only to one another, and therefore, critics, and potentially we can assume also the English public, are not qualified to make such judgements. Wilde, presumably, is. He underlines his point by quoting Keats: ‘I have no reverence,’ said Keats, ‘for the public, nor for anything in existence but the Eternal Being, the memory of great men and the principle of Beauty.’
Wilde’s criticism is targeted on England’s commercial life, on the growing capitalist drive, the drive we now fully recognise and live subserviently to, entirely unable to avoid. Wilde fears the commercialism of the nineteenth century is going to undermine the ‘beautiful national life’. It is no good to just follow the successes of others though, for this results in false ideals, and a corrupted aesthetic faculty, one whose strength would wane and waste.
It is an increased sensibility to beauty which is lacking, and which Wilde called for. ‘The artist,’ as Mr. Swinburne says, ‘must be perfectly articulate.’ Wilde calls for his listeners to ‘Love art for its own sake’, and know that ‘beauty is the only thing that time cannot harm’.
 Wilde, The English Renaissance of Art, pg. 4.
 Wilde, pg. 5.
 Wilde, pg. 6.
 Wilde, pg. 7.
 Wilde, pg. 8.
 Wilde, pg. 9
 Wilde, pg. 10.
 Wilde, pg. 11.
 Wilde, pg. 12.
 Wilde, pg. 14.
 Wilde, pg. 15.
 Wilde, pg. 17.
 Wilde, pg. 17 and 18.
Wilde, The English Renaissance, a Lecture Given in the US, in 1882.
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