News about Oscar Wilde in April
Dear readers of my blog,
the Ides of March are past, while we are still waiting for the storms to blast across the North Sea – no matter what infection peaks are still ahead of us or what is in store for us 2.600 kilometres further East or owing to a now keenly felt dependence on Russian gas, petrol, and coal that was built up in the shade of Merkel’s chancellorship when it seemed to the general public as well as to her party as if she knew only too well how to keep the master of the Kremlin at distance.
You might wonder why after three posts without reference to events beyond the Wilde universe I feel obliged to return to my earlier position seeking to link matters literary and political as well as matters artistic and literary. Obviously, you cannot ignore the outside world even if delving into Wilde can be a pastime both distracting and healthy. So for those of you who want to recover from two years of ever more dramatic pictures emerging from a time of global crisis, here is the link to the latest post of Oscar Wilde in America.
While I could not refrain from commenting immediately what I had just seen – a mixed bunch of pictures, photographs, paintings, drawings both in colour and in black and white – let me admit at the same time that I had been waiting for some such collection for quite a time since whenever I look through one of the more recent illustrated books on Wilde the number and the variety of visuals offered are extremely limited. With people so into taking in pictures rather than words this means that the public image – in the literal sense of the term – of Wilde becomes ever more centred on just a few situations, poses, contexts if you like. “We often tend to disrespect the image”, Doron Rabinovici, Austrian Jewish writer, is quoted in Jüdische Allgemeine (17 March 2022, p. 17). He is talking about visual records created by photographers who chronicle our lives – “stating what is” rather than “being artists who create something new, although their talent is an artistic one” (ibid.). Applied to Wilde’s case, this means that we ought to open our minds to a greater variation of images rather than always turning to the same or similar ones.
You might speculate that this is due to availability of funds to publishers and authors alike or to the fact that most of these images are now in the public domain and you only need to find someone who is able to restore some of the quality of the originals to the reproductions if you do not want to spend your money on having the owner of the originals reproduce them for you. Hagiography might also be a reason why you hardly ever see less well-known pictures and photos. Finally, it is also a matter of time spent on doing research as well as time spent on thinking about what a selection of certain pictures might achieve in the context of the text they are supposed to illustrate.
Not surprisingly, the situation is similar if not identical when thinking of which poems by Wilde are selected by the editors of anthologies. For example, if you do not go for Complete or Collected Works Editions in either English or German, the range of poems selected is quite small.
A survey of the editions and anthologies in English, German, and French displayed in my own study shows that “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is the only poem always chosen, no matter whether the anthology lists Wilde under “Recent English Authors” (1930) or counts him among Irish writers from the 1890s (2000).
In French, “The Ballad” is either the final poem in a selection comprising also shorter poems and “The Sphinx” or published in the context of Wilde’s prison letter “De profundis” (1996; 2008). In both cases, the complete text of “The Ballad” is given, either only in French or in a helpfully bilingual arrangement.
In German, a short excerpt is part of an anthology with poems from seven centuries (1956) before that same excerpt plus another verse that had been omitted is republished in 2000.
Intriguingly, it is only translators from outside the academic mainstream who publish new and complete translations, juxtaposing the original and the new German version on the page (2015; 2022). While obviously paying no attention to the French academic tradition of publishing complete texts, the German academics not only follow traditions prevalent in English-language anthologies, they also divert from them by choosing quite different excerpts.
You are going to find a bibliography of all the books quoted here at the end of this post with references to the visuals included in between.
Doing a writer’s biography also means to work with and on his bibliography, and both activities are helpful to calm you down by obliging you to pay attention to minute details such as are wont to escape in times of enormous emotional turmoil in both public and private life. So when there is a state of war wherever you look should you dare look around you, that is, I need literary work of the painstakingly detailed kind to regain composure.
Patience is also required here as you need to stop to think about what you have just read two or three times before coming to a conclusion. And since proper bibliographical work also entails touching and opening the same books repeatedly, turning the same page twenty-six times, if you like, it is through all these ritually religious activities that explanations of a certain status quo dawn on you.
Now, after four weeks of the Ukrainian war, one might say that contrary to what everybody had thought for about fifteen years or so Chancellor Merkel in fact did next to nothing to rein in the Russian autocrat’s ever-increasing hold on the German gas and petrol markets. If you analyze the given facts now, you arrive at quite a different picture. Not only did her predecessor in office facilitate all this by explicitly working for the Russians. She also allowed the energy imbalance to increase for more than a decade. People from her own party make a clean breast now by admitting that all of them had failed to understand that a less ideological approach on their part would have helped them to see what was under way ever since 9/11 had changed the post-1990 world order.
At the same time, while Wilde’s poetry is in print in German in different incarnations, the way these poems have been presented until recently tells us next to nothing about how little knowledge arrived at in the last fifty years has been used to change the image Wilde as poet had in his lifetime. It is not difficult to see that with the arrival of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde on the scene in the year 2000 it has been possible to take anything he had written more seriously than ever before. That said, the same publisher that issues the volumes of the invaluable critical edition has done next to nothing to make sure that the results of what many editors and their teams have achieved are made accessible to others outside the university. Apart from The Picture of Dorian Gray, no other paperback volumes containing at least toned-down versions of the critical apparatus have been published. Thus it is almost impossible to convince anyone in the publishing industry – if you do not have special connections – of the necessity to redo certain translations. Likewise, critical studies have become next to inaccessible because prohibitive prices are being charged for what seems the scrutiny of a niche when there are also pioneers who have their books also issued as open-access publications to find the general reader who might not only be interested in reading up on Shakespeare but on Wilde, too.
First you need to see the big picture to understand why nothing much has happened in German Wilde studies since the year 2000. Second, you need to dig under the surface, read between the lines to find out why. And this is what I am going to do for you now.
“The Ballad of Reading Gaol will live longer than anything written in England from 1875 to 1900.” This prediction by Frank Harris is quoted in a footnote accompanying a letter by “George Moore on Wilde as a writer in the ‘third or fourth class’” written with the purpose also to state that “I am more unfitted than perhaps anybody else to write an article on [Harris’s] biography” of Oscar Wilde that appeared in 1918 (Oscar Wilde. The Critical Heritage, ed. Karl Beckson, p. 385).
This letter was published in Pearson’s Magazine in March 1918, and while it is not clear whether it included the prediction quoted above, it can still be stated with some certainty that “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” may already then have become an anthology piece. As such it was also selected as the only poem by Wilde by the German scholar of English and literary sociologist Levin Ludwig Schücking (1878-1964) for his anthology entitled Englische Gedichte aus sieben Jahrhunderten (Leipzig, 1956). They are all in two languages, and Schücking not only chose 56 poets from seven centuries, among whom many anonymous authors, he also translated 35 poems or selections from longer poems and commented on all of them in a special notes section.
In vain, do you look for a rationale why certain poets or poems or sections of poems are printed. The only obvious criterion applied in compiling the anthology and stated in the “Preface” is to “give an impression of the main representatives of some of the most important schools” of poetry – thus being “like a well-structured gallery of paintings” (p. 11). And in the case of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” the fact that thirteen verses were chosen is neither commented on, nor can we infer from the arrangement from which part of the ballad they result. So you need to know the text as a whole or have access to it in order to judge both the choice of verses and the translation.
You might say that the purpose of an anthology is to make suggestions, and if someone is not content with what is offered as a selection, it is always necessary to look up the original work. This should at least apply to anybody who seeks to do another such anthology of poems in English. You might even expect future editors to do their own research into both the full text of “The Ballad” and the supplementary material provided by Schücking.
Another verse was translated for the bilingual anthology dating from the year 2000, the editors at least say which part their selection stems from, “canto I”, that is, and they even print the asterisk separating the first six from the remaining ten verses, omitted by Schücking. It is noted that the “last but one verse” beginning with the line “Some kill their love when they are young” was not translated without acknowledging, however, that Schücking’s selection goes on for two more verses taken from canto I before it comes to a close with three more verses selected from canto 2. Again, Schücking omits one verse here, beginning with the line: “The loftiest place is that seat of grace”.
If the editors of the anthology from the year 2000 discover lacunae in the Schücking selection, why do they fail from noting them? Rather than thinking that they did not want to find fault in public with a well-known predecessor in English studies, I must say they probably simply did not bother to study their own choice of translation at greater detail, and this assumption is confirmed by looking at the comment taken from a letter written by Wilde on “The Ballad” on 8 October 1897 (Schücking p. 528).
Not only do they wrongly attribute the translation of that letter into German to L. L. Schücking, they also reprint the typo contained in his note, saying that this quote comes from “Letzte Briefe, S. 25, 8. Oktober 1897” (Schücking, p. 374). In fact, this volume entitled Letzte Briefe was edited and translated by Max Meyerfeld (1875-1940) and published by S. Fischer Verlag in Berlin in 1925. Since I do have this volume on my shelves, I could easily check and find out that the editors of the later anthology failed to spot that Schücking himself had overlooked the wrong page number. The passage taken word for word from the Fischer Verlag volume is on page 55.
Summing up, one might say: never trust an anthology’s notes that you have not checked yourself against the original publications. This is not such a far cry from the well-known saying “Never trust a statistics you have not faked yourself” as you might think, and so, at the very last moment, we are back in current affairs when the German economic dependence on Russian resources is being scrutinized from all angles. Beginning on a personal political level with the focus being first on Schröder, then on Merkel, the two last chancellors before the incumbent Olaf Scholz, this process is now being intensified in various fields.
Perhaps it is asking too much of scholars to turn the pages a bit more often, to look more closely at the same sources from various angles before they publish anything, and to try and explain at least to themselves why they are doing such and such a thing. The question, for example, remains why Schücking’s translation was chosen, since they do mention the first translation by Wilhelm Schölermann (1865-1923), correctly entitled Die Ballade vom Zuchthause zu Reading as confirmed by entries in various online libraries. An online research into antiquarian books did not so far result in discovering a copy of the first edition. At the same time, Schölermann turns out to have translated parts of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman whom Wilde had met in America, as well as selections from John Ruskin’s writings, Studies in the Renaissance by Walter H. Pater and an Italian journal by another of Wilde’s older contemporaries, John Addington Symonds (1840-1893), that is.
Be that as it may, what you find here are my online jottings in the margin of the as yet unwritten history of the reception of Oscar Wilde by means of translations into German. Clearly, “consuming Wilde” in German tells a story of its own in that translators as well as their work seem to have disappeared from public view to resurface decades later once their works are in the public domain. So far, neither their first appearance nor their resurgence have been of interest since reception studies traditionally derive from the publication of the original works or are devoted to performances of plays. Almost 125 years after Wilde’s death, something like the study recently published by John McCourt and entitled Consuming Joyce. 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland seems in order.
I dedicate this post to all friends both literary and academic whose work has inspired me in the last thirty years or so who I met in person either frequently or sporadically over the phone, by correspondence or on the internet and who have generously shared their ideas and their lives with me across linguistic and cultural borders. Some of the works listed in the bibliography have entered my library and my biography through them.
Please do not give up, keep hale and healthy,
all best wishes,
Jörg W. Rademacher
British Classical Authors. With Biographical Notices. On the Basis of a Selection by L. Herrig ed. by Max Förster. Jubilee Edition with an Appendix of recent English Authors. Braunschweig 1930. (image 2)
Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Centenary Edition. Ed. by Merlin Holland. London 1999.
Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Poems and Poems in Prose. Ed. by Bobby Fong & Karl Beckson. Oxford 2000.
De Profundis. Ed. by Ian Small. Oxford 2005.
The Picture of Dorian Gray. Ed. by Joseph Bristow. Oxford 2005.
Criticism. Ed. by Josephine M. Guy. Oxford 2007.
Plays I. Ed. by Joseph Donohue. Oxford 2013.
Journalism I. Ed. by John Stokes & Mark Turner. Oxford 2013
Journalism II. Ed. by John Stokes & Mark Turner. Oxford 2013.
Journalism II. Hg. John Stokes & Mark Turner. Oxford 2013.
The Short Fiction. Ed. by Ian Small. Oxford 2017.
Plays II. Ed. by Joseph Donohue. Oxford 2019.
Plays III. Ed. by Joseph Donohue. Oxford 2019.
Plays IV. Ed. by Josephine M. Guy. Oxford 2021.
Englische und Amerikanische Dichtung. Zweisprachige Ausgabe. Volume 3. Ed. by Horst Meller & Klaus Reichert. München 2001 (2000). (image 7)
Irish Writing in the Twentieth Century. Hg. v. David Pierce. Cork 2000. (image 3)
Levin Ludwig Schücking (ed.): Englische Gedichte aus sieben Jahrhunderten. Englisch-Deutsch. Leipzig 1956. (image 6)
John McCourt: Consuming Joyce. 100 Years of Ulysses in Ireland. London 2022. (image 13)
Jörg W. Rademacher: Oscar Wilde. Als Schriftsteller verfangen in den eigenen Worten. Ein Ausstellungskatalog. Oscar Wilde. A Writer Trapped by His Own Words. An Exhibition Catalogue. Coesfeld 2017. (image 11)
Michael Szczekalla: Shakespeare als skeptischer Europäer. Darmstadt 2021. (Also available as open-access title wbgAcademic) (image 10)
Oscar Wilde: De profundis. La Ballade de la geôle de Reading (bilingue). Ed. and tr. by Pascal Aquien. Paris 2008. (image 5)
Oscar Wilde: Die Sphinx. Gedichte. Bilingual. Ed. and tr. by Otto Höschle. Basel 2015. (image 8)
Oscar Wilde: Letzte Briefe. Ed. and tr. by Max Meyerfeld. Berlin 1925.
Oscar Wilde: …mein Leben ist ein Palimpsest. Lyrische Notizen, Die Sphinx, Die Ballade vom Zuchthaus Reading. Bilingual. Ed. by Günter Plessow & Jörg W. Rademacher. Dozwill (CH) 2022. (image 9) (forthcoming in the second semester)
Oscar Wilde: Sämtliche Werke. Ed. by Norbert Kohl. Tr. by Christine Hoeppener, Franz Blei, Gisela Etzel, Friedrich Polakovics, Otto Hauser, Norbert Kohl. Frankfurt a. M.: Insel (1982) 2000.
Oscar Wilde: Œuvres. Ed. by Jean Gattégno. Paris: 2001 (1996). (image 4)
Oscar Wilde: The Critical Heritage. Ed. by Karl Beckson. London 1970.