“The Power of the Idea”

“The Power of the Idea”

The Forum May 1940

This month we have many biographies, full-length and brief, ranging from Jonathan Edwards to Oscar Wilde and from Jefferson to Stalin. Of these Frances Winwar’s  is, in its dramatic appeal, in its revelation of a personality and an epoch, unquestionably the most readable.

One foggy winter’s day at a reception in London nearly a decade ago, I found myself engaged in a lively conversation by a carefully groomed, somewhat elderly gentleman whose manner had that curious directness noticed so often in old aristocracies and so seldom in the well-bred bourgeoisie.

“We don’t know each other,” said I to a friend, Ottiline Morell, who joined us.

She pronounced the name — “Lord Alfred Douglas.”

It fell on me like a clap of thunder; a startled look must have shown on my face, for the entertaining gentleman flushed; his nervous eyes betrayed an appeal of some sort; the nervous hand which had automatically thrust itself out went back into his coat pocket. This was Bosie Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s “love that dared not say its name,” the man who had been Wilde’s evil genius, of whose beauty Wilde had written in sentences that horrified a British court with their lusciousness. He had been called by acquaintances ” beautiful as an angel and wicked as the devil.” I watched him, fascinated, as he backed away, and somehow, strangely, Browning’s lines occurred to me — “And did you once see Shelley plain, and did he stop and speak to you?”

I knew more about Douglas than just that he had played a role in the greatest scandal of Victorian England. As a schoolgirl, before I knew the inner significance of the scandal, I had excitedly read the journal he edited, The Academy, which contained the snappiest literary criticism of the time in English; I knew his poetry and that of his wife, Olive Custance, which used to appear in his paper. is also in the new edition of the , wherein he asks her to write, when he is dead, that “love like a lamp swayed overall his days,” and wherein he says of himself:

I have been profligate of happiness
And reckless of the world’s hostility.

What swayed all his days, really, was poetry. And what a romantic name he bore, going back centuries! One learned at school the names of the Douglases who fell at Flodden Field and the lines in and that had celebrated different members of his family — the black Douglases and the gray Douglases.

Then I had another memory — the pathetic friendship of his mother for the Irish struggle for independence. It perhaps took her mind off her disasters; occasionally in Arthur Griffith’s a sympathetic letter from her would appear, enclosing a subscription for the cause. For her, that terrible trial of Oscar Wilde, with her sons against their father, must have been an inferno. Mrs. Wilde could change her name and her children’s name, but there could be no change of name for the Douglases — they had been in the public eye, in the eye of history, too long, and their individualism had passed into a proverb: “There are men, women, and Douglases.”

The beautiful boyish, willful face of the photograph in Frances Winwar’s Oscar Wilde seems to have little connection with the countenance of the conventionally dressed man I was talking to on that gray day, except for the eyes; but the eyes — the imaginative, eager, dreamy eyes — are the same. The brow, too — that of an intellectual all of whose passions, good and bad, would be somehow related to the needs of his intellect, more indeed, probably, than Wilde’s.

Miss Winwar gives in her book the dramatic speech in the Old Bailey Court in which Wilde explained “the love that dared not speak its name:”

It is the noblest form of affection, it is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man when the elder man has intellect and the younger man has all the joy, hope, and glamour of life before him.

But I should give a guess that it was Douglas who had the dominating intellect and Wilde the intensity of emotion, just as, in the Rimbaud-Verlaine affair, it was the younger man who had the dominant intellect.


THEY MET, Wilde and Douglas, in the year of Rimbaud’s death, when the scandal of Verlaine’s shooting him had been forgotten. It is one of the world’s most dramatic stories, and Miss Winwar tells it dramatically and absorbingly.

The dramatis personae are all extraordinary, all having played a strange role in life. There is Wilde’s father, William Wilde of Dublin, a brilliant surgeon and archaeologist, apparently a man of overwhelming sexual urges. There is his wife “Speranza,” an Irish nationalist heroine who wrote poems for the ultranationalist journals and whose is one of the most beautiful books of its kind in English. She and her husband named her second son “Oscar Fingal” for two of the great heroes of the Irish sagas. Then there is Douglas’ father, the Marquis of Queensberry, also a man of overwhelming sexual urges, who actually hated his own sons. There are both the suffering mothers — “Speranza,” who tried to get what consolation she could out of her literary salon, and Lady Queensberry, who was devoted to her children, especially Bosie.

Miss Winwar makes no attempt to analyze the minds of Wilde and Douglas on the intellectual side, yet one cannot help believing in the essential importance in their relationship of the intellectual and artistic affinity between them. Wilde was an artist, an unmitigated artist, and Bosie understood him. Wilde was an Irishman, with a type of mind not as readily understood by the English as by the French — one to whom the products of the mind are important in themselves regardless of what they lead to, one who considers the passions as poetic powers, as do the French, not as potential vices, as do the English. What an extraordinary impression he left on people who knew him! The last time I saw William Butler Yeats, he spoke for a long time about Wilde. He insisted that Wilde was a man of action as well as an artist and that, if he had gone into Parliament, he would have made a remarkable statesman: “His career would have been as astonishing as Disraeli’s,” said Yeats.

The infatuation or whatever it was between Wilde and Douglas lasted to the end of Wilde’s life; Bosie could always get him. After Oscar came out of prison, after all his misfortunes, he fell for Bosie again.

But the best part of all the story and of Miss Winwar’s telling of it is the account of the lasting friendships Wilde made and of the devotion of his friends to the very end, even though they could save him neither from Bosie nor from drink. And how touching and how French was the loyalty and affection of the little Paris hotel proprietor for his broken-down and impecunious tenant! Wilde sank to death supported in his arms.

The worst side of the story is that about the persecutors and betrayers, beginning with the savage Marquis of Queensberry and those envious rivals who were his allies in raking up evidence against Wilde and that array of underworld characters, pimps and parasites, who formed the government’s witnesses and every one of whom should have been jailed for a longer period than Wilde. The civilized world is often rightly shocked at the type of witnesses governments put up against an accused man, nursing and dandling them into presenting their deadly and self-condemnatory evidence.

Wilde’s disgrace seemed to be for all time. His prison term ended, he had to leave England and spend the rest of his days on the Continent, sometimes in real poverty; his plays were withdrawn; his books tacitly suppressed; his name never appeared in the literary journals; the anthologies ignored him; and, even yet, the Oxford Book of English Verse which presents Alfred Douglas leaves Wilde out.


OSCAR WILDE once wrote an essay, , in which the spiritual benefits of a classless society run according to a William Morris-John Ruskin plan were unfolded. At the time the essay was published, somewhere in the Caucasus (which to the poet Wilde meant the region that Medea came from and where Prometheus was chained) a youngster was growing up in a miserable shoemaker’s hovel and storing up enough hatred and power of will later to head a socialist state in which all the values that Wilde attached to the “soul of man” would be dismissed. He is the man the world has come to know as Stalin.

Whatever has to be said against the passions and emotions that run through the Wilde story, there are also in it some of the highest ideals that the Western world has stood for — loyalty, intellect, art, and philosophy. But Stalin stands for something so divergent from the ideals of Christianity, Judaism, Graeco-Roman culture that no Westerner seems to be able to get inside him. In spite of the fact that Eugene Lyons writes brilliantly about him, has studied him, studied the Russia around him, studied his colleagues, we get an impression of bewilderment from his

We believe what Mr. Lyons tells us of Stalin’s vengefulness, his barbarity, his Orientalism; his cruelty, treachery, power of dissimulation; his subterranean plotting in which he can carry on a plan underneath while fooling the rest of the world on top, as he did about his alliance with Hitler. When he tells us that Stalin’s record is that of history written in blood, we believe him. But when he tells us that the whole fabulous story represents the triumph of mediocrity, we cannot believe him. Something of deep significance eludes Eugene Lyons as it has eluded other Western writers.

Stalin is mediocre, assuredly, in some of the qualities that the West prizes highly, but in others he must have a supremacy that baffles our comprehension How is it that he can get hold of the brains of men, use them as instruments any way he wants to, as other men use wealth and material resources? For Eugene Lyons, Stalin is a tough with a barbaric patience, subtlety, and vindictiveness, with a thirst for revenge against a hard and embittered childhood. But there must be more to this world figure — he must have qualities of leadership and magnetism; he must have ideals, penetrable or impenetrable; there must be some spiritual or perhaps demonic force behind him or inside him. No man gets such a following through mere intrigue and vindictiveness.

Whether we read Eugene Lyons’ Stalin or M. R. Werner’s , a book composed of Stalin’s own utterances — letters, speeches, articles — we are just as remote from understanding the man himself. How much of Stalin is contained in his own utterances is difficult to estimate. A man of action such as he almost necessarily expresses second-hand ideas in second-hand phrases. His utterances are more likely to be a hash-up of what he has read and been indoctrinated with. But in the Western world we are so easily bamboozled by the notion that language must necessarily express the man that not only Stalin’s admirers but admirers of the other dictators are easily convinced by the dictators’ words while discounting their actions. But men of this kind must be judged by their actions; their language may be a total misrepresentation.

From Stalin’s Kampf there emerges rather a sympathetic and engaging figure, but actually Stalin’s utterances are often conventionalities that he has picked up from writers and statesmen and have clearly little relation to his personal thought. The only type of human being he shows any comprehension of is the industrial worker of the towns; for intellectuals whose lives are passed with ideas, for peasants whose lives are passed in the fields he has neither understanding nor sympathy.


TO TURN FROM STALIN to the volumes presenting Jefferson and Tom Paine, in the Living Thoughts Library, is to be made to realize the change that has come into the spirit of politics in a  century and a half.

Jefferson and Paine, like all the political thinkers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, were humane: they had consideration for the dignity and destiny of man, of man as a many-sided person. Though they hated the oppressors of mankind, they could, because of the humane spirit inbred in them, plan for the future without rancor.

This humaneness is what is lacking in the contemporary revolutionary thinkers, communist and fascist. These are uncultivated men who look on men in their functional capacity, as instruments among other instruments. This attitude is not owing solely, however, to their lack of cultivation; it is also owing to the fact that the world they are molding and have been molded by is an industrial world, a world of machines and factories from which reflection and reverie have been banished.

The world Jefferson looked on was made up of people who lived on farms and in villages in which there could be reflection and reverie and remembrance. It made his political thinking somewhat idyllic — Jefferson’s utterances show no inkling of approaching industrialization, with its strains and conflicts. Being a man of reflection, Jefferson expressed not only the thought of his time raised to a high power but his own personal thought.

In these volumes, the Living Thoughts Library, the purpose is to present the really vital thought of men who have molded our ideas. The selections presented contain the pregnant part of the thought of the man the volume deals with. The introductions, generally, are admirable, written by men who not only know the thought of the person they are presenting but whose own minds have been molded by that thought. John Dewey, for instance, presents Jefferson’s thought and writes an introduction that puts us in contact with this humane and rich mind. John Dos Passos presents Thomas Paine; Thomas Mann presents Schopenhauer; Edgar Lee Masters presents Emerson; a dozen others are equally fittingly presented.

It seems to the present reviewer, however, that the editor of the series made a mistake in getting François Mauriac to present Pascal. His introduction shows that his interest in Pascal is narrow and sectarian. In his selections he presents the least vital part of Pascal’s mind. One would never guess that the Pascal of this volume was the same thinker and writer whom Sainte-Beuve made so exciting and vital in his History of Port-Royale. There is a sort of fleshly Puritanism in the work of François Mauriac that puts him at a great distance from the mentality of Pascal. As he is presented here, Pascal is not very different from Jonathan Edwards.

John Dos Passos presents Tom Paine sympathetically and brilliantly. Tom Paine is always where the battle is — he is with Washington’s retreating army; he is in revolutionary Paris; he is in the prison of the terrorists. In comparison with Paine, Jefferson, if not above the battle, is some distance from it. Where he wants to arouse us to reflection, Paine wants to arouse us to action:

Hath your property been destroyed before your face? Are your wife and children destitute of a bed to lie on, or bread to live on? Have you lost a parent or a child by their hands, and yourself the ruined and wretched survivor? If you have not, then you are not a judge of those who have. But if you have, and can still shake hands with the murderers, then are you unworthy the name of husband, father, friend, or lover, and whatever be your rank or title in life, you have the heart of a coward, and the spirit of a sycophant.

Jefferson arouses us to reflect on and make sure of our democratic faith in such passages as this:

Although I do not, with some enthusiasts, believe that the human condition will ever advance to such a state of perfection as that there shall be no longer pain or vice in the world, yet I believe it susceptible of much improvement, and most of all, in matters of government and religion; and the diffusion of knowledge among people is to be the instrument by which it is to be effected.

What both Tom Paine and Jefferson had was a complete dedication to liberty. Both give us the sense of America’s being really a new world, not only physically but politically and morally. Paine can speak of America as a prophet:

O! ye that love mankind! Ye that dare oppose not only the tyranny but the tyrant, stand forth! Every spot of the old world is over-run with oppression. Freedom hath been hunted round the globe. Asia and Africa have long expelled her. Europe regards her like a stranger, and England hath given her warning to depart. O! receive the fugitive and prepare in time an asylum for mankind.


FOR SHEER LITERARY interest, Thomas Mann’s volume, , is the most exciting of the series so far. Schopenhauer is a philosopher who has had a tremendous if unacknowledged influence on literary thinking. He led both psychologists and writers to go below what was reasonable and discover the subconscious. He is really one of those who led psychology on new roads and prepared the way for the psychoanalysts. Thomas Mann’s selection shows the dramatic quality that is in Schopenhauer’s philosophy, a quality that gives his system an artistic appeal. The introduction is so comprehensive that it gives the extracts the cogency and coherence of a complete work. The average modern reader can probably get as much illumination out of the present short volume as by working his way through the formidable volumes of .

Schopenhauer’s test of the value of a religion was the profundity of its pessimism, a pessimism that made necessary the idea of redemption. It is on this value that he rates Christianity:

The power in virtue of which Christianity was able to overcome, first Judaism and then the heathenism of Greece and Rome, lies solely in its pessimism, in the confession that our state is both exceedingly wretched and sinful, while Judaism and heathenism were optimistic. That truth, profoundly and painfully felt by all, penetrated, and bore in its train the need of redemption.

In this Schopenhauer and Pascal join minds. To Thomas Mann’s brother, Heinrich, has fallen the task of presenting Schopenhauer’s onetime disciple, the most poetic of all the modern philosophers, Nietzsche. The high estimation Nietzsche set on himself has a touch of his later insanity about it:

I am the harbinger of joy the like of which has never existed before; I have discovered tasks of such lofty greatness that, until my time, no one had any idea of such things. Mankind can begin to have fresh hopes only now that I have lived.

While we need not set this extravagant value on his thinking, Nietzsche stands out as a great spirit — great as a psychologist, a scholar, and a poet.

However, it is the Nietzsche of great political and historical insights that we get mainly in this volume. Ironically enough, this philosopher, who styled himself “a good European,” has been adopted as a kind of spiritual Führer by Goering and others in the present German regime. Yet no one has more devastatingly criticized the side of Germany of which the Nazis are symptomatic than Nietzsche has done. One of the reasons for the French superiority in Europe, he declares, lies “in their ancient, many-sided, moralistic culture. . . . The Germans lack a couple of centuries of moralistic work . . . which France has not grudged.” The French are preserved by their mixture of northern and southern stocks from “our German infirmity of taste for the excessive prevalence of which at the present moment blood and iron, that is to say, ‘high politics’ has with great resolution been prescribed.”

Of course Nietzsche was a man of contradictions, a man who, as he would say of the Germans, had several warring souls within. The moral and political critic is here well presented — the prophet, too. But there is too little of Nietzsche the poet, too little of Zarathustra.


AFTER ALL THE exciting minds represented in brief compass in the Living Thoughts Library, it does seem somewhat excessive to devote 350 pages to a life of Jonathan Edwards. Admittedly, Jonathan Edwards has a place in the history of American thought; admittedly, now is the time for a biography of him, when everyone is interested in all the founding fathers — political, literary, theological. But it is hard for anyone who is not identified with Puritan thought to be excited about this divine’s life and work. Theologians vis-à-vis posterity are in an unfortunate position. The climate of theology changes slowly, but it changes far more completely than the climate of science and philosophy; and, when it has changed, we have enormous difficulty in understanding what the theologians were talking about. The endless discussions about Grace which Edwards as well as Pascal went on and on with are empty for us now; they could have no appeal to us unless in them we come on some remarkable personal expression, as we do in the case of Pascal.

It seems to us that Ola Elizabeth Winslow devotes too many pages to her Jonathan Edwards although she makes it evident that she is a good writer and an enthusiastic and scrupulous scholar. We simply feel that her subject did not have an external life exciting enough, an intellectual life profound enough to make us want to know Jonathan Edwards to this extent.


THE POETRY anthologists were the originators in presenting essential samples of the expression of great minds in brief compass. A good deal used to be said against them: people who read selections in anthologies, it was declared, would never take the trouble to read poets’ complete works; anthologies would injure the extensive reading of poetry. There is some justice in the criticism. But it is well to face the fact that nobody except scholars or literary specialists ever reads the whole of the poetical works of the older poets. It would be well if the old poets were all edited as Wordsworth and Byron were edited by Matthew Arnold. There is a crying need for the most living of the poetry of the great Victorians to be placed inside the covers of compact books as easy to handle as the Living Thoughts series.

The anthology has come to stay, and the most exciting anthology that has been made, I am convinced, is the Oxford Book of English Verse. Anthologies can be made boring by the very way the poems are arranged; Palgrave’s, for instance, always had a certain heaviness about it. But the editor of the Oxford Book made both the arrangement and the selection so alive that it is a necessary possession for all who care about poetry. It goes back to the beginnings of English verse or, at least, back to the 1200’s, and presents us with all the lovely early buds of English lyricism; it gives us a selection of the old ballads that Bishop Percy dug up and pieces that represent nearly every phase of English poetic achievement down to our contemporaries.

But, unhappily, the compiler of this great anthology was from the first an unsure judge of contemporary poetry. He was shaky about his older contemporaries in the first edition; in the present, he is shaky about his younger contemporaries. While he includes in his latest edition a great many of the finest contemporary poets, he often presents them either by meager examples or by their least characteristic works. He includes several poems by unimportant writers that are of no more value in the long line of poetry in English than, say, a poem in the New York Times. Nevertheless, with all the defects that can be discovered on the later pages, the Oxford Book of English Verse remains what it has been for forty years — the most thorough and the most fascinating anthology in English.

To Olive in The Oxford Book of English Verse, ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch, 1939
Ed. Arthur Quiller-Couch, 1939
Sir Walter Scott, 1808
Sir Walter Scott, 1810
Newspaper, ran from 1899 to 1906
Arthur Schopenhauer, 1818
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