Are most contemporary students of English literature required to discover these works? Perhaps one hundred years ago we might have answered with a resounding yes; nowadays, however, when everyone allegedly engages in some kind of hidden cultural dialogue with everyone else (on terms to which, it should be said, the authors themselves seem not to have been privy), we can no longer be so sure. Shakespeare has been lauded as the most liberated of authors and damned as manifesting the typical racist and sexist prejudices of his era. And if the previous sentence thrills and enthralls you, you may want to find somewhere else to peddle your thoughts. You may also not particularly enjoy this famous story.
Our protagonist has no name, which is just as well, since in time he will prove to be little more than a filter for the spirit and ideas of others. The first and dominant spirit will be that, of course, of the greatest playwright in the history of mankind; the third will belong to a man called Erskine, who exists as the typical pseudo-intellectual, to wit, utterly consumed by some backwash of a theory, or in denial of hard and fast facts. But it will be the second, a spirit which inhabited the forever young body of Cyril Graham, that is destined to capture and hold our interest. A brief portrait, in Erskine's words, of Cyril will suffice:
Cyril .... certainly was wonderfully handsome. People who did not like him, Philistines and college tutors, and young men reading for the Church, used to say that he was merely pretty; but there was a great deal more in his face than mere prettiness. I think he was the most splendid creature I ever saw, and nothing could exceed the grace of his movements, the charm of his manner. He fascinated everybody who was worth fascinating, and a great many people who were not. He was often wilful and petulant, and I used to think him dreadfully insincere. It was due, I think, chiefly to his inordinate desire to please. Poor Cyril! I told him once that he was contented with very cheap triumphs, but he only laughed. He was horribly spoiled. All charming people, I fancy, are spoiled. It is the secret of their attraction. However, I must tell you about Cyril's acting. You know that no actresses are allowed to play at the [Amateur Dramatic Club of Cambridge University]. At least they were not in my time. I don't know how it is now. Well, of course Cyril was always cast for the girls' parts, and when As You Like It was produced he played Rosalind. It was a marvellous performance. In fact, Cyril Graham was the only perfect Rosalind I have ever seen. It would be impossible to describe to you the beauty, the delicacy, the refinement of the whole thing. It made an immense sensation, and the horrid little theatre, as it was then, was crowded every night. Even when I read the play now I can't help thinking of Cyril. It might have been written for him.
If you know a little something about Wilde's biography, this passage, published in 1889, will seem to precurse what the world at large might have long suspected. But there is, naturally, no need to know anything about Wilde or Shakespeare to enjoy one genius's love affair with the other. More vital is the understanding that Cyril Graham, who martyrs himself early on, is speaking and thinking only of himself. Graham gazes upon the sonnets and sees merely a reflection of his own beauty; yet, like in all daydreams, he augments what God has already granted with what God should not have overlooked. He makes Cyril Graham, who appears womanly enough to pass for many a Shakespearean heroine, into William "Willie" Hughes, who, as opposed to Cyril, can actually do what thespians are called upon to do night after night.
Who is Willie Hughes? You may read this novel by another Irishman and be presented one opinion, but a long story can be made very short by clarifying that our titular initials appear to belong to the person to whom the sonnets are dedicated. This unexplained mystery has launched far too many – too many being more than zero – investigations by otherwise respectable literary scholars, utterly unrespectable hacks, and purported dilettantes on the identity behind the dedication, as if the whole matter should have any bearing whatsoever on the quality of the work in question. For his part, Graham believes that W.H. is an English boy actor by the name of William Hughes, likewise entrenched in Shakespeare's female roles; no proof is offered from any cast list, only textual homophonic clues from the sonnets (hew and hue, and so forth). His theory, which has never been seriously pondered by Shakespeare's biographers who seem more focused on the "dark lady" and other such nonsense, is fleshed out in almost preposterous details, and slowly but surely our narrator becomes an acolyte of Cyril Graham's vision. Yet at length these details do not convince Erskine, who initially was just as rabid a Grahamite. "It is," he tells our horrified narrator, "a perfectly unsound theory from beginning to end." The two men agree that they will not be unanimous and part in some acrimony, at which point our narrator reflects upon what has come between them, namely great and eternal art:
There was a strange silence for a few moments. Then Erskine got up, and looking at me with half-closed eyes, said, 'Ah! how you remind me of Cyril!' .... He tried to smile, but there was a note of poignant pathos in his voice that I remember to the present day, as one remembers the tone of a particular violin that has charmed one, the touch of a particular woman's hand. The great events of life often leave one unmoved; they pass out of consciousness, and, when one thinks of them, become unreal. Even the scarlet flowers of passion seem to grow in the same meadow as the poppies of oblivion. We regret the burden of their memory, and have anodynes against them. But the little things, the things of no moment, remain with us. In some tiny ivory cell the brain stores the most delicate, and the most fleeting impressions.
Whether it is noteworthy that the above passage has been excised from many editions of Wilde's narrative we will leave to the literary investigators to determine. And there is also that nugatory matter about the eponymous portrait, but we have already said enough as it is.
If you know a little more about our story's author, you might not be surprised that a year after composing The Portrait of Mr. W.H., he published his only novel-length work, which just happened to be about the unforgettable power of an unforgettable painting. It may be of equal non-coincidence that Wilde would become world famous thanks to his stage writings, not his poetry, a logical outcome if one considers the universal acclaim allotted to his improvised wit. But Wilde was one of the most Romantic of writers, one so in love with literature and the spine-tingling bliss (unmatched by few earthly sensations) it induces as to neglect so many other aspects of our existence. Which reminds us of that old, late-nineteenth century saying about life's two tragedies.