I sit at my door, smoking a cigarette and sipping my absinthe, and I enjoy every day without a care in the world.
- Paul Gaugin, 1897
Known for his amazing wit and scandalous lifestyle, Wilde was the great aesthete, glorifying beauty for beauty's sake in a series of sparkling plays, poems, fairy tales and essays. In his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a young man is corrupted by sensual indulgence and moral indifference. Wilde's lifestyle became too much for Victorian sensibilities, and he was imprisoned in 1895 for conducting a homosexual affair with Lord Alfred Douglas. Two great poems, The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis were inspired by his experiences in prison.
Wilde is often mentioned as one of the great absinthe drinkers. It is however far from certain that he drank that much absinthe at all. No references to absinthe can be found in any of his own works or letters. The famous quotes about absinthe often attributed to Wilde have instead been written by other authors supposedly "quoting" Wilde.
Oscar Wilde, born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) was an Irish writer and poet. After writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, he became one of London's most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. He is remembered for his wonderful plays and of course the imprisonment brought on by his, at the time, controversial way of life. For many absintheurs Wilde is often one of the most quoted writers, mainly because of "his" overly romantic, dramatic and vivid descriptions of the drink. But was he an absinthe drinker himself? Well apparently not until his later years after prison in Newgate from where he came back a broken man if we are to believe the people around him.
There are several quotes about absinthe and its effects and properties attributed to Oscar Wilde. However it is questionable wether or not Wilde actually did drink that much absinthe himself and if any of these descriptions are truly his. What is certain is that there is no mention about absinthe and its effects on Wilde himself in any of his own works or known letters and the so often quoted descriptions are either just hearsay, written as quoting Wilde, by other authors or Wilde being quoted mentioning others drinking absinthe.
One of those quotes is the classic description of how absinthe alters the perception of the world;
"After the first glass you see things as you wish they were.
After the second, you see things as they are not.
Finally you see things as they really are,
and that is the most horrible thing in the world."
This is one of several alterations of this passage and as said, this is nowhere to be found in anything actually written by Wilde, but can be found in books by two completely different authors. The first to mention it was Ada Leverson, writer and also friend of Wilde's who included it in one of her books in 1930, and that is where the above passage stems from, we might even go so far as to calling it the "original" version of the quote. The passage in its entity reads;
"After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.' `How do you mean?' `I mean disassociated. Take a top-hat! You think you see it as it really is. But you don't, because you associate it with other things and ideas. If you had never heard of one before, and suddenly saw it alone, you'd be frightened, or laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad.' He went on, 'Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking that I was singularly clearheaded and sane. The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust. The most wonderful flowers, tulips, lilies, and roses sprang up and made a garden of the cafe. "Don't you see them?" I said to him. "Mais, non, monsieur, it ny a rien."'
The second book is "My Three Inns" by John Fothergill in 1949. In that book the quote is slightly different but with the same meaning. Fothergill too claims it's a quote by Oscar Wilde. It is more likely that Fothergill heard this told somewhere or even read the passage written by Leverson and then decided to put it in his book also and as always dramatized the alledged situation a little further.
Fothergill's version reads;
"The first stage is like ordinary drinking, the second when you begin to see
monstrous and cruel things, but if you can persevere you will enter in upon the
third stage where you see things that you want to see, wonderful curious things.
One night I was left sitting, drinking alone and very late in the Café Royal, and I
had just got into this third stage when a waiter came in with a green apron and
began to pile the chairs on the tables.
'Time to go, Sir' he called out to me. Then he brought in a watering can and began to water the floor.'Time's up Sir. I'm afraid you must go now, Sir.'
'Waiter, are you watering the flowers?' I asked, but he didn't answer.
'What are your favourite flowers, waiter?' I asked again.
'Now sir, I must really ask you to go now, time's up,' he said firmly. 'I'm sure that tulips are your favourite flowers,' I said, and as I got up and passed out into the street I felt - the – heavy – tulip – heads – brushing against my shins."
Another quote which is often said to be Wilde describing his encounters with absinthe is the one where he compares a glass of absinthe to the beauty of a sunset. What's interesting is that this is actually not at all a description of Wilde describing his taste for absinthe but rather him describing the typical decadent conception of absinthe in his talking about English symbolist poet Edgar Dowson - a friend of his, and a well known absinthe drinker - and absinthe's effects on Dowson. He points out though, that if Dowson didn't drink so much absinthe, he just wouldn't be Dowson...
He mentions this in a conversation with Norwegian landscape painter Christian Krohg and Norwegian impressionist painter Frits Thaulow in Thaulow's home in Dieppe, France. Christian Krohg writes this in his book "I smaa Dagsreiser til og fra Paris" (In little Day trips to and from Paris), published in 1897;
"He is very talented! I am a great admirer of his. But it is a shame, it's so sad, that he staggers so much and drinks too much Absinthe."
Oscar Wilde shrugged his shoulders:
"If he didn't do that, he would be quite a different person. Il faut accepter la personnalité comme elle est. Il ne faut jamais regretter qu'un poëte est soûl, il faut regretter que les soûls ne soient pas toujours poëtes."
"Well, it doesn't matter, what ever you say. The worst is, that I think that what he drinks is Absinthe, and that is so devastating."
"Absinthe," Wilde answered, "has a lovely colour, la couleur verte. Il faut maintenant boire des choses vertes. A glass of Absinthe is as poetic as every other thing. Quelle différence y a't-il entre un verre d'absinthe et un coucher de soleil?"
As a matter of fact the few quotes where Wilde actually directly refers to himself and absinthe the story is completely different. He said to Arthur Machen, Welsh author and mystic and absinthe drinker, that;
"I could never quite accustom myself to absinthe, but it suits my style so well"
Note how Oscar Wilde knows very well about the image he has created of himself and what it takes to uphold it.
It is of course safe to assume that, since absinthe was such a common drink among the artists and writers of the time, Wilde did drink it every now and then but during his prime years, certainly not to the extent some have led us to believe.
After the prison sentence in Newgate, England, Oscar Wilde took to Paris. Once there he again met with artists and painters but he was no longer the grand figure he once was. Friends tried to help him best they could and one way was of course to buy him drinks. One of the characters he met when returning to Paris was Norwegian art critic Jappe Nilssen (1870-1931). Jappe was in essence the one who "discovered" Edvard Munch. An old friend of Munch's and being an art critic he helped Munch in his career.
In a letter to a Swedish female friend, at 29 September - 1905, Jappe Nilssen writes this about Oscar Wilde;
Yesterday I was at the premiere of Oscar Wilde’s: Salome. And I can still feel my nerves tingling. It was really a gust from a divine genius that in an instant stroked over me and set my being on fire. But as I sat there and heard these proud rhythms, these glowing , sun filled, truthful words from one of England’s most gifted and most unhappy poets, all the time I felt that I could hear his own voice with slurred, sorrowful connotation and look into his eyes, which were sick and sore and sad to death. I didn’t know him when he was at the peak of his youth and reputation. Once I got to know him he was rather a broken man, who came as a fugitive to Paris. He had accommodated himself in a small simple hotel by the docks, merely ten feet in square. “I can settle myself here for a while,” he said with his melancholic, tired smile, “even though I can hardly have any parties here.” – He came right from prison in Newgate, where he had been for two or three years. This man, who had been the friend of princes, who had enjoyed all that riches and fame can offer a man, he was barely dressed decently, and I don’t think that he everyday had enough money to buy dinner. At the green hour around 5-6 in the afternoon he used to come down to us in the café, where there was always one or another who would buy him an absinthe. There was something grand, morbid about him. If you looked into his eyes, you’d soon realize that they would never be happy again, it was more like looking into a bottomless abyss of sorrow. He let himself die inch by inch and one day he simply wasn’t there anymore. It was five-six of us who followed his coffin all through Paris to the cemetery, the simple coffin, where there wasn’t as much as a single little red flower. A poor man’s funeral was what he got, this great, sad poet of England, whom the motherland eventually will raise statues of.
Oh, all this and much, much else went through me as I sat there and heard the ecstatic words of Salome: I want to kiss your mouth, Joachanan, I want to kiss your mouth Joachanan! Oh yes, little lady – so much sorrow and misery that has gone us by, it’s strange that you can still smile and be happy. But it is within oneself one shall look for the sources; never believe you can find help or comfort from someone else – a human can never help a human."
The letter was translated by Markus Hartsmar, Absinthe.se, 2008. Translation is based on the letter published in the Norwegian book "Aldri Skal du Svikte - Brev fra Jappe Nilssen til en svensk vennine", 1948. Below are scans of the letter in the book.
Written by Markus Hartsmar
Many writers "of old" wrote poems or passages about absinthe. Some drank it, some didn't. Find some of them here as well as reviews and notes on modern books about absinthe.
The Absinthe Poetry section has seen several updates the past days. Poems and information about more authors; Antonin Artaud, Arthur Symons, Francis Saltus Saltus, Florence Folsom and Robert Loveman. Open your mind and have a drink while you enjoy their lyrics.
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