Oscar Wilde and the green carnation
“To be natural is to be obvious, and to be obvious is to be inartistic.” Gilbert in The Critic As Artist, by Oscar Wilde
“All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.” Preface, The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde
On 20 February 1892, for the first performance of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde arranged for one of the actors to wear a green carnation in his buttonhole. He also encouraged friends he had invited to the play to wear a green carnation, too, so that a select part of the audience would be connected to a character on stage. Artist Graham Robertson was one of the people Wilde asked to wear the flower.
“And what does it mean?” Graham Robertson asked.
“Nothing whatever,” Wilde replied, “but that is just what nobody will guess.”
Wilde’s flippancy belied his choice of emblem; it was not accidental.
The colour green would have had several subversive associations for Wilde: Irish nationalism, the hallucinogenic alcohol absinthe, and the artist as an outsider and individualist. Just as yellow was associated with the Decadent movement with which Wilde identified, green was a colour that appealed to his sympathies.
In Pen, Pencil and Poison: A Study in Green, Wilde identifies with the artist, forger and poisoner Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (albeit with satirical intent). In Wilde’s portrait of Wainewright, artistic sensibility and rebellion against society are two sides of the same coin. Wainewright, Wilde noted, “had that curious love of green, which in individuals is always the sign of a subtle artistic temperament, and in nations is said to denote a laxity, if not a decadence of morals.”
Synthetic green was created with arsenic during the Victorian era, so the poisoner Wainewright had even more reason to like the colour.
Wilde looked back on his Oxford University days with fondness, so it is tempting to think that he chose the carnation because Oxford students wear a white carnation for their first exams, a red carnation for their final exams and pink for the exams in between, but this tradition began at least 90 years after Wilde died.
The symbol of creation
Note that the green carnation that Wilde wore in his buttonhole was not natural. A florist had to dye a carnation in order to make it green. It had to be created. The green carnation has resonances that encompass not only Wilde’s sexuality, but his views on literature and art.
Wilde was critical of the Realist movement in literature. He was wary not only of the limitations it placed on creativity but also how Realism could be used in didactic art to create the illusion that a subjective, biased view of society was an objective, ‘realistic’ depiction of how the world is (and by implication, how it should be and always will be).
Wilde was adamant that the artist needed to imagine and create, not just observe and mimic.
“Life and Nature may sometimes be used as part of Art’s rough material, but before they are of any real service to Art they must be translated into artistic conventions. The moment Art surrenders its imaginative medium it surrenders everything. As a method Realism is a complete failure …” Vivian in The Decay of Lying, by Oscar Wilde
Wilde aligned himself with the Decadents and Symbolists in literature in opposition to Realism. He admired the suggestiveness of Symbolism, and the way that words, colours and images could resonate with multiple meanings. In that sense, he was in favour of the unnatural, the created, the imagined.
“For what is Nature?” Wilde asked in The Decay of Lying. “Nature is no great mother who has borne us. She is our creation. It is in our brain that she quickens to life.”
“Things are because we see them, and what we see, and how we see it, depends on the Arts that have influenced us.” Vivian in The Decay of Lying, by Oscar Wilde
Wilde championed ‘civilisation’ over ‘nature’. Read this way, the green carnation represents culture and the creativity of the artist.
The code word
There is another meaning, of course, to the ‘unnaturalness’ of the green carnation. It is quite possible that Wilde intended the green carnation to be a badge of homosexuality that would be recognised only by those in the know. The word ‘homosexual’ was coined during Wilde’s lifetime, but the term was known only to psychologists, not the general public. Homosexuality was referred to as ‘inversion’, ‘Uranian love’ or more commonly, as an ‘unnatural’ vice. Sporting a green, unnatural carnation may have been Wilde’s way of celebrating homosexuality and thumbing his nose at a conservative, homophobic society that viewed his innate character as a sin or illness.
Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland has said, however, that the greatest argument against the green carnation being a badge of gay identity is that it wasn’t used as evidence during Wilde’s three trials. Edward Carson QC never challenged Wilde in court about wearing the unnatural flower. Carson had no hesitation in taking Wilde to task for his choice of companions, what he wrote, what he read, and even what his associates wrote. If it were true, as Neil McKenna claims in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, that the green carnation was recognised as a gay symbol in Paris before Wilde ever wore one, Carson would have argued that Wilde’s choice of buttonhole proved that he was guilty of acts of ‘gross indecency’ with men.
Less than a year before Wilde was arrested, Robert Hichens wrote a satire of Wilde and his circle, calling it The Green Carnation. It was published anonymously. Hichens’ choice of title made the true identity of the novel’s main characters, ‘Amarinth’ (Wilde) and ‘Lord Reggie’ (Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas) clear to Victorian readers. Wilde was amused by the book and even alluded to it in his play The Importance of Being Earnest. “This treatise, ‘The Green Carnation’, as I see it is called,” Lady Bracknell says in Act IV, “seems to be a book about the culture of exotics.”
Rumours abounded that Wilde himself was the author of The Green Carnation. Eventually he felt obliged to write to the editor of the Pall Mall Gazette that “I invented that magnificent flower. But with the middle-class and mediocre book that usurps its strangely beautiful name I have, I need hardly say, nothing whatsoever to do. The flower is a work of art. The book is not.”
Things became bitter when the behaviour of ‘Amarinth’ turned more people against Wilde. And then of course, Wilde was arrested. To Hichens’ horror, the novel came to be seen as evidence against Wilde. Hichens had mocked Wilde, but he was gay himself and had no desire to send Wilde to prison.
So did Wilde wear a green carnation as a meaningless publicity stunt, or did it have a deeper significance? We may never know. All that is certain is that this unnatural flower proved dangerous. Read the symbol, as Wilde said, at your peril.
© JD Ellevsen
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