“Oscar Wilde”, by José Martí. New York, January 9th, 1882.

We live, those of us who speak Spanish, all full of Horace and Virgil, and it seems that the boundaries of our spirit are those of our language. Why should foreign literatures be almost a forbidden fruit, so abundant today of that natural environment, sincere strength and current spirit that is missing in modern Spanish literature? Neither the mark left on Núñez de Arce by Byron, nor the one that the German poets printed in Campoamor and Bécquer, nor one or another pale translation of some German or English work are enough to give us an idea of the literature of the Slavs, Germans and Saxons, whose poems have at the same time the snowy swan, of the ruined castles, of the sturdy girls who look out onto its balcony full of flowers, and of the placid and mystical light of the northern lights. Knowing different literatures is the best way to free oneself from the tyranny of some of them; just as there is no way to save oneself from the risk of blindly obeying a philosophical system, but to nourish oneself from all, and to see how in all the same spirit beats, subject to such accidents, whatever the forms in which the human imagination, vehement or diminished, according to the climates, has bestowed that faith in the immense and that desire to get out of itself, and that noble dissatisfaction with being what it is, which all philosophical schools generate.

Here is Oscar Wilde: he is a young Saxon who makes excellent verses. He is a schismatic in art, who accuses English art of having been schismatic in the church of universal beautiful art. He is an elegant apostle, full of faith in his propaganda and disdain for those who censor it, who is currently touring the United States, saying in soft and discreet voices how he considers abominable the peoples who, by the cult of their material well-being, forget the well-being of the soul, which lightens human shoulders so much from the heaviness of life, and pleasantly predisposes to effort and work. To beautify life is to give it an object. To go out of oneself is an indomitable human longing, and it does good to men who seek to beautify their existence, so that they come to live content with being in themselves. It is like denting the beak of the vulture that devours Prometheus.  Such things he says, although he does not succeed perhaps in giving them that precision or seeing all that scope, the rebellious man who wants to shake off his clothes of cultured man, the oily footprint and the coal dust that blackens the sky of the English cities, on which the sun shines among dense mists like an opaque crimson balloon, that struggles in vain to send its life-giving color to the rough limbs and terrified brains of the rough northerners. So the poet who is born in those lands, increases his exquisite faith in the things of the spirit so unknown and unloved. There is nothing to hate tyranny like living under it. Nor to exacerbate the poetic fire, as dwelling among those who lack of it. Only that, lacking souls on whom to pour his overflowing, the poet drowns and dies.

See Oscar Wilde! It is in Chickering Hall, house of wide halls, where in New York the public goes to hear readings. It is the home of aristocratic readers who already enjoy fame and fortune to call it comfortably. In these rooms Christian dogma is fought and defended, the old is preached and the new is preached. Travelers explain their travels, accompanied by panoramic views and drawings on a large blackboard. A critic studies a poet. A lady lectures about the convenience or inconvenience of these or those costumes. A philologist develops the laws of philology. In one of these rooms Wilde will read his speech on the great renaissance of art in England, of which he is called master and guide, when he is nothing more than brave adept and active and fervent disciple. He propagates his faith. Others died from it. We'll get to it. The hall is full of sumptuous ladies and select gentlemen. The great poets are missing, as if afraid of being considered accomplices of the innovator. Men secretly love dangerous truths, and only equate their fear of defending them, before seeing them accepted, with the tenacity and verve with which they support them after their defense is no longer at risk. Oscar Wilde belongs to an excellent Irish family, and has bought with his pecuniary independence the right to independence of his thought. This is one of the evils from which men of genius die: it often happens that their poverty does not allow them to defend the truth that devours and enlightens them, too new and rebellious for them to live by it.   And they live only as soon as they consent to drown out the revealing truth that they are messengers, from whose sorrow they die. Carriages crowd the wide doors of the solemn house of readings.  Such a lady carries a lily, which is a symbol of reformers. All have shown elegance and richness in dress. As the aesthetes, who are in England the renovators of art, want the colors that come together in the ornamentation or in the dresses to be always harmonious, the scenario is simple and clear.

An empty chair, with a high back and thick arms, like our choir chairs, awaits the poet. Dark wood is the chair, and dark Moroccan is the back and seat. Softer chestnut is the canvas that occupies the back wall. Next to the chair, an elegant table holds an artistic jug, in which pure water shines, like prey light. See Oscar Wilde!  He does not dress as we all dress, but in a singular way. His costume already enunciates the defect of his propaganda, which is not so much to create the new, of which he does not feel capable of, as to resurrect the old. Her hair hangs like that of Elizabeth's knights of England, over her neck and shoulders; The abundant hair, broken by careful stripe towards the middle of the forehead. He wears a black coat, white silk vest, short, loose-fitting shorts, long black silk stockings, and buckle shoes. The collar of his shirt is low, like Byron's, held by a mighty white silk tie, knotted with abandon. On the resplendent breastplate there is a shining button, and from the vest hangs an artistic leopoldina. It is necessary to dress beautifully, and he is given as an example. Only that art demands in all its works unity of time, and hurts the eyes to see a heartthrob spend chupilla of this time, and trousers of the past, and hair to the Cromwell, and leontinas to the fop of the beginning of this century. Shines on the face of the young poet honest nobility. He is measured in flaunting his extravagance. He has respect for the highness of his views, and imposes with them self-respect. He smiles like someone who is sure of himself. The auditorium, which is illustrious, whispers. What does the poet say?

He says that no one should try to define beauty, after Goethe has defined it; that the great English Renaissance in this century unites the love of Greek beauty, the passion for the Italian Renaissance, and the yearning to take advantage of all the beauty that puts in his works that modern spirit; he says that the new school has sprouted, like the harmonious Euphony of the love of Faust and Helen of Troy, of the marriage of the spirit of Greece, where everything was beautiful, and the ardent, inquisitive and rebellious individualism of the modern romantics. Homer preceded Phidias; Dante yielded to the wonderful renewal of Italy's arts; poets always precede. The Pre-Raphaelites, who were painters who loved real, natural and naked beauty, preceded the aesthetes, who love the beauty of all times, artistic and cultured. And Keats, the exuberant, plastic poet, preceded the Pre-Raphaelites. These sectarians of the ways of painting used by the predecessors of the melodious Raphael wanted to put aside the painters when they left art, and the masters were teaching, and with the palette full of colors, they would copy the objects directly from Nature. They were sincere to the point of brutality. From hatred to the convention of others, they fell into their own convention. From their disdain for excessive rules, they fell into the disdain of every rule. Improving cannot be going backwards; But the Pre-Raphaelites, since they were unable to found, overturned at least dusty idols. Behind them, and largely thanks to them, the freedom and truth of art began to be considered good in England. "Do not ask the English," said Oscar Wilde, "who were those worthy Pre-Raphaelites: not knowing anything about their great men is one of the requirements of English education. Back in 1847, admirers of our Keats gathered to see him shake poetry and painting from his foundation. But to do this is to lose in England all its rights as citizens. They had what the English never forgive you have: youth, power and enthusiasm. They satirized them, because satire is the homage that the jealous average always pays to genius, which must have made the reformers very happy with themselves, because to disagree with three-fourths of the English on all points is one of the most legitimate causes of self-satisfaction, and must be a wide source of consolation in moments of spiritual fainting."

Hear Wilde now speak of another very harmonious poet, William Morris, who wrote The Earthly Paradise, and showed off his sumptuous beauty and sonorous condition of his verses, vibrant and transparent like Japanese porcelain. Hear Wilde say that Morris believed that to copy Nature very closely is to deprive it of what is most beautiful, which is the vapor, which as a luminous halo, emerges from his works. Hear him say that to Morris owe the letters of England that precise way of drawing the images of fantasy in mind and verse, to such an extent that he knows no English poet who has surpassed, in the sharp phrase and in the pure image, Morris. Hear him recommend the practice of Theophilus Gautier, who believed that there was no book more worthy of being read by a poet than the dictionary.  "Those reformers," said Wilde, "came singing what they found beautiful, whether in their time, or in any of the times of the earth." They wanted to say it all, but say it beautifully. Beauty was the only brake on freedom. They were guided by the deep love of the perfect.

They did not stifle inspiration, but put beautiful clothes on it. They didn't want it to be messy in the streets, or dressed in bad taste, but well dressed. And Wilde said: "We do not want to clip the wings of poets, but we have become accustomed to counting their innumerable pulsations, to calculating their unlimited strength, to governing their ungovernable freedom.  The whole bard sings it, if what he sings is worthy of his verses. Everything is present before the bard. He lives on spirits, who do not perish. There is no lost form for him, but expired matter. But the poet must, with the calm of one who feels in possession of the secret of beauty, accept what in times he finds irreproachably beautiful, and reject what does not conform to his full idea of beauty.  Swinburne, who is also a great English poet, whose imagination floods his musical rhymes with untold riches, says that art is life itself, and that art knows nothing of death. Let us not disdain the old, because it happens that the old perfectly reflects the present, since life, varied in forms, is perpetual in its essence, and in the past it is seen without that "mist of familiarity" or concern that makes it abundant for those of us who exist in it. But the choice of a suitable subject is not enough to move souls: it is not the subject painted on a canvas that chains the gaze to it, but the steam of the soul that arises from the skillful use of colors. Thus the poet, to be his noble and lasting work, must acquire that art from the hand, merely technical, which gives his songs that spiritual perfume that intoxicates men. What does it matter that the critics murmur! He who can be an artist is not limited to being critical, and artists, as time confirms, are only understood in all their worth by artists. Our Keats said that he only venerated God, the memory of great men and beauty.  That is what aesthetes come to: to show men the usefulness of loving beauty, to excite the study of those they have cultivated, to enliven the taste for the perfect, and the abhorrence of all ugliness; to put back into vogue the admiration, knowledge and practice of all that men have admired as beautiful. But what good is it that we long to crown the dramatic form attempted by our poet Shelley, sick of loving heaven on a land where he is not loved? What good is it that we pursue earnestly the improvement of our conventional poetry and our pale arts, the beautification of our houses, the grace and ownership of our dresses?  There can be no great art without a beautiful national life, and England's commercial spirit has killed it. There can be no great drama without a noble national life, and that too has been killed by the commercial spirit of the English." Warm applause encouraged in this energetic passage the generous reader, the visible object of the affectionate curiosity of his audience.

Oscar Wilde then said to the Americans: "You, perhaps, sons of a new people, will be able to achieve here what we have so much trouble achieving there in Britain, your lack of old institutions is blessed, because it is a lack of obstacles; you have no traditions that bind you or secular and hypocritical conventions with which critics give you in your face. You have not been trampled on by hungry generations. You are not obliged to perpetually imitate a kind of beauty whose elements have already died. From you can come the splendor of a new imagination and the wonder of some new freedom. You lack, in your cities, as in your literature, that flexibility and grace that sensitivity to beauty gives. Love everything beautiful for the pleasure of loving it.   All rest and all happiness come from that. Devotion to beauty and the creation of beautiful things is the best of all civilizations: it makes the life of every man a sacrament, not a number in the books of commerce. Beauty is the only thing that time does not end.  Philosophies die, religious creeds are extinct; but what is beautiful lives always, and is jewel of all times, food of all and eternal gala. Wars will become less when men love with equal intensity the same things, when they have a common intellectual atmosphere. Mighty sovereign is still, by the force of wars, England; and our Renaissance wants to create such sovereignty for it, that it lasts, even if its yellow leopards are tired of the heat of the fighting, and the rose of its shield does not dye the bloodshed in battles. And you too, Americans, placing in the heart of this great people this artistic spirit that improves and sweetens, will create for yourselves such riches, which will make you forget, however small, these that you now enjoy, for having made your land a network of railways, and of your bays the refuge of all the boats that sail the seas known to men."

Those noble and judicious things said in Chickering Hall the young English bard, with his hair and short breeches. But what gospel is that, which has raised around the evangelists so much shouts? These are our common thoughts: with that piety we see the wonders of the arts; not the surplus, but the penury of the commercial spirit is in us. What peculiar greatness is there in those truths, beautiful, but vulgar and notorious, which, dressed in that strange suit, Oscar Wilde walks through England and the United States? Could be wonder for others what is already forgotten code to us? Will that daring mancebo be respectable, or will it be ridiculous? It's respectable! It is true that, for fear of seeming presumptuous, or for paying more for pleasure than for the contemplation of beautiful things, than for the moral power and transcendental end of beauty, he did not have that reading that we extract that deep look and dilated scope that would pleasure a thinker. It is true that it has something childish to preach reform so vast, seasoned with an extravagant suit that adds nobility or slenderness to the human form, nor is it more than a timid display of hatred of the vulgar habits of the commonplace.

It is true that the aesthetes err in seeking, with peculiar love, in the adoration of the past and the extraordinary of other times, the secret of spiritual well-being in the future. It is true that vigorous reformers must pursue harm in the cause that begets it, which is the excessive love of physical well-being, and not in the heartbreak of art, which is a result. It is true that in our luminous and fragrant lands we have as transcendental truths those which are now preached to the Saxons as surprising and daring reforms. But with what bitterness does that young man not look; how it seems lethargic in the children of his people that fervent cult of the beautiful, which consoles from the greatest anxieties and is the cause of ineffable pleasures!  With what sorrow must he not see lost for permanent life the land in which he was born, which pays for the worship of perishable idols! What energy has not been needed to quell the censorship of cartoonists and satirists who live by flattering the tastes of a public that un-loves those who blame their defects! What vigor and strength are not necessary to face the fearful anger and spiteful disdain of a cold, hypocritical and calculating people! With what sorrow must he not see lost for permanent life the land in which he was born, which pays for the worship of perishable idols! What energy has not been needed to quell the censorship of cartoonists and satirists who live by flattering the tastes of a public that unloves those who blame their defects! What vigour and strength are not necessary to face the fearful anger and spiteful disdain of a cold, hypocritical and calculating people! What praise he does not deserve, despite his shiny hair and short breeches, that gallant young man who tries to exchange in the sun of vivid rays, that clink and brown the atmosphere, that opaque crimson balloon that illuminates the melancholy English! The love of art assesses the soul and exalts it: a beautiful painting, a limpid statue, an artistic toy, a modest flower in a beautiful glass, puts smiles on the lips where perhaps a few moments died, tears. Above the pleasure of possessing the beautiful, which enhances and fortifies, is the pleasure of possessing the beautiful, which leaves us happy with ourselves. Decorating the house, hanging the walls with pictures, liking them, estimating their merits, talking about their beauties, are noble joys that give value to life, distraction to the mind and high employment to the spirit. You feel a new sap running through your veins when contemplating a new work of art. It's like keeping in mind what is to come. It's like drinking the ideal life in a glass of Cellini.

And what a rough people he who killed Byron! What a foolish people, as if made of stone, who reaped the verses on the youthful lips of the abundant Keats! English disdain freezes, as English rivers and lakes freeze the cold air of the mountains. Disdain falls like a farewell arrow from cold and livid lips. He loves ingenuity, which pleases; not the genius, who devours. Excessive light harms him, and he loves warm light. He likes elegant poets, who make him smile; Not of the genius poets, who make him meditate and suffer. He always opposes customs, as a shield, to every spirited voice that comes to disturb the sleep of his spirit. To this shield the young aesthetes throw their nails; With this shield the critics try to drown in these burning lips the generous voices. He sealed that shield, rather than death, Keats' lips. From Keats comes that vigorous poetic breath, which asks for the verse music and spirit, and for the ennoblement of life the cult of art. From Keats came to the bards of England that subtle and jealous love of form, which he has given to simple Greek thoughts. In Keats is born that painful struggle of the English poets, who struggle, as against the invincible army, to awaken the love of impalpable beauty and sweet spiritual vagueness in a people that rejects everything that does not hurt, flatter or numb their senses. Where is a pot to go in that land if not to the bottom of itself? What is he to do, but to fold into his soul, like a wounded violet from a horse's hoof?  At Keats, ideas, like virgin seawater, overflowed from winged and ringing stanzas. His images ran over, like Shakespeare; only Shakespeare tamed them and fiddled with them; and Keats was sometimes snatched away by his images. That inner sun burned the body. Keats, who adored beauty, went to die in his temple: in Rome. May his fervent disciple, who by defying his censors gives evidence of majestic fortitude, and with his noble verses invites his soul to abandon the market of virtues, and cultivate himself in sad silence, revive in his worried and disdainful nation the love of art, source of royal charms and consolations with which to repair the spirit distressed by the bitterness that life brings!

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