Chris Foss, Professor of English, has published a book chapter entitled “The Importance of Being Green: Pen, Pencil and Poison as a Study in Close Reading and Color Decoding” in Critical Insights: Oscar Wilde, an essay collection from Salem Press/EBSCO edited by Frederick S. Roden.
Oscar Wilde is indisputably one of the most colorful literary figures of the past 150 years, perhaps in no small part owing to his own awareness, appreciation, and application of color across his life and work. Given the heyday Irish writers currently continue to enjoy (in both academic and more popular circles) as part and parcel of the general ascendancy of all things Irish in the 1990s, it may seem self-evident that green might serve as one of the most significant pigments on Wilde’s palette. It is, though, perhaps somewhat more provocative to suggest one must turn to his largely overlooked prose piece “Pen, Pencil and Poison”—a piece republished and newly minted with a green subtitle during his golden year of 1891—if one is to fully grasp the importance of being green for Wilde the critic and artist.
In “Pen, Pencil and Poison,” Wilde pays tribute to Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (a now-obscure minor poet, painter, and man of letters from the first half of the century, more infamous as a convicted forger and suspected poisoner than famous as an artist). As the subtitle suggests, the secret to unpacking Wilde’s very personal and impressionistic rendering of his subject depends upon his subtle application of the various shades of green at play in the piece. In my reading, he employs green to invoke his own particular versions of aestheticism, homophile desire, and Irish nationalism. What is more, he blends these shades in such a way that one may begin to see all three of these foci as inextricably intertwined—intertwined with each other, and intertwined with fin-de-siècle decadence and its dangerous liaisons with sin and crime.