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Twilight of the idylls: Wilde, Tennyson, and fin-de-siècle anti-idealism


Copyright © 2015 Cambridge University Press. In the climactic finale to the first act of Oscar Wilde's 1895 play An Ideal Husband, Gertrude Chiltern convinces her husband, a Member of Parliament, not to support the construction of a boondoggle Argentinean canal. Gertrude, not her husband, is the ostensibly moral character here, since the canal's only purpose is to create wealth for its stockholders, but the language she uses in this impassioned speech quotes Guinevere, the contrite fallen wife in Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Near the end of the Idylls, recognizing that her infidelity has occasioned war, turmoil, and the end of Arthur's reign, Guinevere laments: Ah my God, What might I not have made of thy fair world, Had I but loved thy highest creature here? It was my duty to have loved the highest: It surely was my profit had I known: It would have been my pleasure had I seen. We needs must love the highest when we see it (G 649-56) Repeating these words and ideas under drastically different circumstances, Lady Chiltern tells her husband in the finale to Wilde's first act: I don't think you realise sufficiently, Robert, that you have brought into the political life of our time a nobler atmosphere, a finer attitude towards life, a freer air of purer aims and higher ideals - I know it, and for that I love you, Robert.. I will love you always, because you will always be worthy of love. We needs must love the highest when we see it! (Ideal 69).

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