We say that the clergy are the appointed guardians of the public morals. Yet what clergyman in preaching a funeral discourse over an eminent or opulent parishioner, ever admits that he had a vice? Almost every Doctor of Divinity who now speaks publicly of Daniel Webster bows down before the "the especial greatness of his moral nature," and utterly ignores or denies the questionable personal habits which were a matter of common notoriety, thirty years ago. It is needless to particularize about these habits; they were almost as notorious, though probably not so great, as those of Aaron Burr; and are, like his, now incapable of direct proof, since at a man's hundredth birthday it is hard to produce personal evidence of misdeeds. Yet I have not seen a reference to these things among those clergymen who now celebrate his towering moral nature; and its is left for a layman, a literary man, a man of the world, like Henry Cabot Lodge, manfully to recognize and deplore these drawbacks to which the others have shut their eyes. This is surely no guardianship of the public morals. "One is almost led to ask," said a business man to me, the other day, "whether the clergy have really the same moral standard with other men?"
But the moral of all this goes farther. Women are as distinctively recognized as the guardians of the public purity as are the clergy of the public morals. Yet when a young man comes among us whose only distinction is that he has written a thin volume of very mediocre verse, and that he makes himself something very like a buffoon for notoriety and money, women of high social position receive him at their houses and invite guests to meet him; in spite of the fact that if they were to read aloud to the company his poem of "Charmides," not a woman would remain in the room until the end. In the vicious period of the English Georges, Byron was banished from society, Moore was obliged to purify his poems, for less offences against common decency than have been committed by Oscar Wilde. There are pages in his poems which, as a witty critic says, "carry nudity to a point where it ceases to be a virtue." In all else Mr. Wilde imitates Keats, but in Keats these is nothing in the least like these passages; they can indeed by paralleled in Whitman, but Whitman's offences rest on a somewhat different ground and need not here be considered. Mr. Wilde may talk of Greece; but there is nothing Greek about his poems; his nudities do not suggest the sacred whiteness of an antique statue, but rather the forcible unveiling of some insulting innocence. We have perhaps rashly claimed that the influence of women has purified English literature. When the poems of Wilde and Whitman lie in ladies' boudoirs, I see no evidence of the improvement.
And their poetry is called "manly" poetry! Is it manly to fling before the eyes of women page upon page which no man would read aloud in presence of women? But there is another test of manhood: it lies in action. "It makes a great difference to a sentence," said the clear-sighted Emerson, "whether there be a man behind it or no." Each of these so called "manly" poets has had his opportunity of action and waived it. I am one of the many to whom Whitman's "Drum-Taps" have always sounded as hollow as the instrument they counterfeit, simply because their author, with all his fine physique and his freedom from home ties, never personally followed the drum, but only heard it from the comparatively remote distance of the hospital. There was a time when the recruiting officers wanted men; their test was final, or at least so far final that he who did not meet it, no matter for what good reasons, had best cease boasting about his eminent manhood. So of this young Irish poet, who speaks, I observe, of "us Englishmen." His mother, Lady Wilde, has written poems upon the wrongs of Ireland that are strong and fervid enough, one would say, to enlist an army; especially her poem on the Irish exodus, "A million a decade." There is now Ireland on the verge of civil war; her councils divided, her self-styled leaders in jail; she needs every wise head and brave heart she has ever produced, to contribute, according to their best light, to some solution of her hard problem. Is it manhood for her gifted sons to stay at home and help work out the problem; or to cross the Atlantic and pose in ladies' boudoirs or write prurient poems which their hostesses must discreetly ignore? What would Sir Philip Sidney have thought of these new definitions of manhood; he of whom it was written, "This bright and accomplished cavalier might, if he please, in his day, have set the fashion of any man's peruque in the country; but he thought it more becoming his manhood and his greatness of soul, to hold out a brave example of virtue and religion"? For one, I should like to hear, if the so-called "English Renaissance" is good for anything, more of the gospel of Sir Philip Sidney and less of the gospel according to Oscar Wilde.