Vincent Starrett Goes Wilde

A found letter, a missing Oscar Wilde poem, and an offer of service

I own very few letters written by Starrett. Most offer bits and pieces of insight into his life at the time. There is one letter that offers a bit more, and that’s what we’ll talk about today.

The letter was tucked away in a copy of Starrett’s anthology of articles, Books and Bipeds. I don’t think the dealer who sold me the book knew it was there.

Here’s what you can tell from looking at it.

The letter was folded, with no envelope.

There is a “UNITY BOND” watermark that’s not visible in the scan. Lockwood’s Directory of the Paper and Stationary Trade notes that the Chicago Paper Co. is one the several companies that used this name in the watermark. Let’s go with that.

There are two holes at the top of the page, and it’s unclear if they were there when Starrett wrote his note or they were punched at a later date. In the upper left corner, “Jan 1920” is stamped in fading blue ink. The date is perhaps a stamp of the recipient.

Here’s the text to the letter. Notes will follow. Get ready to dive deep down the rabbit hole.


VINCENT STARRETT

5611 W. Lake Street
Chicago: 10 October 1919

Dear Mr. Stuart Mason:

May I ask whether, since the publication of your “Bibliography of the Poems of Oscar Wilde”, you have been successful in running down that missing poem, “Roses and Rue”? As a collector of Wilde and Wilde-ana, that little mystery has intrigued me since first I heard of it, in your book. Is there no surviving member of the firm of publication, who can say whether the issue which was to have contained the poem ever was printed? Of course, such obvious efforts as endeavoring to locate a file of the magazine — the publishers’ own file indeed — you will have made.

I have had much pleasure from your extraordinary large bibliography, as well as from the supplemental volume on the poems. Surely never before, or since, has such a bibliography ever been attempted. I have not seen a volume called “Art and Morality”. Is that still available?

Sincerely,

Vincent Starrett

If I can be of service to you in America, please command me.

30


Notes on the letter:

  • Starrett’s address, 5611 West Lake Street, Chicago. Karen Murdock, in her detailed book, Starrett Alive, gives addresses for Starrett in the chronology at the back. I don’t see this address listed there, and so was skeptical at first. But while nosing around for other things, I came across this note from Starrett on page 134 of his 1919 book, In Praise of Stevenson: An Anthology, published by The Bookfellows in Chicago: “Poets, or persons having in their possession poems not included in the present volume are invited to send additional items to Vincent Starrett, 5611 West Lake Street, Chicago, Il.” Since the date of the letter and the book are both 1919, it’s safe to say this address is accurate.
  • Mr. Stuart Mason. Mason was the pseudonym of Christopher Sclater Millard, who wrote early and important bibliographies of Oscar Wilde. The son of an Anglican minister, Mason suffered the punishment and indignities that came with being a homosexual in turn of the last century England. Like the subject of his bibliographies, Mason was imprisoned twice for his “sins.” Nevertheless, he continued his pursuit of Wilde’s work, dying at the young age of 55.
  • Bibliography of the Poems of Oscar Wilde. The full title continues: Giving Particulars as to the Original Publication of each Poem, with Variations of Readings and a Complete List of all Editions, Reprints, Translations, Etc. Published by E. Grant Richards of London in 1907, the bibliography was the first comprehensive look at Wilde’s poetry. The limited edition of 475 copies was reprinted and updated several times during the following decades. A Google digitized version is available to view here.
  • That missing poem. Page 148 of Mason’s bibliography has the following note:An Undiscovered Poem. A poem by Oscar Wilde, entitle Roses and Rue, was announced to be published in Midsummer Dreams, the double Summer Number of Society for July, 1885. No copy of this is in the British Museum or the Bodleian, and in spite of frequent advertisement in the publishers’ papers and elsewhere no copy of this issue has been discovered.”
  • “Roses and Rue”. Long sought after by Wilde collectors, the poem was written for Lillie Langtry. (For those who need a Sherlockian connection to every post at this site, you should know that Langtry was long thought to be the model for Irene Adler.) The poem’s manuscript is now in the collection of the Morgan Library and Museum. Information about the document itself is here; and the four pages of the manuscript begin here.
  • Art and Morality. Published in 1908, Art and Morality: A Defence (sic) of “The Picture of Dorian Gray” was also edited by Mason. You can read the book here.
  • “Please command me.” Starrett clearly hoped to build a corresponding relationship with Wilde’s infamous bibliographer by making this overly elaborate offer of service. The Chicago writer had already completed a tribute book of poems dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, and a slim volume dedicated to Arthur Machen. He was building a library of bits and pieces that would eventually show up in publications like his little magazine, The Wave, or in a volume published in 1924 entitled Et Cetera. I own a few issues of The Wave, one of which has a bit of verse by Wilde as you can see here. When he turned from mystery writer to newspaper book columnist, Starrett would pluck fragments like this and turn them into an entry for his weekly “Books Alive.”
  • 30. Written in tiny letters it is the symbol newspaper reporters traditionally placed at the end of their copy. It signified that Starrett was done writing.

And so—for now—am I.