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William Dallam Armes

1860-1918

 

William Dallam Armes was a member of the Class of 1882, and later joined the faculty and remained at Berkeley until his death, serving as Associate Professor of American Literature in the English Department. For many years he directed the music and drama program at the Greek Theatre, and he amassed a world-class collection of Japanese prints, which he bequeathed to the University. But it was Armes' friendship with the naturalist John Muir which had a lasting impact on the state of California, and on the nation. When in 1892 Berkeley professor Henry Senger approached Muir about forming an "Alpine Club," Muir referred him instead to William Dallams Armes. It was Armes whose organizational skills led to the founding of the Sierra Club, and he served as the Club's first secretary (with Muir as the president).

The Blue and Gold for 1899 includes this odd reference: "The following was told by Prof. Armes of himself: 'When I was six [years] of age, I stood in a corner and wept copiously, because I had not been born a girl, and,' he added, 'I have never gotten over my disappointment, even to this day.'"

Armes was described by the campus newspaper as the brilliant young local apostle of Oscar Wilde. He served as Wilde's host when the poet toured the Berkeley campus on March 30, 1882, and later the two men dined in Armes' rented rooms in Oakland. The visit to the campus was preceded by an extended literary debate carried out in the pages of the student newspaper (at that time called The Berkeleyan) and the student literary journal (The Occident).

   

From The Berkeleyan, January 30, 1882:

Oscar Wilde’s Poems

Readers of Punch have been much amused by Du Maurier’s clever caricatures of the æsthetes, as a certain cult in London is called. Lackadaisy young ladies and limp young men were represented in “stained glass attitudes,” gazing rapturously at a lily or sunflower, and talking in a sort of jargon in which superlatives played the principal part. Maudle and Posthlewaite became well-known individuals, and æsthetic slang became quite “the thing.” It was rumored that Oscar Wilde, a certain young London poet and literator, was the subject of these caricatures, and many absurd stories were told of his peculiarities.... When Mr. Wilde published his first book of poems, he was already one of the most notorious of living Englishmen. This has been his fortune and his misfortune: his fortune in that the book met with very large sales; his misfortune in that the public already had their minds predisposed against him. A storm of adverse criticism immediately assailed the work, and the author was spoken of as the most immoral of modern writers, a criticism that admirably served to increase the sale of the poems....

Mr. Wilde has been severely criticised for the immorality that, it is said, pervades his poems. Such an accusation does him injustice. We have said above that he strives for effect, and it is affectation and exaggeration that leads him into immorality. He follows his masters, and critics who do not condemn Swinburne and Rossetti, must not be too sweeping in their denunciation of Wilde. Let it not be thought that we are defending Mr. Wilde in writing such poems as “Charmides;” [“Enough, enough that he whose life had been / A fiery pulse of sin, a splendid shame / Could in the loveless land of Hades glean / One scorching harvest from those fields of flame / Where passion walks with naked unshod feet....] what we insist on is that this is not the prevailing tone of the book, that it is not his natural mood and manner. “Humanitad” better expresses the man as he is, and many other noble poems prove, that Oscar Wilde is no mere voluptuary, “dreaming on naught but idle poesy”....

In conclusion, we may say that it is our belief that Mr. Wilde has been greatly misunderstood and abused. He is no mere fool thirsting for notoriety, but is an enthusiast devoted to a theory, and doing what he deems best regardless of the taunts and jeers of the public. Surely, while we may not agree with his theory, we may admire the courage and pluck of the man, and recognize him as a true poet. Most of the defects of his poetry arise from two causes, his imitation of others and his youth. Time will remedy both of these, and one day Oscar Wilde will deserve, and will be given, a high place among English poets.

W.D.A.

   

From The Occident, February 16, 1882:

Oscar Wilde’s Poems

Carlyle, in his famous copyright petition, quaintly describes himself “Thomas Carlyle, a maker of books.” Mutatis mutandis, this would be a good title for the great Postlewaite, “Oscar Wilde, a writer of verses.” A Poet? Well, no; at least there is room for a doubt, and here we take issue with the critic of the Berkeleyan. The last mentioned worthy seems to be one of those who go for passion to Bailey (Philip James); for sentiment to Rossetti; who think Swinburne “a biger man than old Shakspere”; and who draw their sense of rhythm and of beauty of expression from sitting at the feet of Walt Whitman.... To us, Oscar Wilde’s poems seem but little better than so many bundles of pilfered words. Their beauties, so called, are shared with nine-tenths of the parodies which are now so common.... Whether the Berkeleyan critic is “consummate” or no, we are not sure, but if we should hear any day that he has taken to knee-breeches, long hair, and to telling a band of rapturous maidens that he is a “cursed thing,” we would assent and be in no measure surprised.

H.

   

From The Berkeleyan, February 27, 1882:

Oscar Wilde’s Poems

“H.”

It has been well said that it requires more courage to praise than to blame. He who finds fault is believed to be a critic, a person of keen discernment and ripe judgment; while he who praises is believed to be easily pleased, and wanting in critical insight and judgment. To join in a popular cry against an author requires no courage and but little ability. To allow penny-a-liners to form our opinions for us may save us some trouble; to form our judgments from the jeers and squibs of newspaper “funny men,” is easy; but none of these are the characteristics of a cultured, educated man.

Who the author of the article on Oscar Wilde’s Poems in a late number of the Occident is, I do not know. From the general style and great depth of thought displayed, I should judge the article to be the production of some immature Freshman not yet out his “veally age.” There is just that mixture of personality and juvenile “smartness” that a precocious child would mistake for wit. Probably some poor Freshie, wearied by the ceaseless demands just now made upon a student’s pocket, and tempted by the munificent offers for [sic] the Occident for “good miscellany articles,” took the first subject that presented itself, and evolved the remarkable production before us. As I picture him to myself, slowly and painfully grinding out that article, I have no resentment towards him. Poor boy! I pity him.

But nevertheless, such a mess of exaggerations and proper names, an affectation of great reading, cannot be allowed to pass unchallenged. “H.” has read much between my lines, and to correct his misstatements and misapprehensions, I feel obliged to write this article. A person reading “H’s” article only would imagine that I had compared Oscar Wilde with Homer, Shakespere and Milton. I would not insult the readers of The Berkeleyan by such a comparison, nor would I waste time by ‘setting up a man of straw,’ and then knocking him down. “H.” has no need to bring forward examples to prove that Oscar Wilde does not equal Homer in picturesque descriptions. This has but to be stated to appear so true, that any one attempting to prove it can but appear ridiculous as one that would “gild refined gold.” Surely there are degrees among poets, and one can be a poet, even a great poet, without rivaling Homer and Milton.

Swinburne and Rossetti are to-day poets of established reputation, and with these Oscar Wilde is to be compared, as belonging to the same school. Should Oscar Wilde ever equal Rossetti, “the finest living English sonneteer,” I should claim that he deserved a high rank among contemporary poets. I hasten to add, however, that I have never thought Rossetti equaled Homer, or the Swinburne was a “biger man than old Shakspere,” as “H.” elegantly expresses it. With Walt Whitman and P. J. Bailey I am not familiar, and, judging from his remarks, neither is “H”....

“About matters of taste it is idle to dispute.” To “H.” Oscar Wilde’s poems may be “but little better than so many bundles of pilfered words.” For my part I know of no good definition of poetry that will debar many of Wilde’s “verses” from the title of poems. Without discussing whether the creation of fine characters is the province of the lyrical poet, I claim that Wilde’s poems contain many beautiful and poetic ideas, and that the man who can read the book without having suggested to his imagination “noble grounds for noble emotions,” is deserving of pity. That Mr. Wilde has glaring faults is patent to the most superficial observer, even “H.” making “discoveries” (!) in that line; but “H.’s” article has not shaken my conviction that Oscar Wilde, when he has outgrown his puerilities and affectations, will rank among contemporary poets.

W. D. A.

   

From The Berkeleyan, February 27, 1882:

Possibly Oscar Wilde is a fool. The man who goes against the cut-and-dried conventional dictates, is always a fool. However, his folly seems to take a harmless means of expression. If he prefers a lily or a sunflower to a glass of beer, or a cow, he certainly has a right to. Moreover, he has a right to get up on a platform and say that he does. And if he can get a number of human beings to pay to go and hear him, perhaps he is not entirely cracked, and has the best end of the bargain after all. His manner of wearing his hair is entirely at his own option. Olla is not aged; but it strikes him that, during his heretofore existence, he has seen a good many different styles of hair architecture adopted and rejected, in times, by the fair sex. Why should not Oscar have the same right as they? And if some of the hair architecture of the aforesaid fairer sex [is] beautiful, there are lots of peculiar styles of beauty loose in this world. And if Oscar’s legs are poems, pure and simple, he has a right to publish them in black-stocking binding, if he so wishes. And when he delivers a lecture for money, and does not inflict himself gratis on the suffering public, under cover of a favor, he has a right to be undisturbed. Olla calls to mind some Assembly hours during which the students were impounded and forced to endure the hypothetical “pleasure of listening to,” etc., to say that they were patient, is to put them on the muster roll of the army of martyrs. But the students of Eastern colleges, they who broke up Oscar Wilde’s lectures with their asinine yawps and cat-calls, need to be led gently by the ear to some vacant lot, and there slain and buried. There might have been a fool on the stage those nights; but there were a good many more, and of a more offensive kind, in the audience.

Willliam Dallam Armes was not only a Berkeley alumnus but, starting in 1882, a member of the faculty. He rose to the position of Associate Professor of American Literature in the English Department. In the early 20th century he had a leading cultural role on campus, directing the program of musical and theatrical offerings at the new Greek Theater. He died in Berkeley on 18 August 1918,at the Faculty Club, which he had helped to organize in the early years of the century.

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  • The Berkeleyan, vol. XIII, no. 2 (January 30, 1882)
  • The Occident, vol. II, no. 6 (February 16, 1882)
  • The Berkeleyan, vol. XIII, no. 4 (February 27, 1882)
 
 

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