More on Boys’ Names

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The source of Oscar Wilde’s pun on Ernest/Earnest

In an earlier article I attempted to show that in John Gambril Nicholson’s verse Of Boys’ Names (Wilde’s putative source of the Ernest/Earnest pun) there are other boys’ names with Wildean parallels.

Research now leads me to a further connection.

In a back issue of The Book Collector (Summer, 1978), there is chapter about Nicholson’s 1892 Love in Earnest: Sonnets, Ballades, and Lyrics (the anthology  that includes the verse in question).


The reason for interest among bibliophiles in 1978 was that Nicholson’s own copy of the book had just come to light in a Cambridge (UK) bookshop—and The Book Collector made  some intriguing revelations.

First, we learn there were thee issues of the only edition of Love in Earnest: the first being rare, and the second being viewable in full here.

Fortunately for scholars, Nicholson’s own copy was neither of these. It was an even rarer, and possibly unique, hybrid version of both editions, extensively annotated by Nicholson. His manuscript notes include minutiae about the date, place and often the time of day of composition, together with other symbols and emendations.

For the poem Of Boys’ Names, the existence of this first issue and Nicholson’s copy provides two points of interest for Wildeans:

1) we now see that the reference to Cyril (the name of one of Wilde’s two sons, both of whom are mentioned in the poem) appears only in the second issue; the wording “Cyril is lordly” replacing the wording “Basil is kingly” in the first issue. Again this is another obviously Wildean name: that of Basil Hallward, the painter in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray published a year earlier. Intriguingly, the textual alteration is possibly in a hand other than Nicholson’s.

2) in Nicholson’s copy, tipped in [1] to face the title page there is a photograph, taken in Llandudno, of Nicholson together with William Ernest Mather [2]—the mysterious “W.E.M.” to whom the poem Of Boys’ Names is dedicated. The existence of the photograph of him in Nicholson’s personal copy reinforces Mather as the Ernest of the poem, and the source of the Earnest in Wilde’s play. [3]

Wordsmiths will no doubt recognize that “Basil is kingly” is a literal allusion: the word Basil in Greek (basileus) means royal. Thus, most of the definitions of other names in the poem (reprinted here) have etymological roots.

[1] tipped in: in the book trade, a tipped-in page or, if it is an illustration, tipped-in plate or simply plate, is a page that is attached to, but not integral to, the binding of the book.

[2] the photograph of Nicholson with Mather is quite rare, e.g. no example has been found online. However the picture is reproduced in the issue of The Book Collector now discussed (p. 220).

[3] In addition to the dedication “W.E.M.” in the printed edition, Nicholson makes frequent manuscript references, in his copy, not only to “W.E.M.”, but also to “E.S”, identified in another manuscript note as Ernest Stanley. Presumably he is the second Ernest that Nicholson references in his semi-autobiographical  but innocuous novel “The Romance of a Choir-boy” (1916) in which he describes photographs of two boys called Ernest.

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John Cooper

John Cooper is a independent scholar who has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde. He is a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America. For the last 20 years Cooper has specialised in Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour becoming a consultant on Wilde’s American experience to biographers and the wider media. Cooper lectures on Wilde and has conducted new and unique research into Oscar Wilde visits to New York culminating in a guided walking tour. Online he is a popular blogger and the creator of the noncommercial archive 'Oscar Wilde in America’ which incorporates his work on the Sarony photographs, and a detailed documentary verification of Wilde’s American lecture tour. In 2012 Cooper rediscovered Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

5 thoughts on “More on Boys’ Names”

  1. Ah, in the (Harvard) Gay&Lesbian Review there is much attention to “Oscar Wilde Tours” but they have told me it is not you! Do they get on your last nerve? Best wishes, Garland Oakland


  2. There is an organization called Oscar Wilde Tours that arranges gay-related tours of various world cities such as Dublin, London and Paris. I am not affiliated with them although I was consulted by the founder, Andrew Lear, in connection with their latest offering New York. Their tours are high-end, usually multi-day, and do not focus solely, and often not at all, on Oscar Wilde.

    Not to be confused with my walking tour Oscar Wilde In New York which does focus solely on Wilde and is 2-3 hour guided walking tour in New York:


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