In his wonderful William Morris: A Reference Guide (1985), which is such a rich source book for the multifarious highways and byways of Morris scholarship, Gary L. Aho lists a 1950 letter from Sydney Cockerell to the Times Literary Supplement which ‘attempts to lay to rest the legend popular among Wilde biographers, that Wilde visited WM [sic] on his deathbed. As WM’s secretary, Cockerell was constantly with him, and he does not recall a Wilde visit; more significantly, Wilde was in prison during the months of WM’s last illness’ (p.158).
A later item blames Hesketh Pearson’s biography of Shaw for ‘the anecdote that WM, when he was slowly dying, enjoyed a visit from Wilde more than anyone else’ (p.245); and Aho’s final mention of the topic a few pages later ups the ante considerably. For it seems to be not one but a whole series of Wildean visits that are at stake: ‘many fresh anecdotes, drawn mainly from Shaw’s correspondence, also appear here, among them the mistake concerning Wilde’s supposed visits to WM on his deathbed’ (p.253).
One visit or several; Wilde’s biographers, Hesketh Pearson or Shaw: beyond the scholarly conundrums here, we can surely play mentally with the dazzling idea itself – a final visit of Oscar Wilde to the dying William Morris. We have had some good general accounts of the relationship between the two men’s work, including recently a trenchant piece by Peter Faulkner in the Morris Society Journal (vol XIV, no 4, Summer 2002, 25-40); but could not some Morrisian enthusiast with strong creative writing interests exercise his or imagination and write us a fictional dialogue between Morris and Wilde under these circumstances in late 1895 or 1896 (Morris died on 3rd October)? Such a project would be strongly in the spirit of Wilde himself, with his own brilliant dialogues on ‘The Critic as Artist’ and ‘The Decay of Lying’. Could the Society Journal not announce a prize for the best Wilde-Morris deathbed dialogue – ranging across literature, decoration, art, politics, with Wilde flamboyantly expounding his individualist perspectives and Morris rousing himself for one last effort to defend his more collectivist stance - and then later print the winning entry?