Absinthe: After the First Glass, You See Things As You Wish They Were

Oscar Wilde? Ada Leverson? Leslie Stokes? Violet Wyndham? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The alcoholic psychoactive drink absinthe was banned in the United States and many European countries in the previous century. But now it is legal again. Supposedly, the brilliant wit Oscar Wilde once discussed the phantasmagorical effects of the potion. His description began:

After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. …

Could you locate a full and accurate version of this quotation and tell me whether the words really should be attributed to Oscar Wilde?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of this quote located by QI was printed in the book “Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde: With Reminiscences of the Author by Ada Leverson” published in 1930. Scholars consider the quotation credible even though Wilde died three decades earlier in 1900. Wilde and Leverson were good friends, and she supported him during his travails. Sphinx was the nickname that he gave to her. The book was printed in a limited edition impeding straightforward access.

The excellent Smathers Rare Book Library of the University of Florida holds number 240 of an edition containing 275 copies. On pages 39 and 40 of the volume Leverson described a conversation she had with the great wit [OWAL]:

One day he was talking of the effect of absinthe. “After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see them as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean disassociated. Take a top-hat! You think you see it as it really is. But you don’t, because you associate it with other things and ideas. If you had never heard of one before, suddenly saw it alone, you’ld be frightened, or laugh. That is the effect absinthe has, and that is why it drives men mad.”

Here are additional excerpts and selected citations in chronological order.

Wilde continued to entrance Leverson with the following otherworldly description:

“Three nights I sat up all night drinking absinthe, and thinking that I was singularly clear-headed and sane. The waiter came in and began watering the sawdust. The most wonderful flowers, tulips, lilies and roses sprang up and made a garden of the cafe. ‘Don’t you see them?’ I said to him. ‘Mais non, Monsieur; it n’y a rien.'”

In 1938 two playwrights incorporated a variant of the quotation into a fictionalized drama about the author. The Wilde character after imbibing says the following in one of the final scenes [OWSL]:

(Holding the glass) Absinthe . . . it helps you to see things as you wish they were. Then you see them as they are not. Finally, you see them as they really are. And that is the most horrible thing in the world. (The WAITER goes into the cafe. LORD ALFRED comes up to WILDE’S table. Seeing him) Things as you wish they were.

In 1946 the popular British biographer Hesketh Pearson published a sympathetic portrait of Wilde. He repeated the material about absinthe from Leverson’s book [OWHP].

In 1963 Violet Wyndham, the daughter of Ada Leverson, published a volume called “The Sphinx and her Circle” about her mother. She included the passages about absinthe and Wilde in her book [VWAV].

In conclusion, this quote is considered to be authentic, and it reflects Wilde’s complex relationship with the green spirit.

[OWAL] 1930, Letters to the Sphinx from Oscar Wilde: With Reminiscences of the Author by Ada Leverson, Page 39-40, Duckworth, London. [Book number 240 of 275 copies in this edition] (Verified with scans; Thanks to the librarians of the Smathers Library at the University of Florida)

[OWSL] 1938, Oscar Wilde: A Play by Leslie and Sewell Stokes, Page 147, Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)

[OWHP] 1946, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit by Hesketh Pearson, Page 274, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Verified on paper)

[VWAV] 1963, The Sphinx and Her Circle: A Biographical Sketch of Ada Leverson: 1862-1933 by Violet Wyndham, Page 117, Vanguard Press, New York. (Verified on paper)