The Importance of Being Earnest contains a pun, that much seems clear. Shaw said in his review of 1895 that the wordplay on Ernest/Earnest was not in fact a very good pun, and that the title as a whole was rather laboured and old-fashioned. But Shaw might have missed something. ‘Earnest’ quite likely plays on Urning, the German word for ‘homosexual’ coined in the 1860s by the sexologist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, and a term much in vogue in the England of the 1890s. That its derivative was ‘Earnest’ is borne out in the title of a collection of homoerotic love lyrics, Love in Earnest, by John Gambril Nicholson, published in 1892 (three years before Wilde’s play). One poem in the collection, ‘Of Boys’ Names’, makes the point clear:
Old memories of the Table Round
In Percival and Lancelot dwell,
Clement and Bernard bring the sound
Of anthems in the cloister-cell,
And Leonard vies with Lionel
In stately step and kingly frame,
And Kenneth speaks of field and fell,
And Ernest sets my heart a-flame.
One name can make my pulses bound,
No peer it owns, nor parallel,
By it is Vivian’s sweetness drowned,
And Roland, full as organ-swell;
Though Frank may ring like silver bell,
And Cecil softer music claim,
They cannot work the miracle,—
’Tis Ernest sets my heart a-flame.
Cyril is lordly, Stephen crowned
With deathless wreaths of asphodel,
Oliver whispers peace profound,
Herbert takes arms his foes to quell,
Eustace with sheaves is laden well,
Christopher has a nobler fame,
And Michael storms the gates of Hell,
But Ernest sets my heart a-flame.
My little Prince, Love’s mystic spell
Lights all the letters of your name,
And you, if no one else, can tell
Why Ernest sets my heart a-flame.
Craft, Christopher: Another Kind of Love: Male Homosexual Desire in English Discourse, 1850-1920 (1994)
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