Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854–30 November 1900) was an Irish writer who wrote in English and French. His works include one novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray) and numerous plays, poems and short stories for adults and children. He became renowned in London as a wit.
A hedonistic dandy, Wilde liked to posture as a member of the idle rich but in fact was very hard-working, as shown by the fact that he had his first and only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, published within the same year two plays (Lady Windermere's Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest) were performed in the West End. Wilde was a chain-smoker and gave a speech after the premier of Lady Windermere's Fan with a cigarette in his hand, which shocked the audience only slightly less than his egoistic speech:
“”Ladies and gentlemen, the actors have given us a charming rendition of a delightful play and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you upon the great success of your performance which persuades me that you think almost as highly of this play as I do myself.
Wilde was bisexual. He is known to have enjoyed sex with men despite being married with two sons and having been in love with a girl at Trinity College. After becoming infatuated with Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, he began frequenting rent boys. Wilde's relationship with Bosie drew the ire of Bosie's father, John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensbury, a prize-fighter (wrote the rule book) and virulent homophobe with a reputation for violence throughout London. After the death of his eldest son, Douglas, despite being a self-proclaimed atheist, viewed his son's death as a judgement upon his younger son, Bosie, and wrote an abusive message to Wilde, calling him a "Posing Somdomite" (sodomite: he wasn't very well read). Wilde prosecuted Douglas for libel, leading to a court case in which Wilde's book, The Picture of Dorian Gray was brought forward in evidence due to homosexual subtext between the characters of Dorian Gray, Basil Hallward, Lord Henry Wotton and Alan Campbell.
In 1895, Wilde was convicted of 'gross indecency' with other men (a euphemism for homosexuality) and imprisoned for two years, most of which he spent in Reading Jail. It was after this imprisonment that he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol and the apologetic De Profundis, Latin for "From the Depths." After Wilde's incarceration, Bosie Douglas distanced himself from Wilde and claimed to have been "corrupted" by him, even being so self-righteous as to write a denunciation of Wilde, piously entitled In Excelsis ("In the Highest"). Bosie was also suspected of being an antisemite. Nevertheless, soon after Wilde's release, the two of them reconciled and lived together in Paris with Wilde adopting the pseudonym "Sebastian Melmoth" (a reference to a gothic novel of which Wilde was fond) to protect himself from homophobic attacks. Wilde lived in poverty in Paris and claimed "Like dear Saint Francis of Assissi, I am wedded to poverty however in my case, the marriage is not a success."
Wilde was diagnosed with cerebral meningitis on 25th of November 1900. Before his death, he drank a glass of champagne with his friend and former lover Robbie Ross, claiming "I am dying as I have lived: beyond my means." After waking from a nightmare, he told Robbie "I dreamt I was dining with the dead" prompting Robbie to respond "Oscar, I'm sure you were the life and soul of the party." Wilde died on the 30th of November, 1900. His last words are reputed to have been "This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death — eventually one of us has to go." The wallpaper won. He was originally buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris, but in 1909 he was moved to Père Lachaise Cemetery. The epitaph on the tomb is taken from Wilde's poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
- And alien tears will fill for him,
- Pity’s long-broken urn,
- For his mourners will be outcast men,
- And outcasts always mourn.
Ex-pat American sculptor Jacob Epstein carved one of the world's greatest funerary monuments, placed in one of the world’s best known cemeteries, Paris’ Pere-Lachaise, “The Tomb of Oscar Wilde.” The controversy surrounding this work of art did justice to Mr. Wilde.
Religion and politics
Wilde was raised as a Roman Catholic by his mother, Jane Francesca Agnes, Lady Wilde, and considered himself a Roman Catholic throughout his life, although he was only baptised on his deathbed. Despite being a self-proclaimed individualist, Wilde wrote in favour of socialism, although it is often suggested he was a (left-wing) anarchist. Certainly, he celebrated individualism as well as socialism, saying "Art is individualism, and individualism is a disturbing and disintegrating force. There lies its immense value. For what it seeks is to disturb monotony of type, slavery of custom, tyranny of habit, and the reduction of man to the level of a machine."
He was also sympathetic to Irish nationalism and has become celebrated as a nationalist hero, despite the contradiction between Irish Catholicism and homosexuality. His beliefs were perhaps influenced by his mother Jane, who was a prominent Irish nationalist.
A few quotations
Wilde probably said or wrote some of the following things at some point.
- Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
- I sometimes think that God in creating Man somewhat overestimated his ability.
- If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they'll kill you.
- Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.
- Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.
Want to read this in another language?
- Wilde, Jonathan Fryer, Haus Publishing, 2005, p69
- "The Soul of Man Under… Anarchism?", Kristian Williams, NewPolitics, Winter 2011, Vol:XIII-2
- A Wilde Irish Rebel: Queerness versus nationalism in Irish imaginative presentations of Wilde, Éibhear Walshe, The Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, Vol. 36, No. 1, QUEERING IRELAND (SPRING/PRINTEMPS 2010), pp. 45-67, via JSTOR
- "The 10 most popular misconceptions about Oscar Wilde", The Guardian', 7 May 2003
- Epigrams of Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde, Wordsworth, p9
- "The Nightingale and the Rose", Oscar Wilde; quoted in Wilde's Women: How Oscar Wilde Was Shaped by the Women He Knew, Eleanor Fitzsimons, The Overlook Press, 2016
- Epigrams of Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde, Wordsworth, p144