Oscar Wilde

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by Elyse Graham
Oscar Wilde

Born in Dublin in 1854, Oscar Wilde was the son of prominent and affluent parents; when he was nine, his father received a knighthood. Wilde’s social class would be strongly determining not only of his targets for satire, but of a casual extravagance in matters of romance that would contribute to his downfall. His romance also came from his mother. She was born plain Jane, but because she lived to delight her biographers, she signed herself Speranza Francesca Wilde, a name that looked appropriately glamorous above her poetry and signaled a bloodline that was, she always claimed, Italian and blue. (Among her ancestors she listed Dante.) Having named herself for greatness, she determined that her children would not row through life on ordinary praenomens. Her second son she named Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. “He is to be called Oscar Fingal Wilde,” she wrote to a friend. “Is not that grand, misty, and Ossianic?” 1

He was to tailor his own name to his personal mythology. Near death he called himself, by way of giving a hint to his eulogists, “the infamous St Oscar of Oxford, Poet and Martyr” (Ellmann, 105). He had entered Magdalen College in the fall of 1874 after passing through Trinity College, Dublin on a Royal School Scholarship. A classmate, J.E.C. Bodley, wrote in 1882 for the New York Times a cruel but probably faithful account of Wilde’s undergraduate years. Bodley describes an overweening freshman who, after his errors of etiquette earned him scorn as “a good-natured though unsophisticated young Irishman,” systematically reshaped himself into a figure who in dress and bearing “out-Oxforded young Oxford.” 2 “My Irish accent was one of the things I forgot at Oxford,” Wilde later explained (Ellmann, 38). It was necessary for his style of humor that he speak with the effortless superiority of a gentleman, even if the energy of his satirical imagination fed on an outsider’s sense of alienation.

The teachers he sought out at Oxford were John Ruskin, the Slade Professor of Fine Art and at fifty-five already an eminence grise in British art criticism, and Walter Pater, a fellow of Brasenose College, twenty years younger than Ruskin and an aspirant to his position. Wilde attended Ruskin’s lectures and carted mud for his road-building project, but he pursued and eventually won Pater’s friendship. When in his freshman year he read Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873), the book had the force of a revelation. It was an event of his life, comparable to a religious experience. Wilde committed large portions of The Renaissance to heart and in later years referred to it as his “golden book” (Ellmann, 47).

Pater was the writer who showed Wilde the critical possibilities of his own emotional idiom. Wilde brought from Trinity College, Dublin a love of aestheticism and things Greek. Pater not only put these subjects at the center of his philosophy, he made an art of the discussion of them, and he turned things so that the presence of art is no polish upon discussion but the reason it exists. To this he added a sense of life as grand drama and an exhortation to exhaust every moment. “To burn always with this hard gem-like flame,” runs his most famous line, "to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”

Like Pater, Ruskin believed in a morality of art, but he did not mean by this what Pater implied, that aesthetics can replace theology; he meant that art should put itself to higher service. The artist must be faithful to nature if he would honor God’s handiwork. Ruskin is also a great prose stylist; he thought of style as the working outward, through the resistance of raw material, of the growth of the soul. Critics like to set Ruskin in opposition to Pater, especially because Ruskin called the Italian Renaissance a decline for Western civilization—he preferred the Middle Ages—but both men ascribed a sublime value to art, and both set lessons into the very motions of prose. Wilde called shallowness a vice, but he was always ready to discuss the importance of surface.

Wilde’s best saying from these years is, “How often I feel how hard it is to live up to my blue china.” The line was such a hit that one of the deans preached a sermon against it. 4 In 1880 Punch printed a cartoon based on it. Undergraduate journals, meanwhile, had started to publish satirical notes on Wilde. By the time he left for London in 1878, he was known to many there as one of the proponents of the aesthetic mania. He had also published several pieces of art criticism. “I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist,” he told a classmate. “Somehow or other, I’ll be famous, and if not famous, notorious” (Ellmann, 46).

In 1881 he met Constance Lloyd—sometime art student, reader of Dante, long chestnut hair. They married in 1884; the bride wore a dress that the groom had designed. Wilde’s attraction to her seems to have faded as childbirth changed her body, and they settled into a passionless harmony; her brother said that she suspected nothing, although Wilde became footloose, independent, characteristic for intense relationships with other men. The year his second son was born he met Robert Ross, a young Canadian who had, Wilde said, “the face of Puck,” and who successfully made himself Wilde’s first lover, an event that Wilde referenced obliquely in the magazine version of Dorian Gray before thinking better of it for the book. Richard Ellmann believes that Wilde contracted syphilis in his twenties, probably from a female prostitute, and that he told his wife that his illness had flared up again (Ellmann, 275-78).

The year he met Constance he published his first book of poetry, but already it was clear that his genius lay in his ideas about poetry and in his wit. These are not independent. Believing that masking is more exciting than revelation, Wilde made it a characteristic move to ridicule what he really believed, and he demonstrated so well how to do it that imitators rose to his bait. 5 Punch ran a series of caricatures of two aesthetes, one distantly based on Whistler and the other closely on Wilde. Wilde impersonators strode onstage in The Grasshopper (1877), Where’s the Cat? (1880), The Colonel (1881), and, most famously, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (1881). A New York producer, sensing that it might help Patience sell on Broadway, recruited Wilde for a lecture tour of the United States (Ellmann, 159).

The turn of the decade was his liveliest period as an essayist. One of the writers that Wilde liked to tweak was Wordsworth, who found an important insight in the observation that all things are alike in their shared existence. 6 Wilde was more interested in the way that all things are different even from themselves. Many of his essays, including “The Decay of Lying” (1888) and “The Critic as Artist” (1890), split the writer’s voice into symbiotic couples, conversational pairs that onstage would be understood as particles of every one person, who exist together so the proposition can be simultaneously raised and questioned; what’s important is that the conversation keep going. Wilde was good at conversation. When in 1889 the publisher of Lippincott’s Monthly invited Wilde to contribute a short novel to the magazine’s pages, he found the transition to narrative difficult: “I am afraid it is rather like my own life—all conversation and no action,” he told a friend. “I can’t describe action: all my people sit in chairs and chatter.” 7

The story he produced is well known. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) tells the story of a young man whose portrait grows older and uglier while he, descending into a life of sin and wickedness, remains young and beautiful. The disarticulation of those terms, however, starts with the protagonist’s name: Dorian, a description of Greek beauty, and then Gray sneaking behind as a kind of doubt. Art, says the painter of Dorian’s portrait, is the essence of beauty, the representation of an aesthetic ideal. 8 It should make us uneasy that his representation of Dorian, the ideal face and form, reveals itself to bear a soul of corruption.

The years that followed Dorian Gray were years of productivity and success. Wilde was notoriously kind to those who asked him to read their manuscripts, and his following, which included Aubrey Beardsley, Max Beerbohm, and Lionel Johnson, flourished with his fame. (He chose Dorian’s surname in part to honor one disciple and probable lover, a clerk named John Gray.) (Ellmann, 308) Johnson loaned his copy of Dorian Gray to a cousin at Oxford, who read it “fourteen times running,” the boy told a friend, and went to meet Wilde at the first opportunity. He was Lord Alfred Douglas, the youngest son of the Marquess of Queensberry: blond, slender, famously good-looking. Wilde gave him a deluxe copy of the book and offered to tutor him for Greats (Ellmann, 324).

For an 1891 commission from the St. James Theater, Wilde wrote Lady Windermere’s Fan, his first successful play and the first of several comedies to deal with hypocrisy, lost children, and mistaken identity. Around the same time, following an acquaintance in Paris with Mallarmé, whose unfinished poem, “Hérodiade,” tells the story of Salomé, Wilde decided to pursue her in earnest as a dramatic subject (Ellmann, 338). The censor shut down Salomé in rehearsal, citing an old law forbidding the stage treatment of Bible characters; Wilde threatened to take French citizenship, but settled for publishing the play between covers. His dramatic technique sharpened with experience. When he wrote The Importance of Being Earnest, his best play and the most characteristic of his style, it more or less poured out. He arrived at the page with his architectural knowledge in place, which gave him freedom to play.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) is an intricate comedy influenced by Restoration comedy and the French comic tradition after Molière. But whereas Molière takes as part of his project the social education of the audience, Wilde works hard to free his work of anything as single-minded as a lesson. (Wilde is good at the idea, as Christopher Ricks says of Beckett, that a half-truth is not something the substance of which is half true but something that is true half of the time. 9 Algernon in Earnest recognizes this as the essence of Wildean epigram: “It is perfectly phrased! And quite as true as any observation in civilized life ought to be.”) 10

The Importance of Being Earnest is a story of the leisure class. Two young men each pretend, first to have fun incognito and then to court two girls, to bear the name Ernest Worthing; complications ensue, especially when the girls come to believe that they are engaged to the same man. In Leonard Barkan’s reading, the play makes wit an object as well as an instrument of criticism—wit here in reference to perfect phrases, the expressions of an insular world that has the leisure to cultivate elegance in the perception of things, and in Wilde’s treatment, the leisure to treat the trivial as serious and the serious as trivial.

An example is the relative weight of facts and manners in schooling. A governess tells her charge, “Cecily, you will read your Political Economy in my absence. The chapter on the Fall of the Rupee you may omit. It is somewhat too sensational” (Earnest, 59). The line is utterly irrelevant to the plot and quite relevant to more serious issues not allowed to intrude into the play. The same logic is at work when Lady Bracknell tells Jack that she can’t recall his father’s Christian name: “But I have no doubt he had one. He was eccentric, I admit. But only in later years. And that was the result of the Indian climate, and marriage, and indigestion, and other things of that kind” (Earnest, 108).

British control of India is the economy that makes possible the world of the play; from it arise the money, the power, the gentility to spawn country estates and cucumber sandwiches. But it surfaces here only to become part of a joke in which a character makes three different things into things of one kind. The world of the characters relies on a larger world, but the characters only let that world filter in as nonsense. We might read this with Barkan as a kind of defense: if the graceful phrases of Algernon and Lady Bracknell are the speech of people who thrive on utter control, nonsense is perhaps their weapon against the possibility of the uncontrollable. 11

Throughout this period Douglas was still enrolled at Oxford, the editor of a literary magazine and increasingly sure that he too was a poet. He and Wilde met often and exchanged love letters; in his writing Douglas was even bolder than Wilde, for he was young and proud of being kept by a famous artist.

On 28 February 1895, Wilde received a letter at his hotel from the Marquess of Queensberry. Queensberry wanted an interview, presumably about his son. The letter began, “To Oscar Wilde posing Sodomite.” Wilde was enraged. He sued Queensberry for libel, an extremely unwise decision in which Douglas egged him on. Possibly Wilde felt that unless he defeated them in court, Queensberry and his spies would never leave him alone.

The papers covered the trial with all the tact and reserve that give fame to the British press. The evidence against Wilde was plentiful; he and Douglas had not been monogamous. The jury found him guilty on all counts except those concerning one alleged consort, Edward Shelley. The court sentenced Wilde to prison and hard labor for two years. The response to the verdict was overwhelming celebration: “Open the windows! Let in the fresh air!” cried the Daily Telegraph. “The aesthetic cult, in its nasty form,” announced The News of the World, “is now over” (Ellmann, 479).

The most personal glimpse of the next few years that Wilde allowed the public he withheld until after his death. First published in 1905 by an arrangement between Wilde and Robert Ross, who visited Wilde at Reading and later became his literary executor, De Profundis was written in prison over three months in 1897. It is a curious document: part apologia, part aesthetic discourse, part religious testimonial, part retort to religion, a letter that addresses a private recipient and was written for public view, but that despite these layers of performance has a strange inward quality; this is a letter from Wilde to himself. 12

The theme of De Profundis is tragedy, its expression and possibility. The text has a controlled voice and turns often toward the writer’s old extravagance of expression, the petty generosity of a rich man who takes pleasure in making constant small expenditures; but underlying this is the heavy tone of one who feels himself to be speaking from the depths of potentially final defeat. “Hardly if at all have my friends suffered to see me,” he writes. “But my enemies have had full access to me always; twice in my public appearances in the Bankruptcy Court; twice again in my public transferences from one prison to another have I been shown under conditions of unspeakable humiliation to the gaze and mockery of men.” 13 During Wilde’s early months of imprisonment his mother died. “Her death was terrible to me,” he writes; “but I, once a lord of language, have no words with which to express my anguish and my shame” (DP, 27).

De Profundis is in large part an effort to find a way of rationalizing his suffering. “Where there is sorrow there is holy ground,” Wilde writes, paraphrasing a stanza from Goethe that his mother used to recite. “Some day people will realize what that means. They will know nothing of life till they do” (DP, 29).

Why should sorrow be the material of holiness? The move to Wandsworth and Reading was a transition from the self-definition of the artist to the featureless and ritualized existence of a prisoner. “I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age,” Wilde says. “I had realized this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realize it afterwards” (DP, 36). When he speaks of his present existence, he often slides into the anonymous plural. “With us time does not progress,” he says. “It revolves. It seems to circle round one’s center of pain” (DP, 26). He describes his pain on learning that the law had stripped him of rights to his children, cutting away his final connection to social particularity: “We are doomed to be solitary, while our sons still live” (DP, 35).

As a prisoner, and more broadly as one who suffers, Wilde is excluded from the pleasures that accompany the fulfillment of individual desires, but he gains access to the universal of human existence: our shared unhappy fate. The still, sad music of humanity, as Wordsworth phrased it, is our existence together, and Wilde can hear it better where he is no longer a dazzling exception. “There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relation to the very secret of life,” Wilde writes. “For the secret of life is suffering” (DP 57).

What emerges in the final measure from Wilde’s text is his sheer will, his determination to make from abjection itself the material for aesthetic transformation—on one side a heartening gesture of faith in the enduring grace of art, and on the other side a reminder, as a reflection of the condition he endeavors to flee, of the depth of his unhappiness: “It will force on me the necessity of again asserting myself as an artist, and as soon as I possibly can. If I can produce only one beautiful work of art I shall be able to rob malice of its venom, and cowardice of its sneer, and to pluck out the tongue of scorn by the roots” (DP, 50).

Wilde gave the manuscript to Ross on the day of his release in 1897. His philosophy of acceptance did not seal off his disquiet any more than other such works rest their writers. “I need say that my task does not end there,” he writes in De Profundis. “It would be comparatively easy if it did. There is much more before me. I have hills much steeper to climb, valleys much darker to pass through” (DP, 42). As his final years would make clear, De Profundis is not a declaration of certitude but a fragile foundation erected against the bottomlessness of human life.

After prison Wilde crumbled away. Douglas, who during Wilde’s imprisonment, still determined to win literary fame, had persisted in trying to publish articles on their relationship, even though Wilde and his friends made clear to him that such publicity could harm the chances for early release, now won Wilde back, more or less to prove that he could. When they found out, Wilde’s wife and Douglas’s mother put a stop to the affair on threat of withdrawing their allowances.

Wilde put pen to paper a few times. In prison the intercession of Richard Haldane, an old acquaintance, had enabled a number of books to be delivered for Wilde, and eventually ink and paper as well. In 1898 Haldane received an anonymous gift of The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Ellmann, 486).

By late September 1900 Wilde was bedridden with what his doctors diagnosed as cerebral meningitis. He died on 30 November. Afterward Ross paid off Wilde’s debts and recovered copyrights for his sons. In 1912 Douglas published a hostile memoir, Oscar Wilde and Myself, in a later preface to which he wrote that he had been “born into this world chiefly to be the instrument, whether I would or not, of exposing and smashing Wilde’s cult and the Wilde myth.”

For years there persisted rumors that Wilde had survived his death. In 1905 the New York Critic repeated several popular stories: Wilde had taken orders at a Spanish monastery; Wilde was living in New York and quietly attending brilliant parties. The article closed with a plea for romance: “Was not this brilliant lover of the paradoxical capable of making his very life and death a paradox, and in the phrase of a Greek poet, ‘to be and not to be, not being to be’? And was not the Unexpected, the Sensational, the element in which he loved to move in life and art? And would it not be quite in accordance with his character to carry to the last point of consistency the Christ pose, blasphemous perhaps, which he adopted especially in his last book ‘De Profundis,’ and from his tomb to roll the stone and rise from the dead?” 14

1 Richard Ellmann,Oscar Wilde (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988): 6-17. Hereafter cited as Ellmann, with page number.

2 J.E.C. Bodley, “Oscar Wilde at Oxford,” New York Times; 4 February 1882; pg. 2.

3 Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986): 152.

4 Hunter Blair, In Victorian Days and Other Papers (Ayer Publishing, 1969): 45.

5That is, he would tell you what he really believed, but he would serve it to you on a silver tray of irony.

6 Paul Fry, Wordsworth and the Poetry of What We Are (New Haven, 2008).

7 Letter from Oscar Wilde to Beatrice Allhusen, early 1890, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (London: Fourth Estate, 2000): 425.

8 Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (Plain Label Books): 240.

9 Pers. comm., Christopher Ricks, March 2008. Possibly Beckett knew this line of Wilde's: "Truth in art is that whose contradictory is also true."

10 Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (New York: Avon Books, 1965): 50. Hereafter cited as Earnest, with page number.

11Pers. comm., Leonard Barkan, April 2007.

12 Wilde framed the text as a letter to Alfred Douglas, and Ross sent a copy to Douglas upon Wilde's release; however, wider publication was always part of the plan. During the initial period of publication Ross concealed Douglas's involvement from the public, partly because Douglas treated litigation as a personal sport. See Ellmann, 510-16.

13 Oscar Wilde, ed. Robert Ross, De Profundis (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1909): 33-34. Hereafter cited as DP, with page number.

14 George Sylvester Viereck, “Is Oscar Wilde Living or Dead?” The Critic 47, 1 (July 1905): 86-88.

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