(1854 - 1900)
It is not so much his own neuroticism but rather the pathologically expressed moral values of the times he lived in which caused Oscar Wilde to plummet from the height of a brilliant career into the very depths.
Granted, he did have a set of eccentric parents. His father, Sir William Wilde was a noted eye and ear surgeon who had several illegitimate children from extramarital affairs. Oscar's mother, Lady Jane Francesca Agnes Elgee Wilde, was a flamboyant and unconventional woman for her time -- a poetess and a nationalist who fought for women's rights. She went by the pen-name of "Speranza".
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin on October 16, 1854, two years after the eldest son of the family, William. Because Lady Wilde had longed for a daughter as a second child, she is said to have often dressed little Oscar in girls' clothing. A daughter, Isola, was born to the family in 1858 but she died at the age of eight, which affected the twelve-year old Oscar deeply. He had been close to his little sister and he later wrote the poem Requiescat, to perpetuate her memory.
Wilde excelled at Trinity College in Dublin from 1871 to 1874, eventually winning a scholarship to Magdalene College in Oxford which he entered in 1875. The biggest influences on his development as an artist at this time were Swinburne, Walter Pater and John Ruskin. His reckless side began to manifest itself as well. It is while at Oxford that he is rumored to have contracted syphilis after a night with a female prostitute. Friends also tell of an incident in the college chapel with the visiting Prince Leopold of Belgium and his accompaniment of Mrs. Liddel and her daughter Alice (the Alice of Carroll's Alice in Wonderland) in attendance. When it was Wilde's turn to read the first lesson, he began to recite The Song of Solomon in a languorous voice. Promptly taking action to correct him, the Dean of Arts exclaimed "You have the wrong lesson Mr. Wilde. It is Deuteronomy XVI!" Oscar's associate George Thomas Atkinson, who later reported the incident in a book, commented "Poor Oscar! he was so thoroughly enjoying himself."
“ We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. ” ~ Oscar Wilde ~
During 1875 - 1876 Oscar published poetry in several literary magazines. In 1876 he found himself back in Ireland when the death of his father left the family with several debts. It was there that Oscar had a brief romantic affair with a girl named Florence Balcome, who later married Bram Stoker. In 1878, Wilde continued writing poetry in earnest, and won the coveted Newdigate Prize for English poetry with Ravenna. He soon left Oxford to build himself a reputation among the literati in London.
And what a reputation he built. During the 1880's Wilde would establish himself as a writer, poet, and lecturer, but above all as a "Professor of Aesthetics". In late 1881, after publishing the volume Poems at his own expense, he began a lecture tour of the United States. A well-known Wilde anecdote states that at customs upon his entry to America, when asked if he had anything to declare, Oscar replied: "Nothing but my genius." Sporting knee-breeches, velvet coat, long hair and lace cuffs, Wilde would often give up to six lectures per week, speaking of the "Principles of Aestheticism" with a poetic grace:
...let there be no flower in your meadows that does not wreathe its tendrils around your pillows, no little leaf in your Titan forests that does not lend its form to design, no curving spray of wild rose or brier that does not live for ever in carven arch of window or marble, no bird in your air that is not giving the iridescent wonder of its colour, the exquisite curves of its wings in flight, to make more precious the preciousness of simple adornment. For the voices that have their dwelling in the sea and mountain are not the chosen music of liberty only. Other messages are there in the wonder of wind-swept heights and the majesty of silent deep--messages that, if you will listen to them, will give you the wonder of all new imagination, the treasure of all new beauty.
We spend our days, each one of us, in looking for the secret of life. Well, the secret of life is in art.
At a stop in Leadville, Colorado, Wilde remarked on saloon sign stating "Please do not shoot the pianist. He is doing his best.", saying it demonstrated "the only rational method of art criticism I have ever come across." While in the states, Oscar also met various artists and writers, including Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The American tour, from the east to the west coast, helped establish Wilde as an expert on "matters of art and taste".
Once back in the UK in 1882, Wilde went on a short lecture tour and later spent a few months in Paris. His poem The Harlot's House could well have been inspired by a night spent with a local French prostitute. Wilde published his first major play, The Duchess of Padua, in 1883.
Wilde's witticisms soon became legendary as stories about him spread through social circles. He was seen as flamboyant, often dressing in knee breeches and lace cuffs. At a reception he reportedly greeted someone with the biting line: "Oh I'm so glad you've come! There are a hundred things I want not to say to you." At a lunch party he declared that there was no subject upon which he could not speak at a moment's notice. One man raised his glass and said "The Queen", to which Oscar replied "She is not a subject."
On May 29, 1884 Oscar married Constance Lloyd in London. Of her, he had once told a friend "...she knows I am the greatest poet, so in literature she is all right." Sons soon followed: Cyril in 1885 and Vyvyan in 1886. Soon after the birth of his second son, Wilde quipped that they were thinking of calling him Nothing -- "as then it can be said that he is Nothing Wilde."
During these years Wilde worked as a journalist and reviewer, while also continuing with his other writing, poetry and plays. In 1890 he published his now well-known story The Picture of Dorian Gray. The early 1890's were the most intellectually productive and fruitful time for Wilde. Some of his most familiar plays such as Lady Windemere's Fan and Salome were written and performed upon the London stages. The controversy caused when Salome was banned for its portrayal of biblical characters, forbidden under an old rule, only heightened Wilde's reputation as a maverick.
In the summer of 1891 Wilde first met Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquis of Queensberry and an undergraduate at Oxford. His resulting relationship with Alfred, nicknamed "Bosie", was to alter the course of the rest of his life. Although Douglas later maintained that they had never committed sodomy, whispers circulated in London Society of Wilde's homosexual tendencies and practices. Over time he had grown increasingly reckless about secretive liaisons with stableboys, clerks and servants, leaving himself open to frequent blackmailing attempts. Oscar was also turning to alcohol and his friends write of often seeing him in an intoxicated state.
He lavished time, attention and money on Bosie in their affair during these years; and although Douglas' father Queensbury developed a violent and irrational hatred for Wilde, Douglas insisted on flaunting the relationship. As Bosie wrote to his mother in 1894: "You cannot do anything against the power of my affection for Oscar Wilde and his for me".
“ The deep hath calm: The moon hath rest: but we
Lords of the natural world are yet our own dread enemy. ” ~ Wilde in 'Humanitad' ~
In 1893 Wilde produced A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband, followed in 1894 by The Importance of Being Earnest and the poem The Sphinx. The obsessed Marquis of Queensberry attempted to disrupt the opening night performance of The Importance of Being Earnest, but his plans were found out. Only a few days later, Queensberry left a calling card for Wilde at a London club addressed for "Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite" [sic]. After this and other aggressive acts by the Marquis, spurred on by Bosie yet against the advice of most of his friends, Wilde filed a suit against Queensbury for criminal libel.
Wilde soon found the tables turned upon himself however as he answered charges made against him from an 1885 law which made "homosexual relations between men" illegal. The accusations didn't include Lord Douglas, but rather were based on alleged "acts of gross indecency" with several male prostitutes, with evidence gathered by detectives hired by Queensbury. On May 25, 1895 Oscar Wilde was convicted and sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labor. As a friend of his stated: "I have seen many awful happenings at the Old Bailey, but to me no death sentence has ever seemed so terrible as the one Justice Wills delivered when his duty called upon him to destroy and take from the world the man who had given it so much".
The time spent in jail was the beginning of the end for Wilde. He soon declared bankruptcy and his property was auctioned off. In late 1895, his transfer from Wandsworth to Reading Gaol was to provide a traumatic experience which Wilde later wrote of:
From two o'clock till half past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform at Clapham Junction in convict dress and handcuffed, for the world to look at.... Of all possible objects I was the most grotesque. When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came in swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement.... For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob.
It is said that one onlooker, upon recognizing the prisoner as Oscar Wilde, stepped up to him and spat in his face. The incident affected Wilde dramatically for years afterwards when he wept at the same hour every day.
The imprisonment and hard labor consisted of a thirteen by seven foot cell with planks for a bed, and useless work designed to break the spirit. In 1896 Wilde lost legal custody of his children. When his mother died that same year, his wife Constance visited him at the jail to bring him the news. It was the last time they were to see each other before her death in 1898.
After his release in May of 1897, Wilde immediately moved to France and resumed his relationship with Lord Douglas. In 1898 He published his poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, spurred by Wilde's jail-time experience of the execution of a prisoner who had slit his wife's throat.
“ I turned the good things of my life to evil, and the evil things of my life to good... ” ~ Oscar Wilde ~
In the years after his release Wilde's health deteriorated, and in 1900 he underwent an operation to attempt to fix middle ear problems which had been exacerbated from a fall in his prison cell. After the operation in October he remained bedridden and soon developed an abscess in the ear which led to cerebral meningitis. He died in Paris on November 30 at the age of forty-six, after being semi-comatose for days. Yet he could not leave this world without a last dose of his characteristic wit, quipping about the shabby wallpaper in his room: "One of us had to go."
After first being buried at Bagneux, his remains were moved in 1909 to Père Lachaise in Paris where a large winged stone figure adorns his grave, inscribed with lines from 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.
Despite his undignified end, Wilde is enjoying a recent resurgence in popularity. Perhaps it is society's attempt to redeem itself for those who condemned this brilliant man to ruin. Wilde has been portrayed on stage and in a film biography. His An Ideal Husband was recently released as a major motion picture and a new sculpture in London was dedicated to his memory. Oscar Wilde walked the line between insider and outsider, balancing a conflicting public and private life in anti-homosexual late Victorian society -- a precarious situation which led to disaster.