Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, by W & D Downey.

Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900: Irish dramatist, poet, lecturer, essayist and wit, educated at Trinity College, Dublin and Magdalen College, Oxford, best remembered for flawless comedies such as The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband; an intriguing Faustian novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray; and a collection of enchanting children’s stories, The Happy Prince and Other Tales. A large, elegant, cheerful, generous man of considerable charm, Wilde was much photographed, often in somewhat over-theatrical poses. The least affected images were taken by W & D Downey in May 1889 and convey something of his legendary self-assurance, geniality and sharp intellect. He gave a successful lecture tour in America (the silver miners of Leadville, whom he matched drink for drink, called him “a bully boy with no glass eye”) and for a time edited Woman’s World. He gained some notoriety as an aesthete, Aestheticism at that time being a sketchily-defined belief in art for its own sake spiced with undertones of continental decadence. His break came in 1892 when the actor-manager George Alexander asked him to write a comedy for the St James’s Theatre. The result, Lady Windermere’s Fan, was a huge success with Wilde earning over £7000 out of the first run. His famous downfall came as a result of his friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father, the Marquis of Queensberry, vehemently disapproved of Wilde. After several unpleasant confrontations Queensberry left a card at Wilde’s club bearing a misspelt but clear enough message: “To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite”. Keen to see his hated father in trouble if not in prison, Douglas urged Wilde to sue for libel. Unwisely, Wilde did, with the result that Queensberry was acquitted and Wilde himself charged – with homosexual offences. Sadly, the consequences of “feasting with panthers”, Wilde’s memorable phrase describing the danger and excitement of entertaining male prostitutes in Piccadilly restaurants, ensured that he was found guilty and sentenced to two years hard labour. At first this Euripidean outcome failed to shatter him; from prison he wrote forceful and eloquent letters to the Daily Chronicle about the terrible conditions in Reading Gaol and the inhuman treatment of child prisoners. But upon his release he spent the rest of his life in exile in Italy and France, becoming increasingly ill and dejected. Two final masterpieces were forthcoming: The Ballad of Reading Gaol and the long, discursive and reproachful letter to Douglas, De Profundis. Both are remarkable for the beautifully expressed and elevating perceptions they contain about wrongdoing and redemption.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s