The Death of Oscar Wilde
- 30th November 1900 -
“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or other of us has got to go.”
These were reportedly the last words of Oscar Wilder before he died of meningitis in a seedy Paris bedsit, penniless, on 30th November 1900. One of the most quoted writers of all time Oscar Wilde is perhaps remembered for the wrong reasons. Had he lived today his story would have been very different and, almost certainly, his life much longer, allowing us to enjoy more of his literary output.
Oscar Wilde was an Aesthete. A man who believed so strongly in art for art’s sake, that art exists for its own beauty alone. He was a man often ridiculed in the press, especially the satirical magazine Punch, for his views, flamboyance and wit as well as later for supposed conduct with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Two years in Reading Gaol with hard labour in effect put an end to an extraordinary life that ended aged only 46. Rather prophetically Wilde had said this, “Everyone may not be good, but there's always something good in everyone. Never judge anyone shortly because every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”
He was born on October 16th 1854 in Dublin, in a house in what is now part of Trinity College, Dublin. His parents were Sir William Wilde, a leading Irish ear and eye surgeon who also wrote on archaeology, and Speranza, as his mother liked to be known, who was a revolutionary poet and authority on Celtic myths and folklore. He went to school in Enniskillen, Portora Royal School, and then won a scholarship to Trinity College in 1871. After graduating he won a further classics scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won the Newdigate Prize for student poetry in 1878. He was also fluent in languages – French and German and passable in Italian and ancient Greek.
He was particularly influenced by John Ruskin, a philanthropist, social thinker and patron of the arts, and Walter Pater, an art and literary critic and leading light of the Aesthetic Movement. This later led him to become an art reviewer as well as publishing his own poems. He lectured in the USA and Canada and it was when passing through customs in New York City that he is quoted as saying, “I have nothing to declare but my genius”.
He returned to England and lectured about his American experiences, edited art periodicals as well as being a journalist and writing poetry. In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a prominent Irish barrister, and they had two boys; Cyril and Vyvyan. It was for them that he wrote his collection of children’s stories, ‘The Happy Prince and Other Tales’ in 1888.
It was in the last decade of his life that he wrote the majority of the works for which he is best remembered. In 1890 he wrote his only novel – The Picture of Dorian Gray – a fantasy novel about a youth who buys eternal youth at the expense of his soul. The book is criticised for its decadence and, remembering the period we are talking about, its homosexual overtones. Same sexual activity was not legalised in the UK until 1967 and in Ireland until 1993. He then went on to write a series of comic plays – ‘Lady Windermere’s Fan’ (1892), ‘A Woman of No Importance’ (1893), ‘An Ideal Husband’ and ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’ (both 1895). He also wrote Salome, written in French in 1893 published simultaneously in London and Paris.
He had formed, during this time, a close relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the Marquess of Queensberry. The latter accused him of homosexuality and Douglas encouraged Wilde to sue his father for criminal libel. This he did. The trial collapsed however amongst all sorts of accusations and much of Wilde’s life was laid bare to the world. As a result, he was arrested and ordered to stand trial for homosexuality. In the first case the jury could not reach a verdict but in the subsequent trial, in 1895, he was found guilty and sentenced to two years in Reading Gaol with hard labour. This broke him. Whilst in prison he wrote a long letter to Douglas, blaming him for distracting him from his work. It was published in 1905 as ‘De Profundis’ and the first two paragraphs are included here:
Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralysing immobility of a life every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchangeable pattern, so that we eat and drink and lie down and pray, or kneel at least for prayer, according to the inflexible laws of an iron formula: this immobile quality, that makes each dreadful day in the very minutest detail like its brother, seems to communicate itself to those external forces the very essence of whose existence is ceaseless change. Of seed-time or harvest, of the reapers bending over the corn, or the grape gatherers threading through the vines, of the grass in the orchard made white with broken blossoms or strewn with fallen fruit: of these we know nothing and can know nothing.
For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow. The very sun and moon seem taken from us. Outside, the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always twilight in one’s heart. And in the sphere of thought, no less than in the sphere of time, motion is no more. The thing that you personally have long ago forgotten, or can easily forget, is happening to me now, and will happen to me again to-morrow. Remember this, and you will be able to understand a little of why I am writing, and in this manner writing. . . “
Wilde was released in May 1897. He was bankrupt and left immediately for Paris. Here he met up with some old friends, including Douglas. The following year he released his work The Ballad of Reading Gaol about his concerns for life and conditions in prison. His wife and children had changed their name to Holland to try and escape the scandal. He got an ear infection in 1900 and this quickly became acute meningitis and he died soon after. On his death bed he was baptised into the Roman Catholic church. His tomb was designed by Sir Jacob Epstein, the famous sculptor, and sits in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. An angel statue, that adorns the tomb, had genitalia that have now been vandalized. Epstein himself recorded that it was condemned as obscene and that, at one point, it was covered in tarpaulin by the French police.
His eldest son, Cyril, fought and died at Festubert, in France, during World War One, and is buried there. Vyvyan became a translator for the BBC and wrote an autobiography, ‘Son of Oscar Wilde’. Oscar Wilde’s grandson, Merlin Holland, published a book, ‘A Portrait of Oscar Wilde’ in 2008.
Oscar Wilde wrote on many topics and many of his aphorisms have become widely known and quoted. He once said that, ‘The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.’ On people he said, “"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious," and, “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” He also, rather prophetically, announced that, “Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go”.
Thankfully we are now living in a more enlightened age when it comes to sexual orientation. It is interesting to muse how Oscar Wilde would be reviewed today and the sort of journalistic and publishing outlets he would enjoy using. I can imagine him enjoying twitter, for example. This line would have fitted neatly into that medium, “I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability. The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast.”
Although he is sometimes best remembered for his witty ripostes and sayings here are two that are both apt as we come to the anniversary of his death and the legacy that he left.
"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike. If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well. If it is worth having, it is worth waiting for. If it is worth attaining, it is worth fighting for. If it is worth experiencing, it is worth putting aside time for.”