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Revision as of 18:15, 14 September 2018

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Oscar Wilde (1854 – 1900) was an Anglo-Irish poet, novelist, and writer of plays and short stories. He was a homosexual and is nowadays often held up as a "gay" icon or even a "gay" martyr but that is not a universally accepted view. Wilde instigated the litigation that led to his downfall.

Early life

Wilde was born in Dublin on 16 October 1854. His father was a surgeon and founder of a hospital in Dublin, and his mother was a writer who was active in the early movement for women's rights. The family was Protestant but there is a story that his mother secretly had him re-baptized as a Catholic. Wilde studied at Trinity College, Dublin, and Magdalen College, Oxford University, receiving his BA in 1878. While at Oxford, he came very much under the influence of Walter Pater, the aesthete, who taught a creed of "art for art's sake", a reaction against the sternly moral mission of art in the prevalent Victorian view. He also came to a lesser extent under the influence of John Ruskin, the art historian and socialist. Wilde's poem "Ravenna" won the Newdigate prize.

Visit to USA

After leaving Oxford with a double first, Wilde traveled to the USA on a lecture tour, talking about art history and aesthetics. He behaved in a flamboyant and attention-seeking way. The story that he told a Customs official "I have nothing to declare but my genius" originates in the biography by Arthur Ransome written in 1912, long after Wilde's death and there are no contemporary sources for it.[1] In the USA Wilde met the poet Walt Whitman.

Marriage and Literary Fame

On his return to London, Wilde sought to make his name as a man of letters. He became the editor of a magazine, the Lady's World, and wrote criticism, reviews and a verse play The Duchess of Padua.

In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd, a young lady with a comfortable inheritance, which enabled him to set up home in Chelsea, London, and live in style while writing. They had two sons, but in 1886, Wilde met and was seduced by the homosexual Robert Ross, at that time a university student. After this he became drawn into Ross's circle of promiscuous homosexuals and pederasts, seeking casual gratification with rent-boys in London. He wrote a veiled account of his descent into vice in the novel "The Picture of Dorian Grey".

His output at this time included the dialogues "The Critic as an Artist" and "The Decay of Lying" as well as various short stories that read like a prosy pastiche of Hans Anderson. They include "The Nightingale and the Rose" and "The Birthday of the Infanta".

Relationship with Alfred Douglas

In June 1891, Wilde was introduced to Lord Alfred Douglas, the 21-year-old son of the Marquess of Queensberry. Douglas was already an active homosexual and asked Wilde to help him cope with an attempt at blackmail. He and Douglas very soon became lovers, and indulged in group homosexual activity e.g. in 1893 he, Wilde and Ross all had relations with a 16-year-old schoolboy over the course of one weekend, passing him around between them. The parents were angry but afraid to prosecute. Wilde deceived his wife about the life he was living with his "friends".

On excursions to Italy and North Africa, both well-established locations for 19th-century pederasty, Wilde and Douglas made use of rent-boys and it is clear that many of these were very young indeed. These holidays could be described as sex-tourism. Drugs such as opium and cannabis were freely used by both to enhance their experiences. They met André Gide the French homosexual writer who was there for the same purpose. As Wilde became a successful playwright, Douglas made use of him for money and the relationship was far from blissful, as Wilde later recalled in "De Profundis". Douglas detested his father, who thought Wilde was a bad influence on his son, and spread rumors about their relationship being a homosexual one. He put words to that effect on a card that he left at Wilde's club.

Litigation, Trial and Downfall

In 1895, Douglas persuaded Wilde to bring a libel case against Queensberry, with the aim of obtaining a large amount of damages. This legal suit involved both of them denying that they were homosexuals. Wilde denied it categorically to his own lawyer and to the court under oath, committing perjury.

Wilde lost the case, as Queensberry, aided by the London police, easily found a string of 13 rent-boys willing to testify against him. Even the pageboy at the Savoy hotel was on the list. The Crown Prosecution Service then had no choice but to prosecute Wilde on criminal charges, and he was duly convicted and sentenced to 2 years in prison, a minimal sentence as he could have been liable for five years for perjury and contempt of court. After the sentence was announced, the police waited 48 hours before arresting Wilde, as it was usual to give men convicted under this law (which was intended as a deterrent) a chance to escape to the Continent. Wilde however did not leave and in effect chose to go to jail, greatly underrating the effect hardship would have on one habituated to ease and luxury. Wilde's wife, distraught and devastated, divorced him, his plays were taken off the stage and he was declared bankrupt, as he had been, under Douglas's influence, living beyond his means. He was disgraced in the eyes of society.

Last years

After his release he went to France, living on a loan from Frank Harris, and for a short while tried to live with Douglas, who was still leading a life of carefree promiscuity with all the boys he could obtain, but the two men soon parted. Before Wilde's death in Paris on 30 November 1900 he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol and De Profundis. On his deathbed Wilde took the last rites according to Roman Catholic ritual, at the behest of Robert Ross.

Wilde's wife Constance died in April 1898 of a combination of illnesses undoubtedly brought on by distress, humiliation, isolation and poverty as a result of Wilde's behavior. She was aged 39.

Wilde was a friend of Frank Harris, who helped him with immense generosity before and after he went to prison, and of George Bernard Shaw, who described him as a "a snob to the core". He was an admirer of the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt.

[2]

Wilde's sexuality

Although Wilde had relations with women in his youth, he became decidedly homosexual after his encounter with Robert Ross, and was also a pederast. Wilde himself believed that he belonged to a culture of "male love" inspired by the Greek pederastic tradition, through his association with the Uranians. This claim does not really accord with the unsavory nature of Wilde's activities. Friends such as Aubrey Beardsley and Max Beerbohm record Wilde sitting in the Café Royale in London chatting over dinner about having had relations with five boys in one night, and engaging in analingus. One of his witticisms recorded from this period is "Little boys should be obscene and not heard." His pronounced pederastic tastes are confirmed by many letters and poems, addressed to youths and choir-boys in erotic terms. The 1995 film about Oscar Wilde, starring Stephen Fry, omitted any reference to his taste for boys, in order to give the false impression that he was a victim and a martyr. [3] [4]

Wit

Wilde was a well-known playwright and celebrity, and is still renowned for his wit today. Some of his lines, such as the following from The Picture of Dorian Gray, are still often quoted:

"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written."

Other memorable lines, from "The Critic as Artist", include:

"The public is wonderfully tolerant. It forgives everything except genius."
"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."
"There is no sin except stupidity."
"...nothing worth knowing can be taught."

Wilde's most frequently produced play is the high comedy The Importance of Being Earnest. It includes such gems as:

"The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means."
"London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years."
"The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!"

Works of Oscar Wilde

Plays

  • Lady Windermere's Fan (1892)
  • Salomé (French version) (1893, first performed in Paris 1896)
  • A Woman of No Importance (1893)
  • An Ideal Husband (1895)
  • The Importance of Being Earnest (1895)
  • Vera; or, The Nihilists (1880)
  • The Duchess of Padua (1883)
  • Salomé: A Tragedy in One Act: Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde by Lord Alfred Douglas with Illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley (1894)
  • La Sainte Courtisane and A Florentine Tragedy Fragmentary. First published 1908 in Methuen's Collected Works

(Dates are dates of first performance, which approximate better with the probable date of composition than dates of publication)

Poetry

  • Ravenna (1878)
  • Poems (1881)
  • The Sphinx (1894)
  • The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898)

Prose

  • The Canterville Ghost (1887)
  • The Happy Prince and Other Stories (1888, fairy tales)
  • Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (1891)
  • Intentions (1891, critical dialogues and essays)
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891, Wilde's only novel)
  • The Soul of Man under Socialism (First published in the Pall Mall Gazette, 1891, first book publication 1904)
  • De Profundis (1905)
  • The Rise of Historical Criticism (published in incomplete form 1905 and completed form in 1908)
  • The Letters of Oscar Wilde (1960) This was rereleased in 2000, with letters uncovered since 1960, and new, detailed, footnotes by Merlin Holland.
  • The Portrait of Mr W.H. (fictionalized Shakespeare Criticism)


References

  1. http://www.oscarwildeinamerica.org/quotations/nothing-to-declare.html
  2. Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde.(Random House, 1989). Neil McKenna. The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, Random House, 2011. Julie Anne Taddeo, Lytton Strachey and the Search for Modern Sexual Identity: The Last Eminent Victorian (Routledge, 2002). Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.
  3. Richard Ellman, Oscar Wilde.(Random House, 1989).
  4. Neil McKenna. The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, Random House, 2011

External links