Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin into the
family of a distinguished Irish surgeon and educated at Dublin and
Oxford Universities. His mother «was a writer of poetry and prose. Under
the influence of John Ruskin, Wilde joined the Aesthetic Movement and
soon became its leader. He made himself the apostle of «art for art’s
sake» and of the cult of beauty. In 1882 he made a triumphant tour of
the United States lecturing on the Aesthetic Movement in England.

The next ten years saw the appearance of all his major works. They
include fairy-tales: The Happy Prince (1888), A House of Pomegranates
(1891), stories: Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1891), the novel The
Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), several sparkling comedies, up to now
repeatedly produced all over the world: Lady Windermere’s Fan (1893), A
Woman of No Importance (1894), An Ideal Husband (1895), The Importance
of Being Earnest (1895). Oscar Wilde also wrote poems, political and
literary essays (The Soul of Man under Socialism, Intentions, 1891) and
various occasional pieces on history, drama and painting. He had the
reputation of a brilliant society wit. Wilde’s splendid literary career
and social position suddenly collapsed when in 1895 he was sentenced to
a two-years’ term of imprisonment for immoral practices. After his
release he lived in obscurity in France. In 1898 he published his
best-known poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

An abridged version of his prose confession bearing the Latin name of De
Profundis (Out of the Depths) was printed posthumously, its full text
only to appear as late as 1962. The writer’s aesthetic views are
disclosed in the three essays of Intentions (The Decay of Lying, The
Critic as an Artist, and Pen, Pencil and Poison) and, in his most
brilliantly paradoxical style, in the famous preface to Dorian Gray:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things.

To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim…

They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.

There is no such thing as moral or immoral book.

Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

All art is quite useless.

Fortunately, Oscar Wilde’s work disproves his own statements, thus
adding another paradox to his life and work.

Irish wit, poet, and dramatist whose reputation rests on his comic
masterpieces Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and The Importance of Being
Earnest (1895). He was a spokesman for the late 19th-century Aesthetic
movement in England, which advocated art for art’s sake; and he was the
object of celebrated civil and criminal suits involving homosexuality
and ending in his imprisonment (1895-97).

Wilde was born of professional and literary parents. His father, Sir
William Wilde, was Ireland’s leading ear and eye surgeon, who also
published books on archaeology, folklore, and the satirist Jonathan
Swift; his mother was a revolutionary poet and an authority on Celtic
myth and folklore.

After attending Portora Royal School, Enniskillen (1864-71), Wilde went,
on successive scholarships, to Trinity College, Dublin (1871-74), and
Magdalen College, Oxford (1874-78), which awarded him a degree with
honours. During these four years, he distinguished himself not only as a
classical scholar, a poseur, and a wit but also as a poet by winning the
coveted Newdigate Prize in 1878 with a long poem, Ravenna. He was deeply
impressed by the teachings of the English writers John Ruskin and Walter
Pater on the central importance of art in life and particularly by the
latter’s stress on the aesthetic intensity by which life should be
lived. Like many in his generation, Wilde was determined to follow
Pater’s urging «to burn always with [a] hard, gemlike flame.» But Wilde
also delighted in affecting an aesthetic pose; this, combined with rooms
at Oxford decorated with objets d’art, resulted in his famous remark:
«Oh, would that I could live up to my blue china!»

In the early 1880s, when Aestheticism was the rage and despair of
literary London, Wilde established himself in social and artistic
circles by his wit and flamboyance. Soon the periodical Punch made him
the satiric object of its antagonism to the Aesthetes for what was
considered their unmasculine devotion to art; and in their comic opera
Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan based the character Bunthorne, a «fleshly
poet,» partly on Wilde. Wishing to reinforce the association, Wilde
published, at his own expense, Poems (1881), which echoed, too
faithfully, his discipleship to the poets Algernon Swinburne, Dante
Gabriel Rossetti, and John Keats. Eager for further acclaim, Wilde
agreed to lecture in the United States and Canada in 1882, announcing on
his arrival in New York City that he had «nothing to declare but his
genius.» Despite widespread hostility in the press to his languid poses
and aesthetic costume of velvet jacket, knee breeches, and black silk
stockings, Wilde for 12 months exhorted the Americans to love beauty and
art; then he returned to Great Britain to lecture on his impressions of
America.

In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd, daughter of a prominent Irish
barrister; two children, Cyril and Vyvyan, were born, in 1885 and 1886.
Meanwhile, Wilde was a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette and then
became editor of Woman’s World (1887-89). During this period of
apprenticeship as a writer, he published The Happy Prince and Other
Tales (1888), which reveals his gift for romantic allegory in the form
of the fairy tale.

In the final decade of his life, Wilde wrote and published nearly all of
his major work. In his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (published
in Lippincott’s Magazine, 1890, and in book form, revised and expanded
by six chapters, 1891), Wilde combined the supernatural elements of the
Gothic novel with the unspeakable sins of French decadent fiction.
Critics charged immorality despite Dorian’s self-destruction; Wilde,
however, insisted on the amoral nature of art regardless of an
apparently moral ending. Intentions (1891), consisting of previously
published essays, restated his aesthetic attitude toward art by
borrowing ideas from the French poets Theophile Gautier and Charles
Baudelaire and the American painter James McNeill Whistler. In the same
year, two volumes of stories and fairy tales also appeared, testifying
to his extraordinary creative inventiveness: Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime,
and Other Stories and A House of Pomegranates.

But Wilde’s greatest successes were his society comedies. Within the
conventions of the French «well-made play» (with its social intrigues
and artificial devices to resolve conflict), he employed his
paradoxical, epigrammatic wit to create a form of comedy new to the
19th-century English theatre. His first success, Lady Windermere’s Fan,
demonstrated that this wit could revitalize the rusty machinery of
French drama. In the same year, rehearsals of his macabre play Salome,
written in French and designed, as he said, to make his audience shudder
by its depiction of unnatural passion, were halted by the censor because
it contained biblical characters. It was published in 1893, and an
English translation appeared in 1894 with Aubrey Beardsley’s celebrated
illustrations.

A second society comedy, A Woman of No Importance (produced 1893),
convinced the critic William Archer that Wilde’s plays «must be taken on
the very highest plane of modern English drama.» In rapid succession,
Wilde’s final plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being
Earnest, were produced early in 1895. In the latter, his greatest
achievement, the conventional elements of farce are transformed into
satiric epigrams—seemingly trivial but mercilessly exposing Victorian
hypocrisies.

I suppose society is wonderfully delightful. To be in it is merely a
bore. But to be out of it simply a tragedy.

I never travel without my diary. One should always have something
sensational to read in the train.

All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does.
That’s his.

I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked
and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.

In many of his works, exposure of a secret sin or indiscretion and
consequent disgrace is a central design. If life imitated art, as Wilde
insisted in his essay «The Decay of Lying» (1889), he was himself
approximating the pattern in his reckless pursuit of pleasure. In
addition, his close friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he had met
in 1891, infuriated the Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas’ father.
Accused, finally, by the marquess of being a sodomite, Wilde, urged by
Douglas, sued for criminal libel. Wilde’s case collapsed, however, when
the evidence went against him, and he dropped the suit. Urged to flee to
France by his friends, Wilde refused, unable to believe that his world
was at an end. He was arrested and ordered to stand trial.

Wilde testified brilliantly, but the jury failed to reach a verdict. In
the retrial he was found guilty and sentenced, in May 1895, to two years
at hard labour. Most of his sentence was served at Reading Gaol, where
he wrote a long letter to Douglas (published in 1905 in a drastically
cut version as De Profundis) filled with recriminations against the
younger man for encouraging him in dissipation and distracting him from
his work.

In May 1897 Wilde was released, a bankrupt, and immediately went to
France, hoping to regenerate himself as a writer. His only remaining
work, however, was The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), revealing his
concern for inhumane prison conditions. Despite constant money problems
he maintained, as George Bernard Shaw said, «an unconquerable gaiety of
soul» that sustained him, and he was visited by such loyal friends as
Max Beerbohm and Robert Ross, later his literary executor; he was also
reunited with Douglas. He died suddenly of acute meningitis brought on
by an ear infection. In his semiconscious final moments, he was received
into the Roman Catholic church, which he had long admired.

INTRODUCTION

Wilde, Oscar (1854-1900), Irish-born writer and wit, who was the chief
proponent of the aesthetic movement, based on the principle of art for
art’s sake. Wilde was a novelist, playwright, poet, and critic.

LIFE

He was born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde on October 16, 1854,
in Dublin, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. As a youngster he
was exposed to the brilliant literary talk of the day at his mother’s
Dublin salon. Later, as a student at the University of Oxford, he
excelled in classics, wrote poetry, and incorporated the Bohemian
life-style of his youth into a unique way of life. At Oxford Wilde came
under the influence of aesthetic innovators such as English writers
Walter Pater and John Ruskin. As an aesthete, the eccentric young Wilde
wore long hair and velvet knee breeches. His rooms were filled with
various objets d’art such as sunflowers, peacock feathers, and blue
china; Wilde claimed to aspire to the perfection of the china. His
attitudes and manners were ridiculed in the comic periodical Punch and
satirized in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera Patience (1881).
Nonetheless, his wit, brilliance, and flair won him many devotees.

Wilde’s first book was Poems (1881). His first play, Vera, or the
Nihilists (1882), was produced in New York City, where he saw it
performed while he was on a highly successful lecture tour. Upon
returning to England he settled in London and married in 1884 a wealthy
Irish woman, with whom he had two sons. Thereafter he devoted himself
exclusively to writing.

In 1895, at the peak of his career, Wilde became the central figure in
one of the most sensational court trials of the century. The results
scandalized the Victorian middle class; Wilde, who had been a close
friend of the young Lord Alfred Douglas, was convicted of sodomy.
Sentenced in 1895 to two years of hard labor in prison, he emerged
financially bankrupt and spiritually downcast. He spent the rest of his
life in Paris, using the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth. He was converted
to Roman Catholicism before he died of meningitis in Paris on November
30, 1900.

Wilde’s early works included two collections of fairy stories, which he
wrote for his sons, The Happy Prince (1888) and A House of Pomegranates
(1892), and a group of short stories, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1891).
His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), is a melodramatic
tale of moral decadence, distinguished for its brilliant, epigrammatic
style. Although the author fully describes the process of corruption,
the shocking conclusion of the story frankly commits him to a moral
stand against self-debasement.

Wilde’s most distinctive and engaging plays are the four comedies Lady
Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal
Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), all
characterized by adroitly contrived plots and remarkably witty dialogue.
Wilde, with little dramatic training, proved he had a natural talent for
stagecraft and theatrical effects and a true gift for farce. The plays
sparkle with his clever paradoxes, among them such famous inverted
proverbs as “Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes”
and “What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the
value of nothing.”

In contrast, Wilde’s Salomй is a serious drama about obsessive passion.
Originally written in French, it was produced in Paris in 1894 with the
celebrated actor Sarah Bernhardt. It was subsequently made into an opera
by the German composer Richard Strauss. Salomй was also translated into
English by Lord Alfred Douglas and illustrated by English artist Aubrey
Beardsley in 1894.

While in prison Wilde composed De Profundis (From the Depths; 1905), an
apology for his life. Some critics consider it a serious revelation;
others, a sentimental and insincere work. The Ballad of Reading Gaol
(1898), written at Berneval-le-Grand, France, just after his release and
published anonymously in England, is the most powerful of all his poems.
The starkness of prison life and the desperation of people interned are
revealed in beautifully cadenced language. For years after his death the
name of Oscar Wilde bore the stigma attached to it by Victorian prudery.
Wilde, the artist, now is recognized as a brilliant social commentator,
whose best work remains worthwhile and relevant.

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