Oscar Wilde – A literary and cultural trailblazer!
Oscar Wilde, one of the most controversial playwrights in the late Victorian England was known for his brilliant wit, flamboyant style, his infamous imprisonment and of course his aesthetic writing. However, Wilde’s writing career wasn’t the only intriguing segment of his life. He faced multiple trials because of his sexuality. Wilde was not just a writer of poetry, novels and plays, his reputation was famed worldwide, some even say he was ”notorious”. Arguably one of the most quotable artist of the nineteenth century, he spoke profoundly and wittily not just in his creative works but in life.
In this essay, I’ll examine the twist and turns of Wilde’s life with the help of authentic and reliable sources. I chose Oscar Wilde to write about because the majority of his plays are intertwined with subtle double meanings.
Wilde was born in Dublin on 16th October 1864, he was christened Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wild. With the number of names he acquired, he joked that, ”As one becomes famous one sheds some of them, just as a balloonist, when rising higher sheds unnecessary ballast”. His father, William Wilde, was a doctor. William later found St. Mark’s Ophthalmic Hospital, entirely at his own expense. His mother, Jane Francesca, was a poet. From what we know, Oscar’s family were quite well educated. He also had an older brother. Wilde was described as a bookish and intelligent student in school. He attended Portora Royal School in Northern Ireland. He subsequently went on to receive a scholarship from Trinity College in 1871. From his diligent efforts, he then received another scholarship in Oxford. Where he won the Newdigate Prize for the best English verse composition by an Oxford undergraduate in recognition for his writing. It was also evident that Wilde was incredibly obsessed with fashion from a young age. Wilde once said ” Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”.
Society in the 19th century contradicted Wilde’s view on fashion. People didn’t overdress. Simplicity was very much the answer for everything. As well as that, poverty was high during the late Victorian era. It was a time filled with social inequality. Writers like Dickens, Tennyson, and Trolloppe were widely read and discussed. Tennyson was a morbid writer that was quite pessimistic in his writing. On the other hand Trolloppe style of writing was peculiar, he wrote stuff about gender issues, politics and topical matters. Even though all of the mentioned writers possessed great writing skills, they weren’t as gifted as Oscar Wilde. At the time, W.B Yeats was also making a minor name for himself. In the late 1880’s Yeats became acquainted with Wilde. In Yeats autobiography he tells us that ”My first meeting with Oscar Wilde was an astonishment. I never before heard a man talking with perfect sentences, as if he had written them all over night with labour and yet all spontaneous”.
His paradoxical way of writing is tremendous. His ingenuity as a writer can be seen in ”The Picture Of Dorian Gray” (1890). His aesthetic use of language in the novel is impeccable. The protagonist, Dorian, is a character that had many similarities to Wilde. Wilde did mention that three of the characters in the play were reflections of himself. In the novel, Dorian was a very handsome, high self-esteem and narcissistic young man. One may argue that Wilde held all of those traits, I certainly do agree. Moreover, ”The Importance Of Being Earnest” is probably the best play Wilde wrote. It is considered as one of the best original comedies in theatrical world. This play was realistic and had factors that tied well with the society at the time, which was extraordinary. The reason being, plays prior to ”The Importance Of Being Earnest” were mostly fictional. Different traits of the Victorian society was on display in the play such as arrogance, snobbery, differentiation of classes and hypocrisy. Wilde ridiculed the society around him. In addition to that, Wilde had a long successful string of other plays also. He wrote quite a number of poems too. Helas is one of his superior poems. Its rather unconventional. It is believed that Wilde feels anger towards himself in this poem. He insinuates that he may of forgotten the important things in life. William Archer, a theatre critic, described Wilde’s works as ” must be taken on the very highest plane of modern English drama, and, furthermore, it stands alone on that plane”.
Wilde was gay at a time where being gay was impermissible. In 1891 Wilde became infatuated with young poet, Lord Alred Douglas also known as Bosie. Their relationship was unstable. They often split for months before getting back together. A profound example of their dysfunctional relationship is the article posted on Independent UK that showed love letters that were exchanged between Bosie and a man, who was also in Wilde’s love circle, named Maurice Schwabe. The article depicted that Bosie might of cheated on Wilde. Wilde wasn’t always outwardly gay. He was married Constance Lloyld. They had two kids together. However, She died at 44 years old. However, Wilde had a substantial amount of love for his wife, he once said ” Women are meant to be loved, not understood”.
In 1895, Wilde faced a number of trials. They were all from Bosie’s father who was known as the Marquess of Queensberry. He accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde’s faith was determined in two trials. In the first trial, Wilde didn’t receive anything. However, in the second trial, Wilde was found guilty and was sentenced to two years of hard labor in England’s Reading Gaol. He was then exiled to France. His new life in France was inadequate in comparison to his regular one. He was lonely, financially broke, often lived in cheap motels or friends houses. Its believed that Oscar and Bosie reunited in August 1897.
On November 1900, aged 46, Oscar Wilde passed away from meningitis in France. However, an American literary critic, Ellmann, claimed that Wilde passed away from syphilis . Merlin Holland, Wilde’s grandchild, said that these assumptions were false. Wilde was initially buried at Cimetiere de Bagneux but was transferred to Pere Lachaise Cemetery in 1909.
A little over a century later, we remember Oscar as a phenomenal writer. Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin, Curator of the Wilde exhibition and Assistant Librarian at Trinity College said that ”Oscar Wilde’s life and work continues to captivate academics and the general public”. In Dublin, a house named Oscar Wilde was built to commemorate Wilde. His works is truly appreciated not just in Ireland but all over the world. A Oscar Wilde statue was built to commemorate Wilde at the Merrion Square in Co. Dublin. Sarah Smith from the sculpture journal said that there are two sides of the statue ” One is the witty Wilde who is most often remembered in popular culture, the other the broken man he became following his two-year incarceration for committing homosexual acts”. Nevertheless, the statue gave us a great impression of Wilde’s demeanour. The statue looked as charismatic and chic as he was in real life!
Furthermore, numerous films were made about Wilde. The most familiar one would have to be ”Wilde” 1987 starring Stephen Fry. Stephen Fry described Oscar as someone ”famous even as an undergraduate”. Some of his plays were also adapted on screen such as ”The Importance Of Being Earnest” in 2002 starring Oscar Winning actor Colin Firth.
In my interview with Panti Bliss about Wilde. I was fascinated by her profound interest in Wilde. She ”admired his defiance. He was unashamed of his queerness, even when it landed him in gaol”. I was flabbergasted with a huge comparison she made. She told me ” Like the rebels in 1916, Oscar may have lost the battle and borne the sad consequences, but the effect of his life and work lived on after him”. I thought it was such a potent comparison considering without leaders like Collins, we might have been living in a different country altogether. As I started asking deeper meaningful questions, she told me that ”We love him because he persevered through difficulties with great wit and humour”. Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin sent me an essay she wrote about a book on Wilde for her college students. She described it as ”gratifying” about the fact people still gather to keep Wilde’s writing alive in ”contemporary use, in the theatre and in the context of children’s reading”.
In conclusion, Wilde’s way of writing can be described as astonishing. His use of dialogue in his plays was much more indirect. Wilde’s dialogue was subtle which engaged the reader profoundly in trying to figure out what the meaning of each significant action. I believe he is the best writer Ireland has ever had. It’s a great honour to have considering Ireland has seen writers like W.B Yeats, Ní Chuilleanáin, Joyce and Beckett.