So said Oscar Wilde, whose birthday it is today.
His mother, Jane Speranza Francesca Wilde (aka Lady Wilde, aka “Speranza”) was an incredible woman in the canon of Irish literary history certainly, not to mention its politics and social upheaval. My father knew a lot about Speranza, of course. She was a poet, a radical, a political firebrand. In 1864, a new edition of her poems came out, and she dedicated it to her two sons:
Dedicated to my sons Willie and Oscar Wilde
‘I made them indeed
Speak plain the word country. I taught them, no doubt,
That country’s a thing one should die for at need’
That gives you a taste of the feeling of the household Wilde grew up in.
His father was a fascinating man as well, a physician who specialized in the eye and ear; to this day there are procedures referred to as “Wilde’s incision”, for example, or “Wilde’s cone of light”, dating back to the mid-1860s, when William Wilde was practicing in Ireland. He was also a writer, and published books on all kinds of things: one of his main interests was the archeology in Ireland, and he published a catalog of antiquities from one particular archeological site, and the book now sits in the National Museum of Ireland. He also published books on folklore, legends, wives’ tales – all of the things that his patients told him, their own received history and “cures” for their ills.
Oscar Wilde’s parents were, frankly, powerhouses.
Wilde grew up in a household of artists and politicians and surgeons and revolutionaries.
He went to Oxford, starting in the year he was 20 years old. Oxford was his beginning. The beginning, certainly, of his notoreity (he was quoted as saying “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” while at Oxford, and it caused quite a stir. People wrote op-ed columns about the decadence of today’s youth, using Oscar Wilde’s comment as the ultimate example). He consciously lost his Irish accent, and while, yes, much of what he did at Oxford was about the appearance of things (he wore formal wear, he was obsessed with decorating his room, he had an “outfit” for everything) – Wilde never did anything by a whim. He was testing the boundaries, he was interested in aesthetics and what that might have to do not only with art but also character, how a man lived. Not to mention his studies. Wilde distinguished himself at Oxford. He encountered many of the writers and philosophers that would make the deepest imprint on him, and leave him forever changed.
One of the things I love about Wilde is how suggestible he was. I suppose that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but I mean “suggestible” as: openness, receptivity. He took everything on, tried it out for a bit, and then was willing to put it aside if it didn’t work for him. Or, if he realized, “That worked for me when I was 20, but now that I am older, it doesn’t have the same impact.” He really wrestled with his literary and philosophical influences. He argued with them in his papers at Oxford, he took them on, examined the implications, and tried to see what he could take from it for his own work (which was still in its infant stage at that point). Pater, Swinburne – these were major influences. Walt Whitman, of course, and he really wrestled with that one. Many of his influences were highly controversial at the time, the New Romantics, the aesthetes, not seen as particularly Christian, as a matter of fact, they were seen as demonic, living only for pleasure. Wilde, while obviously a funny man who liked hanging out with friends, and was always the life of the party, was not really a decadent aesthete (as many of his ‘buddies” were, and speaking of them, a pox on their houses: they were so quick to drop him like a hot potato when he got into trouble, he was abandoned at the end by people who were life-long friends). Wilde, on the other hand, was more refined: He enjoyed art and beauty and the surface of things, but he was too hard a worker, too intelligent and rigorous with his work ethic, to be a true decadent. That is why HE had to take the fall. Who cares if some nobody poet-wannabe gets convicted of sodomy? Nobody cares about that. But Oscar Wilde? That’ll stick it to ‘em.
When Wilde visited America for his whirlwind tour, he made it a point to make a pit-stop to visit (and bow down before) Walt Whitman. Richard Ellmann describes the meeting in his biography of Oscar Wilde:
Wilde initiated the conversation by saying, ‘I come as a poet to call upon a poet.’ Whitman replied, ‘Go ahead.’ Wilde went on, ‘I have come to you as one with whom I have been acquainted almost from the cradle.’ He explained that his mother had purchased a copy of Leaves of Grass when it was published; presumably this was in 1868 (Wilde put it two years earlier), when William Michael Rossetti edited a selection of Whitman’s poems. Lady Wilde read out the poems to her son, and later, when Wilde had gone up to Oxford, he and his friends carried Leaves of Grass to read on their walks. Whitman, in pleased response, went to the cupboard and took out his sister-in-law’s bottle of homemade elderberry wine. Wilde drained without wincing the glass Whitman had filled, and they settled down to consume the rest of the bottle. ‘I will call you Oscar,’ said Whitman, and Wilde, laying his hand on the poet’s knee, replied, ‘I like that so much.’ To Whitman, Wilde was a ‘fine handsome youngster.’ Wilde was too big to take on his lap like other youngsters who visited the sage, but could be coddled if not cuddled.
There is just so much in that description! The encounter goes on. It was not all smiles and adoration. There were disturbing undertones.
The den was filled with dusty newspapers preserved because they mentioned Whitman’s name, and Wilde would complain later to Sherard of the squalid scene in which the poet had to write. It was hard to find a place to sit down, but by removing a stack of newspapers from a chair, Wilde managed to. They had much to talk about. Whitman was eager to know about Swinburne, who had long ago been his English advocate and had written the tribute ‘To Walt Whitman Across the Sea’. Wilde knew Swinburne well enough to promise to relay Whitman’s message of friendship to him. …
Wilde pressed his advantage to ask what Whitman made of the new aesthetic school. Whitman replied with an indulgent smile befitting his sixty-three years, ‘I wish well to you, Oscar, and as to the aesthetes, I can only say that you are young and ardent, and the field is wide, and if you want my advice, go ahead.’ With comparable politeness Wilde questioned Whitman about his theories of poetry and competition. Prosody was not a subject on which Whitman had ever been articulate, except in relentlessly extolling free verse. He responded with wonderful ingenuousness, ‘Well, you know, I was at one time of my life a compositor and when a compositor gets to the end of his stick he stops short and goes ahead on the next line.’ He went on unabashed, ‘I aim at making my verse look all neat and pretty on the pages, like the epitaph on a square tombstone.’ To illustrate, h e outlined such a tombstone with his hands in the air. Wilde treasured the remark and the gesture, and re-enacted them to Douglas Ainslie some years later. But Whitman concluded with impressive simplicity, ‘There are problems I am always seeking to solve.’
God, if we could all always see ourselves as being faced with “problems we are always seeking to solve” … as opposed to feeling that we have the answer, that we know the answer … it would be a better world. And at least for an artist, it is essential to never be “done”. It’s like Rainer Maria Rilke’s great line: “Live the questions.”
After this encounter, Wilde had this to say about Whitman:
He is the grandest man I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times.
A bit of code there (“Greek”), but everyone would have known to what he had referred. Wilde also said something like, “The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips”. Whitman, while troubled by some of the aesthetes’ poses, defended Wilde from criticism. I am not sure if the two men, both homosexuals, admitted such a thing openly to one another. I don’t know if those words would have even been necessary.
Wilde, granted, was extremely careless at the end, and he allowed into his life the Marquess of Queensberry who would be his ruin.
I read about this dreadful gentleman, and what happened to all of his sons, not to mention his own terrible personality, and I can’t help but think: Dude? Look. You’re totally gay, mkay? Just admit it. Nobody is THAT angry without having some tendencies in that direction. You’re gay, Marquess. Totally gay. (Am I actually bitch-slapping the Marquess of Queensberry on my blog 100 plus years after the fact?)
Wilde, in love with the Marquess’ son, could not perceive the danger, could not understand what exactly he was inviting in to his life. When we’re in love, we obviously aren’t always careful. But you read the slow clang of events in Wilde’s life, and you can feel the increasing danger at that point, you can feel how much they wanted to ‘get’ him. Lord Douglas (the Marquess’ son, and Oscar Wilde’s great love) was no great shakes himself, and basically saw a way to “stick it to dear old Dad”, by using Oscar.
Reading the timeline of events, I just want to take Oscar aside and tell him to get the hell out of dodge for a while. It WON’T be worth it.
But alas, it happened.
There is a kindness in Wilde which cannot be denied. I think people often characterize him as a shallow dandy who was “brought down” into the muck, but I don’t find that to be accurate. Yes, he was the promoter of the aesthetic movement, and counseled people on what books to read and how to dress and interior decorate, but it was always for a deeper purpose. Also, anyone that funny could not be shallow. His kindness is not there so much in his early plays, and certainly not there in Salome, but as a person, he was generous, patient, and strong in the face of relentless viciousness. He handled the insults with good humor, skewering his opponents, until he finally came across someone who could not be stopped, who had a chip on his shoulder the size of the entire British Isles, and who was determined to “save” his fairy son from further corruption. (Meanwhile, one of the Marquess’ OTHER sons had also been caught in a compromising relationship with another male, and had killed himself, right around the time that Queensberry started harassing Oscar Wilde. So. Imagine. This short angry little man had two gay sons, both of whom were living in an openly gay manner, in 1895. TWO sons? Unthinkable! It had to have pushed all this guy’s gay buttons. Not to mention the fact that also right around this time, his second wife had divorced him, claiming publicly that his penis was too small for effective intercourse, and also that he was impotent, that the marriage had remained unconsummated. So. Make of that what you will. His unresolved issues ruined another man’s life, a man whose writing I happen to cherish, so I’ve got zero sympathy for the guy.)
And so Wilde found himself a pawn in a fiery family struggle between father (Marquess of Queensberry) and son (Lord Alfred Douglas). Lord Douglas was no shrinking violet in this, Lord Douglas was the main instigator, pushing Wilde further and further into it, forcing the confrontation, glorying in the fact that his famous lover was “sticking it to dear old Dad”. Wilde, as I mentioned, had two pretty extraordinary people as parents, and did not approve of how the Douglas family treated one another. Lord Douglas would send telegrams to his father, saying stuff like, “You are a silly stupid man” and Wilde would just shake his head and remark, “You shouldn’t talk to a parent like that.” Imagine the generosity of this. Here he is talking about a man who is threatening to ruin him, who leaves notes under his front door calling him a “sodomite”, who stages protests outside productions of plays Wilde has written – who was doing everything possible to make Wilde miserable – and here Wilde is, chiding the son for talking to his father in a disrespectful manner. Wilde had class, that’s why.
He, a man of exquisite manners and taste, who loved his parents and remained close to his mother all the days of his life (his father passed away much earlier) found himself embroiled in a brou-haha that would ruin him completely. Fate, doom, whatever you want to call it. Wilde was not an innocent bystander in any way. He had invited Lord Douglas into his life and, therefore, by proxy, invited the Marquess into his life who would ruin everything, but Wilde (unlike Douglas) was not a vindictive person. Wilde knew Douglas could ruin him. Perhaps that was part of the thrill. The beautiful dangerous boy and all that. In reading about Wilde, in reading about all of the literary spats he got into, all of the verbal sparring with current authors of the day, I never feel that he is vindictive. Or cruel. He is clever, and intelligent – and often merciless – but never needlessly cruel.
The Marquess accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde, angry, and rightly so, sued him for libel, Lord Douglas egging him on. This was the defining moment. His fate was sealed. The entire thing might, might, have gone away if Wilde had not sued. Because his suing meant there would be a trial. A highly public trial which would reveal WHY he had sued, and WHAT the Marquess had accused him of.
In the 1895 trial, Charles Gill, the prosecutor, asked Wilde about the “love that dare not speak its name”, a quote which came from a poem by Lord Douglas. Wilde, a broken man already by this point, answered, in a passage that brings tears to my eyes:
The ‘Love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a young man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michaelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michaelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may described as the ‘Love that dare not speak its name,’ and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.
Caricature of Oscar Wilde, by Max Beerbohm
Max Beerbohm, an old friend of Wilde’s (fascinating man himself, a writer, drama critic, and caricaturist) was there that day and wrote to a friend afterwards:
Oscar has been quite superb. His speech about the Love that dares not tell his name was simply wonderful and carried the whole court right away, quite a tremendous burst of applause. Here was this man, who had been for a month in prison, and loaded with insults and crushed and buffeted, perfectly self-possessed, dominating the Old Bailey with his fine presence and musical voice. He has never had so great a triumph, I am sure, as when the gallery burst into applause – I am sure it affected the jury.
It did not.
Wilde was given a sentence of two years hard labor.
Wilde wrote about his passage to prison:
On November 13th 1895 I was brought down here from London. From two o’clock till half-past two on that day I had to stand on the centre platform of Clapham Junction in convict dress and handcuffed, for the world to look at … When people saw me they laughed. Each train as it came up swelled the audience. Nothing could exceed their amusement. That was of course before they knew who I was. As soon as they had been informed, they laughed still more. For half an hour I stood there in the grey November rain surrounded by a jeering mob. For a year after that was done to me I wept every day at the same hour and for the same space of time.
On today, Oscar Wilde’s birthday, a man who has given me so much pleasure, has made me laugh until my stomach hurts, I didn’t mean to write about all his pain and suffering, but I found I couldn’t help it. His suffering was acute, it had an air of sacrificial lamb about it. It was excessive. While in prison, he wrote the blisteringly painful De Profundis, a long letter to Alfred Douglas, a wail of pain and betrayal.
Of late I have been studying with diligence the four prose poems about Christ. At Christmas I managed to get hold of a Greek Testament, and every morning, after I had cleaned my cell and polished my tins, I read a little of the Gospels, a dozen verses taken by chance anywhere. It is a delightful way of opening the day. Every one, even in a turbulent, ill-disciplined life, should do the same. Endless repetition, in and out of season, has spoiled for us the freshness, the naivete, the simple romantic charm of the Gospels. We hear them read far too often and far too badly, and all repetition is anti-spiritual. When one returns to the Greek; it is like going into a garden of lilies out of some, narrow and dark house.
— Oscar Wilde, “De Profundis”, written in prison, 1897
“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is, of course, Wilde’s long ballad about his experiences in prison (full text here). Those only familiar with his plays will immediate recognize the radical alteration of his style. Those familiar with Oscar Wilde’s other poems will also immediately see (just by looking at the thing) that he is up to something different here. His poems were usually lush, intricate, with long lines on the page. Here, this LOOKS like Kipling. It is a ballad. In one of his published lectures, “Speranza in Reading: On ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’”, Irish poet and Nobel prize winner Seamus Heaney makes a case that Wilde, by “coming back” to the ballad form (and its propagandistic purposes), was “coming back” to the example led by his mother, Speranza, who also had her trials and tribulations in the public court (although not as literal as Wilde’s.) She was in the center of a couple of major scandals, some involving her husband, and she behaved with fierce loyalty and grace. Heaney uses Speranza as the jumping-off point to talk about the various versions of “Ballad of Reading Gaol” that had been published – not to mention Yeats’s inclusion of it in the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, a version with some very interesting edits by Yeats himself. Yeats was trying to protect Wilde, even after his death, from his own rhetorical excesses. Heaney goes into that as well, examining the edits and trying to figure out why Yeats decided they needed to go.
Here is an excerpt from that essay.
Excerpt from The Redress of Poetry, by Seamus Heaney
‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ is Wilde’s poem of human solidarity, his attempt to produce, in Kafka’s great phrase, a book that would be an axe to break the frozen sea in each of us. Bu the literary fact of the matter is that the axe which is still capable of shattering the surfaces of convention is neither the realistic ballad which Yeats fashioned nor the original romantic plea from which he extracted it; it is rather the hard-edged, unpathetic prose that Wilde created in dialogues like ‘The Decay of Lying’ and dramas like The Importance of Being Earnest. His brilliant paradoxes, his over-the-topness at knocking the bottom out of things, the rightness of his wrong-footing, all that exhilarated high-wire word-play, all that freedom to affront and exult in his own uniqueness – that was Wilde’s true path towards solidarity. The lighter his touch, the more devastating his effect. When he walked on air, he was on solid ground. But when he stepped on earth to help the plight of lesser mortals, he became Oisin rather than Oscar. His strength dwindled and his distinction vanished. He became like other men. He became one of the chain-gang poets, a broken shadow of the brilliant litterateur who had once written that ‘Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.’ By the time he wrote the ballad, however, his aim had come to be the telling of the ugly true things:
The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair
For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.
Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine.
All the same, if the propagandist ballad is not Oscar Wilde’s proper genre, it is still a kind of writing which was naturally available to him from the start. His mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, had begun her writing career in Dublin in the 1840s with a series of fiery patriotic poems published in the Dublin Magazine. Writing under the pseudonym of ‘Speranza’ and under the impression that her family name, Elgee, meant that she was descended from the Alighieri family – as in Dante Alighieri – the future Lady Wilde composed poems that proclaimed a heartfelt sympathy for the plight of the famine victims in Ireland and a firebrand’s enthusiasm for the cause of rebellion against British rule. Speranza herself, of course, was from a well-to-do Dublin Unionist background, so her association with Charles Gavan Duffy and other activists and intellectuals in the circle was already an act of rebellion, an embrace of the forbidden other which foreshadowed her son’s more extreme rejection of the conventional pieties. And Oscar in his turn was very much in favour of the company she had kept. In a lecture which he gave in San Francisco in 1882 during his famous American tour, he was emphatic about his admiration for those revolutionaries of 1848. His lecture notes survive and contain declarations like the following:
As regards those men of forty-eight, I look on their work with peculiar reverence and love, for I was indeed trained by my mother to love and reverence them, as a catholic child is the saints of the cathedral. The earliest hero of my childhood was Smith O’Brien, whom I remember well – tall and stately with a dignity of one who had fought for a noble idea and the sadness of one who had failed … John Mitchel, too, on his return to Ireland I saw, at my father’s table with his eagle eye and impassioned manner. Charles Gavan Duffy is one of my friends in London, and the poets among them were men who made lives noble poems also … The greatest of them all, and one of the best poets of this century in Europe was, I need not say, Thomas Davis. Born in the year 1814 at Mallow in County Cork, before he was thirty years of age, he and the other young men of the Nation newspaper had, to use Father Burke’s eloquent words, created ‘by sheer power of the Irish intellect, by sheer strength of Irish genius, a national poetry and a national literature which no other nation can equal.’
It would have been no surprise if, after this, Wilde had gone on to write a poem of his own called ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times,’ where he might have wanted himself to be accounted, like Yeats, ‘one / With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson’ and recognized as the ‘True brother of a company / That sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong, / Ballad and story, rann and song.’ But it was surely the very deep-seatedness of Wilde’s familiarity with nineteenth-century Irish patriotic poetry that made him less susceptible to it as a mode of expression. Yeats was converted to Irish themes by the sudden glamour and admirable literary intelligence of John O’Leary, but for Wilde these themes were always a given, if passed-over, element in his heritage. And, of course, he was every bit aware as Yeats ever was of the artistic inadequacies of the work done by the Nation poets, an awareness he veiled very graciously in San Francisco when it came to reading poems by Speranza herself:
Of the quality of Speranza’s poems I, perhaps, should not speak, for criticism is disarmed before love, but I am content to abide by the verdict of the nation, which has so welcomed her genius and understood the song – noticeably for its strength and simplicity – that ballad of my mother’s on ‘The Trial of The Brothers Sheares’ in ’98.
This ballad about the trial of two brothers Wilde then proceeded to read and, in the light of all we know today, it was a most significant choice. Yet even at the time of the San Francisco reading, in 1883, long before Wilde’s own trials, it must already have had a special personal meaning for him. It had been placed first, after all, in Lady Wilde’s first collection of poems when it appeared in 1864. Oscar was then ten years of age and would have been deeply susceptible to the dedication page of the volume which read, ‘Dedicated to my sons Willie and Oscar Wilde’; the page also carried the following quotation:
I made them indeed
Speak plain the word country. I taught them no doubt
That a country’s a thing men should die for at need.
In a book dedicated to them with such patriotic fervour, Oscar and Willie could hardly have failed to take to heart a poem actually called ‘The Brothers’, positioned so unignorably at the front of the collection. In it, the two protagonists are awaiting sentence for their part in the rebellion.
They are pale, but it is not fear that whitens
On each proud, high brow,
For the triumph of the martyr’s glory brightens
Around them even now …
Before them, shrinking, cowering, scarcely human,
The base informer bends,
Who, Judas-like, could sell the blood of true men
While he clasped their hand as friends.
Clearly, it is not such a long poetic step from this story of the betrayal of noble youth by the handclasp of a friend to a realization that ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ [in The Ballad of Reading Gaol]; nor is it possible to ignore the correspondence between this fictional court with its sentenced brother and informer witness – between this and the actual court where the testimony of rent boys would be crucial in securing the conviction of one of the brothers to whom Speranza’s ballad was so pointedly addressed. I am suggesting, in other words, that Oscar’s bearing, years later, in the ‘black dock’s dreadful pen’ may well have been affected by the noble demeanour of the character in his mother’s poem.
He did not last long once he was released from prison. He had lost everything. Most of his friends, his entire library, his social standing, his health.
In 2009, a new book came out by Thomas Wright called Oscar’s Books, an examination of how reading formed Oscar Wilde’s life, the books that made the biggest impact. I read it, and it’s wonderful. (A personal story about this book here.) Brenda Maddox, who wrote Nora, a biography of James Joyce’s wife, in her review of the book, wrote:
Among the humiliations Wilde suffered after being sent to prison were not only compulsory silence – prisoners were forbidden to speak to one another – but deprivation of books. All he had in his cell at Pentonville, apart from his bed (a plank laid across two trestles), were a Bible, a prayer book and a hymnal. When at last his sympathetic MP won him permission to have more books, Wilde nominated Pater’s The Renaissance along with the works of Flaubert and some by Cardinal Newman. These were allowed, but only at the rate of one a week. Moved to Reading Gaol, he found himself under a more sympathetic prison governor. His book request lists after July 1896 show him developing an interest in more recently published titles, including novels by George Meredith and Thomas Hardy. Wilde later said that he also read Dante every day in prison and that Dante had saved his reason.
There was a giant auction at his house to pay off many of his debts, and his books were sold off willy-nilly. It was a circus, many people just there to get a ghoulish view of the sodomite’s lodgings. A couple of his remaining friends actually went out and tracked down many of those sold books, buying them back for Oscar when he got out of prison. Now those are real friends.
At first, he was denied any books while incarcerated. But eventually, the milder warden (mentioned by Maddox) asked if Mr. Wilde could write out a list of the books he would like, and he would see what he could do. The warden would look over the list, catch sight of one controversial title, and scold Mr. Wilde (“This book helped cause all of your troubles, Mr. Wilde …”), but in general, the warden did his best to provide Wilde with a makeshift library. Friends began to send books to the prison. The nice warden would bring them to Wilde’s cell, and Wilde would break down in tears at the sight. And, in Wilde’s prison file, there is a letter from an anonymous “Irishwoman”, written in 1895. It brings tears to my eyes, and makes me feel that yes, there is good, there is mercy on this planet. Listen:
Please give Mr. Wilde the book. I have never ever seen him but it must indeed be a hard heart utterly unacquainted with God’s love that does not bleed for such a shipwrecked life … I feel this book which I send, may be helpful. Faithfully yours, an Irishwoman.
The greatest gift we can give is kindness and understanding. I wish I knew what book she had sent him. Across the century, I love this anonymous Irishwoman as someone who represents the best in all of us.
After his release, Oscar moved to a small village in France. On Nov. 16, 1897, he wrote to a friend:
It is curious how vanity helps keep the successful man and wrecks the failure. In old days half of my strength was my vanity.
Maddox writes in her review:
When he was discharged in May 1897, he was not allowed to take his accumulated books with him and faced what he called the horror of ‘going out into the world without a single book’. But friends rallied round. Entering the hotel room in Dieppe where he was to begin his exile, he found it full of books furnished by his friends and he broke down and wept.
During his exile, he reconnected with Lord Douglas, something many of his friends warned him against, but by that point, Wilde was on his way out. Life had broken him. He converted to Catholicism on his death-bed, something he had wanted to do for years, so much so that it tormented him. His father had not let him convert, back when he was younger, Catholicism was way beyond the pale, but Wilde never got over yearning for it. His yearnings were often aesthetic (naturally), there was something in the ceremony itself that struck deep chords within him (I can relate), but whatever it was, and it’s not for me to say, a local Catholic priest was found in the middle of the night, and baptized Oscar Wilde on his death bed.
I came to him first the way I think it is best to come to him: as an actor, who worked on his plays in college. Rather than an English student, encountering him for the first time through Dorian Gray, a rather Gothic hothouse book, I discovered him through seeing his plays, acting in his plays, and laughing so hard I cried at both seeing and reading, etc. Everything else about Oscar Wilde is just gravy, in my opinion. Although, once you start digging into what happened to him, and the world from which he sprung, and his rebellion and final punishment – it is a deep deep pool. There is a stark tragedy in the life of Oscar Wilde, and yet his work itself is the opposite of tragic. He is one of the only playwrights that make me laugh out loud just reading his words on the page (Shakespeare is the other one). To me, his major life’s work was not his own life (although he did try to create an artistic life, an aesthetic life), or his prose works, his essays, his poetry (all formidable stuff) – and neither do I see his major life’s work as his sacrifice at the end, a martyr to future gay people, an example of a dignified man who paid the ultimate price. A hero, essentially. Which I believe he is. All of these things are extremely important, and you cannot understand Oscar Wilde without understanding all of these elements.
Here is an excerpt from Richard Ellmann’s gigantic and definitive biography of Oscar Wilde, having to do with his triumphant play, Lady Windermere’s Fan (my thoughts here). It was the first of the plays he had written that got produced. The Picture of Dorian Gray had just been published and was a complete scandal. Oscar Wilde’s wife admitted that most of her friends stopped speaking to her after the publication of Dorian Gray. It is certainly an amazingly explicit book with blatant homosexual themes, and it is not difficult to imagine why it was seen as so dangerous and decadent. Wilde was already a celebrity when Dorian Gray was published. His reputation hung in the balance. In many ways, the shadow of Dorian Gray did hang over the rest of his life, until the shadows emerged in their full-form and engulfed him completely. But then came Lady Windermere’s Fan and Wilde became the toast of the town again.
Excerpt from Oscar Wilde, by Richard Ellmann
In February 1892, Lady Windermere’s Fan went into rehearsal. As with all his plays, Wilde attended every day and was full of suggestions and revisions as he observed the effect of his lines. He did not hesitate to tell Alexander his views, and they often disagreed. Two of his surviving letters to Alexander from the rehearsal period refer to discourtesy and friction. Wilde dictated the finest details of position and inflection. He wanted no word of the dialogue to be lost. At first he rejected Alexander’s suggestion that the audience be allowed to know at the end of Act II that Mrs Erlynne and Lady Windermere are mother and daughter. (After the first night he gave in on this point and rewrote the speeches.) The stress of rehearsal, and of quarreling with Alexander, made Wilde so ill that he said he would have to go away for a rest after the opening night. In fact, his malaise dissipated in euphoria.
The theatre was fully booked for the first performance, on 20 February 1892. Wilde’s old flames Florence Balcombe, now Stoker, and Lillie Langry were there, and so was his wife. He got tickets for friends, though not nearly so many as he wished. One went to Pierre Louys, who came over from France, and one to Edward Shelley, a clerk at the Bodley Head whom Wilde was courting and would take to bed that night at the Albemarle Hotel. He sent one to the young artist Graham Robertson and asked him to participate in a little subplot. Robertson was to buy a green carnation at Goodyear’s in the Royal Arcade – ‘They grow them there,’ said Wilde – and to wear it at the performance. Other friends, such as Robert Ross, were to be similarly adorned, and so was Ben Webster, who played Cecil Grahame (a surname borrowed back from ‘The Portrait of Mr. W.H.’). ‘And what does it mean?’ asked Robertson. Wilde replied, ‘Nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess.’ The suggestion of a mysterious confraternity enigmatically binding one of the players with some members of the audience, gave Wilde the delight he had found in Masonic signs. The green carnation was to take on some of the suggestiveness of lilies and sunflowers. With a hint of decadence, the painted flower blended art and nature.
But the audience was not composed only of accomplices. The New York Times acknowledged that it was ‘the most brilliant audience that had gathered for years.’ Frank Harris was there and brought with him a writer for the Times, Arthur Walter, in the hope that this paper would praise the play. Unfortunately Walter disliked it. So did Henry James, to whom it was ‘infantine … both in subject and form.’ Harris came down to the foyer at the interval and discovered that most of the critics were against it. A big man named Joseph Knight, whose life of Rossetti Wilde had disparaged in the Pall Mall Gazette, was getting his own back. ‘The humour is mechanical, unreal,’ he said to Harris, who said nothing. ‘What do you think of it?’ ‘That is for your critics to answer,’ said Harris. ‘I might say in Oscar’s way, “Little promise and less performance,”‘ said Knight, laughing uproariously. ‘That’s the exact opposite of Oscar’s way,’ said Harris; ‘it is the listeners who laugh at his humour.’ ‘Come now, really,’ said Knight, ‘you cannot think much of the play?’ Harris at last allowed himself to be drawn: ‘I have not seen the whole play. I was not at any of the rehearsals. But so far it is surely the best comedy in English, the most brilliant, is it not?’ And, ignoring hoots of derision, he added, ‘I can only compare it to the best of Congreve, and I think it’s better.’ Bernard Shaw also admired it, and on sending Wilde his own first play, Widowers’ Houses, which was produced later the same year, hoped he would find it ‘tolerable amusing, considering that it is a farcical comedy. Unfortunately,’ he added with some deference, ‘I have no power of producing beauty; my genius is the genius of intellect.’
Most of the audience agreed with Harris and Shaw. By the second interval, Wilde was already feeling jubilant. He was standing drinks for his friends in the bar when he caught sight of Le Gallienne and his ‘poem’ (otherwise woman friend), to whom he had sent tickets with the words ‘Come, and bring your poem to sit beside you.’ ‘My dear Richard, where have you been?’ he asked. ‘It seems as if we hadn’t met for years. Now tell me what you have been doing? Ah I remember … Yes … You have pained me deeply, Richard.’ ‘I pained you!~ How?’ ‘You have brought out a new book since I saw you last.’ ‘Well, what of it?’ ‘You have treated me very badly in your book, Richard.’ ‘I treated you badly? You must be confusing my book with somebody else’s. My last book was The Religion of a Literary Man. You must be dreaming, man. Why, I never so much as mentioned you in it.’ ‘Ah, Richard! that was just it!’ In soberer mood he went on to ask what else Le Gallienne had been writing. ‘On loving one’s enemies,’ said Le Gallienne. ‘That’s a great theme,’ said Wilde. ‘I should like to write on that, too. For do you know, all my life I have been looking for twelve men who didn’t believe in me … and so far I have only found eleven.’
After the final curtain the applause was long and hearty, and Wilde came forward from the wings in response to cries of ‘Author!’ He knew how he wished to look, and what he wanted to say. In his mauve-gloved hand was a cigarette (‘out of nervousness,’ according to Mrs Jopling), and in his buttonhole a green carnation. The ‘delightful and immortal speech’ (as he himself described it in a letter to the St James’s Gazette) was accentuated, according to Alexander, in this way: ‘Ladies and gentlemen: I have enjoyed this evening immensely. The actors have given us a charming rendering of a delightful play, and your appreciation has been most intelligent. I congratulate you on the great success of your performance, which persuades me that you think almost as highly of the play as I do myself.’
The conservative critics, his old friend Clement Scott for one, found the cigarette even more outrageous than the egotism. Henry James wrote to Henrietta Reubell, his friend and Wilde’s, that ‘the unspeakable one had responded to curtain calls by appearing with a metallic blue carnation in his buttonhole and a cigarette in his fingers.’ (The color was green-blue, verdigris.) Wilde’s speech he considered inadequate. ‘Ce monsieu gives at last on one’s nerves,’ James confided. Robert Ross, in an interview with Wilde in the St James’s Gazette of 18 January 1895, asked whether Wilde recognized that people found fault with his curtain speeches. Wilde replied, ‘Yes, the old-fashioned idea was that the dramatist should appear and merely thank his kind friends for their patronage and presence. I am glad to say I have altered all that. The artist cannot be degraded into the servant of the public. While I have always recognised the cultural appreciation that actors and audience have shown for my work, I have equally recognised that humility is for the hypocrite, modesty for the incompetent. Assertion is at once the duty and privilege of the artist.’
The crowds came. The Prince of Wales approved. And Alexander noticed that the pit and galleries were as full as the stalls and boxes. ‘My dear Alexander,’ said Wilde, ‘the answer is easy. Servants listen to conversations in drawing rooms and dining rooms. They hear people discussing my play, their curiosity is aroused, and so they fill your theatre. I can see they are servants by their perfect manners.’ Lady Wilde wrote to her son on 24 February, ‘You have had a brilliant success! and I am so happy.’ The play ran from February until 29 July, toured the provinces, and was back on the boards on 31 October. It has held the stage since, just as Dorian Gray has kept its public, because it is better than it seems to be. A kind of poetical glamour pervades it, as Shaw noticed. The audience cannot bear to be inattentive. The characters and plot may be implausible, but the tension of conflicting impulses is expertly sustained, the wit pungent, and the central transvaluation of values, by which the bad woman appears in a good light, the good woman in a bad one, and society in the worst light of all, is cunning.
After the performances, Wilde sometimes went to the Crown, a public house off Charing Cross Road, where Symons, Dowson, Beardsley, Beerbohm, Johnson, and their friends used to congregate, meeting in a little room away from the bar, drinking hot port until half past twelve and till later outside. There was much talk about his play. On 26 May, Wilde spoke at a meeting of the Royal General Theatrical Fund, with his friend George Alexander in the chair. An alderman named Routledge had praised Wilde for calling a spade a spade and for lashing vice in Lady Windermere’s Fan. Wilde disavowed both intentions. ‘I would like to protest against the statement that I have ever called a spade a spade. The man who did so should be condemned to use one. I have also been accused of lashing vice, but I can assure you that nothing was further from my intentions. Those who have seen Lady Windermere’s Fan will see that if there is one particular doctrine contained in it, it is that of sheer individualism. It is not for anyone to censure what anyone else does, and everyone should go his own way, to whatever place he chooses, in exactly the way that he chooses. It is said that literature should be considered an adjunct to the drama, but I am entirely at variance with every intelligent man to whom I have spoken on the subject. Whatever form of literature is created, the stage will be ready to embody it, and to give it a wonderful visible colour and presentation of life. But if we are to have a real drama in England, I feel quite sure it will only be on condition that we wean ourselves from the trammelling conventions which have always been a peril to the theatre. I do not think it makes the smallest difference what a play is if an actor has genius and power. Nor do I consider the British public to be of the slightest importance.’
The epigrams still leave a mark as well. It is quite unsettling what he does, and it is easy to understand why the powers-that-be found him disturbing. His epigrams are NOT just clever. That is the greatest misunderstanding about Wilde. His epigrams have, as their goal, to up-end the status quo. You think you’re going one way, it feels good and right that you are going THIS way, and then the second half of the epigram up-ends your expectations. Leaves you in a state of chaos. Wilde required his audience to be “suggestible” as well. To not just dismiss something out of hand, but to take it on, try it on for size, see what you think about it. Hopefully you’re laughing, throughout, as well, that’s the beauty of Wilde, he is not a scold – and many people did laugh – but, sadly, many people did not. Who was this Irish fairy, wearing velvet suits with flowers in his buttonhole, who was he and who was HE to tell us the status quo needed to not just be up-ended, but laughed at in the process? He’s got a nerve.
Yes, he did.
Here’s an excerpt from one of the scenes in The Importance of Being Earnest, a perfect scene, a classic example of two objectives doing battle. Equal foes.
CECILY. [Advancing to meet her.] Pray let me introduce myself to you. My name is Cecily Cardew.
GWENDOLEN. Cecily Cardew? [Moving to her and shaking hands.] What a very sweet name! Something tells me that we are going to be great friends. I like you already more than I can say. My first impressions of people are never wrong.
CECILY. How nice of you to like me so much after we have known each other such a comparatively short time. Pray sit down.
GWENDOLEN. [Still standing up.] I may call you Cecily, may I not?
CECILY. With pleasure!
GWENDOLEN. And you will always call me Gwendolen, won’t you?
CECILY. If you wish.
GWENDOLEN. Then that is all quite settled, is it not?
CECILY. I hope so. [A pause. They both sit down together.]
GWENDOLEN. Perhaps this might be a favourable opportunity for my mentioning who I am. My father is Lord Bracknell. You have never heard of papa, I suppose?
CECILY. I don’t think so.
GWENDOLEN. Outside the family circle, papa, I am glad to say, is entirely unknown. I think that is quite as it should be. The home seems to me to be the proper sphere for the man. And certainly once a man begins to neglect his domestic duties he becomes painfully effeminate, does he not? And I donï¿½t like that. It makes men so very attractive. Cecily, mamma, whose views on education are remarkably strict, has brought me up to be extremely short-sighted; it is part of her system; so do you mind my looking at you through my glasses?
CECILY. Oh! not at all, Gwendolen. I am very fond of being looked at.
GWENDOLEN. [After examining Cecily carefully through a lorgnette.] You are here on a short visit, I suppose.
CECILY. Oh no! I live here.
GWENDOLEN. [Severely.] Really? Your mother, no doubt, or some female relative of advanced years, resides here also?
CECILY. Oh no! I have no mother, nor, in fact, any relations.
CECILY. My dear guardian, with the assistance of Miss Prism, has the arduous task of looking after me.
GWENDOLEN. Your guardian?
CECILY. Yes, I am Mr. Worthing’s ward.
GWENDOLEN. Oh! It is strange he never mentioned to me that he had a ward. How secretive of him! He grows more interesting hourly. I am not sure, however, that the news inspires me with feelings of unmixed delight. [Rising and going to her.] I am very fond of you, Cecily; I have liked you ever since I met you! But I am bound to state that now that I know that you are Mr. Worthing’s ward, I cannot help expressing a wish you were – well, just a little older than you seem to be – and not quite so very alluring in appearance. In fact, if I may speak candidly -
CECILY. Pray do! I think that whenever one has anything unpleasant to say, one should always be quite candid.
GWENDOLEN. Well, to speak with perfect candour, Cecily, I wish that you were fully forty-two, and more than usually plain for your age. Ernest has a strong upright nature. He is the very soul of truth and honour. Disloyalty would be as impossible to him as deception. But even men of the noblest possible moral character are extremely susceptible to the influence of the physical charms of others. Modern, no less than Ancient History, supplies us with many most painful examples of what I refer to. If it were not so, indeed, History would be quite unreadable.
CECILY. I beg your pardon, Gwendolen, did you say Ernest?
CECILY. Oh, but it is not Mr. Ernest Worthing who is my guardian. It is his brother – his elder brother.
GWENDOLEN. [Sitting down again.] Ernest never mentioned to me that he had a brother.
CECILY. I am sorry to say they have not been on good terms for a long time.
GWENDOLEN. Ah! that accounts for it. And now that I think of it I have never heard any man mention his brother. The subject seems distasteful to most men. Cecily, you have lifted a load from my mind. I was growing almost anxious. It would have been terrible if any cloud had come across a friendship like ours, would it not? Of course you are quite, quite sure that it is not Mr. Ernest Worthing who is your guardian?
CECILY. Quite sure. [A pause.] In fact, I am going to be his.
GWENDOLEN. [Inquiringly.] I beg your pardon?
CECILY. [Rather shy and confidingly.] Dearest Gwendolen, there is no reason why I should make a secret of it to you. Our little county newspaper is sure to chronicle the fact next week. Mr. Ernest Worthing and I are engaged to be married.
GWENDOLEN. [Quite politely, rising.] My darling Cecily, I think there must be some slight error. Mr. Ernest Worthing is engaged to me. The announcement will appear in the Morning Post on Saturday at the latest.
CECILY. [Very politely, rising.] I am afraid you must be under some misconception. Ernest proposed to me exactly ten minutes ago. [Shows diary.]
GWENDOLEN. [Examines diary through her lorgnettte carefully.] It is certainly very curious, for he asked me to be his wife yesterday afternoon at 5.30. If you would care to verify the incident, pray do so. [Produces diary of her own.] I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train. I am so sorry, dear Cecily, if it is any disappointment to you, but I am afraid I have the prior claim.
CECILY. It would distress me more than I can tell you, dear Gwendolen, if it caused you any mental or physical anguish, but I feel bound to point out that since Ernest proposed to you he clearly has changed his mind.
GWENDOLEN. [meditatively.] If the poor fellow has been entrapped into any foolish promise I shall consider it my duty to rescue him at once, and with a firm hand.
CECILY. [Thoughtfully and sadly.] Whatever unfortunate entanglement my dear boy may have got into, I will never reproach him with it after we are married.
GWENDOLEN. Do you allude to me, Miss Cardew, as an entanglement? You are presumptuous. On an occasion of this kind it becomes more than a moral duty to speak oneï¿½s mind. It becomes a pleasure.
CECILY. Do you suggest, Miss Fairfax, that I entrapped Ernest into an engagement? How dare you? This is no time for wearing the shallow mask of manners. When I see a spade I call it a spade.
GWENDOLEN. [Satirically.] I am glad to say that I have never seen a spade. It is obvious that our social spheres have been widely different.
[Enter Merriman, followed by the footman. He carries a salver, table cloth, and plate stand. Cecily is about to retort. The presence of the servants exercises a restraining influence, under which both girls chafe.]
MERRIMAN. Shall I lay tea here as usual, Miss?
CECILY. [Sternly, in a calm voice.] Yes, as usual. [Merriman begins to clear table and lay cloth. A long pause. Cecily and Gwendolen glare at each other.]
GWENDOLEN. Are there many interesting walks in the vicinity, Miss Cardew?
CECILY. Oh! yes! a great many. From the top of one of the hills quite close one can see five counties.
GWENDOLEN. Five counties! I don’t think I should like that; I hate crowds.
CECILY. [Sweetly.] I suppose that is why you live in town? [Gwendolen bites her lip, and beats her foot nervously with her parasol.]
GWENDOLEN. [Looking round.] Quite a well-kept garden this is, Miss Cardew.
CECILY. So glad you like it, Miss Fairfax.
GWENDOLEN. I had no idea there were any flowers in the country.
CECILY. Oh, flowers are as common here, Miss Fairfax, as people are in London.
GWENDOLEN. Personally I cannot understand how anybody manages to exist in the country, if anybody who is anybody does. The country always bores me to death.
CECILY. Ah! This is what the newspapers call agricultural depression, is it not? I believe the aristocracy are suffering very much from it just at present. It is almost an epidemic amongst them, I have been told. May I offer you some tea, Miss Fairfax?
GWENDOLEN. [With elaborate politeness.] Thank you. [Aside.] Detestable girl! But I require tea!
CECILY. [Sweetly.] Sugar?
GWENDOLEN. [Superciliously.] No, thank you. Sugar is not fashionable any more. [Cecily looks angrily at her, takes up the tongs and puts four lumps of sugar into the cup.]
CECILY. [Severely.] Cake or bread and butter?
GWENDOLEN. [In a bored manner.] Bread and butter, please. Cake is rarely seen at the best houses nowadays.
CECILY. [Cuts a very large slice of cake, and puts it on the tray.] Hand that to Miss Fairfax.
[Merriman does so, and goes out with footman. Gwendolen drinks the tea and makes a grimace. Puts down cup at once, reaches out her hand to the bread and butter, looks at it, and finds it is cake. Rises in indignation.]
GWENDOLEN. You have filled my tea with lumps of sugar, and though I asked most distinctly for bread and butter, you have given me cake. I am known for the gentleness of my disposition, and the extraordinary sweetness of my nature, but I warn you, Miss Cardew, you may go too far.
CECILY. [Rising.] To save my poor, innocent, trusting boy from the machinations of any other girl there are no lengths to which I would not go.
GWENDOLEN. From the moment I saw you I distrusted you. I felt that you were false and deceitful. I am never deceived in such matters. My first impressions of people are invariably right.
CECILY. It seems to me, Miss Fairfax, that I am trespassing on your valuable time. No doubt you have many other calls of a similar character to make in the neighbourhood.
One of the most satisfying scenes ever written, which is why it is done so often in acting classes. A perfect lesson for young actors on how to play your objective, while trying desperately to look like you are NOT playing an objective, which is how most people live their lives in real life. Easier said than done, but that’s a great scene to practice with.
Some quotes from (and about) Wilde below.
Mankind has been continually entering the prisons of Puritanism, Philistinism, Sensualism, Fanaticism, and turning the key on his own spirit: But after a time there is an enormous desire for higher freedom – for self-preservation.
The mind of a thoroughly well-informed man is a dreadful thing. It is like a bric-a-brac shop, all monsters and dust, with everything priced above its proper value.
To win back my youth … there is nothing I wouldn’t do – except take exercise, get up early, or be a useful member of the community.
Miss Morris is the greatest actress I ever saw, if it be fair to form an opinion of her from her rendition of this one role. We have no such powerfully intense actress in England. She is a great artist, in my sense of the word, because all she does, all she says, in the manner of the doing and the saying, constantly evoke the imagination to supplement it. That is what I mean by art.
To disagree with three-fourths of the British public on all points is one of the first elements of sanity.
from a letter Wilde wrote to Walt Whitman:
Tennyson’s rank is too well fixed and we love him too much. But he has not allowed himself to be a part of the living world and of the great currents of interest and action. He is of priceless value and yet he lives apart from his time. He lives in a dream of the unreal. We, on the other hand, move in the very heart of today.
Wilde on Walt Whitman:
He is the grandest man I have ever seen, the simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life. I regard him as one of those wonderful, large, entire men who might have lived in any age and is not peculiar to any people. Strong, true, and perfectly sane: the closest approach to the Greek we have yet had in modern times.
To be either a Puritan, a prig or a preacher is a bad thing. To be all three at once reminds me of the worst excesses of the French Revolution.
The most graceful thing I ever beheld was a miner in a Colorado silver mine driving a new shaft with a hammer; at any moment he might have been transformed into marble or bronze and become noble in art forever.
Praise makes me humble. But when I am abused I know I have touched the stars.
1883, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marie Prescott:
All the great men of France were cuckolds. Haven’t you observed this? All! In every period. By their wives or their mistresses. Villon, Moliere, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Victor Hugo, Musset, Balzac, kings, generals, poets! Those I mention, a thousand more that I could name, were all cuckolds. Do you know what that means? I will tell you. Great men, in France, have loved women too much. Women don’t like that. They take advantage of this weakness. In England, great men love nothing, neither art, nor wealth, nor glory … nor women. It’s an advantage, you can be sure.
1883, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marie Prescott:
Now, one of the facts of physiology is the desire of any very intensified emotion to be relieved by some emotion that is its opposite. Nature’s example of dramatic effect is the laughter of hysteria or the tears of joy. So I cannot cut my comedy lines. Besides, the essence of good dialogue is interruption.
1885, letter of Oscar Wilde to Marillier
There is an unknown land full of strange flowers and subtle perfumes, a land of which it is joy of all joys to dream, a land where all things are perfect and poisonous.
1885, letter of Oscar Wilde to James Whistler
Be warned in time, James; and remain, as I do, incomprehensible: to be great is to be misunderstood.
To be at one with the elements seems to be Mr. Swinburne’s aim. He seeks to speak with the breath of wind and wave … He is the first lyric poet who has tried to make an absolute surrender of his personality, and he has succeeded. We have the song, but we never know the singer … Out of the thunder and splendour of words, he himself says nothing. We have often heard man’s interpretation of Nature; now we know Nature’s interpretation of man, and she has curiously little to say. Force and Freedom form her vague message. She deafens us with her clangours.
As for George Meredith, who could hope to reproduce him? His style is chaos illumined by brilliant flashes of lightning. As a writer he has mastered everything, except language; as a novelist he can do everything, except tell a story.
How much truer Imagination is than Observation.
The amount of pleasure one gets out of dialect is a matter entirely of temperament. To say “mither” instead of “mother” seems to many the acme of romance. There are others who are not quite so ready to believe in the pathos of provincialism.
Actors are so fortunate. They can choose whether they will appear in tragedy or comedy … But in real life it is different. Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualifications.
It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
We Irish are too poetical to be poets; we are a nation of brilliant failures, but we are the greatest talkers since the Greeks.
letter of Oscar Wilde to W.B. Maxwell
You mustn’t take a story that I told you of a man and a picture. No, absolutely, I want that for myself. I fully mean to write it, and I should be terribly upset if I were forestalled.
Oscar Wilde, responding to a critic who balked at all of the literary references in “Dorian Gray”:
I cannot imagine how a casual reference to Suetonius and Petronius Arbiter can be construed into evidence of a desire to impress by an assumption of superior knowledge. I should fancy that the most ordinary of scholars is perfectly well acquainted with the Lives of the Caesars and with The Satyricon. The Lives of the Caesars, at any rate, forms part of the curriculum at Oxford for those who take the Honour School of Literae Humaniores; and as for The Satyricon, it is popular even among passmen, though I suppose they have to read it in translations.
George Bernard Shaw to R.E. Golding Bright, Nov. 19, 1894
You must give up detesting everything appertaining to Oscar Wilde or to anyone else. The critic’s first duty is to admit, with absolute respect, the right of every man to his own style.
Anyone can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature – it requires, in fact, the nature of a true Individualist to sympathise with a friend’s success.
Mallarme is a poet, a true poet. But I prefer him when he writes in French, because in that language he is incomprehensible, while in English, unfortunately, he is not. Incomprehensibility is a gift, not everyone has it.
1891 letter from Stephen Mallarme to James Whistler
No O.W. —! just like him! He pushes ingratitude to the point of indecency, then? — And all the old chestnuts — he dares offer them in Paris like new ones! — the tales of the sunflower — his walks with the lily — his knee breeches — his rose-colored stiff shirts — and all that! — And then ‘Art’ here — ‘Art’ there — It’s really obscene — and will come to a bad end — As we shall see — and you will tell me how it happens –
I detest nature where man has not intervened with his artifice.
1891 letter of Oscar Wilde to Edmond de Goncourt
One can adore a language without speaking it well, as one can love a woman without understanding her. French by sympathy, I am Irish by race, and the English have condemned me to speak the language of Shakespeare.
I have equally recognised that humility is for the hypocrite, modesty for the incompetent.
1891, letter of Andre Gide to Paul Valery
Forgive my being silent: after Wilde I only exist a little.
“Know thyself!” was written over the portal of the ancient world … the message of Christ to man was simply, “Be thyself.”
I can see they are servants by their perfect manners.
For do you know, all my life I have been looking for twelve men who didn’t believe in me …. and so far I have only found eleven.
Poem by Dorothy Parker:
If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.
Happy birthday, to Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde. I wish I could reach across time and tell you that “it gets better“, although the message would not do you much good in your own era. You were the pioneer. You made the ultimate sacrifice. You did not sacrifice your integrity. For that, you are an example. Although I have focused much today on your tragedy, it is your humor and your plays that ring across centuries. They will live forever. I salute you.