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.
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 a stir. People wrote horrified op-ed columns about the decadence of today’s youth, using Oscar Wilde’s comment as the ultimate example). Wilde consciously lost his Irish accent, and created a persona: he wore formal wear, he was obsessed with decorating his room, he had an “outfit” for everything. Wilde was testing the boundaries, interested in aesthetics and what that might have to do not only with art but also character, how a man lived.
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. “Suggestible” meaning: 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 was able to let go. 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 were major influences. Many of his influences were very controversial at the time, the New Romantics, the aesthetes, not seen as particularly Christian, as a matter of fact, they were viewed as demonic, living only for pleasure and effete sensuality. Wilde, while obviously a funny man who liked hanging out with friends, was not really a decadent aesthete (as many of his ‘buddies” actually were). Wilde was more refined: He enjoyed art and beauty and the surface appearance 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 send a real message.
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.
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.’
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”), and 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 near 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? You’re totally gay, okay? Just admit it. Nobody is THAT angry without having some tendencies in that direction, not even back then.
Wilde, in love with the Marquess’ son, could not perceive the danger, could not understand what exactly he was inviting into 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, you can feel how much Wilde and Lord Douglas wanted to ‘get’ the Marquess. Lord Douglas (the Marquess’ son) was no great shakes himself, and basically saw a way to “stick it to dear old Dad”, by using the famous Oscar.
There is a kindness in Wilde which cannot be denied. I think people often characterize him as a witty 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. It is the people who are serious all the time who are the real shallow ones.
Wilde 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 Empire, 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. 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. Make of that what you will. A tinder box of problems. His unresolved issues ruined another man’s life, so I’ve got zero sympathy for the guy.)
Illustration for Oscar Wilde’s “Salome”, done by Aubrey Beardsley
And so Wilde found himself a pawn in a family struggle between father (Marquess of Queensberry) and son (Lord Alfred Douglas). Lord Douglas was the main instigator, pushing Wilde further and further into it, forcing the confrontation. Wilde had two 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.”
Here he was talking about a man who was threatening to ruin him, who left notes under his front door calling him a “sodomite”, who staged protests outside productions of plays Wilde has written – who was doing everything possible to make Wilde miserable as well as criminal – and here was Wilde, chiding the son for talking to his father in a disrespectful manner. Wilde had class. Real class.
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. Wilde had invited Lord Douglas into his life and, therefore, 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 cruel.
The Marquess accused Wilde of sodomy. Wilde, angry, Lord Douglas egging him on, sued him for libel. This was the defining moment. Wilde’s fate was sealed the second he sued. The entire thing might, might, have gone away if Wilde had not sued. 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, writer/drama critic/caricaturist and an old friend of Wilde’s 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 had an air of the 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 poem 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. 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.
Here is an excerpt from Heaney’s essay.
‘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.
Wilde did not last long once he was released from prison. He had lost everything, most of his friends (who turned out to be the fair-weather brand), 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. 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 his debts, and his books were sold off. It was a circus, many people there just 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 books sold that day, 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.
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 to others is kindness and understanding. I wish I knew what book she had sent him. I imagine a prayer book. 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. His father had not let him convert back when he was younger. Catholicism was way beyond the pale for people of their class and standing, but Wilde never got over yearning for it. 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, working on his plays in college.
There is a stark tragedy in the life of Oscar Wilde, and yet his work is the opposite of tragic. He is one of the only playwrights who makes 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 generations, 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.
But for me, it’s about the plays: A Woman of No Importance (my thoughts here), The Importance of Being Earnest (my thoughts here), An Ideal Husband (my thoughts here). That’s the legacy.
The epigrams leave a huge mark as well. It is quite unsettling what he does within them, 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, that he was “clever.” The man was a radical.) is epigrams have as their goal to up-end the status quo. To turn society upside down. You think you’re going one way when he starts out, it feels good and right that you are going that way, and then the second half of the epigram scrambles everything up, leaving you in a state of chaos.
Hopefully you’re laughing, throughout, as well, that’s the beauty of Wilde, he was not a scold.
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.
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.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
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.