Last reviewed: June 2018
Irish playwright, novelist, and poet
October 16, 1854
November 30, 1900
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born the second son of Sir William Robert Wills Wilde, surgeon oculist in ordinary to the Queen, and Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde, known as the Irish revolutionary author “Speranza.” Early noted for his casual brilliance, Wilde won prizes at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, and later in Trinity College, Dublin, where the Reverend John Mahaffy encouraged Wilde’s passion for Hellenic culture. Having studied under two famous masters, John Ruskin and Walter Pater, Wilde achieved recognition at Magdalen College, Oxford, for taking double firsts in classics examinations and for winning the Newdigate Prize for the poem “Ravenna” in 1878. Oscar Wilde
Famous for his peacock feathers, sunflowers, dados, blue china, long hair, velveteen breeches, and later his green carnations, Wilde first distinguished himself with the public as the leader of London’s art-for-art’s-sake school of aesthetics. He and his cohorts were lampooned in cartoons, novels, and comic opera, but he remained a sought-after conversationalist. Everyone eagerly followed his outrageous affectations, witty sayings, and paradoxes; and no one ever heard him utter an oath or an off-color remark.
When Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (1881), a spoof of aestheticism, was to tour North America, Richard D’Oyly Carte engaged Wilde for a lecture series to promote American interest in the operetta. Then, following a stint in Paris, where he mingled with the artistic elite and wrote the quasi-Elizabethan tragedy The Duchess of Padua, Wilde returned to the United States to see Vera, his political romance set in revolutionary Russia, open and close after one week on the boards. He went back to Great Britain to lecture on Impressions of America and there rekindled his acquaintance with Constance Mary Lloyd, the daughter of a prominent Irish barrister, whom he married in 1884 and with whom he had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. In 1886, Wilde met Robert Ross, the unfailing friend who most aided Wilde after his release from prison and who, after Wilde’s death, fought to protect his corpus and resurrect his name. From 1887 to 1889, Wilde edited The Lady’s World magazine—changing the title to The Woman’s World—and began the eight-year period that saw his most significant work appear.
The first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890 to a flurry of outrage. Expanded and balanced, the second version, Wilde’s only novel, fully works through the human implications of the conflict between the aesthetics of Ruskin and Pater (represented by the artist Basil Hallward and the writer Lord Henry Wotton) as they vie for influence over Dorian.
The year 1891 witnessed the production in New York of The Duchess of Padua (under the title Guido Ferranti), the publication in England of several volumes of new and collected works, the writing of Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the composition in France (in French) of Salomé, the Symbolist jewel that Richard Strauss later transformed into an opera. In that year also occurred the fateful encounter with Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”) that ensnared Wilde in the cycle of dependency and abuse he so heartrendingly detailed to Bosie in his letter from prison, a severely edited version of which was first published in 1905 as De Profundis. Four years later this relationship led the Marquess of Queensbury (Douglas’s father) to address Wilde publicly as a “sodomite,” bringing about, at Douglas’s instigation, Wilde’s suit against Queensbury for libel and the ensuing countersuit that earned Wilde two years’ hard labor in Wandsworth and Reading prisons.
Happily for Wilde and for generations of theatrical audiences, those intervening four years provided Wilde scope to create his four social comedies, the works (outside of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Wilde’s eminently quotable epigrams) for which he remains most widely remembered. Each of these plays achieved astounding success on the London stage, furnishing Wilde both with a well-deserved respite from debt and with the opportunity playfully to deconstruct Victorian ideology, perhaps the true reason behind his incarceration.
After his release from prison, Wilde took the name Sebastian Melmoth from the 1820 gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer, written by his maternal great-granduncle, the Reverend Charles Maturin. Though personally always light-hearted, Wilde lived out his last sad years on the Continent, grievously estranged from his wife and children, at the insistence of the Lloyds, and always short of funds, though Constance increased his allowance after he published The Ballad of Reading Gaol, called by William Butler Yeats the strongest poem of the century. Following an operation for encephalitis arising from an ear injury sustained in prison, Wilde died at the Hôtel d’Alsace after embracing the Catholicism to which he had long aspired. Originally buried in Bagneux Cemetery, his remains were moved in 1909 to Père Lachaise, where they lie beneath a tomb sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein.
Wilde’s talents were, in his own time, acknowledged by George Bernard Shaw, Frank Harris, James McNeill Whistler, and, of course, Wilde himself. One has only to read his gemlike fairy tales or his letter to the Daily Chronicle (1897), urging the state to reconsider its policy of incarcerating young children under the same hideous conditions as hardened criminals, to recognize the depth of love for humanity that hides behind what often passes in both Wilde’s work and behavior for mere sparkling frivolity. Perhaps the true brilliance of his last and best-loved play, The Importance of Being Earnest, lies in its visionary conception of a genial and benevolent society unencumbered by hypocritical moral earnestness or snobbish self-importance.