Most people know the 19th century author, poet, and screenwriter for his wit and frequent quotes, as well as his early works on aestheticism, but the life of Oscar Wilde was one that took a turn for the tragic. While I don’t agree with all his decisions, he was still a brilliant man with an extraordinary future he never got to see.
Wilde was born in 1854 to a wealthy upper-class family in Dublin, Ireland. His mother was a poet and his father was Ireland’s leading oto-ophthalmologic (ear and eye) surgeon. They lived in a nice neighborhood in a spacious home with the three children, and kept a villa for the summers. Wilde was educated by a governess until he was nine, at which age he began attending a fancy school.
Long story short, he was living the ideal childhood.
This reality began to shatter when Wilde was only twelve and his sister died of meningitis. Later he would go on to write the heartbreaking poem Requiescat (which means “a wish or prayer for the repose of the dead”).
Despite this tragedy, Wilde and his older brother shared a dorm room in college, where Wilde grew to be one of the most well-known students for his brilliance, radical writing, and overall flamboyance. He was fascinated by the Catholic church, although remaining a Protestant for most of his life. Additionally, he supported the philosophy of aestheticism, which basically states that “the Arts should provide refined sensuous pleasure, rather than convey moral or sentimental messages“. He believed that the rationality of human beings was less important than the experience of their existence.
During college, he wrote for various papers and publications. After he graduated, these were compiled into a small book that sold exceptionally well for the time period. Because of this, he was able to travel on tour, mainly in America. Audiences fell in love with his style and slightly eccentric personality. The tour was planned for four months, but it was so successful, it continued for over a year, and Wilde grew popular in the country.
He returned to Ireland and there fell in love with a woman named Constance Lloyd. A few years later they married, and had two sons as a result. Wilde supported his family with a strong career in journalism, as well as the publication of thirteen short stories, nine plays, and countless poems spread out through his lifetime. He wrote two books, but only one was published: The Picture of Dorian Gray.
It was before and during this point in his life that Wilde is often credited with his finest epigrams. Ranging from solemn to mocking to downright hilarious, they made him a true hit with the public. His fame was widespread and he was frequently quoted. Critics either loved or hated him for his dynamic personality and views. He was the kind of man that elicited a reaction out of everyone, the kind of man that had a real passion for life. Things were going great.
Then everything started to fall apart. Years of conspiracy and lies from his past were uncovered in court– things that shocked everyone, from his wife to his country.
It began when one of his rivals, who was, at the time, the Marquess of Queensberry, left a calling-card at Wilde’s club that read “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite.” (A sodomite is basically someone who ignores God’s commandment that life is meant to be shared between a male and a female. To put it delicately.)
Wilde was so infuriated, he took Queensberry to court for libel (written slander). The only way Queensberry could avoid the charge would be to prove that what he’d said was true.
So, he did.
As sodomy was a crime at that time, Wilde went to court. He was pronounced guilty through sufficient evidence and sentenced to two years of hard labor for homosexual relations.
While in prison, it seems his spirit broke. He wrote a 50,000 word letter to close friend Robert Ross, detailing his sorrow, guilt, and the spiritual journey he’d undergone, living in a place so close to death. Later, he would write a poem titled The Ballad of Reading Gaol*, a tragic story about all the prisoners he lived with and their struggle to find themselves in the face of the ever-present death. It’s really moving and I would recommend it.
When he got out of prison, in bad health but in better spirits, Wilde requested a Catholic retreat. It was denied.
He left for France the next day, and lived with his friend, more or less penniless. During that time, he wrote poetry and edited and published two of his plays. Due to the time in the rough Irish prison, his health grew steadily worse. (Sidenote: the infamous line “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go” was spoken during this time. Let’s just say the room wasn’t refurbished until after his death.)
Before he died, however, Wilde was inducted into the Catholic church, which had been a goal of his for a long time. He died in the company of friends, still somewhat coherent despite being injected with morphine.
A small happiness in the life of a man whose descent from luxury and style to prison and poverty captured the world’s imagination and spurred some of the greatest writing of all time.
*”Reading Gaol” was the prison Wilde was sent to for the duration of his sentence.
“Oscar Wilde.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 13 Aug. 2011. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_wilde>.
“The Official Web Site of Oscar Wilde.” CMG Worldwide. Web. 13 Aug. 2011. <http://www.cmgww.com/historic/wilde/>.
“Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde.” Emotional Literacy Education and Self-Knowledge. Web. 13 Aug. 2011. <http://emotionalliteracyeducation.com/classic_books_online/rgaol10.htm>.
Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Illustrated Stories, Plays and Poems of Oscar Wilde. London: Collins, 1996. Print.