Oscar Wilde is well-known for his wit, his flamboyance, and his imprisonment. Fewer know that a trial turned upside-down led to a perforated eardrum, which later led to his death.
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland. He was baptized in St. Mark's Church, Dublin, the local Anglican church.
Wilde's father, Sir William Wilde, was Ireland's leading oto-ophthalmologic surgeon, meaning he treated ears and eyes. He treated the poor for free and later founded an eye and ear hospital. He was knighted in 1864 for his services as a medical adviser and for serving as a census commissioner for Ireland. He also wrote books about Irish archaeology and peasant folklore. He had three children out of wedlock, prior to his marriage, with three different mothers. He acknowledged those children, but they were raised by other relatives.
His mother, Jane Elgee Wilde, wrote poetry for the revolutionary Young Irelanders under the pseudonym Speranza - "Hope" in Italian. She was an authority on Celtic myths and folklore; she read Young Irelanders poems to her sons.
Wilde was educated at home until the age of nine. He learned German from his governess, French from a maidservant. In 1864 he began attending Portora Royal School, where he learned to love the Greek and Roman classics. He won the Royal School Scholarship to attend Trinity College in Dublin.
Beginning in 1871, Wilde read the classics at Trinity College. He referred to his tutor, J.P. Mahaffy, as his first and best teacher. Mahaffy, in return, called Wilde his creation during the height of Wilde's fame, then called Wilde a blot on his tutorship when his reputation spiraled.
Wilde received Trinity's Foundation Scholarship, the highest honor awarded to undergrads, along with the Berkeley Gold Medal and the Demyship scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford.
While at Magdalen College he became well-known for his interest in the aesthetic movement, the pursuit of beauty for its own sake. He began wearing his hair long and he decorated his room with peacock feathers, lilies, blue china, and various art objects. He famously said, "I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china" - the words became a slogan for aesthetes, and they were used by their critics to make fun of the aesthetics.
Wilde had an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome in 1877, then he began the process of converting to Catholicism. However, his father threatened to cut off his funds if he did so. On the day he was supposed to be baptized, he sent altar lilies in his place.
In 1878, Wilde's poem, "Ravenna," won the Newdigate Prize. After graduating from Oxford, Wilde returned to Dublin and tried to reconnect with a former sweetheart, Florence Balcombe. She chose to marry Bram Stoker instead - the man who would later write "Dracula."
Wilde moved to London, living the life of a bachelor with a friend, portraitist Frank Miles. In 1881 he published a collection of his works, "Poems," which sold out in its first printing. The book was bound in enamel parchment, the cover was embossed with a gilt blossom, and the poems were printed on handmade Dutch paper. Some critics accused him of plagiarism, saying his poems were too similar to those of Algernon Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Keats.
"Poems" brought Wilde enough fame to make him desirable on the lecture circuit. In 1882 he traveled to New York to deliver the first of 140 lectures in 9 months, with topics including "The English Renaissance," "The Decorative Arts," and "The House Beautiful." For his lectures Wilde wore velvet jackets, knee breeches, and black silk stockings. He said, "Perhaps one of the most difficult things for us to do is to choose a notable and joyous dress for men. There would be more joy in life if we were to accustom ourselves to use all the beautiful colours we can in fashioning our own clothes." During his tour he met poets Henry Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Walt Whitman.
After his American tour, Wilde started another lecture tour in England and Ireland.
In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd, daughter of a wealthy Queen's Counsel. The couple would have two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. Wilde found himself physically repelled during his wife's second pregnancy.
The couple stretched their income to its limits. Her family's wealth and his reputation as an aesthete meant they had to have luxurious furnishings. Their home on Tite Street featured a drawing room with dragons on a blue ceiling, peacock feathers set into the plaster of the walls, and black and white bamboo chairs. Works by the artist James Whistler decorated their walls.
Wilde wrote downstairs, in a yellow room at the front of the house, which featured red lacquered woodwork, a statue of Hermes, and pictures by Monticelli and Simeon Solomon.
Wilde became editor of "The Lady's World" magazine in 1887. He renamed it "The Woman's World" and raised its tone, adding articles on parenting, culture, fiction, and politics to the standard fashion fare. He wrote, "The Lady's World" should be made the recognized organ for the expression of women's opinions on all subjects of literature, art and modern life, and yet it should be a magazine that men could read with pleasure."
In 1891 Wilde published his only novel, "The Picture of Dorian Gray," which explores aesthetics and vanity. Wilde said, "Yes, there is a terrible moral in 'Dorian Gray' - a moral which the prurient will not be able to find in it, but it will be revealed to all whose minds are healthy. Is this an artistic error? I fear it is. It is the only error in the book."
Wilde switched to playwriting, starting with "Lady Windermere's Fan" and ending with "The Importance of Being Earnest," his most famous play. All were satirical comedies.
He also published "Intentions," a collection of essays about aestheticism.
From Plaintiff to Defendant
In 1891 Wild met Lord Alfred Douglas, a young man who was the son of the Marquis of Queensberry. The two enjoyed an intimate friendship that soon evolved into an affair. Although homosexual activities were illegal at the time, the two men were indiscreet.
When the Marquis learned of their relationship, he left an accusatory calling card at Wilde's home. Wilde sued him for libel - clearly a mistake, for once the trial began, enough evidence was presented, including love letters, for the judge to not only dismiss the libel charges against the Marquis, but also bring charges of indecency against Wilde. The plaintiff became the defendant - Wilde was arrested, then later convicted and sentenced to two years in prison.
The trial left him bankrupt. The Tite Street house and furnishings were auctioned off.
In 1897, while serving his sentence, Wilde wrote "De Profundis," a 50,000-word letter to Douglas describing his spiritual journey.
Prison was especially difficult for Wilde, because he was used to creature comforts. He said, ""One of the many lessons that one learns in prison is, that things are what they are and will be what they will be." A friend gained permission to bring Wilde some books in prison, including a bible in French, Italian and German grammars, Ancient Greek texts, and Dante's "Divine Comedy." At one point Wilde collapsed from illness and hunger, rupturing his right eardrum. He was hospitalized for two months.
In May of 1897 Wilde was released from prison, ill and penniless. Wilde's wife would not see him and would not let him see his sons, but she sent him some money. Their marriage ended in 1898. Wilde's ex-wife and two sons changed their last name to Holland.
Wilde lived in exile on the Continent with friends, using the name Sebastian Melmoth after the title character in Charles Maturin's gothic novel, "Melmoth the Wanderer." He briefly reunited with Douglas, but their families separated them by threatening to cut off funds. Wilde noted, "When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."
Wilde's last work, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," was a long poem about the harshness of prison life.
On November 25, 1900, Wilde developed cerebral meningitis, presumably brought on by his ruptured eardrum. Four days later he was conditionally baptized into the Catholic Church.
On November 30, 1900, Wilde died, destitute, in Paris.
Wilde was famous for his epigrams, such as, "I have the simplest tastes. I am always satisfied with the best," and "Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."
His wit and appreciation for aesthetics were present until the end. On his deathbed, Wilde said, "This wallpaper will be the death of me - one of us will have to go."
His tomb, an elaborate monument with an anatomically correct Modernist angel, was designed by Sir Jacob Epstein. The epitaph is a verse from Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol." The tomb's angel was eventually vandalized, having its masculinity removed, presumably in contempt of Wilde's sexual orientation. In 2000 Leon Johnson, a multimedia artist, installed a silver prosthesis.
Over the years many visitors kissed the tomb of Oscar Wilde, eventually creating a layer of lipstick marks. In 2011 the tomb was cleaned, then it was enclosed by a glass barrier.
Oscar Wilde is beloved by many for his literature and for his exuberance. He was a unique individual, and an artist whose words are his legacy. As he once said, "Art is the most intense mode of individualism that the world has known."