Comedy, tragedy, love, discrimination, simplicity, decadence—all can be used to describe the paradoxical life of Oscar Wilde. His life is a complicated one, but all the more interesting for it. Since his death in 1900, Wilde has become a rallying point for the gay community after all the persecution he faced for nothing more than loving another man. His writing speaks for itself, and it’s easy to get lost in his words for hours at a time, but the best way to truly appreciate the genius behind the words is to take a look at the artist himself.
“Art is the only serious thing in the world. And the artist is the only person who is never serious.”
–Oscar Wilde, From A Few Maxims For The Instruction Of The Over-Educated
One of the foremost voices in the Aesthetic Movement of the late nineteenth century, Oscar Wilde became renowned for his irreverently witty plays, including The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband (both of which have been adapted into films starring the ever-so-handsome Rupert Everett). Wilde preached the concept of art for art’s sake, or as he so eloquently phrases it in his work The Decay of Lying, “Art never expresses anything but itself.” The only novel he ever wrote, The Picture of Dorian Gray, exemplifies this idea of art for art’s sake and is absolutely worth the effort of trudging through some of the obfuscated language.
People first really began taking note of Wilde’s flamboyant ways during his time at Oxford University. He began wearing his hair in its signature flowing style and became vocal in his distaste for “manly sports.” This behavior raised more than a few brows of his contemporaries, especially during a time when homosexual activity, legally termed “sodomy,” was an offense punishable with jail time. You read that right. At this time the UK was serious about its bigotry. However, in spite of whatever suspicions his colleges had and whatever rumors were whispered between friends, Oscar Wilde eventually married Constance Lloyd, and the couple seemed happily married. They even had two sons together, and for a while the whispers were silenced with regard to Wilde’s sexuality.
“I have always been of opinion that a man who desires to get married should know either everything or nothing.”
–From The Importance of Being Earnest
You might be wondering how a happily married man with a wife and two sons could be such a prominent gay cultural icon. Here’s the thing: Constance Lloyd wasn’t his only lover. Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, a notable Uranian poet (meaning his work praised the Ancient Greek tradition of pederasty), was arguably Wilde’s most notable male lover. Their relationship was far from tranquil, and they often had spats that did nothing to help keep their forbidden love secret. So it wasn’t long until Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, caught wind of what was happening between his son and the famous playwright. The Marquess of Queensberry made no bones about his feelings, telling Bosie that he’d divorced his mother in order to not “run the risk of bringing more creatures into the world like yourself.”
“If we men married the women we deserved, we should have a very bad time of it.”
–From An Ideal Husband
When Bosie didn’t bow under his father’s insults and threats, Wilde suddenly found his personal life becoming much more public. Queensberry accused Wilde of being a “posing sodomite,” to which Wilde responded with a lawsuit against Queensberry for slander. This proved to be much to Wilde’s detriment, as it involved the courts in his private life, and Queensberry eventually filed a countersuit. Suddenly Wilde found himself on trial for sodomy, during which time he somehow managed to maintain his wit and flippancy. When the prosecution accused Wilde of having kissed a particular servant boy and asked if the allegations were true, Wilde said, “Oh, dear no. He was a particularly plain boy – unfortunately ugly—I pitied him for it.” After an exhaustive series of hearings and trials, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment and hard labor.
“Hard work is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do.”
–From The Happy Prince and Other Tales
Whatever the opposite of a laborer is, that was what Wilde was born to be. His imprisonment took its toll, and not long after he was released, he died of what is generally believed to have been cerebral meningitis. During this whole sickness, Bosie was nowhere to be found, and Wilde was faced with the harsh reality of unrequited love. The legal fees of the trials drained Wilde dry, and he spent the end of his life not only sick but bankrupt.
“Death must be so beautiful. To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forgive life, to be at peace.”
–From The Canterville Ghost
The circumstances of Oscar Wilde’s death and the years preceding it have made him a martyr for the fight for LGBT equality. Indeed, after his remains were relocated to Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, his tomb among the most memorable one might ever see, his grave became a pilgrimage for many admiring fans who didn’t hesitate to adorn it with brightly colored lipstick kisses and I love yous in various languages, that is, until it was cleaned and put behind glass in 2011 to protect it from the oils of the various lipsticks. Some called the messages and kisses vandalism, but Oscar might have taken the utmost pleasure in such a flamboyant show of respect, had he only lived long enough to see it.
“One can survive everything nowadays except death.”
–From The Writings of Oscar Wilde
By Claire Deschain, Staff Contributor