Oscar Wilde: A Biographical Sketch
“WILDE, OSCAR O’FLAHERTIE WILLS (1856-1900), English author, son of Sir William Wilde, a famous Irish surgeon, was born in Dublin on the 15th of October 1856; his mother, Jane Francisca Elgee, was well known in Dublin as a graceful writer of verse and prose, under the pen-name of “Speranza.”
Education and Influence
Having distinguished himself in classics at Trinity College, Dublin, Oscar Wilde went to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1874, and won the Newdigate prize in 1878 with his poem “Ravenna,” besides taking a first-class in classical Moderations and in Literae Humaniores. But his career Oxford, brilliant intellectually as he showed himself to be, was chiefly signalized by the part he played in what came to be known as the aesthetic movement. He adopted what to undergraduates appeared the effeminate pose of casting scorn on manly sports, wearing his hair long, decorating his rooms with peacock’s feathers, lilies, sunflowers, blue china and other objets d’art, which he declared his desire to “live up to,” affecting a lackadaisical manner, and professing intense emotions on the subject of “art for art’s sake” — then a new-fangled doctrine which J. M. Whistler was bringing into prominence. Wilde made himself the apostle of this new cult.
At Oxford his behaviour procured him a ducking in the Cherwell, and a wrecking of his rooms, but the cult spread among certain sections of society to such an extent that languishing attitudes, “too-too” costumes and “aestheticism” generally became a recognized pose. Its affectations were burlesqued in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Patience (1881), which practically killed by ridicule the absurdities to which it had grown. At the same time it cannot be denied that the “aesthetic” movement, in the aspect fundamentally represented by the school of William Morris and Rossetti, had a permanent influence on English decorative art. As the leading “aesthete,” Oscar Wilde became one of the most prominent personalities of the day; apart from the ridicule he encountered, his affected paradoxes and his witty sayings were quoted on all sides, and in 1882 he went on a lecturing tour in the United States.
In 1884 he married Constance Lloyd. He had already published in 1881 a selection of his poems, which, however, only attracted admiration in a limited circle. In 1888 appeared The Happy Prince and Other Tales, illustrated by Walter Crane and Jacob Hood. This charming volume of fairy tales was followed up later by a second collection, The House of Pomegranates (1892), acknowledged by the author to be “intended neither for the British child nor the British public.” In much of his writings, and in his general attitude, there was to most people a suggestive undertone which created prejudice against him, and his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), with all its sparkle and cleverness, impressed them more from this point of view than from its purely literary brilliance. Wilde contributed some characteristic articles to the reviews, all colored by his peculiar attitude towards art and life, and in 1891 republished three of them as a book called Intentions.
His first real success with the larger public was as a dramatist with Lady Windermere’s Fan at the St James’s Theatre in 1892, followed by A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). The dramatic and literary ability shown in these plays, all of which were published later in book form, was as undoubted as their diction and ideas were characteristically paradoxical. In 1893 the licenser of plays refused a licence to Wilde’s Salome, but it was produced in French in Paris by Sarah Bernhardt in 1894.
Wilde’s success as a dramatist had by this time gone some way to disabuse hostile critics of the suspicions as regards his personal character which had been excited by the apparent looseness of morals which since his Oxford days it had always pleased him to affect; but to the consternation of his friends, who had ceased to credit the existence of any real moral obliquity, in 1895 came fatal revelations as the result of his bringing a libel action against the marquis of Queensberry; and at the Old Bailey, in May, Wilde was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour for offences under the Criminal Law Amendment Act.
It was a melancholy end to what might have been a singularly brilliant career. Even after leaving prison he was necessarily an outcast from decent circles, and he lived mainly on the Continent, under the name of “Sebastian Melmoth.” He died in Paris on the 30th of November 1900. In 1898 he published his powerful Ballad of Reading Gaol. His Collected Poems, containing some beautiful verse, had been issued in 1892. While in prison he wrote an apology for his life [De Profundis] which was placed in the hands of his executor and published in 1905. The manuscripts of A Florentine Tragedy and an essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets were stolen from his house in 1895. In 1904 a five-act tragedy, The Duchess of Padua, written by Wilde about 1883 for Mary Anderson, but not acted by her, was published in a German translation (Die Herzogin von Padua, translated by Max Meyerfeld) in Berlin.
It is still impossible to take a purely objective view of Oscar Wilde’s work. The Old Bailey revelations removed all doubt as to the essential unhealthiness of his personal influence; but his literary genius was none the less remarkable, and his plays were perhaps the most original contributions to English dramatic writing during the period.
Note: Oscar Wilde biographical sketch adapted from the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica.