Oscar Wilde was one of the most prominent figures of the late 19th century. A poet and a playwright, Wilde was well known for his knowledge, wit, ideas, and the flamboyant lifestyle he led claiming “you can never be overdressed or over educated”. However, Wilde has his place among those contingent of artists and writers whose tragic life often overshadowed their talent and intellect during their existence in society and are celebrated only after an epoch passes.
Born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde in 1854, Dublin, Ireland, Wilde was raised in an intellectually rich household. His father Sir William was Ireland’s leading ophthalmologic and also published books on archaeology and folklore. His mother Jane Wilde was a poet and a lifelong Irish nationalist and wrote under the pseudonym, Speranza. From a young age, Wilde’s early exposure to the rich culture of the high society and his mother’s lavish parties with eminent guests might have been instrumental in shaping his lifestyle and preferences.
A brilliant student at school and a “prodigy” of speedreading, Wilde soon established himself as a scholar of the Classics with successive scholarships at Trinity College, Dublin (1871-74) and Magdalen College, Oxford (1874–78).
His time in Oxford developed his interest in the aesthetic and the decadent movements as he indulged in artistic and material pleasures. His remark, “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china” became famous, accepted as a slogan by the aesthetes. Wilde was enthralled by Walter Patter’s ideas on art in his publication Studies in the History of the Renaissance, which professed ideas of aesthetic intensity with which life should be lived and “to burn always with hard, gemlike flame.”
In the 1880s, quite a name in social and artistic circles of London, Wilde was satirized by the periodical Punch, which revered itself in its dislike of the aesthetes and their “unmasculine” devotion to art. In 1881 he published Poems, a collection of 61 poems which were not well received by critics, with criticism from the usual decriers Punch, who wrote: "The poet is Wilde, but his poetry's tame". Not much affected, Oscar Wilde in 1882 took up lectures in the United States and Canada. Enrapturing the New World with his ideas of beauty and art he stayed there for 12 months.
In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd and the couple had two children Cyril and Vyvyan. By this time while Wilde became editor of Woman’s World (1887-89) a published The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) a fairytale romantic allegory blended with romantic allegory. In 1890, Wilde published his only novel ever, The Picture of Dorian Gray, a Gothic novel and seminal work in the decadent fiction but the critics were baffled by its “immoral” nature and homosexual undertones, to which Wilde responded by adding an epigram in his preface to Dorian Gray,” There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all”.
In these next few years, Oscar Wilde goes on to publish various stories and dramas. His plays saw huge success as he wrote society comedies and created a new form of comedy by the use of paradoxes and his wit. Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest all critiquing Victorian society and its repressive nature. He was hailed as a genius but trashed by conservative critics.
As his literary career soared his personal life took a tumultuous turn. The marquess of Queens berry accused Wilde of being a sodomite because of his intimate relationship with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas.
Wilde sued him for libel but his case collapsed and the evidence went against him resulting in his conviction and imprisonment for gross decency with men and was sentenced to two years at hard labor.
In 1897 Wilde was released and immediately went to France to rebuild his status as a writer. He wrote The Ballad of Reading Goal (1898) expressing concerns for inhumane prison conditions. All through this, he is said to have never lost his “gaiety of soul”. He lived an impoverished life in exile and died of acute meningitis on 30 November 1900 at the age of 46. Some of his last words
“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go”.
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Written by: Aakriti Bhandari
Editor and Team Lead: Ashutosh Sharma
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