Celebrating the life and works of Oscar Wilde

Graphic by Natalie Kulak ’21

Graphic by Natalie Kulak ’21

BY DEANNA KALIAN ’20

“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people just exist, that is all.”

Considered one of Oscar Wilde’s most famous quotes, it stands out to Kristin Ho ’19 as something that speaks to Wilde’s character. “Wilde’s tone of playfulness and thoughtfulness makes him quite a character,” said Ho. “[He] never takes things seriously.” The many successes and triumphs of Wilde’s life contribute to his sardonic, insightful worldview, and the works his experiences led him to create remain even more cherished today than when he first wrote them.

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland on Oct. 16, 1854 to William and Jane Francesca Wilde. William was a successful doctor and historian, who was knighted in 1864 for his work. Jane, a member of the Anglo-Irish Protestant Ascendancy, rose to fame as a revolutionary anti-colonialist writer and poet. Wilde’s elder brother, William “Willie” Wilde, became a journalist and his younger sister, Isola Francesca, died tragically at the age of 10. According to the Irish Times’ Angela Kingston, Isola’s death devastated Wilde, as the two siblings were uncommonly close, and there are “indicators that his sister was a key influence, perhaps even his muse.”

Wilde attended Trinity College in Dublin from 1871 to 1874, and for the following four years completed his education at Magdalen College Oxford. Poetry Foundation states that he won the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek at Trinity College, and later won the distinguished Newdigate Prize for his poem, “Ravenna,” in 1878. At Oxford, Wilde became an advocate for the Aesthetic Movement, which Encyclopedia Britannica says argued “art for art’s sake.” He then moved to London to pursue a literary career. He published his first book in 1881, a collection called “Poems,” which was met with more excitement in America than in England. Kingston describes his early work as effusive and centered on “recurring themes of grief over a dead golden-haired girl, guilt about a lost boyhood love, fear of divine retribution and reunification with a deceased love in the afterlife.”

Wilde married the wealthy Constance Lloyd in 1884, and they had two sons together, Cyril and Vyvyan. He published his only novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” in 1891 in an American magazine distributed in England. The novel elicited immediate public outrage; critics penned scathing reviews. As Alex Ross of the New Yorker explained in his 2011 article, “How Oscar Wilde Painted Over ‘Dorian Gray,’” “[t]he furor was unsurprising: no work of mainstream English-language fiction had come so close to spelling out homosexual desire.” Although Wilde experienced little success with poetry or novels, he became an acclaimed comedic playwright. In a burst of creative energy, he produced “Lady Windermere’s Fan,” “A Woman of No Importance,” “An Ideal Husband” and “The Importance of Being Earnest” over the course of three years.

Wilde embarked on an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, later suing Douglas’ father for libel for accusing Wilde of homosexuality. The BBC wrote that not only did Wilde lose the suit, he was arrested and tried for sodomy after details about his private life surfaced, and he was sentenced to two years of hard labor in prison. During this time, Wilde wrote the posthumously published “De Profundis,” an autobiographical monologue addressed to Lord Douglas. Upon his release from prison in 1897, Wilde penned his last work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” an exposé of dreadful prison conditions in poetic form. Poetry Foundation writes that it remains Wilde’s most celebrated poem. According to the BBC, “Wilde was released with his health irrevocably damaged and his reputation ruined.” His family left the country and changed their last names to escape notoriety, and Wilde spent the last three years of his life penniless, surviving on the kindness of friends. He suffered from cerebral meningitis resulting from a chronic ear infection, and after over a month of acute misery, he died on Nov. 20, 1900 in a cheap Paris hotel. Despite the dismal circumstances, Wilde maintained his wit to the very end. According to PBS, his reported last words were, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us must go.”

Ho admires Wilde’s essay, “The American Invasion.” “[It] is the most amusing piece to me, his acute observations about American characteristics. As an immigrant myself, I am interested in how non-Americans see Americans. Wilde [..] has a sharp insight into [the] American temperament,” Ho said. Wilde possessed the unique ability to examine and eloquently explain the complexities of the world around him. This talent, evident in his poems, plays, and novel, renders him unforgettable to generations of readers all over the world.

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