Just as an FYI kind of thing, my friends and I wrote this as our final project for AP English senior year. We entitled it "Where the Wilde Things Are," in honor of the man's ability to turn a phrase better than... something that turns phrases really well.
Oscar Wilde: author, poet, playwright, and… well, yeah. A man’s man, insofar as you can read into that. The simple fact that the man remained as popular as he did during one of the most sexually repressive periods in human history (the Victorian age) is testament to his innate skill and talent. As a creative visionary, both in his work, and in his tumultuous life, Wilde refused to conform, and, in fact, went out of his way to be noticeably distinct (the hair, the clothing, everything he said in public…). Wilde, in fact, has been called “the first modern man,” despite the very glaring fact that he, in fact, represented an extremely quiet minority in his time. As his career progressed, and his fame grew, Wilde did become more comfortable with himself as a person, and with his sexuality. He evolved from “a rather odd fellow” (insert funny British accent) into a highly respected artist, in the eyes of the public. His work followed rather the same line of progression; what the public viewed as anti-conformist eventually morphed into the pinnacle of satiric genius. This veneration did not last forever. Like his tragic counterparts betrayed by their hamartias, Wilde fell due to his socially unacceptable nature.
In his 1881 compilation entitled Poems, Wilde included “The Garden of Eros”, a poem containing strong yet subtle personal declarations. In lines 109 through 112, Wilde writes, “Who for thy sake would give their manlihood/ And consecrate their being, I at least/ Have done so, made thy lips my daily food”. Here, Wilde speaks of personal sacrifice, forsaking his public image for his true self. Taken out of context, the gender of the object of his words remains unclear. However, the last half of the stanza subtly yet firmly declares the nature of the relationship between Wilde and his object: “And, in thy temples found a goodlier feast/ Than this starved age can give me, spite of all/ Its new-found creeds so sceptical and so dogmatical.” Here, Wilde addresses his preference for the free, socially unrestricted Romantic ages as opposed to the sexually restrictive Victorian Era in which he lived. Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885) declared any “ ‘gross indecencies’ – regardless of the age of the victim – punishable as a misdemeanor” and, although originally intended to protect young girls, was socially applied to homosexuality as well. Indeed, this was the same Act Wilde was later convicted of violating. Wilde felt the pain of the restraints placed upon him by current views and “creeds”, yet he committed himself to these for the sake of his lover. Had the first half of the stanza been addressed to a woman, Wilde would have had no reason for contrasting her with “this starved age”. Sexual love between men and women, especially in poetry and other literary works, was still widely acceptable. Homosexuality and relations between people of largely differing ages, however, had been made completely taboo. Wilde cleverly integrates his subtle admission of homosexuality by keeping the gender of his object unclear, and puts the key to his declaration in imagery and, as in this case, ambiguous references.
Due to the popular reception of his collection, Wilde began his transformation into the social giant of the Victorian Age. So warm was the welcome that Wilde was invited to America on a lecture tour, where, far away from home, he did not have to fear social rejection. During the tour, Wilde had the fortunate occasion to meet with both Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman, to whom he became rather partial. Following their meeting, Wilde privately bragged, “The kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips.” However, Wilde was not the only one to retain tangible memories of the occasion. Whitman himself “remarked that Wilde ‘had the good sense to take a fancy to me!’”
Having returned to England after this immensely successful tour, Wilde began his “correspondence” with the son of the Marquis of Queensbury, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. These meetings led to forbidden relations between them, in the eyes of the public, the law, and most importantly the Marquis of Queensbury. Wilde’s letters to Bosie were unfortunately confiscated in order to be used against him in his criminal trial. These letters contained Wilde’s private admissions of burning love for the younger Bosie. “It is a marvel that those red-roseleaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing." This should speak for itself. As should this, “I would sooner be blackmailed by every renter in London than to have you bitter, unjust, hating. You are the divine thing I want . . . Why are you not here, my dear, my wonderful boy?” Wilde was as eloquent in his private writings as he was in his public ones.
Published the same year as the criminal trials began, 1895, Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, widely regarded as his greatest theatrical work, contains yet more hints of his lifestyle. Arp arp. “Bunburying”, acting one way under the pretense of doing something completely different, parallels Wilde’s style, both in his writing and his life. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s tendency toward duplicity surfaces most plainly. The main character, Dorian Gray, lives his life without consequences of his actions or of time while a portrait of himself acquires all of these burdens. Wilde himself leads a similar life of duplicity in that the consequences of his burdens remain hidden until near the end of his life. Similarly, the harsh effects of Dorian’s life assail him suddenly when he can no longer stand the concealment of the painting. This novel, considered by many to be an autobiography of sorts, seemed to serve as a grim prophecy concerning the end of Wilde’s life.
Wilde’s pinnacle of social success was cut short when the father of Lord Alfred Douglas expressed his anger toward Douglas and Wilde’s relationship by needlessly defaming Wilde, calling him a “sodomite.” Shortly thereafter, Wilde sued the Marquis for libel. During the trial, Wilde’s true feelings for Bosie were brought out into the open, and the issue of the letters Wilde had written him became evident. As “non-reproductive sex” was still a crime under British law, sufficient evidence was brought against Wilde for a criminal trial, which quickly got under way.
As the first criminal trial began, Wilde did his best to make a mockery of the proceedings and spit out as many of his witty aphorisms as he possibly could. Under cross-examination by Mr. C.F. Gill, his story began to crumple. When the poem “Sweet Youth” was brought to the court’s attention, and specifically the final line, which reads, “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” Gill requested that he define that final line, and, in response, Wilde explains that “’The love that dare not speak its name’ in this century is such a great affection of an elder man for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect” . In saying all this, Wilde effectively shot himself in the foot. While the first trial resulted in a hung jury, the proverbial cat had been let out of the even more proverbial bag, and had been released into the still more proverbial forest to run away, and not, in fact, be run over by the extremely proverbial coach made from the somewhat proverbial pumpkin that the not-so-proverbial fairy godmother created for Cinderella (the mice, however, were as proverbial as one can get without becoming metaphoric).
Upon running into the forest, the proverbial cat ran straight into the second criminal trial of (the most definitely NOT proverbial) Oscar Wilde. These proceedings essentially mirrored the first trials with the exception of the outcome. Justice Wills had this to say at the sentencing: “People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them. It is the worst case I have ever tried . . . You, Wilde, have been the center of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men.” Upon the fall of the (once again NOT proverbial) gavel, Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor, and following his release he never wrote again. He was lived out the rest of his days under the alias Sebastian Melmoth. He died of a persistent ear infection (isn’t that ironic?) in the year 1900, on the floor of a seedy Parisian hotel.
Oscar Wilde’s sexuality and resulting sense of duality dominated his writings and his life. However, his artful literary mastery allowed him to subtly hint at his homosexuality and his radical ideas in cleverly worded references and subtle imagery. This further created his duplicity, and, although his talent led to his greatest glory, his refusal to deny his true self led to his ultimate downfall.