He was a flamboyant fop, a man ahead of his time, a brilliant playwright and rebel of the Victorian period. He was a staple in the Western literary tradition since I’ve been alive, so I was amazed the other day when a few younger colleagues had never heard of him.
Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 and died at the age of 46. He was raised by intellectual parents from Dublin. He was a scholar from Trinity College and Oxford College, and he was an advocate for the rising literary movement called aestheticism. He rubbed elbows with the wealthy. He was popular and funny. Because he was a homosexual, he was sent to prison for hard labor and exiled from both London and Dublin. Sadly, he died destitute in Paris from an ear infection and meningitis.
His epigrams and aphorisms abound with wit and sarcasm. Which one resonates with you?
To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.
The heart was made to be broken.
Twenty years of romance makes a woman look like a ruin; but twenty years of marriage make her something like a public building.
Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess.
There is only one thing in the world that is worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
I never put off till tomorrow what I can do the day after.
The only way a woman can ever reform her husband is by boring him so completely that he loses all possible interest in life.
Religion is the fashionable substitute for belief.
Men always want to be a woman`s first love – women like to be a man`s last romance.
No man is rich enough to buy back his past.
The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.
Every saint has a past and every sinner a future.
In the world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.
The biography of Wilde by Richard Ellmann, is a staple even though controversy surrounds his account of Oscar’s demise. Ellmann suggests Oscar died of syphilis instead of meningitis. I’d like to read about other Irish writers like Yeats and James Joyce by Ellmann, too.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). It’s the manual for aestheticism. He worshiped the Romantic poets of the 18th century. In the prelude, Oscar described the tenants of aestheticism. Natural beauty, created by God, and conceived beauty by humans are linked. To surround oneself with beauty is essential for happiness. The artist strives to reveal beauty, and in doing so, the artist’s profession is elevated. “Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated.” Ah, well, cultivation has problematic side effects. Taken to extremes, surrounding oneself with luxury could create a pompous and shallow personality. It is a spooky classic–the book and the 1945 film contains a great cast: Hurd Hatfield as Dorian Gray, George Sanders as Lord Henry Wotton, Lowell Gilmore as Basil Hallward, Donna Reed as Gladys Hallward, Angela Lansbury as Sibyl Vane, Peter Lawford as David Stone, Richard Fraser as James Vane, and Douglas Walton as Alan Campbell.
The Importance of Being Ernest (1895). His famous play is lighthearted fun and full of witticisms and puns. It was a favorite choice for high schools and colleges productions for a hundred years. If you liked the recent 2016 Jane Austen film, Love & Friendship, you would enjoy the 2002 period comedy adaptation starring: Colin Firth, Rupert Everett, Reese Witherspoon, Judi Dench, and Frances O’Connor.
I few years ago when I visited Paris, I had to visit the tomb of Oscar Wilde at Père Lachaise cemetery. Marked on a pane of glass in front of his tomb was my favorite epigram:
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
Unconventional and smart, he was an entertaining character.