Oscar Wilde was a brilliant Irishman who received both the adulation and ridicule of his London world and the world outside. He fascinated audiences with his theory of “Art for Art’s sake”; his epigrams convulsed dinner tables and tickled the world. He was one of America’s most publicized lecturers. (Following his American lecture tour, Wilde observed “In America, life is one long expectoration.”)
As with James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and a cluster of other Irish literary figures, Wilde found his native country inhospitable to his philosophy and lifestyle. Born in Dublin in 1854, he was the son of an aural surgeon and a fiery Irish patriot. Little is known of his early childhood, but his later choice of lifestyle may have been enhanced by his mother’s fondness for dressing him as a girl.
He gained the reputation of being a brilliant although lazy student who seemed almost casually to win gold medals for dassical scholarship. By the time he arrived at Oxford, he was renowned as a prodigious wit and raconteur. Throughout his life it was his genius for the quip, the epigram, the bon mot and the paradox that made him well-known and hated by those who fell afoul of his sharp tongue.
Wilde cut an eccentric figure in late Victorian London, with the knee breeches, velvet jacket and shoulder-length hair he affected invariably set off by a sunflower or lily carried in his hand. Perhaps his studied frivolity in behavior and dress did more than poetry to win him first fame. (He was lampooned by Gilbert and Sullivan as “Walking down Picadilly with a poppy or a lily. . . in your hand.”)
In 1884 he married Constance Mary Lloyd, a loyal, affectionate wife who shared little of his life in the great world. By 1886 Wilde found himself supporting two sons. For the next five years he produced a constant stream of criticism, short stories, poetry, novels, and essays. His most important works appeared during this time, culminating with The Importance of Being Earnest a super-farce that was witty as well as literate and as finished in its writings as it was extravagant in its absurdities.
In February 1895, a tragic series of events began that were to result in Wilde’s infamy and imprisonment. The eighth marquess of Queensberry, father of Lord Alfred Douglas, with whom Wilde had been keeping intimate company, accused Wilde of sexual impropriety. Wilde sued for libel, which turned out to be a tragic mistake, for the charge was accurate.
Three notorious trials followed, ending in Wilde’s imprisonment for two years at hard labor. While in Reading Prison, he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Broken in health and spirit, he was released in 1897. Shortly afterward he converted to the Roman Catholic faith and left immediately for France. For three years he traveled through France, Italy and Switzerland, a lonely and pathetic figure. He died in Paris in 1900, with one last epigram: “I am dying, as I have lived, beyond my means.” His fame is sure as long as audiences enjoy wit.