At Oscar Wilde’s tomb
There are two people entombed within Oscar Wilde’s monument at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. You might have expected Wilde’s companion in eternity to be his Judas-like lover, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas, or possibly Wilde’s forgiving wife, Constance, or one of their sons, Cyril or Vyvyan, but it is Wilde’s loyal friend and one-time lover, Robbie Ross.
When Jacob Epstein designed the tomb for Wilde’s second, grander resting place (Wilde had died in debt in 1900 and was originally buried in a modest plot at Bagneux), Robbie Ross asked the sculptor to leave a niche for his own remains. Although he died in 1918 at the age of 49, Ross’s wish to be interred with Wilde wasn’t granted until 1950. Ross deserves his place by Wilde’s side; unlike Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas, Ross was a good friend till the end, not only to Wilde but to Wilde’s sons.
As Wilde’s literary executor and a mentor to the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, Ross has been a good friend to readers, too. Without Robbie Ross, we wouldn’t be able to read Wilde’s De Profundis or The Picture of Mr W.H. Ross acted as a muse while Wilde planned the short story/literary essay Mr W.H. and he prevented Lord Alfred Douglas from destroying the manuscript of Wilde’s letter/memoir/manifesto De Profundis by bequeathing the original to the British Museum. After years of effort, Ross got the Wilde estate out of bankruptcy, secured the copyright for Wilde’s children, stemmed the flow of pirated editions and oversaw the production of the first legitimate edition of Wilde’s collected works. Ross also introduced Vyvyan Wilde to literary Europe and the few remaining people who spoke kindly of his father. “… [F]rom the moment that I met Robert Ross,” Vyvyan said in his memoirs, Son of Oscar Wilde, “I knew that I had found a true friend of my own, one who would be loyal and true and never betray me.”
Wilde’s lengthy prison ‘letter’ to Lord Alfred Douglas, De Profundis (From the depths), is more than a personal message in which Wilde alternates between forgiving and rebuking his selfish, reckless lover. In De Profundis, Wilde elaborates on his philosophical and artistic outlook, and reflects on his place in literature and history. The letter is a soul-searching act of defiance; Wilde shows that he is a resolute individualist who cannot be entirely broken by a hypocritical society. It is both a profoundly personal essay and an unashamedly public letter (Wilde asked Ross to have the manuscript typed up and copied, and Ross obliged). In his prison letter, Wilde goes through a range of contradictory moods and tones: contrition, sorrow, defiance, acceptance, tenderness, joy, fury and bitterness. He is at his proudest when claiming to be humbled, and comes across as both fool-hardy and wise, frank and self-deceiving. De Profundis is a heartbreaking confession, an artist’s manifesto, a private diary and a lover’s letter.
In De Profundis, Wilde says of Ross, “When I was brought down from my prison to the Court of Bankruptcy, between two policemen, Robbie waited in the long dreary corridor that, before the whole the crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as handcuffed and with bowed head, I passed him by. Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that. … When wisdom has been profitless to me, philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who have sought to give me consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth, the memory of that little, lovely, silent act of love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity, made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world.”
I visited Wilde and Ross’s tomb in August 1998 when you could still get up close; a glass barrier has since been erected to protect Wilde’s monument from the damage caused by lipstick kisses and graffiti.
As I approached Wilde’s monument that day I saw that a funeral was in progress only about two metres away. Mindful of the need for respectful silence, I walked quietly around the tomb, reading the inscription from Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol: “And alien tears will fill for him/Pity’s long-broken urn,/For his mourners will be outcast men,/And outcasts always mourn.”
In my mind, I “talked” to Wilde, telling him that his works were still read, his epigrams quoted, and that he had triumphed in the end over the people who had tried to silence him. I thought of the words from the Book of Job that had been inscribed on Wilde’s first and more modest grave at Bagneux: Verbis meis addere nihil audebant et super illos stillebat eloquium meum (“To my words they durst add nothing, and my speech dropped upon them”). I could hear the French family nearby quietly weeping over the graveside of their relative, and the priest intoning the ceremonial words.
I tore a page out of my notebook and wrote a clumsy note ‘to’ Wilde, weighing it down with a stone. The prose was bad, but I hoped Wilde would appreciate the sentiment behind it, even though he had said in Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young that “In all important matters, style, not sincerity, is the essential.” It was odd that I was trying to commune with Wilde, considering that I don’t believe in life after death, but I tried to convey my admiration and apologies on behalf of society. Some people had left flowers at the grave, and I was sorry that I hadn’t bought some lilies to show my respect.
Sunlight and a light breeze played through the trees of Père Lachaise. Well away from the boozy crowd that gathers around Jim Morrison’s grave, the area around Wilde’s tomb was quiet. I thought of Wilde dying in exile and poverty in Paris at the age of 46. I thought of his sons Cyril and Vyvyan, and how Wilde was never permitted to see them again once he was arrested. Wilde’s loving wife Constance had considered a reconciliation despite his betrayals, but when she died at 39, Constance’s family forbade the boys to speak of or visit their father. I thought of how Cyril, desperate to prove that he was more ‘manly’ than his father Oscar, had been shot by a sniper during the Great War at the age of just 29. My eyes filled with tears at the thought of all the unhappiness and waste.
Suddenly someone bellowed “Nobody would give a fuck if he hadn’t been a fucking faggot.” Horrified, I looked up to see a large, smug man in a loud Hawaiian shirt and shorts a few metres away. I looked back towards the funeral party who were frozen in mortified silence and bowed my head in shame, thinking that as a tourist I would be tarred with the same vulgarian brush. The homophobic ignoramus swaggered on his way past me like some over-fed John Wayne, heedless of the family in mourning and evidently pleased by his ability to travel the world, broadcasting his ignorance wherever he went. I imagined shouting “Who asked for your opinion?” and slamming his head into the nearest piece of marble, but out of respect for the family of mourners and the location, I had to keep quiet.
It saddened me back then to realise that ninety-eight years after Wilde’s death, our society was not much more enlightened than that of the Victorians, but it is reassuring to think that life produces the likes of Robbie Ross, friend of friends. He is a man who deserves to be remembered.
“When I go out of prison, Robbie will be waiting for me on the other side of the big iron-studded gate, and he is the symbol, not merely of his affection, but of the affection of many others besides.” Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
© JD Ellevsen
If you liked this post, you might also like Which poisonous yellow book? The secret of Raoul, Dorian and Oscar, Oscar Wilde’s library reconstructed on LibraryThing, or Peeping inside Oscar Wilde’s home.