Happy birthday, Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde—Lord of Language, Earl of Epigram, Prince of Paradox—was born on 16 October 1854.
Wilde was mercurial and represents—or has represented—different things to different people: poet | playwright | novelist | short story writer | essayist | critic | reviewer | magazine editor | lecturer | intellectual | wit | dissident | raconteur | dandy | bon vivant | Symbolist | self-publicist | exile | husband | father | gay icon | Decadent | criminal | celebrity | Aesthete | martyr | lover | Celt | Hellenist | Francophile | egoist | friend | Oxonian | Irishman | elitist | Anarchist | Home Ruler | corrupter | mentor | degenerate | classical scholar | prisoner | proto-Modernist | Victorian | middle-class rebel | social climber | hero.
It is tempting to think that Wilde willingly—and wilfully—fashioned his life into a Greek tragedy of terrible pain and beauty, conscious that his decision to stay in London—the Athens of its day—and face trial would make him a Victorian Socrates. Wilde drained the poisonous cup of Victorian England’s envy, homophobia and class divisions and in so doing completed his journey from fame to infamy. What more could a master storyteller do than sacrifice his life for the sake of mesmerizing his audience? Wilde’s personality and spectacular rise and fall threaten to eclipse his written works.
A tribute we could pay Wilde would be to read his works (not just the popular quotations that lend wit to wedding speeches and news stories). See my info graphic below for suggestions on reading Wildely. I haven’t listed all of Wilde’s works, just given a small sample of the pleasures that await readers who are only familiar with The Importance of Being Earnest or The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Have you read The Soul of Man Under Socialism? Wilde praises rebellion and advocates the freedom of the artist
The Picture of Mr W.H.? Bending genre and gender and mixing sonnets with scandal, Wilde writes biography/fiction about Shakespeare and the young man who inspired him.
De Profundis? It is an extraordinary love letter, an artistic manifesto, a confession and an act of defiance.
Another tribute we could pay Wilde would be to challenge homophobia wherever we find it: in laws, in social norms, in our selves. Oscar Wilde’s mental and physical health was broken when he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour for the ‘crime’ of being gay. It’s still illegal to be so in many countries.
What might Wilde have written, if he had not been driven to his death at only 46? How many works did we lose?
In an 1898 letter to George Ives (whom we would now call a ‘gay rights activist’), Wilde wrote, “Yes: I have no doubt that we shall win, but the road is long, and red with monstrous martyrdoms.”
It’s 2015, not 1898, and there should be no more martyrdoms.
©JD Ellevsen 2015