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Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish dramatist, poet, and author wrote the darkly sardonic Faustian themed The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891);
In the centre of the room, clamped to an upright easel, stood the full-length portrait of a young man of extraordinary personal beauty, and in front of it, some little distance away, was sitting the artist himself, Basil Hallward, .... "I hate them for it,"cried Hallward. "An artist should create beautiful things, but should put nothing of his own life into them. We live in an age when men treat art as if it were meant to be a form of autobiography. We have lost the abstract sense of beauty. Some day I will show the world what it is; and for that reason the world shall never see my portrait of Dorian Gray."--Ch. 1
Ever the aesthete, Wilde himself was profoundly affected by beauty and lived and dressed flamboyantly compared to the typical Victorian styles and mores of the time. He was often publicly caricatured and the target of much moral outrage in Europe and America. His writings such as Dorian Gray with homoerotic themes also brought much controversy for him but he was part of the ever-growing movement of 'decadents' who advocated pacifism, social reform, and libertarianism. While many vilified him, he was making his mark with style and wit and enjoyed much success with many of his plays. Wilde was lauded by and acquainted with many influential figures of the day including fellow playwright George Bernard Shaw, American poets Walt Whitman and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and English author and social critic John Ruskin. His works have inspired countless fellow authors, have been translated to numerous languages, and have been adapted to the stage and screen many times over. Fiction by Wilde includes The Canterville Ghost (1887), The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), The Portrait of Mr. W. H. (1889), A House of Pomegranates (1891), Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (1891), and Intentions (essays, 1891). His plays include Vera, or the Nihilists (1880), The Duchess of Padua (1883), Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Florentine Tragedy (La Sainte Courtisane 1893), A Woman of No Importance (1893), Salomé (1894), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on 16 October 1854, in Dublin, Ireland, the second of three children born to writer Jane Francesca Agnes née Elgee (1821-1896) and surgeon Sir William Robert Wills Wilde (1815-1876). Wilde's mother was a prominent poet and nationalist; his father a successful ear and eye surgeon and noted philanthropist, knighted in 1864. Oscar had an older brother named William and a younger sister, Isola. After his initial years of schooling at home, in 1871 he entered Trinity College, Dublin, then went on to study the classics at Magdalen College, Oxford, England from 1874-1878. It was here that he came under the influence of writer and critic Walter Pater (1839-1894) and helped found the Aesthetic Movement, "art for art's sake". Wilde excelled in his studies, winning many prizes and awards including Oxford's Newdigate Prize for his poem "Ravenna" (1878);
Adieu! Adieu! yon silver lamp, the moon,
Which turns our midnight into perfect noon,
Doth surely light thy towers, guarding well
Where Dante sleeps, where Byron loved to dwell.
After school Wilde settled in London and continued to write poetry; his first collection simply titled Poems was published in 1881. That same year he set off on a long tour of America and Canada to deliver lectures on aestheticism. He arrived back in Europe in 1883 and while not further lecturing lived in Paris, France. In 1884 Wilde married Constance Mary Lloyd (1858-1898) with whom he would have two sons; Cyril (1885-1915), who was killed during World War I, and Vyvyan (1886-1976), who would become an author, penning his memoir Son of Oscar Wilde (1954) and publishing Oscar Wilde: A Pictorial Biography in 1960. The Wildes settled in Chelsea, London where Oscar continued to write and work for such magazines as the Pall Mall Gazette and became editor of Woman's World in 1887.
In 1891 Wilde met English poet Lord Alfred Douglas "Bosie" (1870-1945), son of John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry (1844-1900). It was the beginning of a tumultuous relationship that would cause many problems for Oscar and eventually lead to his downfall. Alfred had a tempestuous relationship with his father which did not help matters. He disapproved of his son's lifestyle and when he learned of his openly living with Wilde, he set out to defame Wilde. For the opening performance of The Importance of Being Earnest in 1895 at St. James's Theatre in London the Marquess planned to publicly expose and humiliate Wilde. Oscar took legal steps to protect himself against the 'brute' but he ultimately won a case whereby Wilde was charged with "gross indecency" for homosexual acts. The outcome of the sensational trial was a sentence of two years hard labour which Wilde served most of at the Reading Gaol outside of London. After Wilde was imprisoned Constance had her and her sons' last names changed to Holland. Now prisoner C. 3.3, Wilde turned to his pen and wrote many essays, poems, and letters including one to Alfred, "De Profundis" (a heavily edited version was first published in 1905; the complete version in 1962). After his release from prison in May of 1897, Wilde wrote "Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898) about the injustice of the death penalty and the hanging of Charles Thomas Wooldridge;
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Adopting the name Sebastian Melmoth, Wilde went to Paris, penniless, and is said to have reunited with his friend and lover of many years, Canadian journalist Robert Baldwin "Robbie" Ross (1869-1918), who was also executor of Wilde's estate. He took up residence in the Hôtel d'Alsace on rue des Beaux-Arts. On his deathbed, Ross by his side, Wilde was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church and received Extreme Unction. Oscar Wilde died of meningitis on 30 November 1900. He now rests in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris; Ross' ashes were added to the angel-adorned tomb in 1950.
All trials are trials for one's life, just as all sentences are sentences of death; and three times have I been tried. The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the house of detention, the third time to pass into a prison for two years. Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the night with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.--"De Profundis"
Biography written by C. D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc. 2008. All Rights Reserved.
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