Oscar Wilde: Who was he?

I just realized that I don’t know nearly enough about Oscar Wilde.

I know him in four distinct ways:

  1. The Importance of Being Earnest. A funny, fluffy bit of Victorian wit–a 19th century play that is still regularly performed.

  2. The Picture of Dorian Gray. This one impressed me deeply–a well-done, meaningful work of horror.

  3. The Love that Dare Not Speak its Name. Wilde was infamously charged and imprisoned in Reading Gaol for homosexuality. He referred to Plato, Shakespeare and Michelangelo in his “in your face” defense.

  4. While in Reading Gaol, Wilde wrote the moving, Ballad of Reading Gaol. I love this poem–one site I googled said it was “an indictment of prison conditions in 19th century England.” As if this was all it was–geesh.

[Wilde also did some art crit/what is art stuff and some fairy tales (!) which are apparently well-loved, but I haven’t read these (yet) so they don’t form part of the mental furniture I have for Wilde. I would be especially interested to hear from anyone who has read the fairy tales–I never heard of them until googling for this thread.]

So, the guy achieves success, big success, IMHO, in at least three completely different genres. How do I get my head around someone who can write the Importance of Being Earnest and the Ballad of Reading Gaol? How can someone who was supposedly an open atheist say:

How to reconcile these aspects of Wilde? Are these the things that I should know about Wilde? Is there a way to understand his work and who he was as a whole?

What? No De Profundis?

You could try reading biographies of him and of his contemporaries. There are a couple of good ones I’ve read, including a small thing written by one of his (perhaps at this point his only) living descendant. Also there is a good bio of Lord Alfred Douglas which sheds light on the relationship between the two and by extension Wilde directly. There’s a bio of his niece Dolly which I haven’t read but want to, and at least one of Robbie Ross (friend, literary executor, the man responsible for starting Wilde’s literary rehabilitation and some say Wilde’s first) which I also want to read, and a book called Oscar Wilde’s Last Stand which sheds some insight into the times in which he lived and those immediately following. If you’re interested I can post the names of some other books and authors when I get home; these are the ones I recall off the top of my head.

Read as much of his work as you are able, particularly diary/journal entries and letters. See the movie Wilde which is good, and entertaining, and features Jude Law nekkid. See his work performed, live if you can, but in the film versions that are available (except skip the dreadful “Earnest” that came out a couple of years ago).

As far as understanding Wilde as a whole goes, I don’t believe anyone can know themselves as a whole, let alone know another person. The best you can hope for is to understand him as best you can and be content with that.

Here is a site with interesting information concerning various aspects of his life. Probably not exactly what you’re looking for, but it does contain some personal letters and descriptions.

Otto: it sounds like you know a lot about Wilde–I must have come to the right place. Am I correct that De Profundis is a sort of autobiography? How would you rate it? Have you read the fairy tales too? Which is your favorite work of Wilde’s?

dinoboy: that is a neat link. You are right that I am more interested in discussing Wilde’s literary output/attitude, than his biography. Do you think we can do that without knowing the biographical details–would no one remember The Ballad of Redaing Gaol if his “crime” had been a different one?

I have several “complete works” of Wilde, none of which are actually complete. I have read all of the plays which I can find collected, Dorian Grey and the fairy tales. I haven’t read De Profundis. It is a letter to Bosie as opposed to a pure autobiography. My favorite work at the moment is Dorian Grey but Earnest is a close second. I loved the first movie adaptation with Michael Redgrave as Jack and Edith Evans as Lady Bracknell.

I want to read some of the stuff he wrote as a student and his essays, which I think I have in one or more of my “complete works” but have never gotten around to. I’m in between books right now, maybe I’ll read some.

Not addressed to me but I’ll chime in anyway to point out that this piece was originally published under Wilde’s prisoner number and became successful. It wasn’t until long after its initial success that it was published under his name. So it obviously was recognized as having literary merit in its own right without any association with Wilde, and had it been published under his name it most likely would have been shunned.

Wilde said famously, “There is only one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.” Then someone who likes anagrams said, “Wilde died broken, beaten ‘n’ total nut. Hate being sunk in that rotten gaol. Shh, gay is taboo.”

Another vote for the 1997 film with the extremely talented Stephen Fry and the way too yummy Jude Law.

Stewie: “You! Heat up some gravy for our guest. My last helping of white meat was drier than Oscar Wilde.”

I’m very pleased this thread is here.

I don’t know much about Wilde. I’m working on Ellman’s biography of him, and yesterday I read an essay by Seamus Heaney on The Ballad of Reading Gaol. And I’ve only read the ballad twice myself to this point. But I understand it could pull a person back and back to it.

It starts with a bang. That first stanza is amazing:

What reader could resist a poem that starts like that?

What I keep coming back to, though, are these lines in the third stanza:

Immediately we’re dealing with more than Reading Gaol here. It’s like Wilde inserted a zoom lens. This image widens out to anyone who has ever looked up at the sky and felt how small a place this earth is, and how flimsy, and how impossible to escape. And at the same time, it contracts so that the reader is looking up between the prison walls. And it doesn’t stop oscillating between the two. So much going on in such simple lines.

And then, a little further along in the poem, as the narrator describes the condemned man’s reaction to the knowlege that he will hang, we have this:

From the little I know of Wilde, he was no lover of authority. (The Ellman biography tells of him flirting with Catholicism – Wilde’s family were Irish Prostestants; his father threatened to disinherit him if he converted to Rome – during his student days at Oxford and after.) Anyway, here we have three authority figures. And each one seems inflexible; unable to see past their own agendas, whatever those might be.

Again the plain words, the simple language point to specifics, in this case to three individuals attached to the Gaol, and to something more general. There is an indictment in these lines, I think. An indictment of a system – of more than just a justice and penal system – an indictment of any system so complacent, so unthinkingly sure of its rightness that it does not even question itself. I think Wilde is indicting philosophy, science and religion.

Ahhh, I’m so tired I can barely see the screen. I’m going to bed. I’ll be back tomorrow before and after work.

The Picture of Dorian Gray was a very good movie with Hurd Hatfield, Angela Lansbury and George Sanders. But perhaps you will also want to examine the action that Wilde pusued about his own homosexuality. It portrays him as far less than a genius.

Is the really early recording of the mans voice reading Reading Gaol on line anywere?

I’ll go off and have a bit of a google.


I don’t think that’s Reading Gaol(not great quality and I’m at work so can’t listen to it that loud). There’s a site with loads of these type files but I can’t remember the URL

It’s Rowley Birkin!

Um… yojimbo, that’s actually a “spirit voice” of Wilde talking to us from beyond the grave…

Here’s a RealAudio file of the only known recording of “Wilde”, but alas it seems that it’s a fake. :frowning:

Humble Servant writes:

> How can someone who was supposedly an open atheist say . . .

Fatwater Fewl writes:

> The Ellman biography tells of him flirting with Catholicism –
> Wilde’s family were Irish Prostestants; his father threatened to
> disinherit him if he converted to Rome – during his student
> days at Oxford and after.

There is a disputed claim that Wilde became a Catholic on his death bed.

How embarrassed am I :o

Sorry folks.

Sort of. I always find this particularly moving:

Wow. Thanks, Gyrate.

I guess I’m going to have to find a copy of De Profundis, which I’m in the “never read” cadre of.