O.Wilde, Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

The artist is the creator of beautiful things. (...)
Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault.
Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope.
They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty.
There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all. (...)

No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. (...)
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself...

O. Wilde (1854-1900),
Preface to 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Oscar Wilde, Life

Oscar  Wilde,  a short biography
Oscar  Fingal  O’Flahertie  Wills  Wilde  was born in Dublin in 1854. 
His parents  were quiet famous and were passionately interested in things Irish.
In fact his father, William Robert Wilde (1815-1876),  was an eminent surgeon while his mother, Jane Francesca Elgee (1821-1896), was a nationalist poetess  who wrote under the pen name  (=pseudonym)  of ‘Speranza’.
William Wilde was a distinguished ear and eye specialist. He was a writer, too. He wrote about medical treaties (which were very important as they were the first serious books concerning that specific field)  but he also wrote books about Irish topography and about Irish folklore.(1)  He even wrote a study of the satirist writer Jonathan Swift. (2). Moreover William was a famous antiquarian and he had a large collection of antiquities (now housed in the National Museum of Ireland). He loved talking and telling stories and he did so during the dinner parties he promoted in his house.
William married Jane in 1851.
Jane was a fervent Irish nationalist and she wrote very strong poems to support that cause. She was a very intelligent lady, fluent in several European languages and well-read. She was considered eccentric because she used to wear theatrical clothes and jewels, she had unconventional views and used extravagant terms in her conversation. But she didn’t mind: she admitted frankly that she loved to make a sensation. She became very famous as she instituted one of the best-known literary salons in Dublin. (3)
William and Jane’s marriage was very happy. They had three children: William Charles Kinsbury (‘Willie’, born in September 1852);  Oscar, (born on 16th October 1854) and Isola Francesca Emily, the longed-for daughter (born in 1857).
Oscar Wilde was first educated at home and in 1864 he was sent, along with his brother, to Portora Royal School (Enninskillen).
That same year William Wilde was knighted for his services to medicine and was named Surgeon Oculist in Ireland to Queen Victoria.    (= Sir William & Lady Wilde!)
However, the Wildes’ joy was short-lived as Oscar’s father found himself at the centre of a terrible scandal. A young patient of his, Mary Travers, said that he had drugged her and raped her in 1862. Her case was weak, as she reported it two years after the facts, but she won. As a result, the Wildes had to pay a colossal legal bill and William’s public reputation was sadly obscured.
In contrast to Willie, Oscar became a very good and distinguished student. He also began to write verse. One of his earliest poems (‘Requiescat’)(4) was occasioned by a sad event. In February 1867, in fact, his sister Isola suddenly died. She was only nine years old and Oscar was very fond of her. The family was destroyed.
As Oscar’s school years progressed, he deliberately stressed his otherness (5) and began to behave like a dandy.
Later, from 1871 to 1874, Oscar went to Trinity College, in Dublin, where he studied literature and history of ancient Rome and Greece.  
There,  in June 1874,  he won a scholarship and was accepted at Magdalen College in Oxford where he began to propagandise the new Aesthetic Movement (6) or ‘Art for Art’s sake’ = making an art of life).
In 1878 he took a first-class (First) honours degree in Greek and Latin literature, history and philosophy.
After his honours degree he moved to London because he wanted to meet the rich, fashionable and powerful society of the time. He began to cultivate his image and because of that he became very famous. People were fascinated by his clothes, his hair-style (he grew his hair long and curled), his conversation and his feminine attitudes. 
In 1881 he published a largely unsuccessful volume of poems, Poems, and in the next year he went on a lecture tour to the United States (7).  An opera impresario, who was promoting a play (8) there, commissioned Oscar Wilde to lecture on the ‘English Aesthetic Movement’. The tour was quite a success and lasted one year.
On his return to England, Oscar tour the country, giving lectures about his impressions of America. In this period he met a young lady, Constance Lloyd, and in 1884 he married her. Constance was the daughter of a well-to-do Irish lawyer and their marriage seemed to have been very happy for the first two or three years of their time together. They had two sons: Cyril (born in 1885) and Vyvyan (born in 1886) (9).
During the first years of their marriage he tried to establish himself as a writer, but with little initial success, and he mainly earned his leaving by writing for periodicals.
But from 1888, however, he began writing more seriously in the field of literature. And, in fact, for the next seven years he was immensely productive. He published three collections of short stories  (mainly for children),
The Happy Prince  (1888),
Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime (1891) and
A House of Pomegranates (1891),
together with his only novel,            The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891),
and soon he was considered a modern writer with an original talent.
His reputation was confirmed by the phenomenal success of his Social Comedies:
Lady Windemere’s Fan
A Woman of No Importance
An Ideal Husband   and
The Importance of Being Earnest (his most well-known play),
all performed on the West End stage between 1892 and 1895.    
But success, however, was short-lived. In 1891 Wilde had met Lord Alfred Douglas, a young boy belonging to an aristocratic family, and had fallen extravagantly  in love with him.
In 1895, at the peak of Wilde’s career as a dramatist, there was a great scandal and he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment with hard labour for acts of gross indecency.
While in prison he was declared bankrupt to pay his legal costs, he lost the rights to see his children, and though Constance never divorced him, she refused to have anything to do with him. His mother also died. Oscar Wilde was now a broken man.
As a result of his experience, during his imprisonment he wrote De Profundis, a long letter addressed to Douglas, which was only published in full in 1962.
He was released from prison in 1897 and went to France where he wrote the last of his published works, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which appeared anonymously in 1898.
He spent his last years in relative poverty, and was often lonely (10).
He died in a Paris hotel in November 1900.

(1) William was very famous and had a very rich clientele. But he decided to treat also very  poor patients and, instead of money, he usually asked them to tell him old stories concerning their family or friends. Then such stories formed the raw material for his books.
(2) Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) wrote ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ in 1726.He was a clergyman, too.  With his precious little book, William Wilde wanted to demonstrate that in his last years Swift wasn’t mad but only physically ill.
(3) These ‘Saturday Afternoons At Home’ usually attracted more than 100 visitors!
(4) Tread lightly, she is near
       Under the snow
       Speak gently, she can hear
       The lilies grow
(5)  He used to wear scarlet or lilac shirts, for instance, and at the time a man was usually wearing black or grey!
(6) The aesthetes, under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite poets and painters, professed that art and beauty were the most important values in a society.
(7)  On his arrival, he said to the American customs officers that he had nothing to declare but his genius.
(8) The impresario was Richard D’Oyly Carte and the play, ‘Patience’,  was a satire against the Aesthetic Movement. As such a movement didn’t exist in the USA, the impresario asked Oscar to tell something about it, on the stage, before each performance. And Oscar was just the right person to explain what it was!
(9)  After the birth of their second son, Oscar lead a double life and became involved in a series of illicit homosexual affairs.
(10) Following his imprisonment, Oscar was largely insulted or ignored by his friends. His wife changed her name to escape from the scandal, and he never saw her or his children again.

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