Biography

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Irish-born writer and wit, who was the chief proponent of the aesthetic movement, based on the principle of art for art's sake. Wilde was a novelist, playwright, poet, and critic.

His Life

He was born Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. As a youngster he was exposed to the brilliant literary talk of the day at his mother's Dublin salon. Later, as a student at the University of Oxford, he excelled in classics, wrote poetry, and incorporated the Bohemian life-style of his youth into a unique way of life. At Oxford Wilde came under the influence of aesthetic innovators such as English writers Walter Pater and John Ruskin. As an aesthete, the eccentric young Wilde wore long hair and velvet knee breeches. His rooms were filled with various objets d'art such as sunflowers, peacock feathers, and blue china; Wilde claimed to aspire to the perfection of the china. His attitudes and manners were ridiculed in the comic periodical Punch and satirized in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera Patience (1881). Nonetheless, his wit, brilliance, and flair won him many devotees.

Wilde's first book was Poems (1881). His first play, Vera, or the Nihilists (1882), was produced in New York City, where he saw it performed while he was on a highly successful lecture tour. Upon returning to England he settled in London and married in 1884 a wealthy Irish woman, with whom he had two sons. Thereafter he devoted himself exclusively to writing.

In 1895, at the peak of his career, Wilde became the central figure in one of the most sensational court trials of the century. The results scandalized the Victorian middle class; Wilde, who had been a close friend of the young Lord Alfred Douglas, was convicted of sodomy. Sentenced in 1895 to two years of hard labor in prison, he emerged financially bankrupt and spiritually downcast. He spent the rest of his life in Paris, using the pseudonym Sebastian Melmoth. He was converted to Roman Catholicism before he died of meningitis in Paris on November 30, 1900.

Wilde's early works included two collections of fairy stories, which he wrote for his sons, The Happy Prince (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1892), and a group of short stories, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime (1891). His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), is a melodramatic tale of moral decadence, distinguished for its brilliant, epigrammatic style. Although the author fully describes the process of corruption, the shocking conclusion of the story frankly commits him to a moral stand against self-debasement.

Wilde's most distinctive and engaging plays are the four comedies Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), all characterized by adroitly contrived plots and remarkably witty dialogue. Wilde, with little dramatic training, proved he had a natural talent for stagecraft and theatrical effects and a true gift for farce. The plays sparkle with his clever paradoxes, among them such famous inverted proverbs as "Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes" and "What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything, and the value of nothing."

In contrast, Wilde's Salomé is a serious drama about obsessive passion. Originally written in French, it was produced in Paris in 1894 with the celebrated actor Sarah Bernhardt. It was subsequently made into an opera by the German composer Richard Strauss. Salomé was also translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas and illustrated by English artist Aubrey Beardsley in 1894.

While in prison Wilde composed De Profundis (From the Depths; 1905), an apology for his life. Some critics consider it a serious revelation; others, a sentimental and insincere work. The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), written at Berneval-le-Grand, France, just after his release and published anonymously in England, is the most powerful of all his poems. The starkness of prison life and the desperation of people interned are revealed in beautifully cadenced language. For years after his death the name of Oscar Wilde bore the stigma attached to it by Victorian prudery. Wilde, the artist, now is recognized as a brilliant social commentator, whose best work remains worthwhile and relevant.