Childhood to Adulthood
Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland. He later dropped the three middle names, stating that his entire name was much too long for someone who would be as famous as he. As late as his college days, however, he signed his contributions to the Trinity College classical magazine Kottabos with the initials "O. F. O. F. W. W." Wilde would spend his life daring to be different.
Born to William Robert Wills Wilde, a noted ear and eye surgeon and author, and Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde, a novelist and poet who wrote using the pseudonym Speranza, Wilde had an older brother, William Robert Kingsbury Wills Wilde ("Willie"), and a younger sister, Isola Francesca Emily Wilde, who died of a fever and "sudden effusion on the brain" just short of her tenth birthday in 1867. Wilde was especially affected by her death and later wrote a poem ("Requiescat") about her. Isola's attending physician remembered Wilde as "an affectionate, gentle, retiring, dreamy boy."
In 1871, when he was sixteen years old, Wilde enrolled in Trinity College in Dublin. He was already fluent in French and especially interested in Greek classical literature. He was considerably influenced by his tutor, the Reverend J. P. Mahaffy, a professor of ancient history whom Wilde would later call "my first and my best teacher." Wilde toured Italy with Reverend Mahaffy in 1875 and visited Greece and Italy with his former tutor in 1877. He credited Mahaffy with teaching him to "love Greek things" and opening his mind. Mahaffy's influence may have encouraged Wilde's imagination. On one occasion, Mahaffy commented that he was only punished once in his life, and that was "for telling the truth." An acquaintance responded, "It certainly cured you, Mahaffy."
At twenty, Wilde matriculated at Magdalen College, Oxford. He loved the school and the life, calling Oxford the most beautiful place in England and recalling this as the "most flower-like time" in his life. There were social adjustments, but he soon learned to control a convulsive laugh and a lisp and to lose his Irish accent.
Writing and Reputation
Brilliant and talented, if not always dedicated, Wilde published his first work in verse, "Chorus of Cloud-Maidens," in the Dublin University Magazine in November 1875. A loose translation of songs from Aristophanes' The Clouds, the work indicates Wilde's interest in the classics. In 1878, he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry from Oxford for "Ravenna," a poem in which he recalls his visit to the Italian city of Ravenna the previous year and speculates on its fall from greatness, a popular theme with Wilde and one that he would tragically follow in his own life.
Wilde became devoted to Aestheticism during these Oxford years (see "Oscar Wilde's Aesthetics" in Critical Essays at the end of this book for more information on the Aesthetic movement). He was able to laugh at the movement's superficial excesses as well as his own. Although he was temporarily expelled from Oxford in 1877 for a long absence without permission, he earned a rare "double first" in Literae Humaniores. In November of 1878, he was awarded the Bachelor of Arts degree.
By the end of 1881, Wilde's reputation as a poet and art critic, and especially as an advocate of Aestheticism, allowed him to set off for a year-long lecture tour of America. The tour was a highlight of his career; before reaching his twenty-eighth birthday, he had become an international celebrity. In his personal life, Wilde married Constance Mary Lloyd on May 29, 1884, when he was twenty-nine years old.
Although Wilde liked to pose as a dandy who seldom worked, he was a very productive journalist, critic, editor, dramatist, poet, and fiction writer. Writing nine plays between 1879 and 1894, his reputation as a dramatist really was earned by Salome and by four comedies: Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest. Wilde gloried in the decadence of Salome, a one-act play about the biblical character who danced for King Herod in order to obtain the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The exotic and violent production was welcomed in France before it could be performed in Victorian England. The censorship that Salome received in England anticipated Wilde's personal problems in the courts. The Importance of Being Earnest, a combination of wit and farce, is Wilde's most enduring play and arguably his best.
A reader new to Wilde might be surprised to learn that most of the author's fiction consists of two volumes of fairy tales. Originally told to adults at social occasions, the stories are not necessarily meant for children. Asked about the intended audience for his fairy tales, Wilde responded, "I had about as much intention of pleasing the British child as I did of pleasing the British public." Although he sounds indifferent, Wilde probably hoped to please both audiences. Certainly he welcomed an enthusiastic response from his mentor (from Oxford days) Walter Pater, an important proponent of Aestheticism, who especially appreciated "The Happy Prince" and "The Selfish Giant."
Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, first appeared as a novella in the June 20, 1890, issue of Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. Dorian Gray caused quite a stir; critics and readers alike called it an immoral story. Wilde published an expanded and revised version of the story in book form the next year. He included a preface that contained, among other aphorisms (brief statements espousing truths or opinions), a biting response to his critics: There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book; a book is just written well or written poorly.
The most traumatic events in Wilde's life were the court trials, and later imprisonment, concerning his personal behavior (see "Three Trials: Oscar Wilde Goes to Court, 1895" in Critical Essays). Prison was very hard on Wilde. He wrote about it, his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, and other matters in a long essay, taking the form of a letter to Douglas, later published as De Profundis. The essay was written from January to March of 1897 and took the form of a letter partly because prison rules allowed Wilde to write only letters. Rather than sending the letter to Douglas, Wilde gave the manuscript to his loyal friend Robert Ross after Wilde was released in May of that year. His last creative work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, was written after his release and was published in February 1898. A tale of murder and imprisonment, it contains one of Wilde's more famous lines: "Yet each man kills the thing he loves."
Constance, Wilde's wife, died April 7, 1898. They had two sons, Cyril (born June 5, 1885) and Vyvyan (born November 5, 1886). Wilde's wife changed her name and that of her sons to "Holland" in September 1895 because of her husband's trials and imprisonment. She ultimately decided against divorce but moved the boys out of England. Wilde spent the last three and a half years of his life in Europe, living under the assumed name of Sebastian Melmoth. An ancestor on his mother's side, Charles Maturin, had written a successful novel called Melmoth the Wanderer, and Wilde did seem restless and lost in his final years. The trials and prison time had ruined him. He died bankrupt in a Paris hotel on November 30, 1900, at the age of forty-six, receiving the rites of the Roman Catholic Church. A Latin phrase, from the Book of Job, is inscribed on his tombstone: Verbis meis addere nihil audebant et super illos stillebat eloquium meum — "To my words they dare add nothing, and my speech fell upon them."