Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Wilde, Oscar O'Flahertie Wills

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1411688Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement, Volume 3 — Wilde, Oscar O'Flahertie Wills1901Thomas Seccombe (1866-1923)

WILDE, OSCAR O'FLAHERTIE WILLS (1856–1900), wit and dramatist, born in Dublin on 15 Oct. 1856, was the younger son of Sir William Robert Wills Wilde [q. v.], who married, in 1851, Jane Francisca Elgee (d. 1896), a granddaughter of Archdeacon Elgee of Wexford [see under Wilde, Sir W. R. W.] Oscar Wilde's elder brother, William Charles Kingsbury Wilde (1853–1899), a journalist, who wrote much for the 'World' and the 'Daily Telegraph,' died in London in March 1899. His mother, who wrote under the signature 'Speranza,' had a literary salon at Dublin, where much clever talk was listened to by the children.

After education at Portora royal school, Enniskillen, Oscar Wilde studied during 1873–4 at Trinity College, Dublin, where he won the Berkeley gold medal with an essay on the Greek comic poets. He matriculated from Magdalen College, Oxford, 17 Oct. 1874, holding a demyship at Magdalen from 1874 to 1879, and graduating B.A. in 1878. In 1877, during a vacation ramble, he visited Ravenna and Greece, in company with Professor Mahaffy, and in June 1878 he won the Newdigate prize with a poem on 'Ravenna.' He was greatly impressed by Florence and by the lectures of Ruskin, spending several whole days in breaking stones upon the road which the professor projected near Oxford. He had from his youth a strong antipathy to games, though he was fond of riding. His precocity, both physical and mental, was exceptional, and while still at Magdalen he excogitated his aesthetic philosophy of 'Art for Art's sake,' of which he was recognised at once as the apostle, and enunciated the aspiration that he might be able to live up to his blue china. His rooms, overlooking the Cherwell, were notorious for their exotic splendour, and Wilde's bric-a-brac was the object of several philistine outrages. The abuse of foes and the absurdities of friends alike furnished material for persiflage. His wit was undoubted, and be successfully cultivated the notation (not wholly deserved) of being a complete idler. Me had a natural aptitude for classical studies, and he obtained with ease a first-class both in classical moderations (1876) and in literæ humaniores (1878). He had already written poems, marked by strange affectations, but with a classical finish and an occasional felicity of detail. These had appeared in the 'Month,' the 'Catholic Mirror,' the 'Irish Monthly,' 'Kottabos,' and in the first number of Edmund Yates's periodical called 'Time.' A selection of these juvenile pieces was printed in 1881 as 'Poems by Oscar Wilde' (reprinted in New York, 1882). On leaving Oxford Wilde was already a well-known figure and a favourite subject for caricature (notably in 'Punch,' and later as Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan's comic opera, 'Patience'). He was recognised as the founder of the æsthetic cult, the symbols of which were peacocks' feathers, sunflowers, dados, and blue china, long hair, and velveteen breeches. His sayings were pi mod from mouth to mouth as those of one of the professed wits of the age. His fame crosstid the Atlantic, and in 1882 he made a tour through the United States, lecturing two hundred times in such cities as New York, Boston, and Chicago, upon 'Esthetic Philosophy,' and meeting with great, though not unvaried, success. The paradoxical nature of his utterances at times excited disgust. A cablegram to England expressed his disappointment 'with the Atlantic, and he finally came to the conclusion that the English 'have really everything in common with the Americans except, of course, language.' A drama by him, called 'Vera,' was produced in New York during his stay then in 1882.

For five or six years after his return from America Wilde resided chiefly in London in comparative privacy, but paid frequent visits to Paris and travelled on the continent. In 1884 he married Constance, daughter of Horace Lloyd, Q.C., and in 1HHS he commenced a period of literary activity, which was progressive until the collapse of his career in 1895. This period opened with 'The Happy Prince and other Tales' (1888, illustrated by Walter Crane and Jacomb Hood), a volume of charming fairy tales with a piquant touch of contemporary satire. In 1891 appeared 'Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and other Stories' and 'The Picture of Dorian Gray.' The novel last mentioned, which was first published in 'Lippincott's Magazine,' was full of subtle impressionism and highly wrought epigram, but owed notoriety to an undercurrent of very disagreeable suggestion. A 'Preface to Dorian Gray,' concluding 'All Art is quite useless,' appeared separately in the 'Fortnightly Review' (March 1891). In the previous number of the 'Review' readers had been more than ever bewildered by Wilde's exceptionally brilliant plea for socialism, on the ground that it would relieve us of ' the sordid necessity of living for others.' Later in the same year Wilde reprinted some 'literary wild oats' under the title 'Intentions' (three contributions to leading reviews). One of these, on 'Masks,' revealed an intimate knowledge of Shakespeare. 'A House of Pomegranates' (more fairy tales), 1892, was taken in the main at the author's valuation as ' intended neither for the British child nor the British public.'

Meanwhile in 1891 a blank-verse tragedy by Wilde, called 'The Duchess of Padua,' was produced in New York, and subsequently he found a more profitable mode of expression for his literary abilities in light comedies, which, despite his very narrow experience of modern stage conditions, were remarkable equally for theatrical and for literary skill. His first light comedy, 'Lady Windermere's Fan,' was produced at the St. James's Theatre on 20 Feb. 1892, and was printed next year. It was full of saucy repartee and overdone with epigram of the pattern peculiar to 'the author, namely, the inverted proverb, but it made a hit. It was followed at the Haymarket Theatre in April 1893 by 'A Woman of no Importance,' a drama of a similar kind, to the theatrical success of which the fine acting of Mr. Tree and Mrs. Bernard Beere greatly contributed (printed 1894, 4to).

In the summer of 1893 the licenser of plays refused to sanction the performance of 'Salome,' a play of more serious character, written in French. This was a marvel of mimetic power, which owed most perhaps to Flaubert's 'Herodias;' it was printed as 'Salome, Drame en un acte'(1893, 4to), and was rendered into English by Wilde's friend, Lord Alfred Douglas, in 1894 (London, 4to; with ten pictures by Aubrey Beardsley). The original version was produced by Madame Sarah Bernhardt in Paris in 1894. In 1894 was also published 'The Sphinx' (dedicated to Marcel Schwob), a poetical catalogue of 'amours frequent and free,' presented in the metre of 'In Memoriam.' In the same year, in a paper entitled 'Phrases and Philosophies for the use of the Young,' Wilde gave the tone to a magazine called 'The Chameleon,' two numbers of which were issued at Oxford in a very limited edition. The tortured paradoxes of the new cult were effectively parodied in Mr. Hichens's 'Green Carnation.' To the 'Fortnightly' of July 1894 Wilde contributed some curious ' Poems in Prose.' He could write English of silken delicacy, but in his choice of epithets there are frequently traces of that 'industry' which he denounced as the 'root of all ugliness.'

A third comedy, 'The Ideal Husband,' was successfully produced at the Haymarket on 3 Jan. 1895, although it was not printed until 1899. On 14 Feb. 1895 was given at the St. James's Theatre a fourth play in the light vein, 'The Importance of being Earnest : a trivial comedy for serious people' (1899, 4to), an irresistible dramatic trifle, at once insolent in its levity and exquisite in its finish. The Victorian era, it may fairly be said, knew no light comedies which for brilliant wit, literary finish, or theatrical dexterity were comparable with Wilde's handiwork.

The manuscript of a poetical drama by Wilde, entitled 'A Florentine Tragedy,' was stolen from his house in Tite Street in 1895, together with an enlarged version of an essay on Shakespeare's sonnets, entitled 'The History of Mr. W. H.,' of which an outline appeared in 'Blackwood's Magazine' in July 1889 ('The Portrait of Mr. W. H.')

In the month following the successful production of 'The Importance of being Earnest' Wilde brought, with fatal insolence, an unsuccessful action for criminal libel against the Marquis of Queensberry. In the result he was himself arrested and charged with offences under the Criminal Law Amendment Act, and being found guilty after a protracted trial at the Old Bailey on 27 May 1895, he was sentenced by Mr. Justice Wills to two years' imprisonment with hard labour. Ruined in fortune as well as in fame, he soon afterwards passed through the bankruptcy court. While in prison he wrote a kind of apology for his life, a manuscript amounting to about forty-five thousand words, now in the hands of his literary executor, and also studied Dante assiduously, contemplating an essay on 'The Divine Comedy' which should develop a new theory. On 19 May 1897 he was released from prison. Thenceforth his necessities were provided _for by a small annuity purchased by his friends. After spending some time at Berneval, he in 1898 made his headquarters at the Hotel d'Alsace, Paris. While at Berneval he wrote and issued anonymously in London a powerful 'Ballad of Reading Gaol' (1898), the sincerity of which is overlaid by an excess of rhetoric Thenceforth he wrote nothing. He adopted the name Sebastian Melmoth—Melmoth from the romance of Maturin, a connection of his mother, Lady Wilde, Sebastian suggested by the arrows on the prison dress. He had contributed some information to the 1892 edition of 'Melmoth the Wanderer.'

After visiting Sicily and Rome in the spring of 1900, Wilde died of cerebral meningitis at the Hôtel d'Alsace on 30 Nov. 1900. He received the last rites of the Roman catholic church. Shortly before his death he expressed his conviction that his 'moral obliquity was due to the fact that his father had prevented him from entering the Roman church while he was at Oxford, adding, 'The artistic side of the church and the fragrance of its teaching would have curbed my degeneracies.' He was buried in the Bagneux cemetery on 3 Dec., his tombstone bearing the inscription: 'Ci-git Oscar Wilde, poete et auteur dramatique.' His wife had died in 1896. Two sons—Cyril, born in 1885, and Vivian in 1886—survived both parents.

[Miles's Poets of the Century; Stedman's Victorian Anthology, 1896; Hamilton's Esthetic Movement in England; Young's Apologia pro Oscar Wilde, 1895; Whistler's Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890, pp. 106-21; Biograph, August 1880; Times, March-April 1895, 20 May 1897, 1 Dec. 1900; Dublin Evening Mail, 1 Dec. 1900; Daily Chronicle, 7 Dec. 1900; Bookselling, January 1895; Academy, 18 March 1899; Brit. Mus. Cat.; private information. A set of Oscar Wilde's Works in 14 vols. (including the Oxford periodical, The Spirit Lump, to which he contributed May 1892 to June 1893) fetched 18l. 5s. in January 1901.]

T. S.