Oscar Wilde: Poetry and aesthetics
Take a closer look at the Irish playwright’s life and the fashionable, indulgent myth he built up around himself
Even though the Picture of Dorian Gray is an extremely well-known classic work of fiction, the Importance of Being Earnest is one of the most frequently produced plays, and he’s literally the most quoted person, according to the Oxford Dictionary, it’s not very common knowledge that Oscar Wilde wrote poetry.
Don’t want to read? Listen to this story and hear a reading of “Hélas” on the tiff loves words podcast.
Oscar Wilde was a world-famous writer, playwright, and man of society. He was one of our first real celebrities. And he represented people who felt marginalized and like the world wasn’t made for someone who looks like them or thinks like them.
Oscar Wilde was a fascinating person and there are layers upon layers we could explore about his life, but let’s take a look at Wilde the poet.
Oscar: the early years
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, Ireland. Wilde was born with writing in his blood.
His father, Sir William Wilde was a well-known surgeon and wrote several publications about archaeology, folklore, and, of course, medicine.
His mother, Lady Jane Anges Wilde, was a poet and writer who used the pen name Speranza. She was also a dedicated activist for Irish independence and an advocate for women’s rights.
Oscar Wilde was lucky. He was the second son of successful, wealthy Dubliners who entertained well-known Irish intellectuals, writers, and politicians in their drawing rooms. In fact, his childhood home, No 1 Merrion Square, was so large that it is now a location of the American College - Dublin.
Oscar Wilde, his older brother Willie, and their younger sister Isola were all educated at home, learning French and German. Their mother would read poetry and essays to them, including some of her own works.
At the age of 10, Oscar followed his older brother to boarding school in Northern Ireland, about 100 miles away from their family.
Sadly, in 1867, while they were away at school, their sister Isola died from illness at the age of 9. Oscar was very affected by her death and later wrote the poem Requiescat in her memory.
A homeland gutted by starvation and disease
Oscar Wilde was born into the Victorian era, when Britain was the richest and most powerful country in the world. Its empire reigned over a quarter of the world’s population.
Industrialization was happening. Invention was happening. Imagine being alive when things like ice cream, photography, the telegraph were brand new. There was a revived focus on art, music, architecture, and culture. However, not everything was butter upon bacon during this time, especially in Ireland.
As I was told once on a boozy walking tour in Dublin, there are three major eras in Irish history: before the potato, when the potato arrived, and after the potato failed. That’s a cute way to talk about how one of the most shocking famines in world history changed an entire country.
The Great Famine, or Great Potato Famine was from 1845 to 1849, just before Oscar Wilde was born. The Famine was four years of mass starvation and disease. More than a million people died. That’s more than a 5th of the Irish population today.
Imagine if one in five people who knew starved to death. The death toll was about the same amount people who died during the American Civil War.
Shockingly, at this time, Ireland was still exporting tons of food and livestock to England. Beyond that, about million more people left the country, emigrating to places like America and Canada.
The Great Famine absolutely gutted the population of Ireland.
Academics and aesthetics
Because of his family’s wealth, Oscar Wilde was shielded from much of that hardship. After boarding school, he followed his brother to Trinity College in Dublin.
From the ages of 19 to 21, Oscar studied Greek literature under scholars like John Pentland Mahaffy, who was a professor that was known as one of Ireland’s greatest wits. Mahaffy was also well known as a snob and Wilde referred to him as “his first and best teacher.” Mahaffy later called Oscar the “only blot on his tutorship.”
Wilde was actually an excellent student. He was first in his class, often winning awards and scholarships for his academic achievements. In 1874, he won a prestigious fellowship at Oxford and left Ireland to pursue a degree in classic literature.
Even though he was already a fan of all things aesthetic, Oxford is where Wilde truly started embracing a decadent lifestyle, focusing on style and beauty.
He grew his famous long, floppy hair and spent an extravagant amount of money on decorating his dorm room with flowers, peacock feathers, fine china, and other pieces of art to impress the friends he entertained. Life, for Oscar Wilde, was about art over morals, beauty over practicality.
Life, for Oscar Wilde, was about art over morals, beauty over practicality.
Oxford was the place he rebelled against society’s preconceived notions of masculinity and began building up this fashionable, indulgent myth around himself. Some people hated him for it. But Oscar Wilde knew was he was doing. His references always seemed tongue-in-cheek. He even once remarked, “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.”
Oscar Wilde was someone to know. He was witty, charming, bombastic, and liberal with his opinions and affections. People often refer to him as one of the first real celebrities.
After graduation, he headed back to Dublin for a period of time and then started lecturing, all the while contributing small pieces of writing to various publications.
Poetry and American pursuits
In 1881, Wilde printed a collection of poetry. Poems sold out its first print run of 750 copies and received some favorable reviews. Probably much to his delight, the British weekly humor mag, Punch, featured a caricature of Oscar as a sunflower, with a caption claiming, “The poet is Wilde, but his poetry’s tame.” Even though it wasn’t a positive review, it meant that Oscar Wilde was a well-recognized name, and even more so, an established personality.
Also in 1881, Gilbert and Sullivan debuted a satirical opera about the aesthetic movement called Patience. Its central characters were flamboyant poets. The opera was a huge success and before its debut in America, Oscar Wilde was invited to lecture about aesthetics in the States.
The American press tore him up, using racist anti-Irish cartoons, comparing him to animals, and criticizing him relentlessly. But the truth is, he was well-received by the Americans he visited, spending time with everyone from coal miners in Colorado, to socialites in the most in-vogue salons.
Before Poems was published, Wilde started writing plays. His first was called Vera and was finished in 1880. However it didn’t premiere until after he returned from the States. In 1883, Wilde moved to Paris using the money he earned on the American lecture circuit and wrote a play called the Duchess of Padua. The actress he wrote it for turned it down and the play would not premiere for another eight years.
Vera premiered in New York but closed after just one week. Unsuccessful in his playwright ventures, Wilde returned to England to lecture.
From plays to prison
At one of his lectures, he met Constance Lloyd, a young woman from a wealthy Irish family who also believed in the aesthetic movement. The two were married in 1884. Shortly thereafter, they had two children, Cyril and Vyvyan.
After his children were born, Wilde started pursuing more journalistic endeavors and became the editor of the Lady’s World magazine. Also during this time, Wilde’s popularity grew and he started entertaining young men, like journalist Robbie Ross.
In 1888, he published his first collection of short stories, “The Happy Prince and Other Tales.” He followed this with two more short stories collections and a series of essays. His first novel, the Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in 1890, first as a novella, then as a full book. It was, as the Irish Times put it, published to some scandal. People condemned the homoerotic imagery and called it, “unclean.”
This was unfortunately in tune with the times, as homosexuality was a criminal offense back then. Thankfully, the death penalty for sodomy was abolished in 1861. But in 1885, the Labouchere Amendment was passed, making whatever could be addresses as “gross indecency” a crime. I mean, did you know that homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized in England until 1967?
In 1891, Wilde met a young man named Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie to his friends. Bosie’s dad was Marquess of Queensberry. The man who created the modern rules of boxing. You know the meme with the gruff Victorian bare-knuckle boxer? Yeah, that’s the same guy. Bosie and Wilde started a very intense and indiscreet love affair. Wilde spent all of the money he was earning from plays on Bosie and in turn, Bosie took Wilde down an indulgent path, leading to underground gay prostitution.
As you may have guessed, the Marquess of Queensberry was not having it. He forbade Boise from seeing Wilde but Boise just laughed at him. The Marquess left a calling card that read, “For Oscar Wilde, posing sodomite” at a club. Bosie encouraged Wilde to sue for libel. In the hubris of love and fame, Wilde and more so Bosie, must have felt untouchable.
Unfortunately, Wilde lost the trial and was sent to prison for two years. After prison, he left for France and spent the rest of his life poor and in exile. On November 30, 1900, he died of meningitis in Paris.
In 2017, he and 50,000 other men convicted of homosexual acts in the UK were pardoned. Only 122 years too late.
By Oscar Wilde
To drift with every passion till my soul
Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play
Is it for this that I have given away
Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control?
Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll
Scrawled over on some boyish holiday
With idle songs for pipe and virelay,
Which do but mar the secret of the whole.
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God:
Is that time dead? Lo, with a little rod
I did but touch the honey of romance —
And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?
A closer look at Wilde’s work: “Hélas”
Poems wouldn’t have happened with immense Oscar Wilde‘s love of English Romantic poet John Keats. Keats, who died three decades before Wilde was born, was the inspiration behind Wilde’s collection of poetry. Wilde originally chose the words of Keats as an epitaph to Poems. However, he changed it to Hélas before publication.
In Hélas, Oscar Wilde speaks to the dichotomy he knew was, at the time, hidden within himself. In the poem, he alludes to being twice written, to obscuring the full meaning of his character.
Oscar Wilde was known for decadence, for indulging in aesthetic. Critics called him out on this time and time again, especially with his poetry.
From this poem alone, you can feel his love for being wrapped up by the beauty of language, for his obsession with the French, with nods to fashion and appearance. Are those things true about him? Yes.
But there are layers here. I believe that is what Wilde is cleverly pointing out to those who dare to unwrap his words, to read between the beautifully threaded lines.
I think for a moment, he’s asking if the package or the presentation is too distracting to understand the artistry. He speaks of this discontent, this questioning.
In the biblical story that Wilde references at the end of the poem, Jonathan is sentenced to death because he disobeyed his father and ate some honey. There are interesting parallels between that story and Oscar Wilde’s life.
In Hélas, Oscar Wilde asking: Does feeling pleasure, does indulging in aesthetic, does love of art truly merit condemnation? Does one character trait or one action eclipse everything else?
People are still trying to untangle those questions today. So, what are the answers? Does anyone really know? Let’s let Oscar Wilde answer his own questions with one of his most quoted lines:
“Only the shallow know themselves.”