Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900) was an Anglo-Irish poet, playwright, critic, essayist, and novelist. Famous for witty conversation and a well-turned phrase, Wilde is revered by the LGBTQ community as a Gay icon, and his tomb in Paris is a site for LGBTQ pilgrimage.
Wilde’s Impact on Victorian Culture
Wilde studied with the critic Walter Pater at Oxford’s Magdalen College and adopted Pater’s appreciation of “Art for Art’s sake” — that is, to worship beauty simply because it is beautiful (the basic principle of aestheticism). Wilde himself was the opposite of stereotypical Victorian masculinity. He wore his hair in long waves, favored distinctive dress (which reportedly included an embroidered shirt with black silk lining, a yellow pocket kerchief in his coat, and vintage high stockings), and an ostentatious flower such as a lily or green carnation on his lapel.
Wilde was often the object of ridicule in the press, but young men imitated his style. Among his most famous works are plays (Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Importance of Being Earnest, Salome), fairy tales (“The Remarkable Rocket,” “the Nightingale and the Rose,” “The Selfish Giant”), poems (“The Ballad of Reading Gaol”), essays (“The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” “De Profundis”), and a novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray).
Trials and Aftermath
In 1891, Wilde had fallen in love with handsome Oxford student Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie” to his friends) to the chagrin of Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry. In 1895 the Marquess accused Wilde of being a sodomite (homosexual). Wilde sued him for libel and lost. Soon afterwards, the government charged Wilde with “gross indecencies” and insinuated that aestheticism was merely a euphemism for homosexuality. Wilde was asked to define “the love that dare not speak its name,” a phrase from one of Bosie’s own poems:
It is such a great affection of the elder for the younger man as existed between David and Jonathan; such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy; such as we find in the sonnets of Michael Angelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection which is as pure as it is perfect… It is beautiful; it is fine; it is the noblest form of affection. It is intellectual and has existed repeatedly between an elder and a younger man when the elder has the intellect and the younger has all the joy and hope and glamour of life. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.
Wilde was convicted in May 1895 and sentenced to the maximum penalty of two years’ hard labor (which inspired his 1898 poetic masterpiece, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” attributed to “C.33,” his prison cell and identity code at the Reading Gaol correctional facility). Producers erased his authorship from playbills, and his name connoted immorality, in particular the disgrace of homosexuality, for years after his death. Upon Wilde’s release from prison, he changed his name to Sebastian (after St. Sebastian, often identified with homosexual men) Melmoth, and moved to Paris, France. He resided in the Hôtel d’Alsace, a run-down Rive Gauche pension house until he died in 1900. During his last days, he is reported saying, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other must go.”
In the first half of the twentieth century, Wilde’s name was associated with the shame of homosexuality by some, while others idolized him and considered him a martyr. In E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, set in the Edwardian period, the title character seeks a cure for his homosexual feelings, admitting that he is “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.” Noel Coward made reference to Wilde’s habit of wearing a green carnation as a reference to Gay men in his 1929 song, “Green Carnation,” in his 1929 musical, Bitter Sweet.
Revival in Mid- to Late Twentieth Century
As sexual mores relaxed after World War I, a more sympathetic light was cast on Wilde. He emerged as a victim of Victorian repression and sexual hypocrisy. When the Gay rights movement began in the United States and Europe, LGBTQ people sought historical icons with which to identify. Wilde’s life encompassed the extremes of being homosexual, possessing brilliance, wit, and beauty, but suffering shame and fear in the name of love. Gays embraced this iconography in the 1960s and 1970s. As one example of Wilde’s reclamation, the Oscar Wilde Memorial Bookshop, opened in Greenwich Village in 1967, one block from where the Stonewall Riots would take place two years later.
Wilde’s tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris is a site for LGBTQ pilgrimage, with flowers and messages regularly left for him. A large horizontal block carved by Jacob Epstein marks the spot. The block features a flying male angel carved across it that is naked except for an elaborate headpiece. The genitalia of the angel, however, have been chiseled off.
The room in which Wilde died is located in the L’Hôtel, a luxurious five-star hotel that commemorates Wilde by displaying letters he wrote to his friends in the reception area, and has letters written to Wilde by the Hôtel d’Alsace staff asking that he pay his bills in its opulent Oscar Wilde Suite, Wilde’s former residence. The wallpaper bemoaned by Wilde has long since been replaced.
Wilde is also remembered in the Smiths’ song “Cemetery Gates.” In a 1984 interview with James Henke for Rolling Stone, lead singer Morrissey said, “They [Oscar Wilde and James Dean] were the only two companions I had as a distraught teenager. Every line that Wilde ever wrote affected me so enormously.”
A Selection of Oscar Wilde’s Epigrams
I can resist everything except temptation. – Lady Windermere’s Fan
To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness. – The Importance of Being Earnest
The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means. – The Importance of Being Earnest
To be really medieval one should have no body. To be really modern one should have no soul. To be really Greek one should have no clothes. – A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated
To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance. –Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young
The basis of optimism is sheer terror. – The Picture of Dorian Gray
One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art. –Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young
Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious. – In Conversation
Those whom the gods love grow young. – A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated
As long as war is regarded as wicked, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as vulgar, it will cease to be popular. – The Critic as Artist
Sayings Attributed to Wilde
I am not young enough to know everything. (Also attributed to James M. Barrie)
Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.
Morality, like art, means drawing a line someplace.
Some cause happiness wherever they go, others whenever they go.
The Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone. For respectable people, the Anglican Church will do. (Wilde converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.)
Alvin Redman, ed. The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde. New York: Courier Dover, 1959.
Richard Ellman. Oscar Wilde. New York: Vintage, 1988.
Henke, James. “Oscar! Oscar! Great Britain Goes Wilde for the ‘Fourth Gender’ Smiths.” Rolling Stone. June 7, 1984.
Vyvyan Holland. Son of Oscar Wilde. New York: Carroll and Graf, 1999.