Book Review: The Life Of Oscar Wilde

English: Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length por...
English: Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, facing front, seated, leaning forward, left elbow resting on knee, hand to chin, holding walking stick in right hand, wearing coat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the age of thirteen, Oscar Wilde mother (Jane) Speranza Francesca Wilde instilled in him a sense of being destined for greatness, and this was reinforced as he grew up amid affluence and success. He proved himself to be a prodigy at the school of Portora since the age of 13, having mastered the intricacies of a novel in 3 minutes, showing a keen interest in the Greek and Latin texts, and being excused from examinations, while neglecting other part of his studies he found boring; which did not make him the most exemplary student. At the age of 17, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde gave his first paper on ‘Aesthetic Morality’ at Trinity College. Although, his father’s income declined with his health, the family capitalized on Lady Francesca Wilde’s property, and he was able to matriculate and than attend Oxford University at the age of 20. Oscar Wilde showed his potential for greatness….intelligence, ability, and opportune circumstances.

Life at Oxford assisted in shaping Wilde’s temperament and personality. He got rid of his Irish accent to ingratiate himself with his fellow classmates. He was at best a mediocre student and more keen on his own flamboyancy or excess. Two notable intellectuals influenced him, John Ruskin and Walter Pater. Wilde found it difficult to rise at dawn, so he overcame his languor for Ruskin’s sake. Ruskin fostered his conviction that art had a role to play in the improvement of society. On the other hand, Pater may have influenced Wilde’s homosexual tendencies… “the extraordinary effect  of the Studies on Wilde came from their exercises in the seduction of young men by the wiles of culture.”

Misfortune hit Oscar Wilde family. He became bedridden over his father’s death. Unfortunately, his father’s will proved a disaster. Sir William Wilde spent his money as he made it and made substantial sums to the mothers of this illegitimate children. Wilde returned to Oxford University very much aware of financial troubles ahead, perhaps for life. He managed to pass his second-year examinations in classical literature, writing about his point of view on Aristotle’s theory of art, long after his time for taking examinations was over. Oscar Wilde continued this streak of insubordination well into his third year at Oxford and Wilde’s melancholy fit was broken by the spring of 1877. He went on a vacation to Greece, Rome and stopping by Monte Carlo on the way.

Oscar Wilde Demyship was under fire at Oxford University for extending his trip in Greece well into the term. He went to London for a private showing hosted by important dignitaries. In 1878, he fell ill, of an unspecified malady and spent some days in bed… it was reported, like his father he was prone to fits of melancholy. This incident was soon over shadowed by contracting syphilis from a prostitute. However, these unfortunate events did not prevent him from officially moving to London to set himself up as a working Bachelor. By the time of graduation from Oxford, he had unpaid debts, unable to keep up with his rather expensive extravagant lifestyle. He decided to take on his role as art critic, poet, and playwright, using influential friends and Oxford connections.

Wilde passionately pursued a love affair with an actress and socialite named Lillie Langtry. Much later, Stephane Mallarme and Sarah Bernhardt, as well as, falling in love with several dozen various intelligent beauties in his lifetime. Francesca Wilde’s tenants were failing to pay for rent on time, and concerned that Oscar marriage prospects were slim, she decided to become a grande dame of a Salon in London. It was at reception in 1883, Oscar and another art critic made a spectacle in the London art scene. Humphrey Ward, art critic of Times, called an artist pictures good, another bad. The artist Whistler said, “My dear fellow, you must never say this painting is good or that bad. Good and bad are not the terms to be used by you. But you must say “I like this” or “I don’t like that”, and you will be within your rights. Oscar Wilde had a response to this and it was, “It is only the unimaginative who ever invents. The true artist is known by the use he makes of what he annexes, and he annexes everything.” Both Whistler and Wilde became notable playwrights, but eventual enemies.

A producer named Richard D’Oyly Carte managed Wilde’s lectures in America and the debut of his republican play Vera. The reporters had a field day covering news about Oscar Wilde, every word of his would be quoted, distorted in some form or fashion, and they well noted how he spoke in syncopation. He was a sensation in certain social circles and made enemies. Wilde praised Walt Whitman and had the privilege of meeting him. Whitman was impressed by the young man to the extent he defended him against criticism. In later meetings, it was reported by Wilde that Whitman had no qualms about concealing his homosexuality, “the kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips,” he said. Whitman later disassociated himself from Wilde’s aesthetic movement.

By the time Oscar Wilde was finished, half the United States had been lectured to. He appeased Chicagoans a little about what he thought as the castellated monstrosity of the Water Tower. In Chicago, Wilde met a sculpture named John Donoghue and talked about his admiration for this young man’s art that commissions poured in to the artist, who neither showed any appreciation. Wilde furthered others careers in this manner; although, this neither benefited him. Wilde also had the misfortune of entering a risky business transaction in New York, where he lost thousands of dollars in the process to this con-artist called “Hungry Joe” Sellick. He also made a bad investment with Kelley’s Perpetual Motion Company. The New York Tribune had a field day with this latest scandal.

The greatest adventure of Wilde’s trip was up in the Rocky Mountains. He felt faint when he arrived, but later rebounded with exuberant energy. As reported by Wilde, “The amazement of the miners when they saw that art and appetite could go hand in hand knew no bounds.” The miners cheered when Wilde lit a cigar and downed three bottles of Whiskey. He was amazed that bad art merits the penalties of death, when he saw a notice: “Please don’t shoot the pianist; he is doing his best.” He spoke well of the miners and their appreciation for his lecture. The tour en force was an overall success, upon Wilde’s return to London. 

Marrying a woman named Constance and having a son did not calm his restlessness. The marriage later deteriorated as they moved in separate circles. Wilde continued with his indolence, drinking, and sexual affairs mostly with men. His (manic-depressive) illness came around the time of Lady Windermere, it went away and then revived during the criticisms of Salome. Wilde said, “he must take a rest cure.” At the height of his success in 1892, the year his marriage deteriorated, Wilde was seduced by a young man named Lord Alfred Douglas and both competitively seduced young men who would prostitute themselves for a few pounds. This passionate love affair lead to Wilde serving time in prison for sexual indiscretion or crimes. His brother’s wife visited him after his emergence from prison and wrote, “He is in the Infirmary suffering from dysentry brought on by great bodily weakness. He is hungry but cannot eat…Mentally he is very unhappy…He is very altered in every way.” Wilde’s grandson mentioned that he had mastoidectomy to intervene his sexual disease. It was his experience in prison that greatly affected him. As a result, Oscar Wilde died by injection of morphine… due to illness, supposedly. There are other related rumors of causes behind his death, although mine may not be completely accurate.

Oscar Wilde is remembered for his epigrams, the tragedy of his imprisonment, followed by his death or possible suicide. Oscar Wilde pioneered the “art for arts sake” movement in its potential for the betterment of society, and he is best known for his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Ernest, and Picture of Dorian Grey. A man of his intelligence, expressed sophisticated cultivation and the artistic temperament. On the other hand, Oscar Wilde had more problems than anyone. He was a dandy who had infamous love affairs with both men and women, and his ability to spend on the aesthete knew no bounds. His success was, in part, because of his artistic temperament or creativity, but also a result of his untimely end.

Oscar Wilde believed he was destined for greatness, to others that may have been delusional. I came to the conclusion that greatness is an inherent quality present in all of us. An individual may achieve their fullest potential given the nurture of their environment and opportune circumstances. We all have dreams and shouldn’t pretend otherwise. Even if we do not achieve our full potential, we live out our dreams vicariously through the eyes of those who do live out their dreams.


Recommend reading Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellman

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