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Oscar Wilde Biography | Poet

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Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde (October 16, 1854 – November 30, 1900) was an Anglo-Irish playwright, novelist, poet, short story writer and Freemason. Known for his barbed and clever wit, he was one of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London, and one of the greatest celebrities of his day. As the result of a famous trial, he suffered a dramatic downfall and was imprisoned after being convicted of "gross indecency" for homosexual acts.


Birth and early life

Wilde was born into a Protestant Anglo-Irish family, at 21 Westland Row, Dublin, to Sir William Wilde and his wife Jane Francesca Elgee. Jane was a successful writer and an Irish nationalist, known also as 'Speranza', while Sir William was Ireland's leading ear and eye surgeon, and wrote books on archaeology and folklore. He was a renowned philanthropist, and his dispensary for the care of the city's poor, in Lincoln Place at the rear of Trinity College, Dublin, was the forerunner of the Dublin Eye and Ear Hospital, now located at Adelaide Road.

In June 1855, the family moved to 1 Merrion Square, in a fashionable residential area. Here, Lady Wilde held a regular Saturday afternoon salon with guests including Sheridan le Fanu, Samuel Lever, George Petrie, Isaac Butt and Samuel Ferguson. Oscar was educated at home up to the age of nine. He attended Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, Fermanagh from 1864 to 1871, spending the summer months with his family in rural Waterford, Wexford and at Sir William's family home in Mayo. Here the Wilde brothers played with the young George Moore.

After leaving Portora, Wilde studied classics at Trinity College, Dublin, from 1871 to 1874. He was an outstanding student, and won the Berkeley Gold Medal, the highest award available to classics students at Trinity. He was granted a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he continued his studies from 1874 to 1878 and where he became a part of the Aesthetic movement, one of its tenets being to make an art of life. While at Magdalen, he won the 1878 Oxford Newdigate Prize for his poem Ravenna. He graduated with a double first, the highest grade available at Oxford.

During this time, Wilde became familiar with philosophies and writings on same-sex love, and lived for several years with the society painter Frank Miles, who may or may not have been his lover.

Marriage and family

After graduating from Magdalen, Wilde returned to Dublin, where he met and fell in love with Florence Balcome. She in turn became engaged to Bram Stoker. On hearing of her engagement, Wilde wrote to her stating his intention to leave Ireland permanently. He left in 1878 and was to return to his native country only twice, for brief visits. The next six years were spent in London, Paris and the United States, where he travelled to deliver lectures. Wilde's address in the 1881 British Census is given as 1 Tite Street, London. The head of the household is listed as Frank Miles.

In London, he met Constance Lloyd, daughter of wealthy Queen's Counsel Horace Lloyd. She was visiting Dublin in 1884, when Oscar was in the city to give lectures at the Gaiety Theatre. He proposed to her and they married on May 29, 1884 in Paddington, London. Constance's allowance of £250 allowed the Wildes to live in relative luxury. The couple had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886). After Oscar's downfall, Constance took the surname Holland for herself and the boys. She died in 1898 following spinal surgery and was buried in Staglieno Cemetery in Genoa, Italy. Cyril was killed in France in World War I. Vyvyan survived the war and went on to become an author and translator. He published his memoirs in 1954. His son, Merlin Holland, has edited and published several works about his grandfather. Oscar Wilde's niece, Dolly Wilde, was involved in a lengthy lesbian affair with writer Natalie Clifford Barney.


While at Magdalen College, Wilde became particularly well known for his role in the aesthetic and decadent movements. He began wearing his hair long and openly scorning so-called "manly" sports, and began decorating his rooms with peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers, blue china and other objets d'art.

His behaviour cost him a dunking in the River Cherwell in addition to having his rooms (which still survive as dedicated function rooms at his old college) trashed, but the cult spread among certain segments of society to such an extent that languishing attitudes, "too-too" costumes and aestheticism generally became a recognised pose.

Aestheticism in general was caricatured in Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta Patience (1881). Such was the success of Patience in New York that Richard D'Oyly Carte invited Wilde to America for a lecture tour. This was duly arranged, Wilde arriving in January 1882. Wilde is reputed to have told a customs officer "I have nothing to declare except my genius", although there is no contemporary evidence for the remark. D'Oyly Carte used Wilde's lecture tour "to prime the pump" for an American tour of Patience, making sure that the ticket-buying public was aware of his personality.

Wilde was deeply impressed by the English writers John Ruskin and Walter Pater, who argued for the central importance of art in life. He later commented ironically on this view when he wrote, in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "All art is quite useless". This quote also reflects Wilde's support of the aesthetic movement's basic principle: Art for art's sake. This doctrine was coined by the philosopher Victor Cousin, promoted by Theophile Gautier and brought into prominence by James McNeill Whistler.

The aesthetic movement, represented by the school of William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, had a permanent influence on English decorative art. As the leading aesthete, Wilde became one of the most prominent personalities of his day. Though he was sometimes ridiculed for them, his paradoxes and witty sayings were quoted on all sides.

In 1879 Wilde started to teach Aesthetic values in London. In 1882 he went on a lecture tour in the United States and Canada. He was torn apart by no small number of critics — The Wasp, a San Francisco newspaper, published a cartoon ridiculing Wilde and Aestheticism — but also was surprisingly well received in such rough-and-tumble settings as the mining town of Leadville, Colorado. [1] On his return to the United Kingdom, he worked as a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette in the years 1887-1889. Afterwards he became the editor of Woman's World.

Politically, Wilde endorsed an anarchistic brand of socialism, expounding his beliefs in the text "The Soul of Man under Socialism".

Literary works

In 1881 he published a selection of his poems, but these attracted admiration in only a limited circle. His most famous fairy tale, The Happy Prince and Other Tales, appeared in 1888, illustrated by Walter Crane and Jacob Hood. This volume was followed by a second collection of fairy tales, A House of Pomegranates (1892), which the author said was "intended neither for the British child nor the British public."

His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in 1891. Critics have often claimed that there existed parallels between Wilde's life and that of the book's protagonist, and it was used as evidence against him at his trial. Wilde contributed some feature articles to the art reviews, and in 1891 re-published three of them as a book called Intentions.

His fame as a dramatist began with the production of Lady Windermere's Fan in February 1892. This was written at the request of George Alexander, actor-manager of the St James's Theatre in London. Wilde described it as "one of those modern drawing-room plays with pink lampshades". It was immediately successful, the author making the enormous sum of 7,000 pounds from the original run. He wore a green carnation on opening night. In 1894, the Robert Hichens novel The Green Carnation, said to be based on the relationship of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, was published. It would be one of the texts used against Wilde during his trials the following year.

Less successful in 1892 was the play Salomé, which was refused a licence for English performance by the Lord Chamberlain because it contained Biblical characters. Wilde was furious, even contemplating (he said) changing his nationality to become a French citizen. The play was published in English, with illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, in 1894. A French edition had appeared the year before.

His next play, a social satire and melodrama, was A Woman of No Importance, produced on 19 April 1893 at the Haymarket Theatre in London by Herbert Beerbohm Tree. It repeated the success of Lady Windermere's Fan, consolidating Wilde's reputation as the best writer of "comedy of manners" since Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

A slightly more serious note was again struck with An Ideal Husband, produced by Lewis Waller at the Haymarket Theatre on 3 January 1895. This contains a political melodrama—as opposed to the marital melodrama of the earlier comedies—running alongside the usual Wildean epigrams, social commentary, comedy, and romance. George Bernard Shaw's review said that "...Mr Wilde is to me our only serious playwright. He plays with everything: with wit, with philosophy, with drama, with actors, with audience, with the whole theatre..."

Barely a month later, his masterpiece The Importance of Being Earnest appeared at the St James's Theatre. It caused a sensation. Years later, the actor Allen Aynesworth (playing 'Algy' opposite George Alexander's 'Jack') told Wilde's biographer Hesketh Pearson that "In my fifty-three years of acting, I never remember a greater triumph than the first night of 'The Importance of Being Earnest'."

Unlike the three previous comedies, Earnest is free of any melodrama; it brought irony, satire and verbal wit to English drama. Yet follows an unusually clever plotline, where alter egos abound among false identities, mistaken identities and imaginative romantic liaisons. It is in a class of its own in the whole of English drama as a piece of pure, delightful nonsense. This incomparable 'comedy of manners' is a perfect example of Wilde's theory on Art: Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art. At least two versions of the play are in existence. Wilde originally wrote it in four acts, but George Alexander proposed to cut it down to three for the original production.

In between An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde wrote at least the scenario for a play concerning an adulterous affair. He never developed it, the Queensberry affair and his own trial intervening. Frank Harris eventually wrote a version called Mr and Mrs Daventry.

It has been suggested that in 1894, Wilde wrote another little-known play (in the form of a pantomime) for a friend of his, Chan Toon, which was called For Love of the King and also went under the name A Burmese Masque. It has never been widely circulated. One copy, held in the Leeds University Library's Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection, is marked: "This is a spurious work attributed to Wilde without authority by a Mrs. Chan Toon, who was sent to prison for stealing money from her landlady. A.J.A. Symons." (15, Handlist 148, Leeds handlists index)

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