On October 16th, what marks Oscar Wilde’s 161st birthday, his distinctive approach to art and life remains a force to be reckoned with. Starting from his first forays into writing, which began during his attendance at Trinity College, Wilde expressed a latent sadness through his humor, as with the poem “Hélas,” in which he laments, “To drift with every passion till my soul/Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play.” In retrospect, this poem is a clear elucidation of the suppression of his sexuality, and the constant need he had to hide it by means of distraction.
In many ways, he was the proverbial clown–always laughing to keep from crying. For a time, his love of decadence and aestheticism saved him from the sorrow of living a life spent in hiding. But, like Dorian Gray, a man’s ravages catch up to him. Perhaps the height of his imminent decline came when he married his beard, Constance Lloyd, the daughter of a wealthy barrister named Horace. After putting up the charade of heterosexuality nobly for a time, Wilde became utterly repulsed by the straight life after having his second child, Vyvyan. He was hence determined to live the life he had always wanted, allowing himself to be seduced by the charms of a young Canadian journalist and art critic named Robert Ross.
From there, Wilde never looked back, content to lead a double life so long as he was more devoted to his “true” one rather than the masquerade of being a family man. Alas, he still had mouths to feed, and took a job as the editor of The Lady’s World magazine, which he soon renamed to The Woman’s World (he always was quite the feminist). His authority as a writer and editor blossomed during this time, leading to his subsequent short stories like A House of Pomegranates and The Portrait of Mr. W. H. His ability to be easily published in magazines as a result of his knowledge of how to work the literary market resulted in the 1890 publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine. Based on the enraged reactions decrying Wilde for his blatant allusions to homoeroticism, he amended the novel for later publication in book form by removing some more incriminating parts and adding six chapters–for as bold of a man as he was, he knew the dangers of being oneself in the nineteenth century.
It was possibly because of the suspicion surrounding the meaning behind The Picture of Dorian Gray that Wilde never published another novel, instead transitioning entirely into the theater world. Ironically, at the height of his career as a playwright, celebrated most famously for The Importance of Being Earnest, Wilde became embroiled in an affair with a man of leisure named Lord Alfred Douglas that would eventually lead to a trial that would become his undoing in British society.
So allured and transfixed was Wilde by Douglas that he had no qualms about spending any amount of money on obliging his materialistic fancies–of which there were many. This type of reckless spending was, indeed, a foreshadowing of what many have claimed were his final words, “Alas, I am dying beyond my means.” Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry (yes, it is quite a fey-sounding name for someone so boorish) grew weary of their relations and threw down the gauntlet by leaving a calling card for Wilde that said, “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite.” This accusation of sodomy prompted Wilde to sue the Marquess for libel, whereupon the tables of the law were turned on him after the Marquess proved his accusation to be true.
Imprisoned for his homosexuality, Wilde began a rapid decline from which he would not return. After serving his sentence, a self-imposed exile to Paris in 1897 led Wilde to the final days of his life, still spent with former lovers like Robert Ross, but tainted by poverty and the embarrassment of a tarnished reputation. For there is nothing worse than someone with a flair for the luxurious confined to the limits of a nominal budget. One of Wilde’s final correspondences sadly lamented, “This poverty really breaks one’s heart: it is so sale, so utterly depressing, so hopeless.” P.S. “sale” means “dirty” in French. In the end, Wilde’s cause of death was cerebral meningitis in 1900. But goddamn, he lived life to its fullest while he could, exhibiting the sort of gusto generally possessed by eighteenth century French royalty.