October 16, 1854– Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde:
“Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”
Do we need a #BornThisDay post about the Gay Icon, Oscar Wilde? Is there anything that I could share with all of you that has not been gleaned from the life and works of the world’s most famous homosexual?
Over 120 years after his death, Wilde remains the quintessential gay man. As famous for his lust for a certain peaches and cream young man, as he is for his literary works, now his decipherable portrait is the most widely recognized LGBTQ symbol after the Rainbow Flag.
He became obsessed with beauty from an early age, which became a major theme in most of his works. The Picture Of Dorian Gray (1890) is basically just an ode to the beauty of men, written in an age where being queer was a crime punishable with hard labor and imprisonment. It was a brave step on Wilde’s part to write such a novel. Although sodomy isn’t actually mentioned, Dorian Gray is simply sticky with homoeroticism and innuendo. Reviewers were critical of the novel’s decadence and gay allusions when first published. One London newspaper called it: “Unclean, poisonous, and heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction”. Wilde responded:
“If a work of art is rich and vital and complete, those who have artistic instincts will see its beauty and those to whom ethics appeal more strongly will see its moral lesson.”
Still, he did revise it extensively for a new edition in 1891: six new chapters were added, some of the more decadent passages and gayness were removed, and a preface was included consisting of 22 epigrams, including:
“Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.”
His short story The Happy Prince (1888) is a story for children and so it lacks the naughty bits hinted at in Dorian Gray, but it still stands as a story with a metaphor for the vanity of gay culture.
His play, The Importance Of Being Earnest (1895) is, for me, the most perfect stage comedy of all time. This play does not have a wasted piece of dialogue or a false moment.
As for Wilde himself, you probably know the sad tale: Wilde was brought to trial in 1895 and sentenced to two years hard labor for the crime of “Gross Indecency”.
“We who live in prison, and in whose lives there is no event but sorrow, have to measure time by throbs of pain, and the record of bitter moments.”
At the height of his fame and success, while The Importance Of Being Earnest was still being performed in London, Wilde had the Marquess of Queensberry prosecuted for criminal libel. The Marquess was the father of Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The Marquess left his calling card at Wilde’ s gentlemen’s club, The Albemarle. It was inscribed: “For Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite”. That nutty Marquess and his creative spelling. Wilde, with the encouragement of Douglas and against the advice of his friends, charged Queensberry with libel, since the note was basically a public accusation that Wilde had committed the crime of sodomy.
The libel trial was a sensation as salacious details of Wilde’s private life with Douglas and other young men began to appear in the press. A team of private detectives had directed Queensberry’s lawyers to the world of the Victorian gay underground. Wilde’s experiences with rent boys, cross-dressers and gay brothels was recorded. The men involved were interviewed and coerced into appearing as witnesses since they also were guilty of the crime to which Wilde was accused.
The libel trial unearthed evidence that caused Wilde to drop his charges against his lover’s father and led to his own arrest. After two trials he was convicted and sentenced to the maximum penalty. He was jailed from 1895 to 1897. During his time in prison, he wrote De Profundis (published posthumously in 1905), a long letter which discusses his spiritual journey through his trials, in dark opposition to his earlier philosophy of pleasure.
On May 19th, 1897, Wilde was released from Reading Gaol Prison, outside of London. His health had suffered greatly, but he had a feeling of spiritual renewal. He immediately wrote to the Society Of Jesus (The Jesuits, responsible for my college education, by the way) requesting a six month spiritual retreat. When the request was denied, Wilde wept.
Wilde left England the next day for France, to spend his last three years in penniless exile. He adopted the name Sebastian Melmoth, after Saint Sebastian, the patron saint of queers. Wilde wrote two long letters to the editor of the London Daily Chronicle, describing the brutal conditions of English prisons and advocating prison reform.
The Ballad Of Reading Gaol is his epic poem written while in exile. It was published under the name “C.3.3.”, which stood for cell block C, landing 3, cell 3. This ensured that Wilde’s name, now notorious, did not appear on the poem’s front cover. It was not commonly known, until the seventh printing in June 1899, that C.3.3. was actually Wilde.
Wilde had sought publication of the poem hoping for some sort of income. Fortunately, the poem sold very well and very quickly, assuring Wilde a bit of income. Wilde died less than three years after the the publication of The Ballad Of Reading Gaol.
For a dandy like Wilde, prison had not been an easy way of life and he died a broken man, destitute and debased.
He is now at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris. His tomb was commissioned by Robert Ross (1869-1918) a Canadian journalist, art critic and art dealer, who was Wilde’s most devoted friend, lover and literary executor. Ross also suffered greatly for his gayness. He was with Wilde at the end. In 1950, on the 50th anniversary of Wilde’s death, Ross’s ashes were placed in Wilde’s tomb.
A relief of an angel on the modernist stone tomb was originally complete with male genitalia, which were vandalized and stolen in 1961 and never recovered. In 2000, Leon Johnson, a multimedia artist, installed a silver prosthesis to replace them. Today, tens of thousands of people visit it every year. There was a long tradition developed of the visitors leaving lipstick kisses on the tomb, but in 2011 the kissed were scrubbed free and a glass barrier installed.
Wilde’s epitaph is a verse from The Ballad Of Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
In 2017, Wilde was among the more than 50,000 British men who were pardoned by Queen Elizabeth II for the crime being gay.
Wilde’s legacy still lives on and history has been quite kind to him. He remains the role model for intellectual and witty gay men. It is important that we remember how times have changed since the era of Wilde and his kind who frequented the boy brothels of London, an era when being gay would lead to a graceless life. We owe Wilde a debt of gratitude for the bravery that it took to live his life. We need to consider him as that gang of Right Wing Christian terrorists plan ways to make our lives ready for an American Reading Gaol, probably located in Texas. Wilde does not ask us to consider returning to the closet; in face of adversity, be brave, be witty, be gay!
I have a gorgeous leather bound seven volume set of Oscar Wilde’s Works, number 10 in a limited series of 250 copies, published in 1908 by David B. Nickerson & Co. Publishers of Boston. They were a gift from someone I loved very much. I am told they are worth a bunch of money, but I would never give them up. They sit with a tiny portrait of Wilde in a silver frame, a gift from my husband for no reason at all.
I hereby nominate Oscar Wilde for the Number One Gay Icon Of All Time. His birthday should be an international holiday. Don’t you agree? Let’s celebrate with some of his best witticisms:
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
“I can resist everything except temptation.”
“The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
“True friends stab you in the front.”
“Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”