Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854 – 1900) was an Irish poet and playwright. He is remembered today for his epigrams and plays, his novel The Picture Of Dorian Gray, and the fearless way he lived his life, plus the circumstances of his criminal conviction, imprisonment, and early death at just 46-years-old.
For me, his play The Importance Of Being Earnest (1895) is the most perfect stage comedy of all time. This play does not have a wasted piece of dialogue or a false moment.
You know the sad tale: Wilde was brought to trial in 1895 and on this day, May 25, he was sentenced to two years hard labor for the crime of ”Gross Indecency”.
At the height of his fame and success, while his huge hit 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, 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. Wilde wrote two long letters to the editor of the London Daily Chronicle, describing the brutal conditions of English prisons and advocating prison reform.
Wilde had sought publication of a poem hoping for some sort of income. That poem, The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, is epic. The finished poem 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 7th printing in June 1899, that C.3.3. was actually Wilde. Fortunately, the poem sold very well and very quickly, assuring Wilde a steady income. But, Wilde died less than three years after the poem first appeared.
119 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 was for his literary works, his decipherable portrait is the most widely recognized LGBTQ symbol after the Rainbow Flag
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.