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Oscar Wilde – a stray dog of the nineteenth century

Published on December 17, 2010 by: in: Culture

Grandma of one of the masters of words came from the old Irish family Fynne. Representatives of this family were related to the most distinguished people of Ireland and at the same time were said to be mentally unstable.

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Sir William Wilde – father of Oscar – is still claimed to be the creator of modern otology. This famous doctor was also a respected connoisseur of art, literature and history as well as a great lover of Ireland and a treasure of knowledge about his country. All these virtues determined that he gained respect of the great men of his age, for example Napoleon II or the Prince of Wales – later Edward VII.

Mother of Oscar was a distinguished person, too. She fought for the freedom of Ireland during the Springtime of Nations. As leaders of the separatist movement of Ireland had been arrested, she became one of the two women working as editors-in-chief in the magazine “The Nation.” She wrote under the nickname “Speranza”:

“Oh! for a hundred thousand muskets glittering brightly in the light of heaven, and the monumental barricades stretching across each of our noble streets, made desolate by England — circling round that doomed Castle, made infamous by England, where the foreign tyrant has held his council of treason and iniquity against our people and our country for seven hundred years… One bold, one decisive move. One instant to take breath, and then a rising; a rush, a charge from north, south, east and west upon the English garrison, and the land is ours”.

When the publication of the newspaper was suspended on a charge of instigating a revolt, one of its editors and the founder of Young Irish Party – Gavan Duffy was arrested and judged for high treason, Speranza shouted at the general prosecutor: “I am the one to blame! I wrote these provocative articles!” This incident provoked riots that were quickly put down. Her real name was Jane Francesca Elgee and she had Italian blood flowing through her vessels. She was very proud of her name which – as she believed – was a distorted form of “Alighieri.” She claimed that the great Dante was one of her ancestors. Francesca was an extremely intelligent woman and studied languages for her own pleasure as a child. She spoke Latin, French, German and Italian, read Aeschylus, wrote poems and political pieces. Marriage with sir William Wilde soothed her turbulent nature. This open-minded but quite specific couple kept the house “dirty and original, messy and scenic.” All these facts determined that the whole Dublin talked about the Wildes. This relationship bore sons: the elder William and the younger Oscar Finwal O’Flaherty Wills born on the 16th of October 1854 and a daughter Isola, who died as a child. Lady Wilde was so desperate to have a daughter that, before Isola was born, she had dressed Oscar in girlish clothes and all people referred to him as “she.” The younger son inherited his father’s consciousness of greatness and predilection to alcohol and mother’s faith in his own talent as well as impressing height and posture.

Both sons of William and Speranza were brought up in a liberal way, even for contemporary times. Boys took part in boozy parties organized by their parents, which were attended by the most distinguished people of the time. Oscar listened to heated debates, absorbed every word, got to know the secrets of discussion and learnt how to play the first fiddle.

The old age believes in everything. The middle age doubts everything. The young age knows everything

The serene times ended when Oscar was sent to a famous Portora School in Enniskill. It was not a friendly place for a sensitive boy – the strict discipline of Protestantism hovered inside the old walls. Moreover, Oscar did not belong to the best pupils – he was way back in maths – “Just like every purely artistic soul, he remained a complete thickhead in this field;” he had also problems with composition. The experiences of school convinced him that “you cannot learn anything that is worth knowing” and that “we teach people how to develop memory, but never teach them how to develop themselves.” He was also critical of teachers: “everyone that is unable to study by themselves starts teaching other people.”

While the young Wilde did not care much about studying, he paid special attention to his outward appearance already as a child. The origins of Oscar-dandy mark the time when the depriver-to-be strolled around Portora School in impeccably ironed clothing, neatly combed long hair and a top hat that was used by other boys solely on Sunday. He was so perfect in terms of appearance that it was tempting to stain this aesthetic perfection. Oscar was an artist through and through and – because all the fields of art already had their masters – he decided to be “the archpriest of attire.”

Complex personality and isolation from peers determined that Oscar – unlike his older brother – was not liked in Portora School. Numerous interests of the boy, from literature to painting, during the last years of education focused on the ancient world: the Greece of the past started to show its secrets to Wilde. He studied and admired the hexameter rhythm, the cult of youth, the beauty of ephebes, the bravery of Alexander…

Oscar Wilde returned to Dublin as a holder of Trinity College grant. The social life he led in Dublin was in fact the same as in Enniskill. While other youngsters wandered around pubs and flirted with waitresses, he preferred to spend time on his own or at parents’ home that was vibrant with social life. All the distinguished people of Dublin appeared there at weekends.

School work came easily; he was a grant holder for several times and graduated from Trinity College with a golden medal.

Oscar Wilde moved to Oxford a day after his twentieth birthday.

It was a place where the descendants of old families exercised their privileges and basked in luxury. The rest of people could only watch them or try to buy their way to the privileged circle. Wilde chose the other way – isolation.

Despite excellent physical conditions, Wilde did not participate in any kind of sports competition.

“I never liked kicking nor being kicked.” There are plenty of allegedly authentic stories according to which Wilde was plagued – also physically – by his colleagues from Oxford. The most famous one says that one day he was attacked, incapacitated and dragged to a hill. Oscar rose, shook off and said: “Indeed, the view is spectacular.” The truth is that the stories were invented by boys that wanted to stress their valour and effeminacy of Oscar. It is true, on the other hand, that Wilde alone routed four colleagues that forced into his room after a boozy evening. Once, still in Trinity School, when one of the pupils laughed at his poem, Oscar made use of his exceptional physical strength. As one of the witnesses recalls: “as he delivered a blow from the right side, it was like a thunderbolt: then he showered the surprised tyrant with a hail of crushing blows and in this way finished him. And people say about this bloke “pale youngster”! When I read such nonsense in newspapers, I always recall his boxing skills. I think that his blow would even make an ox blink and shake its head.”

In fact, it was difficult to get closer to him, though receptions thrown in his rooms in Magdalen College quickly became renowned and drew crowds of students. He got a name also due to organizing “the evenings of beauty” – tea parties for young ladies and their minders. Oscar had to remove the obscene female nude paintings that decorated the walls of his apartments in order to organize the meetings. There was no problem with attendance; it is obvious when it comes down to men. Young ladies, in turn, participated with pleasure, since Oscar was always very popular among women.

Father of Oscar – William, died in 1876. He got away with his numerous love affairs throughout all his life. By the end of his life, however, he got involved in an extramarital relationship with his patient, who soon got pregnant. The woman, having realized that the renowned doctor had no intention of providing for her and the child, accused him of a rape. After this incident, William Wilde completely withdrew from the public life, declined in health and drank more than he had used to.

Mother of Oscar moved to London after the death of her husband. She hoped it would be easier to conceal her poor life that was provided for by a pension after her husband.

Because in life the point is to be a bit impossible

Having finished his education in Oxford, Oscar Wilde came to London, where he rented a flat in the gipsy district by Salisbury Street. He could not afford a lavish life with a small inheritance from his father. Wilde had to write articles for newspapers to survive.

Nothing grows in the shadow of a great tree – this is how we can describe social relations around young Wilde, literally and figuratively. This huge “professor of aesthetics” – as he called himself – focused around himself more and more admirers – followers. Everything in his person was excessive – height, emotions, intensity of social and intellectual life. He liked shocking with clothing: “He wore a velvet coat, a soft shirt with a turndown collar, a long fantastic tie, satin shorts, silky stockings, low-cut shoes with silver clasps, a beret on his head, and a sunflower in his hand. He sailed into the stable Victorian like a ship under unknown flag, dressed in this costume that he perceived as the second Reformation”. Many stories about his eccentricities in this subject are highly exaggerated. He found a rich circle of followers that surpassed him in terms of original clothes and eccentricity of behaviour.  Wilde answered with innate self-confidence that showed his imitators their place: “Anyone could have done that. The most difficult thing was to get people to thing I had done it”. He was so different, so interesting visually and intellectually that he raised fear, intrigued and at the same time attracted people. How many times the colour of his eyes was the subject of discussions!

In spite of the popularity among the London society, his artistic inspirations did not earn due respect. Wilde decided to be the messenger of the new art in America. He set out for New York. “As regards my motive for coming to America, I should be very disappointed if when I left for Europe I had not influenced in however slight a way the growing spirit of art in this country, very disappointed if I had not out of the many who listen to me made one person love beautiful things a little more and very disappointed if in return for the dreadfully hard work of lecturing… I did not earn enough money to give myself an autumn at Venice, a winter in Rome, and a spring at Athens”. As was his custom, Wilde charmed the New York elite, who came in crowds to watch his operetta Panience and listen to his lectures. The local press described him as follows: “The most striking thing about the poet’s appearance is his height, which is several inches over six feet, and the next thing to attract attention is his hair, which is of a dark brown colour, and falls down upon his shoulders… When he laughs his lips part widely and show a shining row of upper teeth, which are superlatively white. The complexion, instead of being the rosy hue so common in Englishmen, is so utterly devoid of colour that it can only be described as resembling putty. His eyes are blue, or a light grey, and instead of being ‘dreamy’, as some of his admirers have imagined them to be, they are bright and quick — not at all like those of one given to perpetual musing on the ineffably beautiful and true. Instead of having a small delicate hand, only fit to caress a lily, his fingers are long and when doubled up would form a fist that would hit a hard knock, should an occasion arise for the owner to descend to that kind of argument… One of the peculiarities of his speech is that he accents almost at regular intervals without regard to the sense, perhaps as a result of an effort to be rhythmic in conversation as well as in verse”. Wilde himself wrote to his friend: “My dear Jimmy, they are considering me seriously. Isn’t it dreadful? What would you do if it happened to you?” He became a star comparable to contemporary celebrities whose behaviour and costumes are intently described in tabloids. His style of dressing found many followers, particularly among the students of Harvard. “He fascinated everybody who was worth fascinating, and a great many people who were not”.

“His hair was rolled his elaborate curls in the style of Nero, which raised inherent resemblance to ancient Caesars. Oscar imitated Balzac by wearing dress from the year 1848, decked with pendants, he carried an ivory cane with a turquoise handle and a fur coat with green covering”. This is how Paris saw him. Despite knowing Wictor Hugo, Goncourt or Verlain, Wilde preferred to retreat into the hotel room for days and nights. He drew the curtains and read the works of Balzac, Flaubert and Baudelaire by the light of an incessantly lit lamp. He worked without any rest on his own poems though he knew they might not find a publisher. He used to tell his friends that he would publish them in three copies: “One for myself, one for the British Museum, and one for Heaven. I have some doubts about the British Museum”.

Soon Wilde returned to London with a firm resolution to achieve fame and fortune. He settled in the exclusive district of Grosvenor Square by Charles Street. Oscar lived lavishly – upmarket restaurants and extravagant clothes were often followed by long fasting. He believed invariably and obstinately that the fame he deserved and financial profits are close. Before it happened, on the 29th of May 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd, a daughter of a lawyer from Dublin. Constance was a pretty and generous woman and it was impossible to find any fault in her – apart from gaps in intellect. And intellectual talk was indispensable for Wilde to live. Oscar described their relations as follows: “I am like a Persian, who lives by warmth and worships the sun, talking to some Eskimo, who answers me with praise of blubber and nights spent in ice houses and baths of foul vapour”.

Wilde cheered up in the evenings that he spent among the London elite. This strangely dressed, loud giant that initially aroused mistrust quickly became the life and soul of the party. People held their breath when they listened to his stories and monologues. These oratory stunts were soon expressed by means of short stories and fables that were initially listened to by his sons. These drafts were composed during party games with alcohol and cigarettes rather than behind a desk. Then, his mind worked at full capacity and was extremely sensitive to stimuli from other people and beautiful things. Later it was enough “just” to commit these impressions into paper.

An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all

At some point Wilde neglected his company and spent almost all his time at home. He did not leave his desk and smoked one cigarette after another: – “A cigarette is the perfect type of a perfect pleasure. It is exquisite, and it leaves one unsatisfied. What more can one want?”. Oscar found himself in a frenzy of writing and after two weeks he completed The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was the year 1890 and Wilde was 36. The first version of the book, published in “Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine,” was flooded by criticism and the author had to remove the most controversial homosexual motives that were present in the book. But The Picture… consolidated his reputation of a dandy with suspicious reputation. He fuelled the interest with the book by demonstrating intimate relations with a boy, whose name was, by the way, John Gray. Wilde perceived the boy as an evidence of his motto: “If you create of work of art, life will immediately copy it”. The press was boiling and described The Picture of Dorian Gray as a “poisonous book that stinks with the suffocating smell of moral and intellectual decay.” The perpetrator of the indignation answered the numerous charges: “It is poisonous if you like, but you cannot deny that it is also perfect, and perfection is what we artists aim at…”; “Leave my book, I beg you, to the immortality that it deserves”.

Wilde soon moves to Paris, where he writes Salome and still lives as the darling of high-born and renowned artists. Saint James Theatre in London stages his Lady Windermere’s Fan – a play that aroused admiration of the audience and scepticism of the critics. Adoration for this comedy and its author turned Wilde into a wealthy man that could finally gratify his aesthetic and material whims and devote himself to “the great aristocratic art of absolute idleness”. Abundance of objects and esteem at every turn quickly let him forget the times when cigarette butts and cheap alcohol made up the main stimulus for his work. Unlike the majority of artists, this outstanding mind fed not only with spiritual food but primarily – as befits to a dandy – with the beauty of surrounding objects, exclusive costumes, delicious dishes and expensive oriental cigarettes. “I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works” – he used to say. Since childhood, he believed in his mission of spiritualizing the senses – now it started to come true. His fight against commonness concentrated on bourgeois morality, since he perceived it as the essence of hypocrisy. He became a symbol of a man whom people loved to hate.

“I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art: I altered the minds of men and the colours of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder… whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty; to truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction. I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me”.

Gaius Petronius of Victorian England – this is how he could be described.

36-year-old Wilde reached the top of popularity. Controversies around him and his works seemed to be reaching the zenith. In the autumn, Oscar Wilde met, through a poet Lionel Johnson, 21-year-old lord Alfred Bruce Douglas, called “Bosie” by family and closest friends. The meeting meant for Wilde materialization of his eternal fascinations with the ancient Hellenic customs. A relation between an older man and a young man was the essence and the highest dimension of love in the ancient Greece. Wilde followed the way discovered and praised by Xenofont, Plato and Epicurus. Co-relation of a man and a boy was primarily intellectual, educational and spiritual; the erotic aspect was less important. “Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him. The aim of life is self-development. To realise one’s nature perfectly – that is what each of us is here for”.

A few years later, in a courtroom, Wilde, who was accused of immoral deeds, defined his affection for the young lord in the following way: ‘The love that dares not speak its name; in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as “the love that dares not speak its name”, and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it’.

To be continued…

TŁUMACZENIE: MAREK PLINTA; marek.plinta@gmail.com

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