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Oscar Wilde and the Dawn of the Rest of the World

Writing.ie | Magazine | Interviews | Our Literary Heritage
bridget-english

By Bridget English

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“Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world” – Oscar Wilde The Critic as Artist

We’ve all passed him, reclined on his rock in Merrion Square, looking relaxed but pensive. Perhaps it is the fact that his statue, unlike like those of James Joyce or Patrick Kavanagh, is colorful that makes Oscar Wilde seem so at home in the Square, so life-like to passers by. Yet as familiar as most of us are with Oscar Wilde’s image—glimpsed on the walls of pubs or plastered onto posters and banners for events such as the Dublin Gay Theater festival— how is his writing relevant now? Why has he been embraced as an icon?

Oscar Wilde, Victorian dramatist, poet and playwright is perhaps more known to contemporary society for his flamboyant lifestyle and pithy quips than for his literary prowess. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the story of his love affair with the Marquis of Queensbury’s son and subsequent trial and imprisonment is a fascinating one. But leaving his personal life aside for a moment, how does his work live on? Again, much like his image itself, many lines from his poems and witticisms line the walls of pubs, are even featured on the fronts of greeting cards and journals. Perhaps the appeal of Wilde’s prose is its sharp aphorisms that are easily quotable. Beyond style, Wilde’s words appeal to the dreamer, the outcast and anyone who thinks differently.

Wilde has only recently been celebrated as an Irish poet, having lived the majority of his adult life in London, his poems and prose widely anthologized in collections of British literature. Born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde in Dublin in 1854, the writer’s parents were as literary as they come. Wilde’s mother, Lady Jane Francesca, (also known as Speranza, her pen name) was a poet and journalist and father Sir William was a gifted writer and specialist in diseases of eye and ear. As early as the age of thirteen Wilde was known for being a ‘dandy’ and was often jeered for his eccentric clothes. The writer was educated at Trinity College before attending Oxford. He then moved to London and spent time as an art reviewer in the U.S, Canada and Paris. Wilde became the spokesman for the late 19th century Aesthetic movement, which celebrated art for arts’ sake. As remarkable as Wilde’s life was, one of the things that stands out in his work is its social critique and relevance to topics still debated today such as gay rights and the death penalty. More than any other of his works it is his only published novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray that seems to find particular resonance with today’s audience.

Considered to be “amoral” for its implied homoerotic theme, The Picture of Dorian Gray tells the story of young Dorian Gray who enlists artist Basil Hallward to paint his portrait. He is impressed with Dorian’s beauty and quickly becomes infatuated by him. Dorian, highly influenced by friend Lord Henry’s notion that the only things worth pursuing in life are beauty and fulfillment, seeks to preserve his beauty. He sells his soul in order to ensure that the portrait will age while he will stay young and beautiful. Recently made into a film starring Ben Barnes, Colin Firth and Rebecca Hall, Wilde’s novel holds a strong appeal to our youth and beauty-obsessed society.

Another work of Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is a critique of the death penalty. Written in 1897 after his release from Reading prison where he served two years hard labor after he was found guilty of homosexual offenses in 1895, the poem is Wilde’s last before his death in 1900 from cerebral meningitis caused by syphilis. The poem tells the tale of a man in prison who witnesses the death of another man, executed because he “killed the thing he loved.” The speaker of the poem is sympathetic to the executed man, noting that “all men kill the thing they loved” in varying and less violent ways.

Oscar Wilde is best remembered for his colorful dress and witty airs but these things were, during his lifetime, seen as eccentric and immoral. For his ‘differences’—his sexuality, his flamboyance—he was persecuted. Today he stands as a figure that suffered for his art and for his lifestyle, whose life, as much as his art encourages us to see the world differently, no matter what the costs. After years of walking in the moonlight, Wilde’s vision of dawn might finally correspond with that of many other young artists.

About the author

(c) Bridget English, June 2011

Bridget English is a PhD student in the English Department at NUI Maynooth. Born and raised in Chicago, she lived for several years in New York before moving to Dublin. Her articles have appeared on the website Irish Central and in Irish America Magazine.

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