'I think therefore I am.'  Descartes            'I AM THAT I AM.'  Exodus.3.        'I am what I am.'  La Cage aux Folles

25 August 2012

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Fingall O'Flahertie Wills Wilde
' I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age...The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring; I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art: I altered the minds of men and the colour of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder...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: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.'  Wilde
The Look
'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.' New York Tribune, 3 January 1883
The Life
    Oscar Wilde was born in Ireland in 1854. His mother was a poet who wrote under the pen name Speranza and his father was a famous physician. At Oxford he won a poetry award and discovered the notion of "art for art's sake". From 1878 to 1881 Oscar Wilde became famous for being famous, without having any substantial achievements. He became part of "the beautiful people", wore outrageous clothes, passed himself off as an art critic and aesthete, and built a reputation for saying shocking and amusing things. Known for his velvet coat, knee breeches, silk stockings, pale green tie, cane, shoulder-length hair and loose silk shirts and the lily he carried.. In 1882 he went to New York and toured North America for a year giving lectures. When a customs inspector asked him if he had anything to declare he replied, "Nothing but my genius." One of his first stops was to the poet Walt Whitman at his home in Camden. They drank homemade elderberry wine milk punch and talked for two hours... "He is the grandest man I have ever seen, the simplest, most natural, and strongest character I have ever met in my life..." said Wilde and later revealing "the kiss of Walt Whitman is still on my lips..."
When he returned to England he adopted conventional dress, toured, wrote two unsuccessful plays and a collection of children's fairy tales, married, fathered two sons and wrote literary criticism for a magazine Woman's World. Two years later he resumed his life of parties, friends and lovers. From 1890 to 1895 Oscar Wilde reached his peak as poet-playwright and social star. His novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray shocked with its thinly veiled allusions to homosexuality. In the same year he came out with The House of Pomegranates and the great plays Lady Windermere's Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and The Importance of Being Ernest, the first modern comedy in English. Wilde's plays forced Victorian society to re-examine its hypocrisies. In 1895 the mad Eigth Marquess of Queensberry, culminated his public harassment of  Wilde for his relationship with his son Lord Alfred Douglas. When Wilde sued him for the misspelled note ‘For Oscar Wilde, posing as a somdomite’ it backfired; the Marquess was acquitted and Wilde's got two years of hard labour. While in prison he wrote a 30,000 word letter to Bosie, published after his death as De Profundis, that is regarded as possibly being his most important and mature statement on life and art in general and his own life and art in particular. In concluding, he tells Douglas, You came to me to learn the Pleasures of Life and the Pleasures of Art. Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty.
           For   two years, Wilde's primary love-interest was Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas. Bosie's father was  severely repressed and repressive and remembered as the originator of the "Marquess of Queensbury rules" in boxing. The Marquess was livid over his son's relationship with Wilde, and determined to bring Wilde down. He tried to disrupt the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest, but Wilde had the Marquess denied entrance. So a few days later, on February 18, he left the calling card at Wilde's club which began the saga leading to his cruel fall.
The Trial
'The 'Love that dare 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 as the very basis for his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michaelangelo 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 Michaelangelo, 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 dare not speak its name', and on 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 elder and a younger man, when the elder 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.'  Oscar Wilde, at his first trial, 26 April 1895.
'It is no use for me to address you. People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them. It is the worst case that I have ever tried... That you, Wilde have been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men, it is equally impossible to doubt. I Shall, under such circumstances, be expected to pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgement it is totally inadequate for such a case as this. SHALL, The Sentence of the court is that you be imprisoned and kept to hard labour for two years.' Mr. Justice Wills, pronouncing sentence after Wilde's second trial, 25 May 1895.'And I? May I say nothing, my Lord?'  
Oscar Wilde's last words of  his second trial, 25 May 1895. 25 May 1895.  A hundred years later the British Government overturned this ruling.
In Pentonville prison had to walk a treadmill for six hours every day, and to sleep on a bare board. He was allowed no communication with the outside world for three months. He lost twenty pounds in the first month. A chaplain wrote:
    'When he first came down here from Pentonville he was in an excited flurried condition, and seemed as if he wished to face his punishment without flinching. But all this has passed away. As soon as the excitement aroused by the trial subsided and he had to encounter the daily routine of prison life his fortitude began to give way and rapidly collapsed altogether. He is now quite crushed and broken. This is unfortunate, as a prisoner who breaks down in one direction generally breaks down in several, and I fear from what I hear and see that perverse sexual practices [masturbation] are again getting the mastery over him. This is a common occurrence among prisoners of his class and is of course favoured by constant cellular isolation. The odour of his cell is now so bad that the officer in charge of him has to use carbolic acid in it every day.... I need hardly tell you that he is a man of decidedly morbid disposition.... In fact some of our most experienced officers openly say that they don't think he will be able to go through the two years. '
He was moved  to Reading, the subject of his "Ballad of Reading Gaol", where he wrote his   De Profundis. Released finally on May 18, 1897, Wilde moved to France.
After his release from prison, he wandered around Europe for three years.. He sank deeper into a life of sex and absinthe. His wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a gripping account of prison brutality, with a plea for prison reform.
On 30 November 1900, in Hotel d'Alsace in Paris, he died of cerebral meningitis.
His remains were originally buried in quicklime in the insignificant Bagneaux Cemetery. This was done to reduce the corpse to bone, but when  unearthed his body he was well preserved and his hair and beard had grown longer. His body was moved to Père Lachaise on July 19, 1909. Not until 1914 was the tomb (above) erected. I visited his tomb in 1975.  Originally thought indecent a plaque served as a fig leaf but was hacked away in 1922 (possibly by students). They removed a little more than just the plaque. On the back of the tomb there's a quote 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'

Letters from or about Oscar
Bosie has insisted on dropping here for sandwiches. He is quite like a narcissus -- so white and gold. I will either come Wednesday or Thursday night to your rooms. Send me a line. Bosie is so tired; he lies like a hyacinth on the sofa, and I worship him.
Yours, OSCAR.
My Own Boy,
Your sonnet is quite lovely, and it is a marvel that those red-roseleaf lips of yours should be made no less for the madness of music and song than for the madness of kissing. Your slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry. I know Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly, was you in Greek days. Why are you alone in London, and when do you go to Salisbury? Do go there to cool your hands in the grey twilight of Gothic things, and come here whenever you like. It is a lovely place and lacks only you; but go to Salisbury first.
Always, with undying love, Yours, OSCAR
Dearest of all Boys, 
Your letter was delightful, red and yellow wine to me; but I am sad and out of sorts. Bosie, you must not make scenes with me. They kill me, they wreck the loveliness of life. I cannot see you, so Greek and gracious, distorted with passion. I cannot listen to your curved lips saying hideous things to me. I would sooner be blackmailed by every rent-boy in London than to have you bitter, unjust, hating. You are the divine thing I want, the thing of grace and beauty; but I don't know how to do it. Shall I come to Salisbury? My bill here is 49 pounds for a week. I have also got a new sitting-room over the Thames. Why are you not here, my dear, my wonderful boy? I fear I must leave; no money, no credit, and a heart of lead.
Your own OSCAR
Your intimacy with this man Wilde. It must either cease or I will disown you and stop all money supplies. I am not going to try and analyse this intimacy, and i make no charge: but to my mind to pose as a thing is as bad as to be it...
Your disgusted, so-called father, Queensbury
Dearest Boy,
Your father is on the rampage again -- been to Cafe Royal to enquire for us, with threats etc. I think now it would have been better for me to have had him bound over to keep the peace, but what a scandal! Still, it is intolerable to be dogged by a maniac. What purple valleys of despair one goes through! Fortunately there is one person in the world to love.
Ever yours, OSCAR
My Dear Robbie, 
This is my first day alone, and of course a very unhappy one. I begin to realize the terrible position of isolation, and I have been rebellious and bitter of heart all day. Is it not sad? I thought I was accepting everything so well and so simply, and I have had moods of rage passing over my nature, like gusts of bitter wind or storm spoiling the sweet corn, or blasting the young shoots... I had hardly any sleep last night. Bosie's revolting letter was in the room, and foolishly I had read it again and left it by my bedside. My dream was that my mother was speaking to me with some sternness, and that she was in trouble. I quite see that whenever I am in danger she will somehow warn me. I have a real terror now of that unfortunate ungrateful young man with his unimaginative selfishness and his entire lack of all sensitiveness to what in others is good or kind or trying to be so. I feel him as an evil influence, poor fellow. To be with him would be to return from the hell which I do think I have been released. I hope never to see him again... 

I want some pens, and some red ties. The latter for literary purposes, of course... 

My own Darling Boy,
I got your telegram half an hour ago, and just send a line to say that I feel that my only hope of again doing beautiful work in art is being with you. It was not so in the old days, but now it is different, and you can really recreate in me that energy and sense of joyous power on which art depends. Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don't understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world.
I wish that when we met at Rouen we had not parted at all. There are such wide abysses now of space and land between us. But we love each other.
Goodnight, dear. Ever yours, OSCAR

Lord Alfred Douglas: Two Loves From The Chameleon, December 1894.
Click photos to enlarge
I dreamed I stood upon a little hill,
And at my feet there lay a ground, that seemed
Like a waste garden, flowering at its will
With buds and blossoms. There were pools that dreamed
Black and unruffled; there were white lilies
A few, and crocuses, and violets
Purple or pale, snake-like fritillaries
Scarce seen for the rank grass, and through green nets
Blue eyes of shy peryenche winked in the sun.
And there were curious flowers, before unknown,
Flowers that were stained with moonlight, or with shades
Of Nature's wilful moods; and here a one
That had drunk in the transitory tone
Of one brief moment in a sunset; blades
Of grass that in an hundred springs had been
Slowly but exquisitely nurtured by the stars,
And watered with the scented dew long cupped
In lilies, that for rays of sun had seen
Only God's glory, for never a sunrise mars
The luminous air of Heaven. Beyond, abrupt,
A grey stone wall. o'ergrown with velvet moss
Uprose; and gazing I stood long, all mazed
To see a place so strange, so sweet, so fair.
And as I stood and marvelled, lo! across
The garden came a youth; one hand he raised
To shield him from the sun, his wind-tossed hair
Was twined with flowers, and in his hand he bore
A purple bunch of bursting grapes, his eyes
Were clear as crystal, naked all was he,
White as the snow on pathless mountains fore,
Red were his lips as red wine-spilt that dyes
A marble floor, his brow chalcedony.
And he carne near me, with his lips uncurled
And kind, and caught my hand and kissed my mouth,
And gave me grapes to eat, and said, 'Sweet friend,
Come I will show thee shadows of the world
And images of life. See from the South
Comes the pale pageant that hath never an end.'
And lo! within the garden of my dream
I saw two walking on a shining plain
Of golden light. The one did joyous seem
And fair and blooming, and a sweet refrain
Came from his lips; he sang of pretty maids
And joyous love of comely girl and boy,
His eyes were bright, and 'mid the dancing blades
Of golden grass his feet did trip for joy;
And in his hand he held an ivory lute
With strings of gold that were as maidens' hair,
And sang with voice as tuneful as a flute,
And round his neck three chains of roses were.
But he that was his comrade walked aside;
He was full sad and sweet, and his large eyes
Were strange with wondrous brightness, staring wide
With gazing; and he sighed with many sighs
That moved me, and his cheeks were wan and white
Like pallid lilies, and his lips were red
Like poppies, and his hands he clenched tight,
And yet again unclenched, and his head
Was wreathed with moon-flowers pale as lips of death.
A purple robe he wore, o'erwrought in gold
With the device of a great snake, whose breath
Was fiery flame: which when I did behold
I fell a-weeping, and I cried, 'Sweet youth,
Tell me why, sad and sighing, thou dost rove
These pleasant realms? 1 pray thee speak me sooth
What is thy name?' He said, 'My name is Love.'
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, 'He lieth, for his name is Shame,
But I am Love, and was wont to be
Alone in this fair garden, till he came
Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.'
Then sighing, said the other, 'Have thy will,

I am the love that dare not speak its name.'
An all male Salome production

Geoffrey Rush recently played Lady Bracknell in Oscar Wilde's 'The Importance of Being Ernest. It is a role to die for and just as many men appear to take on the role as do the great women of the stage. Many years ago I saw Rush in another production with the great Australian National Treasure (now deceased) Ruth Cracknell as the imperious Lady
To me, perhaps the best or at least the most memorable has always been Dame Edith Evans whose performance is stunning. 

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