I've been reading some bios and criticism of Oscar Wilde this week. (I initially went through my "Wilde phase" perhaps 20 years ago, while an undergrad, but just now got a library card in my new town, Weehawken, and while browsing the small library's shelves, started delving into literature again, which I haven't done in a while. I've been so caught up in the Internet for the past 7 years, I've almost forgotten how to actually read and think!)
Wilde's philosophy of aesthetics/life is too complicated to go into just yet...I need to go back and re-read his actual works before critiquing...
Just a surface reaction, though, after this week's reading: What a mess he made of his life!
Months ago, in passing conversation, a (straight male) co-worker defended him, saying Wilde was persecuted for being gay. At the time of the conversation I mainly nodded (the common perception that Wilde was jailed for homosexuality not really an arguable point), but there was a niggling detail that I vaguely remembered, which I just confirmed from this week's reading: The judicial system of England wasn't bothering him until HE sued his 21-year-old lover's father for libel, after Lord Douglas had left a note at Wilde's hotel, calling him a "posing sodomite." The belligerent dad and son "Bosie" had been at odds for years, and Pa was outraged at his son's public relationship with Wilde, hence the note. Wilde was annoyed by Lord Douglas's harrassment, BUT... was completely goaded into pursuing a lawsuit by Bosie. I'm not completely puzzled by what Wilde hoped to gain by such a suit---drama-queen emotional gratitude from Bosie! But how stupid of Wilde to be sucked into that! Lord Douglas had not filed a suit against Wilde, had just been an angry father ranting about town. Logically, what was Wilde's legal leg to stand on? That he was NOT legally a "sodomite" (or a "posing" sodomite---even if not provably the former, he was surely provably the latter!)?
Needless to say, Lord Douglas's defense called many "rent boys" and other witnesses to prove his point; Douglas was easily acquitted of the libel charges brought against him. And then, unfortunately but in a way karmically, the legal tables turned against the accuser Wilde. At his own trial, Wilde did not attempt to argue against the injustice of the English laws (boldly the martyr, as many of his defenders today seem to think), he just falsely claimed that his love for boys had always been purely "platonic." (Again, the rent boys were called to testify. End of defense. Beginning of two-year jail sentence.)
While the English laws against homosexuality were, of course, ridiculous, truth is, Wilde unnecessarily brought his own public downfall upon himself by trying to defend his "boy" against his boy's daddy. Noble of Wilde as a lover. But by all accounts of Wilde's personal acquaintances (both gay and straight), Bosie was an obnoxious little hanger-on and creep, who wanted the public attention of being seen as "Wilde's boy," but who quickly disappeared whenever Wilde's money ran short and when Wilde was in trouble.
Bosie did not visit Wilde in jail, which inspired a later-published letter to him from Wilde. Here's the text of Wilde's De Profundis, a letter that he wrote to his "boy" while in prison, documenting the psychology of their relationship.
After Wilde's 2-year prison term, the two were reunited briefly, for 2 months. Bosie became bored and went home.
Dislike Bosie as I may, I did however find one redeeming feature. Here's a sonnet he wrote for Wilde in 1901, the year after Wilde's death:
The Dead Poet
I dreamed of him last night, I saw his face
All radiant and unshadowed of distress,
And as of old, in music measureless,
I heard his golden voice and marked him trace
Under the common thing the hidden grace,
And conjure wonder out of emptiness,
Till mean things put on beauty like a dress
And all the world was an enchanted place.
And then methought outside a fast locked gate
I mourned the loss of unrecorded words,
Forgotten tales and mysteries half said,
Wonders that might have been articulate,
And voiceless thoughts liked murdered singing birds.
And so I woke and knew that he was dead.
When I read this, I had to momentarily suspend my dislike. Bosie knew what was magical about him and loved him for it. Despite all of his shitty behavior, he did recognize and appreciate what was beautiful about Wilde. (Though years later the little shit went on to publicly denounce Wilde for corrupting him, in my mind he will always be redeemed by this sonnet.)