Oscar Wilde, a prominent and perhaps the most quotable literary figure in the 19th century, became a celebrated playwright, poet, and novelist for his razor-sharp wit, satirical brilliance, and unconventional and flamboyant persona. Speaking to the French writer André Gide, Wilde once remarked, “I reserve all my genius for living, while my books receive only my talent.”
Oscar Wilde. Photograph by Napoleon Sarony, 1882.
Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin and grew up in a household filled with artists and intellectuals. His parents were Sir William Wilde, a successful surgeon and writer, and Jane Francesco Elgee, a poet and Irish revolutionary who proudly considered herself “the voice in poetry of all the people in Ireland.”
As a child, Wilde loved reading and developed a keen interest in Greek and Roman studies. He excelled in academics throughout his journey. He also embraced the Aesthetic movement, which believed that art existed solely for its beauty, without any political or moral purpose, summed up in the phrase “art for art’s sake.”
You can never be overdressed or overeducated.
After completing his studies, Wilde established himself in London. Two years later, aged 27, he released his first book, Poems. While the collection received mixed reviews, it found a more appreciative audience in America than in England.
Between the publication of Poems in 1881 and his next significant work in 1888, Wilde embarked on a lecture tour across America. During this time, he also got married, fathered two sons, assumed the role of editor for the fashionable magazine “Woman’s World,” and continued to solidify his reputation as the most sought-after guest at dinners throughout the British Isles.
Wilde’s lively table talk often revolved around his original fairy tales, later compiled into two volumes: The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891).
The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.
In 1890, Oscar Wilde published his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, blending French decadence with English gothicism. The story follows Dorian Gray, a young man who desires eternal youth and indulges in a life of pleasure while his portrait ages in his place. The novel brims with witty dialogues and exquisitely crafted descriptive passages yet occasionally delves into melodrama and profound philosophical contemplations. While the novel is now regarded as a great and classic work, critics at the time were outraged by its immorality.
A few years later, following the successful opening of his first play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Oscar Wilde experienced a wave of praise from both audiences and critics alike. This triumph motivated Wilde to embrace playwriting as his central literary pursuit. In the subsequent years, he graced the theatrical world with a series of exceptional plays—each a masterpiece blending wit, satire, and sharp social commentary while simultaneously exploring more profound themes.
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Among his most notable works were A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), which stands as his most renowned and celebrated play of all.
Around the same time as his most tremendous literary success, Wilde began an affair with a young man, 21-year-old Lord Alfred Douglas. When Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, heard about the matter, he left a calling card at Wilde’s home. The card was addressed to “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite,” misspelling sodomite. Wilde was so angry that he sued Queensberry for saying untrue things about him. This decision had ruined his life.
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, 1893.
Wilde lost the trial, and because of details about his private life that came out, he was arrested and tried for a charge called “gross indecency.” He got a sentence of two years of hard labor. For an artist who valued style in both life and art, being imprisoned for homosexuality was a particularly tragic outcome.
In prison, he wrote a long letter to Douglas, published after his death as De Profundis. His wife took their children to Switzerland and changed her name to Holland. When Wilde was released, his health was permanently damaged, and his reputation was destroyed. He spent the rest of his life in Europe and published only one poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
Hearts are made to be broken.
Oscar Wilde died of meningitis in Paris on 30 November 1900 at the age of 46. He showed wit even during his final illness, saying, “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has to go.”
Words of wisdom
“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” ―Oscar Wilde
“I am not young enough to know everything.” ―Oscar Wilde
“Never love anyone who treats you like you’re ordinary.” ―Oscar Wilde
“Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.” ―Oscar Wilde
“We are each our own devil, and we make this world our hell.” ―Oscar Wilde