Oscar Wilde Biography

Oscar Wilde Biography

In Oscar Wilde, the “love that dare not speak its name” found a somewhat involuntary spokesman. Wilde’s homosexuality and the indecency trial it spurred in 1895 have gained so much critical and literary attention as to threaten to eclipse Wilde’s notable body of work. At a time when late melodrama and early realism characterized much of English theater, Wilde distinguished himself as an author of unparalleled wit. His most famous work, The Importance of Being Earnest, remains the standard for social satire. In Earnest, as in his play An Ideal Husband, Wilde made upper-class Victorian life hilariously ridiculous. Ironically, its premiere would be his last great success. His romantic relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas drew Wilde into a legal battle with the young man’s father. Wilde was sentenced to two years of hard labor and died a few years after his release.

Facts and Trivia

  • Wilde is often associated with the aesthetic movement called “Art for Art’s Sake,” which posits that art is self-sufficient and does not need to have a moral, social, or political purpose.
  • Along with his sparkling prose, Wilde is also known for his flamboyant fashion sense. He often, for example, wore green carnations in his jacket lapel.
  • The Picture of Dorian Gray, a classic of English literature, was Wilde’s only full-length novel.
  • Among Wilde’s many controversial views were his socialist politics. His views are detailed in his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.”
  • After he was released from prison, Wilde went to Paris, where he died penniless and divorced in 1900.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854, in Dublin, Ireland, to parents who were among the most colorful members of the Irish gentry. His father, Sir William Wilde, one of the foremost Victorian oculists and surgeons, numbered crowned heads of Europe among his patients. He was equally famed for his archaeological research and his amorous adventures. Oscar Wilde’s mother was no less remarkable. Born Jane Francesca Elgee, she gained public notice for the patriotic pieces she published under the pseudonym Speranza. When one of Speranza’s essays brought Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, leader of the Young Ireland party, to trial for high treason and sedition, the tall and dramatic authoress rose in court, proclaimed “I alone am the culprit,” and on the spot became one of the heroines of Ireland.

This colorful background and his mother’s doting attention must have fostered young Wilde’s imagination. His mind received more discipline and direction when, through good fortune, he was brought into contact with a series of fine teachers. At Trinity College in Dublin, Wilde’s Greek tutor, the Reverend John Pentland Mahaffy, inspired him with a love of Hellenic culture and, by his own witty example, honed and polished the younger man’s conversational talents. Next, having won a demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford, in 1874, Wilde encountered Ruskin (then Slade Professor of Art), whose social conscience, love of medieval architecture, and belief in the necessary connection between art and life were to become part of Wilde’s own creed. Even more important to Wilde’s development was Pater, the skeptical latter-day Epicurean famed for his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). In the light of Pater’s intellectual advice to the youth of the day, most memorably distilled in his observation that “to burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ectasy, is success in life,” the Oxonian Wilde’s famous ambition, “Oh, would that I could live up to my blue china!” seems a less frivolous objective.

In 1879, Wilde went to London, where, sharing rooms with the artist Frank Miles, he became one of the central figures of the aesthetic movement and made the acquaintance of many of the celebrities of the day, particularly the lovely Lily Langtry, whose career as a professional beauty had been launched by Miles’s drawings. The tall, heavy, epigrammatic young Wilde was soon known in society for his eccentric dress and his paradoxical wit. Caricatured as Reginald Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, he became the epitome of aestheticism for the wider public as well. The shrewd producers of the comic opera, which was to go on an American tour, realized that the presence of Bunthorne’s prototype would fan the flames of interest, so with their sponsorship, Wilde embarked on an extended tour of the United States that permitted him to see the notable places, to meet the notable people, and having done so, to conclude, “When good Americans die they go to Paris. When bad Americans die they stay in America.”

On his return to England after a short stay in Paris, Wilde launched himself on what was to be his period of eminence. He made friends with the painter Whistler and became engaged to the pretty but conventional daughter of an Irish barrister, Constance Lloyd, whom he married in 1883. They had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. In need of funds to finance his luxurious mode of life, he cultivated his literary career, if not in earnest, then at least with more enterprise than he would have wished to acknowledge. He lectured, reviewed books, and for a time edited The Woman’s World. His prose works appeared in rapid succession: short stories (Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories, The Happy Prince and Other Tales, A House of Pomegranates), a novel (The Picture of Dorian Gray), and a collection of critical essays (Intentions).

With his fiction, Wilde solidly established his reputation in the world of letters, but his great period of financial success began only when he turned to writing for the popular theater. Although he found the enforced discipline of playwriting difficult and never regarded his social comedies as anything more than well-crafted potboilers, Wilde managed in a span of three years to write four plays that paid him exceedingly well and made him even more famous. Lady Windermere’s Fan (premiering in February, 1892) was followed by A Woman of No Importance (April, 1893), An Ideal Husband (January, 1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (February, 1895). After completing Lady Windermere’s Fan, Wilde went to France, where he wrote Salomé, a poetic drama intended to make his artistic reputation on the Continent and at home. Wilde offered the title role in that play to Sarah Bernhardt, who accepted and began rehearsals for a London production that was never staged: The Lord Chamberlain banned it for violating the old law forbidding the theatrical representation of biblical characters.

Having reached its zenith, Wilde’s star rapidly sank to oblivion in the spring of 1895. Since 1891, Wilde had been friends, and more than friends, with the handsome, talented, spoiled, unstable Lord Alfred Douglas, a younger son of the eighth marquess of Queensbury. The relationship was not discreet. Lord Alfred took pleasure in flaunting himself in the role of minion to the celebrated Wilde and in flouting the authority of his father. As his letters reveal, Wilde in his turn expressed his feelings for the elegant youth whose “slim gilt soul walks between passion and poetry” with his customary extravagance. Finally, in what was to be one of the most perverse and distasteful interludes in the history of English jurisprudence, Wilde was provoked to sue the ferocious marquess for criminal libel when that rash peer had culminated a campaign of harassment by leaving at Wilde’s club a card bearing the words “to Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite [sic].” For his defense, Queensbury collected a small parade of blackmailers and male prostitutes to testify to the accuracy of his epithet. Unwisely persisting in his suit, Wilde failed, on Queensbury’s acquittal, to seize his chance to flee the country. Having lost his battle with the marquess, Wilde in turn was arrested, tried, and ultimately convicted for practicing “the love that dares not tell its name.” He was sentenced to two years at hard labor.

Wilde’s twenty-four months of imprisonment were a continuous mortification of body, mind, and spirit. He had lost his honor, his position, his fortune, and his family. Although he was to write one more fine work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, his life was behind him. Released from prison on May 19, 1897, he left England behind as well. Under the name Sebastian Melmoth, Wilde resided abroad, principally in France and Italy, until his death in Paris in 1900.

Oscar Wilde Biography

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, on October 16, 1854. He attended Trinity College in Dublin and Oxford University in Oxford, England,...

(The entire section is 290 words.)

Oscar Wilde Biography

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born to ambitious, successful Irish parents in Dublin in 1854. As a young man he attended Trinity College, and in 1874 (at age twenty) he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, on a scholarship. Wilde was drawn to art criticism and literature in his studies, and he was strongly influenced by several mentors, most notably writers John Ruskin and Walter Pater. At college Wilde discovered, developed, and began to refine his extraordinary gifts of creativity, analysis, and expression. These he pressed into the service of aestheticism, an iconoclastic artistic movement, promoted by Pater, that advocated art for art’s sake. Wilde would come to personify aestheticism, with all its intellectual refinement, provocative posing, and hedonistic excess.

Wilde married Constance Lloyd in 1884 and with her had two sons. Although throughout his short life Wilde evinced great love and devotion to his wife and sons, he grew increasingly involved in sexual liaisons with men. Most notably and tragically, Wilde became engrossed in an obsessive and rocky gay friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas, the son of the marquis of Queensberry. Douglas helped to lead Wilde deeper into London’s gay underworld. While Douglas at times seemed to love Wilde genuinely, he periodically became impatient, selfish, and abusive toward his older friend. Still, Wilde remained, with increasing recklessness, committed to Douglas.

During the second half of the 1880’s Wilde wrote poems, plays, and stories with increasing success. To a large extent, however, it was the provocative and radical remarks he made at public lectures and at the social functions he so frequently attended that gained for him sustained public attention. Wilde was a gifted speaker with a keen sense of timing and an ability to lampoon societal standards with his humorous remarks.

The Victorian public’s amusement with Wilde’s contrarianism turned to contempt in 1895. In that year the marquis of Queensberry, furious over the writer’s continuing relationship with his son, accused Wilde of being a “sodomite.” Wilde ill-advisedly sued for libel, maintaining that he was not, in fact, gay. The marquis, to support his claim about Wilde’s homosexuality, entered into court various letters and other pieces of evidence. When Queensberry’s lawyer was about to produce as witnesses young male prostitutes who had had sexual relations with Wilde, Wilde’s lawyer withdrew from the suit. Queensberry was acquitted by the jury, and almost immediately after the trial, Wilde was arrested for violation of England’s sodomy laws. By now the public had all but deserted Wilde, and after his conviction even most of his friends disavowed him. Wilde spent two years in prison for his offenses.

Upon his release from prison in 1897, Wilde left England to live in exile, finally locating in Paris. He lived under the alias Sebastian Melmoth, attempting to expunge his notoriety as the humiliated Oscar Wilde. His spirits and his health had been broken by his prison sentence, however, and Wilde died within three years, at age forty-six.

Oscar Wilde Biography

(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, on October 16, 1854. Flamboyance, so characteristic of the adult Wilde, was an obvious quality of both of his parents. His father was noted for physical dirtiness and love affairs, one of which led to a lawsuit and public scandal. Something of a social revolutionary, his mother published poetry and maintained a salon for intellectual discussion in her later years. Wilde grew up in this environment, showing both insolence and genius. He was an excellent student at all his schools. He attended Portora Royal School, Trinity College in Dublin, and then won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford. At this time, John Ruskin was lecturing, and Wilde was influenced by Ruskin’s ideas and style. More important, he heard and met Walter Pater, who had recently published his Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873). It is Pater’s influence that is most obvious in Wilde’s development as a poet. While at Oxford, Wilde visited Italy and Greece, and this trip strengthened the love of classical culture so obvious in his poetry.

In the 1880’s, as he developed as a writer, he also became a public personality. He toured the United States for about a year, and in both the United States and England, he preached an aesthetic doctrine that had its origins in the Pre-Raphaelites and Pater. He married in 1883 and had two sons. Wilde serially published his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which immediately created a sensation with the public. Thereafter, he wrote a number of plays, most notably Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Wilde’s last decade involved the scandal over his sexuality. His chief male lover was Lord Alfred Douglas, whose father, the marquess of Queensberry, tried to end Wilde’s liaison with his son and ruin Wilde socially. Consequently, Wilde sued the marquess of Queensberry for libel but lost the case and also had his sexuality revealed. Tried twice for homosexuality, a crime in England at the time, he was found guilty and sentenced to two years at hard labor. From his prison experiences, Wilde wrote his most famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Released from prison, he wandered over the Continent for three years, broken physically and ruined financially. He died in Paris at the age of forty-six.

Oscar Wilde Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)
0111201605-Wilde.jpg Oscar Wilde (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Born in Dublin, Ireland, on October 16, 1854, into a respected family, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was the second son of Sir William Robert Wills Wilde and his wife, Lady Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde. His father, a noted ear and eye surgeon, wrote some twenty books in his lifetime, including Practical Observations on Aural Surgery, and the Nature and Treatment of Diseases of the Ear (1853), a standard textbook. Lady Wilde, under the pseudonym “Speranza,” wrote inflammatory articles about Irish nationalism and women’s rights. She gained celebrity in 1848 when she admitted writing an article in Nation that caused the head of the Young Ireland Party to be tried for high treason. She told the court that she alone was the culprit, thereby becoming the heroine of the movement. She published poems, essays, stories, and folklore.

Wilde was a bright youngster who took prizes in religious and classical studies at Portora Royal School, which he and his older brother Willie (born in 1852) attended. In 1871, Oscar entered Trinity College, Dublin, and gained sufficient recognition in classical studies that, in 1874, he won the Classical Demyship to Magdalen College, Oxford. John Mahaffy, who taught ancient history at Trinity College, greatly influenced Wilde. He supported him for the Oxford scholarship. Wilde spent the summer of 1874 helping Mahaffy, a uniquely skilled conversationalist, revise his Social Life in Greece from Homer to Menander (1874). He spent two summers traveling with Mahaffy and others through Italy and Greece.

Wilde blossomed at Oxford, where his witty conversation made him popular. His long poem, Ravenna (1878), won him the Newdigate Prize, which included the publication of the poem as a pamphlet. He received his bachelor’s degree from Oxford in 1878, but his demyship was extended, enabling him to study further. He was particularly affected by Walter Pater, a fellow at Brasenose College, and John Ruskin, Slade Professor of Art, both of whom promoted aestheticism. Ruskin differed from Pater in believing that art should have a high moral purpose. Pater promoted art for art’s sake, a doctrine that became Wilde’s credo.

Wilde, sharing rooms in London with Frank Miles in 1879, created an aesthetic environment built around white lilies, objets d’art, and peacock feathers—many peacock feathers. At their digs gathered artists, aesthetes, and people in theater, including Lillie Langtry, who was fast becoming famous through Miles’s drawings of her. Wilde and Miles were magnets that attracted the beautiful people with whom they preferred to surround themselves.

By 1880, Wilde’s mother came to London and established herself in Chelsea, where she lived with her son, Willie. Lady Wilde entertained some of the most interesting people in London, and Wilde attended her salons, exposing himself further to the people of privilege about whom he was eventually to write. Renowned for his outlandish dress and for the green carnation or sunflower that he perpetually wore in his lapel, Wilde was best known for his outrageous banter.

The British musical theater team of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan made Wilde a character, Reginald Bunthorne, in Patience: Or, Bunthorne’s Bride (1881), their opera about the aesthetic movement. When the opera completed its successful London run and was scheduled for a September, 1882, opening in New York, followed by an American tour, its promoters decided that Wilde could do an effective job promoting it. In January, 1882, they sent him to the United States for a lecture tour on aestheticism and other topics. He spent a year abroad, giving some 125 lectures throughout the United States and Canada. Wilde’s outrageous dress, quick wit, and quotable epigrams attracted large audiences.

Meanwhile, Wilde had published at his own expense a collection, Poems (1881), which, despite the refusal of London publishers to accept his manuscript, sold out five editions by 1883. He was also working on a play, Vera: Or, The Nihilists (pb. 1880, pr. 1883), taking it abroad with him and hoping to interest someone in an American production. When he returned to England, Wilde went to France for three months; he then returned and began to establish himself as a man of some importance in London. He became engaged to Constance Lloyd, whom he married in 1883. They had two sons, Cyril, born in 1885, and Vyvyan, born in 1886.

By 1887, Wilde was editor of The Woman’s World, but he became bored and left the magazine in 1889. Needing money for his growing family, Wilde lectured and wrote reviews. He began to publish prolifically after he left The Woman’s World, producing The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (1888), The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, serial; 1891, expanded), Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, and Other Stories (1891), A House of Pomegranates (1891), and Intentions (1891). The range of this writing, which included a novel, critical essays, short stories, and children’s stories, was impressive, but brought little money.

His fiction, however, established him as a serious writer. When he turned to drama, which remunerated him generously, he was already well known and respected. In three years, he wrote four popular plays—Lady Windermere’s Fan (pr. 1892, pb. 1893), A Woman of No Importance (pr. 1893, pb. 1894), An Ideal Husband (pr. 1895, pb. 1899), and The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (pr. 1895, pb. 1899)—that spread his fame and made him affluent. Wilde then went to France to write Salomé (pb. 1893 in French, pb. 1894 in English, pr. 1896 in English) in French. Sarah Bernhardt agreed to play the lead. Those plans, however, were scuttled by the Office of the Lord Chamberlain, which banned the play. In 1896, Salomé was finally produced in Paris. By this time, however, Wilde was in prison.

In 1895, the Marquis of Queensberry left a card at Wilde’s club accusing him of sodomy. Wilde had maintained a homosexual relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the marquis. Wilde sued the marquis for libel but ultimately was countersued for his homosexual activities and, after two trials, found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison, where he wrote De Profundis (1905), one of his most moving works. Released from prison, ruined financially, socially, and personally, he returned to France, never to see England again. He lived on what his writing now brought him, on a small allowance from Constance, who died in 1898, and on handouts from friends. He died in Paris on November 30, 1900, as a result of syphilitic encephalitis triggered by an ear infection.

Oscar Wilde Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Oscar Wilde’s life was an outrageously interesting one that grew wholly sensational toward its close. Wilde lived a philosophy that perhaps was not meant for living, but he appears to have believed in it and to have accepted it fully. Art for art’s sake remained his credo even after his imprisonment, although it is not reflected in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which is his maverick work. De profundis, written in prison, leaves little doubt about what Wilde really accepted philosophically.

Although the comparisons of Wilde to William Shakespeare abroad when his plays were running in the West End are gross exaggerations, one cannot deny that Wilde was a remarkably able playwright who, by defying social and dramatic conventions simultaneously, created plays that articulated well the aestheticism espoused by Walter Pater. Wilde’s often neglected essays on criticism are also significant and deserve further study and consideration. In these essays are articulated the maxims by which Wilde tried to live and write.

Oscar Wilde Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born the second son of Sir William Robert Wills Wilde, surgeon oculist in ordinary to the Queen, and Jane Francesca Elgee Wilde, known as the Irish revolutionary author “Speranza.” Early noted for his casual brilliance, Wilde won prizes at the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen, and later in Trinity College, Dublin, where the Reverend John Mahaffy encouraged Wilde’s passion for Hellenic culture. Having studied under two famous masters, John Ruskin and Walter Pater, Wilde achieved recognition at Magdalen College, Oxford, for taking double firsts in classics examinations and for winning the Newdigate Prize for the poem “Ravenna” in 1878.

Famous for his peacock feathers, sunflowers, dados, blue china, long hair, velveteen breeches, and later his green carnations, Wilde first distinguished himself with the public as the leader of London’s art-for-art’s-sake school of aesthetics. He and his cohorts were lampooned in cartoons, novels, and comic opera, but he remained a sought-after conversationalist. Everyone eagerly followed his outrageous affectations, witty sayings, and paradoxes; and no one ever heard him utter an oath or an off-color remark.

When Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience (1881), a spoof of aestheticism, was to tour North America, Richard D’Oyly Carte engaged Wilde for a lecture series to promote American interest in the operetta. Then, following a stint in Paris, where he mingled with the artistic elite and wrote the quasi-Elizabethan tragedy The Duchess of Padua, Wilde returned to the United States to see Vera, his political romance set in revolutionary Russia, open and close after one week on the boards. He went back to Great Britain to lecture on Impressions of America and there rekindled his acquaintance with Constance Mary Lloyd, the daughter of a prominent Irish barrister, whom he married in 1884 and with whom he had two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. In 1886 Wilde met Robert Ross, the unfailing friend who most aided Wilde after his release from prison and who, after Wilde’s death, fought to protect his corpus and resurrect his name. From 1887 to 1889 Wilde edited The Lady’s World magazine—changing the title to The Woman’s World—and began the eight-year period that saw his most significant work appear.

The first version of The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890 to a flurry of outrage. Expanded and balanced, the second version, Wilde’s only novel, fully works through the human implications of the conflict between the aesthetics of Ruskin and Pater (represented by the artist Basil Hallward and the writer Lord Henry Wotton) as they vie for influence over Dorian.

The year 1891 witnessed the production in New York of The Duchess of Padua (under the title Guido Ferranti), the publication in England of several volumes of new and collected works, the writing of Lady Windermere’s Fan, and the composition in France (in French) of Salomé, the Symbolist jewel that Richard Strauss later transformed into an opera. In that year also occurred the fateful encounter with Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”) that ensnared Wilde in the cycle of dependency and abuse he so heartrendingly detailed to Bosie in his letter from prison, a severely edited version of which was first published in 1905 as De Profundis. Four years later this relationship led the Marquess of Queensbury (Douglas’s father) to address Wilde publicly as a “sodomite,” bringing about, at Douglas’s instigation, Wilde’s suit against Queensbury for libel and the ensuing countersuit that earned Wilde two years’ hard labor in Wandsworth and Reading prisons.

Happily for Wilde and for generations of theatrical audiences, those intervening four years provided Wilde scope to create his four social comedies, the works (outside of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Wilde’s eminently quotable epigrams) for which he remains most widely remembered. Each of these plays achieved astounding success on the London stage, furnishing Wilde both with a well-deserved respite from debt and with the opportunity playfully to deconstruct Victorian ideology, perhaps the true reason behind his incarceration.

After his release from prison, Wilde took the name Sebastian Melmoth from the 1820 gothic novel Melmoth the Wanderer, written by his maternal great-granduncle, the Reverend Charles Maturin. Though personally always light-hearted, Wilde lived out his last sad years on the Continent, grievously estranged from his wife and children, at the insistence of the Lloyds, and always short of funds, though Constance increased his allowance after he published The Ballad of Reading Gaol, called by William Butler Yeats the strongest poem of the century. Following an operation for encephalitis arising from an ear injury sustained in prison, Wilde died at the Hôtel d’Alsace after embracing the Catholicism to which he had long aspired. Originally buried in Bagneux Cemetery, his remains were moved in 1909 to Père Lachaise, where they lie beneath a tomb sculpted by Sir Jacob Epstein.

Wilde’s talents were, in his own time, acknowledged by George Bernard Shaw, Frank Harris, James McNeill Whistler, and, of course, Wilde himself. One has only to read his gemlike fairy tales or his letter to the Daily Chronicle (1897), urging the state to reconsider its policy of incarcerating young children under the same hideous conditions as hardened criminals, to recognize the depth of love for humanity that hides behind what often passes in both Wilde’s work and behavior for mere sparkling frivolity. Perhaps the true brilliance of his last and best-loved play, The Importance of Being Earnest, lies in its visionary conception of a genial and benevolent society unencumbered by hypocritical moral earnestness or snobbish self-importance.

Oscar Wilde Biography

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Wilde’s comedies, including such masterpieces as The Importance of Being Earnest, were the finest seen on the English stage for many years and have endured as witty testaments to his artistic credo that art is superior to life.

Early Life

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, the second son of Sir William Wilde, a prominent surgeon, and Jane Wilde (née Elgee), a poet and Irish nationalist. He was raised in an affluent, successful, and intellectually stimulating home. From an early age, Oscar and his brother Willie were allowed to sit at the foot of the adults’ dinner table and listen to the conversations of the Wildes and their guests, many of whom were prominent in Irish social and literary circles.

At ten, Oscar was sent to the Portora Royal School in Enniskillen. Physically, he was a tall and awkward boy, but he had already revealed signs of the sharp wit that would later fascinate the literary world. He was also noted for his fast reading, once claiming to have read a three-volume novel in thirty minutes. He excelled in Latin and Greek and won a scholarship to Trinity College, Dublin, which he entered in October, 1871.

At Trinity, Wilde won several academic prizes, including the Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek. Strongly influenced by his tutor, the Reverend John Mahaffy, a professor of ancient history, Wilde continued to excel at classics and won a scholarship worth ninety-five pounds per year at Magdalen College, Oxford, which he entered in October, 1874. It was at Oxford that Wilde encountered two men who were to influence his thought. The first was art critic and writer John Ruskin, who was at the time a professor of fine arts. Ruskin believed that art should have a moral component, and as Wilde worked with him on a road-building project, Wilde found the idea that art might promote the improvement of society to be an attractive one. Wilde was also exposed to a contrary, and more important, influence in the form of Walter Pater, fellow of Brasenose College. According to Pater, what mattered in life and art were not moral or social concerns, but the intense appreciation of sensual beauty, especially that produced by works of art. While under Pater’s spell, Wilde took to referring to Pater’s Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) as “my golden book.”

Wilde flourished during his time at Oxford, living a flamboyant lifestyle and dressing as a dandy. He also excelled in academics, winning the Oxford Newdigate Prize for Poetry with “Ravenna,” a poem that describes his response to his first sight of the Italian city. After receiving his bachelor of arts degree in November, 1878, Wilde went to London to pursue his career, unsure of what that career might be.

Life’s Work

It did not take Wilde long to set himself up in London. He shared rooms off the Strand with his Oxford friend Frank Miles. Wilde cultivated a wide circle of acquaintances, and after his mother arrived in London, he was the chief attraction at the literary salon that she presided over at her Chelsea home. With his witty conversation, outrageous opinions, and outlandish, colorful taste in clothes, Wilde was soon the talk of London. He became the clear leader of the art-for-art’s-sake school of aesthetics, a school of thought that had been introduced to England by Pater and emphasized that art need serve no utilitarian end; its mere existence as a thing of perfection and beauty was sufficient.

In 1881 Wilde published his first work, Poems, a collection of lyrical poems that are mainly derivative in style from poets such as John Keats, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The book quickly went through five editions but was badly reviewed by critics. However, such critical dismissal hardly made a dent in Wilde’s growing celebrity, and the following year he visited the United States for a highly successful lecture tour. Upon arriving in New York on January 3, 1882, Wilde told a custom’s officer, in one of most famous bons mots, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” In the course of twelve months, Wilde delivered more than eighty lectures, and he arrived back in England more sought after than ever before. He promptly spent the next three months in Paris, where he made the acquaintance of many leading literary and artistic figures, including Stéphane Mallarmé, Paul Verlaine, and Edgar Degas.

In the fall of 1883, Wilde became engaged to Constance Lloyd, the daughter of an Irish barrister, whom he had met two years earlier. They married in May of the following year and, within just over two years, gave birth to two sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. The growth of his family put Wilde under financial strain; although he was well known and celebrated, he was without a reliable income. After another lecture tour and taking on some literary journalism, he became editor of The Woman’s World in 1887, a position he retained until 1889.

In 1888, Wilde entered the seven-year period of his greatest success, during which he published almost all the work—as novelist, short story writer, dramatist, and social and literary critic—on which his reputation rests. The first such work was The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), a collection of fairy tales that one reviewer compared to those of Hans Christian Andersen.

In 1890, the abbreviated serial version of Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine; it was published in book form the following year and made an immediate impact on the reading public. The story tells of a young man of great beauty who pursues a selfish, hedonistic life, apparently without any consequences. However, a mysterious portrait of him slowly changes in a way that reveals how his soul has been corrupted. When he finally decides to reform his life, he stabs the portrait in a rage; when others arrive on the scene, they find the portrait restored to one of youth and beauty, while Dorian Gray himself lies dead—old, wrinkled, and disgusting.

In 1891, Wilde also published Intentions, a collection of essays that expressed his ideas about the relationship between life and art; two more collections of short stories; and an essay called “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” a somewhat misleading title to a piece that is mainly about individualism and art. In addition, Wilde’s play The Duchess of Padua was produced in New York under the title Guido Ferranti.

From 1892 to 1895, Wilde’s career reached its zenith with London and New York productions of his witty comedies Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), which ran for eighty-six performances to popular and critical acclaim. With its brilliant wordplay (including extensive use of paradoxes and epigrams) and its farcical plot (which includes such stock devices as intercepted letters and mistaken identities), the play embodies a perfect fantasy world that has little relation to life as it is really lived. Describing his overall aim in the play, Wilde explained that he wished to treat all the trivial things of life seriously and the serious things with a studied triviality.

However, the year of Wilde’s greatest success, during which three of his plays were playing simultaneously in London, was also the year of his downfall. In May, 1895, Wilde was tried and found guilty of “gross indecency,” a euphemism for homosexual activity, which at the time was a criminal offense. He was sentenced to two years in prison with hard labor. The seeds of Wilde’s tragic fall had been sown in 1891 when he had met Lord Alfred Douglas, a young poet with whom he formed an intimate friendship. Douglas’ father, the Marquis of Queensberry, accused Wilde of homosexuality. In March, 1895, Wilde recklessly sued Queensberry for criminal libel, but he lost the case and was immediately arrested and put on trial. The trial ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict, but Wilde was retried almost immediately, and this time there was to be no reprieve.

Wilde was imprisoned under harsh conditions. Confined to his cell for twenty-three hours per day, he was at first denied all books except a Bible, a prayer book, and a hymn book. His hard labor consisted of picking oakum in his cell. Conditions improved later, and he was able to obtain more books. While in prison, Wilde wrote a confessional letter to Douglas called De Profundis (1905) and a collection of poetry titled The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898). On his release from prison in May, 1897, Wilde emigrated to France, never to return to England. Divorced and financially ruined, he had to rely on friends for support. His health deteriorated, and he died in 1900 in the Hotel d’Alsace in Paris.


Oscar Wilde’s greatest achievement was the way he used language to create what has been called a form of comedy as pure as the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Demolishing the complacency of Victorian social, moral, and artistic assumptions with the weapons of wit, Wilde delighted in turning stuffy platitudes upside down and then turning to the audience for applause. It was a brilliant performance that ensured that during his life, Wilde would be both greatly admired and maliciously mocked. Although his enemies eventually found satisfaction in his disgrace, it is Wilde, if literary history is the judge, who has had the last laugh. This is not only because he was an important influence on a variety of twentieth century writers and literary forms—from the Symbolist dramas of William Butler Yeats to the stylish comedies of W. Somerset Maugham and Noël Coward, and perhaps even the absurdist plays of Eugène Ionesco and Samuel Beckett—but also because of the fact that of those artists in the 1890’s who worked in the literary forms known as aestheticism and Decadence, it is Wilde who has remained enduringly popular. Indeed, in the late 1990’s, as the centenary of his death approached, interest in Wilde underwent a kind of renaissance. There was an outpouring of scholarly studies, and plays such as the Off-Broadway Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde (1997), by Moisés Kaufman, and David Hare’s The Judas Kiss (1997), which played in London and New York, further imprinted Wilde’s name on the popular imagination.


Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Knopf, 1988. This is the definitive biography, a prodigious work of scholarship that is elegantly written and sympathetic to Wilde. Ellmann argues from circumstantial evidence that Wilde died of complications from syphilis that he picked up while at Oxford and also disputes the commonly held notion that Wilde converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.

Ericksen, Donald H. Oscar Wilde. Boston: Twayne, 1977. This useful, concise introduction to Wilde’s life and career emphasizes the analysis of individual works and includes an annotated bibliography.

Foldy, Michael S. The Trials of Oscar Wilde: Deviance, Morality, and Late-Victorian Society. New Haven; Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997. By analyzing the trial testimony and press coverage, Foldy argues cogently that the prosecution of Wilde was not solely based on matters of morality but was directly linked to wider social, cultural, and political issues.

Harris, Frank. Oscar Wilde: Including My Memories of Oscar Wilde by George Bernard Shaw. 2d ed. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1997. Harris was one of the few friends who remained loyal to Wilde after his downfall. His biography, although highly readable and full of interesting anecdotes, is not always reliable. Shaw’s afterward is a shrewd assessment of Wilde.

Holland, Merlin. The Wilde Album. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. This is a useful complement to the weightier biography by Ellmann. Holland, Wilde’s grandson, supplements his biographical narrative with various artifacts—including photographs, press clippings, and political cartoons—that document Wilde’s emergence as a media celebrity and show how Wilde consciously created his own fame. The book includes rare family photos and all twenty-eight publicity portraits made for Wilde’s 1882 U.S. tour.

Pearson, Hesketh. Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit. New York: Harper Bros., 1946. Although superseded by the massive research and detail contained in Ellmann, this remains a full and engaging account of Wilde’s life.

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Oscar Wilde Biography

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

By the 1890’s, Oscar Wilde was the most popular playwright in London. His successes included Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Nevertheless, censorship of his work began with his very first play, Vera, or the Nihilists, scheduled for performance in 1881. Set in Russia around 1800, the play was based on the 1878 assassination of a St. Petersburg police official by an eighteen-year-old girl—who became the heroine of Wilde’s play. Following the assassinations of Russian czar Alexander II on March 13, 1881, and U.S. president James A. Garfield—who died on September 9, 1881—unofficial pressure, reportedly from the Russian government, caused cancellation of the play’s rehearsals. In 1892, Wilde’s Salomé was being rehearsed for a London performance with French actress Sarah Bernhardt when the Lord Chamberlain refused a license because British law forbade theatrical depiction of biblical characters. Wilde published the play in Paris in 1893 and had it produced there in 1896. It was successful in Europe, especially after Richard Strauss produced a popular operatic version in 1905.

Wilde also wrote a controversial novel and is associated with another. The Picture of Dorian Gray first appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890. W. H. Smith and Son, important British booksellers and news agents, withdrew that issue from stock and refused to handle it when a longer version appeared in book form. In 1895, Wilde sued Lord Queensberry (John Sholto Douglas) for criminal libel after Queensberry publicly accused him of homosexual activity. Queensberry’s attorney cited The Picture of Dorian Gray and the aphorisms that prefaced it as evidence of Wilde’s desire to subvert conventional morality.

Wilde’s name also has been linked with the frankly erotic homosexual novel Teleny, or the Reverse of the Medal: A Physiological Romance (1893), which he brought to the attention of French bookseller Charles Hirsch in 1889. Scholars have divided over the question of who wrote the novel; some scholars have attributed it to Wilde, others have suggested that it was written by several different authors, including Wilde.

When Wilde’s suit against Queensberry failed, the latter’s charge against Wilde was proven correct, and Wilde was tried for homosexual activities under an 1885 British law. After he was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment, some of his plays were taken off the stage and his name was removed as the author of others. Titles of his books were removed from publishers’ lists, and his book sales decreased. Wilde’s two sons were given a guardian and a new last name. In 1893, Wilde’s name was omitted from an American Library Association list of titles suitable for small libraries; in 1904, the authorized ALA catalog banned his work. Local censorship occurred, as in Boston, where the Watch and Ward Society prevented a 1907 production of Richard Strauss’s Salomé. That year, in New York, public reaction caused the Metropolitan Opera House to withdraw Strauss’s work after a single performance.