Oscar Wilde’s character and conversation were in themselves striking enough to gain for him the attention of the reading public, but in addition to playwriting, he practiced all the other literary forms. He began writing poetry at an early age, commemorating the death of his sister Isola with “Requiescat” in 1867 and winning the Newdigate Prize for Poetry at Oxford with Ravenna in 1878. Wilde’s Poems appeared in 1881; The Sphinx in 1894; and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, his last literary work, in 1898. His efforts in fiction include “The Canterville Ghost” (1887), which was made into a movie in 1943; The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888); Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories (1891); A House of Pomegranates (1891); and his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (serialized in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890, published in book form in 1891). Oscar Wilde’s best-known essays and literary criticism appear in Intentions (1891). De Profundis, the long letter the imprisoned Wilde wrote to Lord Alfred Douglas, was published in 1905; his collected letters, edited by Rupert Hart-Davies, appeared in 1962.
To accuse Oscar Wilde of anything so active-sounding as “achievement” would be an impertinence that the strenuously indolent author would most likely deplore. Yet it must be admitted that Wilde’s presence, poses, ideas, and epigrams made him a potent influence, if not on the English literary tradition, at least on the artistic community of his own day. More visibly than any British contemporary, Oscar Wilde personified the doctrines of turn-of-the-century aestheticism—that art existed for its own sake and that one should live so as to make from the raw materials of one’s own existence an elegantly finished artifice. Wilde’s aestheticism, caricatured by W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan in their operetta Patience: Or, Bunthorne’s Bride (1881) and in Robert Smythe Hichens’s novel The Green Carnation (1894), mingled ideas from his two very different Oxford mentors, John Ruskin and Walter Pater, with the influence of the French Symbolists and, for a time, certain theories of the American painter James McNeill Whistler. However, Wilde’s Irish wit and eloquence made the articulation of this intellectual pastiche something distinctively his own.
Wilde’s literary works are polished achievements in established modes rather than experiments in thought or form. His poems and plays tend to look across the English Channel to the examples of the Symbolists and the masters of the pièce bien faite, though his Salomé, a biblical play written in French after the style of the then acclaimed dramatist Maurice Maeterlinck, was to engender a yet more significant work of art, Richard Strauss’s opera of the same title. If they are not intellectually or technically adventurous, however, Wilde’s works are incomparable for their talk—talk that tends to be Wilde’s own put into the mouths of his characters. The outrageous, elegant, paradoxical conversation volleyed by Wilde’s languid verbal athletes have given English literature more quotable tags than have the speeches of any other dramatist save William Shakespeare.
Oscar Wilde wrote in a number of literary forms. His earliest works were poems published in various journals and collected in a volume titled Poems in 1881. His later and longer poems, including The Sphinx (1894), were occasionally overwrought or contrived, but his final published poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), is regarded by many as a masterpiece. Wilde wrote two collections of fairy tales, The Happy Prince, and Other Tales (1888) and A House of Pomegranates (1891). He wrote several plays, most notably the comedies Lady Windermere’s Fan (pr. 1892), A Woman of No Importance (pr. 1893), the successful farce The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (pr. 1895), and the controversial and temporarily banned Salomé (pb. 1893 in French; pb. 1894 in English). Finally, Wilde wrote a few short stories, including “The Canterville Ghost” (1887) and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime” (1887).
Oscar Wilde’s works remain popular more than a century after his death. This is due in part to the enduring beauty of Wilde’s poetry and prose as well as to the timeless insights the works offer about art and morality. Wilde’s conclusions are presented with such easy elegance and wit that readers enjoy the seduction of thenarrative. No doubt Wilde’s provocative statements and iconoclastic poses, as well as the notoriety of his trial, helped to immortalize him and thus to sustain interest in his writings for generations. Wilde received Trinity College’s Berkeley Gold Medal for Greek in 1874, and he won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry in 1878.
Oscar Wilde wrote a number of plays produced successfully in his lifetime: Lady Windermere’s Fan (pr. 1892), A Woman of No Importance (pr. 1893), An Ideal Husband (pr. 1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest: A Trivial Comedy for Serious People (pr. 1895). Banned in London, his play Salomé was produced in 1893 in Paris with Sarah Bernhardt. Two plays, Vera: Or, The Nihilists (pb. 1880) and The Duchess of Padua (pb. 1883), were produced in New York after publication in England. Finally, two plays, A Florentine Tragedy (pr. 1906) and La Sainte Courtisane, were published together in the collected edition of Wilde’s works in 1908. Wilde published one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), serially in Lippincott’s Magazine. Commercially and artistically successful with a number of his plays and his one novel, Wilde reached his peak in the early 1890’s when he wrote little poetry. Wilde also wrote short stories and a number of fairy tales. His last prose work is a long letter, De Profundis, an apologia for his life. Parts of it were published as early as 1905, but the full work was suppressed until 1950.
G. F. Maine states that the tragedy of Oscar Wilde is that he is remembered more as a criminal and a gay man than as an artist. Readers still feel overwhelmed by Wilde’s life just as his personality overwhelmed his contemporaries. His greatest achievement is in drama, and his only novelThe Picture of Dorian Gray—is still widely read. In comparison, his poetry is essentially derivative.
Wilde modeled himself on the poets of a tradition that was soon to end in English literature, and most of his poetry appears in the earlier part of his career. Within this Romantic tradition, Wilde had a wider range than might be expected; he could move from the limited impressions of the shorter poems to the philosophic ruminations of the longer poems. Yet behind each poem, the presence of an earlier giant lurks: John Keats, William Wordsworth, Algernon Charles Swinburne. Wilde’s most original poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, is not derivative, and its starkness shows a side of Wilde not generally found in his other poems. Wilde’s poetry is a coda, then, to the end of a tradition.
What was Decadence in late nineteenth century art, and why did Oscar Wilde seek to express it?
How is Wilde’s love of paradox displayed in Lady Windermere’s Fan?
Does The Importance of Being Earnest deserve the enormous popularity it continues to have?
Frame an argument to show that The Picture of Dorian Gray is morally unobjectionable—or that it is objectionable.
Should The Ballad of Reading Gaol be recognized as Wilde’s most profound literary composition?
With the assistance of De Profundis, not available to readers in Wilde’s lifetime, and the contributions of literary critics, what evaluation of Wilde’s work is appropriate today?
Beckson, Karl E. The Oscar Wilde Encyclopedia. New York: AMS Press, 1998. At nearly five hundred pages, a compendium of useful information on Wilde and his times.
Belford, Barbara. Oscar Wilde: A Certain Genius. New York: Random House, 2000. An examination of Wilde’s life with a somewhat revisionist view of Wilde’s post-prison years.
Calloway, Stephen, and David Colvin. Oscar Wilde: An Exquisite Life. New York: Welcome Rain, 1997. A brief, heavily illustrated presentation of Wilde’s life.
Cohen, Philip K. The Moral Vision of Oscar Wilde. Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978. Examines Wilde’s writings as unified by his moral development through dialectical contraries of Old and New Testament codes. Contains illustrations, a select bibliography, and an index.
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988. A biography of Wilde, drawing much insight from Wilde’s published works. The book is extensively documented and footnoted and makes use of many of Wilde’s writings and recorded conversations. Includes bibliography and appendices. For a review of this work placing Wilde’s accomplishments within the context of modern literary developments, see Magill book review.
Eriksen, Donald H. Oscar Wilde. Boston: Twayne, 1977. This small volume is a useful corrective to studies of Wilde that see him and his work as anomalies of literature and history. After a brief chapter on Wilde’s life and times, Eriksen assesses his poetry, fiction, essays, and drama. A chronology, notes and references, an annotated bibliography, and an index supplement the text.
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.
Gagnier, Regenia A. Idylls of the Marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian Public. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1986. This study attempts to reach an understanding of Wilde by focusing less on his life and work and more on the relation of his work to his audiences. Leaning heavily on contemporary critical theory, it connects Wilde, Friedrich Engels, and Fyodor Dostoevski in ways that some may find more confusing than illuminating, but Gagnier’s readings of the works are generally insightful and persuasive. Includes bibliography and index.
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.
Kohl, Norbert. Oscar Wilde: The Works of a Conformist Rebel. Translated by David Henry Wilson. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Interprets Wilde’s works mainly through textual analysis, although it includes discussions of the society in which Wilde lived and to which he responded. Kohl argues that Wilde was not the imitator he is often accused of being but a creative adapter of the literary traditions he inherited. Supplemented by detailed notes, a lengthy bibliography, and an index.
McCormack, Jerusha Hull. The Man Who Was Dorian Gray. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. John Gray, the supposed model for Wilde’s most famous character, is profiled in this examination of the life of a decadent poet turned priest. Although not focused on the poetry, this work reveals much about early twentieth century literary society and the emerging gay culture.
McKenna, Neil. The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde. London: Century, 2003. This controversial and groundbreaking biography focuses on how Wilde’s sexuality, and homosexuality in the Victorian era, influenced the writer’s life and work. Illustrated.
Pearce, Joseph. The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. London: HarperCollins, 2000. Pearce avoids lingering on the actions that brought Wilde notoriety and instead explores Wilde’s emotional and spiritual search. Along with a discussion of The Ballad of Reading Gaol and the posthumously published De Profundis, Pearce also traces Wilde’s fascination with Catholicism.
Raby, Peter. Oscar Wilde. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Includes biographical information because, Raby argues, it is most useful to see Wilde as indivisible from his works. The 1881 collection of poems, he says, makes it clear that Wilde’s artistic purpose was a life’s work. Includes chronology, notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Small, Ian. Oscar Wilde: A Recent Research—A Supplement to “Oscar Wilde Revalued.” Greensboro, N.C.: ELT Press, 2000. A follow-up to Small’s earlier work on Wilde that surveys previously unknown biographical and critical materials. Includes bibliography.
Varty, Anne. A Preface to Oscar Wilde: Preface Books. New York: Longman, 1998. An introduction to the life and works, particularly the period from 1890 to 1895. Some discussion of earlier work provides a view of some of the motivating forces behind his output. Also offers a chapter on his circle. Includes index.
Wilde, Oscar. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis. New York: Henry Holt, 2000. A collection of correspondence including previously unpublished letters that unveil the full extent of Wilde’s genius in an intimate exploration of his life and thoughts. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.