Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 and grew up in an intellectually influenced Irish home. His mother was a poet who wrote under the pen name Speranza and his father was a well-known physician with an interest in myths and folk tale. This was a very literature oriented family. At Oxford he won a coveted poetry award and was swayed by the late nineteenth century aesthetic movement. He found its idea of “art for art’s sake” and dedicating one’s life to art suitable to his character and ability.
From 1878 to 1881 Oscar Wilde became recognized for being well known in spite of having any real achievements to build on. He placed himself into the class of people he labeled as “the beautiful people”, who wore outrageous clothes, passed himself off as an art critic and aesthete, and built a reputation for saying shocking things and doing entertaining things. When a customs inspector asked him if he had anything to declare he replied, “Nothing but my genius.
At 28 he lectured in 70 American and Canadian cities on the arts and literature. His presentations were as popular as his audiences were mixed, he spoke to Mormons in Salt Lake City, silver miners in Colorado, West Coast intellectuals in San Francisco, farmers in Kansas, and swung through Ontario and Quebec. When he returned from America he had tired of being the Great Aesthete and returned to more standard form of dress.
He toured, wrote two unsuccessful plays and a well received collection of children’s fairy tales, married, fathered two sons and took a position as editor of Woman’s World, a monthly magazine for which he wrote literary criticism. Two years later he got bored of journalism and returned to shining at parties and spending much of his time with friends and lovers, often stepping over the boundaries of what was considered morally and socially proper for the time.
From 1890 to 1895 Oscar Wilde reached the high part of his career, as poet-playwright. He wrote the novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. That same year he came out with a well favored volume of children’s stories, The House of Pomegranates, and followed with a series of very successful plays that brought back the comedy of manners to the English Stage. They list as follows, Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and The Importance of Being Ernest, The Importance was praised as the first modern comedy in English.
Wilde’s plays was the stepping stone in the creation of the modern era. All in all they “forced Victorian society to look over its hypocrisies outlined with wit and humor, the prejudice of many moral and social restrictions which, to the Victorian point of view, appeared to be endless. In 1895 the eighth Marquees of Queensberry, considered quite insane by even members of his immediate family, capped his continuous public harassment of Wilde for his sexual relationship with his son Lord Alfred Douglas.
A suit filed by Wilde against the Marquees backfired and the Marquees were acquitted and Wilde’s not too well hidden desire for men put him with two years of hard labor. Wilde opposed the insistence of his friends to flee, saying he should accept with dignity the consequences of his actions. While in prison he wrote a 30,000 word letter to Douglas, published after his death with the title De Profundis, that is considered as possibly being his most important and serious statement about life and art as a whole and his own life and art in particular.
Ending it, he tells Douglas, You came to me to learn the Pleasures of Life and the Pleasures of Art. After his release from prison, Wilde left England and wandered around Europe for the last three years of his life. He was a broken man who sank deeper into a reckless life. His one notable piece from this period is The Ballad of Reading Gaol. He endured his final days in poor health and living on borrowed money and the kindness of sympathetic friends. In 1900, in Hotel d’Alsace in Paris, he died of cerebral meningitis.