Oscar Wilde and The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

Dubliner Oscar Wilde was born October 16th in 1854 to Anglo-Irish parents. A successful surgeon and philanthropist, his father treated the poor for eye and ear afflictions at the back of their house near Trinity College, Dublin. He later created a hospital to treat the poor, for which he was knighted. Wilde’s mother was a poet and a life-long Irish Nationalist.

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”

From these two serious-sounding people sprang Oscar Wilde. A brilliant student and a genius known in his time for his flamboyancy and conversational wit. He turned to writing society comedies (thankfully) only after failing to find success with his attempts at exposing Victorian decadence, such as in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

“I can resist everything except temptation”

A prolific writer of poetry and drama, Wilde is best remembered for his epigrams and plays. A married man with children, Wilde became Lord Alfred Douglas’s inseparable lover for four years. Homosexuality for men was illegal in Great Britain in the 1890’s (and remained so until 1967 in England, 1982 in Northern Ireland). In Wilde’s circle, as in all other levels and sections of society, gay men were forced to take their chances. Lord Douglas wrote a poem, “Two Loves,” in which he coined the euphemism for homosexuality, “The love that dare not speak its name.”

The reckless Lord Douglas, an undergraduate at Oxford, introduced Wilde to the Victorian underground of gay prostitution, a milieu which Wilde seemed unable to quit, not in spite of the danger, but perhaps because of it.

Enter Lord Douglas’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry and creator of the modern rules of boxing. The Marquess understood the nature of his son’s relationship and confronted Wilde several times. Wilde pulled himself back from the brink of disaster by mollifying the father, until the Marquess left his calling card at Wilde’s club: “For Oscar Wilde posing Somdomite [sic].” Accused as he was of the crime of sodomy in public, Wilde ignored his friends’ advice and allowed Douglas to encourage him to sue Queensberry for criminal libel.

Wilde was at the height of his success with The Importance of Being Earnest running on the London stage. Weeks later, he was in jail.

“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”

The case made public the sexual nature of Wilde’s relationship with Douglas, proving Queensberry’s accusation. Wilde spent two years in jail at hard labor for “gross indecency with men.” The jail term ruined his health, his career, his finances and his marriage to Constance Lloyd, who fled England with their two children in the brutal face of the scandal.

“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Upon his release from prison, Wilde moved to France, where homosexuality was decriminalized in 1791, the French having a better grasp of human nature than the British. There he lived on a pittance provided by Constance and the friends who still cared about him, including Robert Ross, Wilde’s first lover. Living in dingy hotel rooms (“My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has to go.”), he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, based on the execution of a fellow prisoner. The work was first signed with the address of his cell, C33.

Writing a 50,000 word letter to Douglas from jail, Wilde forgave him, took responsibility for his own fall and explored the Christian theme of redemption. Ross expurgated and published the letter as De Profundis, which subsequently was published in its entirety by one of Wilde’s sons. Douglas denied ever reading it during a libel trial he pursued against a later publisher.

At the forty-six, Oscar Wilde died of meningitis and is buried (with Robert Ross’ ashes, placed there on the fiftieth anniversary of Wilde’s death) in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. His epitaph is a verse from The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

This year, Wilde and approximately 50,000 fellow outcasts (among them, Alan Turing) were pardoned by the British government for the “offense” for which they’d been punished so harshly.

A partial list of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams:

“No man is rich enough to buy back his past.”
“I delight in men over seventy, they always offer one the devotion of a lifetime.”
“Most men and women are forced to perform parts for which they have no qualification.”
“Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
“I can resist everything except temptation.
“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
“The truth is rarely pure and never simple.”
“True friends stab you in the front.”

Netflix www.netflix.com offers DVDs of several of the film versions of The Importance of Being Earnest, a wonderful drawing room comedy involving switched identities and a handbag left in a train station; and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, not a light-hearted romp involving a painting. Local bookstores and libraries should be able to order print versions of all of Oscar Wilde’s work.

Richard Ellmann’s 1987 biography Oscar Wilde won the National Book Critics Award and the Pulitzer Prize. The movie version, Wilde, made from Ellmann’s biography, stars Stephen Fry and is available on Netflix.

4 thoughts on “Oscar Wilde and The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name

  1. Great commentary on Oscar Wilde. My favorite, “True friends stab you in the front.” I wish more people had the courage to be honest, and to accept criticism from those who love them
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  2. I have always loved Oscar Wilde, whether in a movie version of The Importance of Being Ernest, or a very amature production by a young people’s group. So wise in his aphorisms, and in his darker works like Dorian Gray or The Happy Prince. Thank you for the brief story of his life and loves.

  3. Constance, you have written about one of my favorite writers. I knew something about Wilde but you have filled in a lot of gaps. I’ll look for Richard Ellmann’s biography.

    I’ve always thought that it was tragic that Wilde was persuaded to sue. He had many friends who gave him the right advice. We might have had much more of his wonderful wit if had refrained from pursuing the course he did. It’s so difficult to escape our own times.

    I knew a few of your quotes but not all. One I do always remember is the two word put down to a fellow writer whose work he did not admire. The writer (I don’t know his name ) went up to Wilde at some social gathering and said ” Oscar there is a conspiracy of silence about my work. What should I do about it? Wilde’s answer was “Join it”.

    1. Dear Trina,
      I’m sort of amazed at how many are telling me that Oscar is a favorite. There was much more that I could have added, but it’s one post. I did not however know the wonderful “Join it” riposte. I probably still have the Ellmann biography somewhere (but where?)—I will look for it for you. Here is a very moving quote of Robert Ross (Oscar’s sometime lover and true friend to the end) shortly after Oscar’s death, which echoes your own sentiment. I should have cut something to add it:

      Later on I think everyone will recognise his achievements; his plays and essays will endure. Of course you may think with others that his personality and conversation were far more wonderful than anything he wrote, so that his written works give only a pale reflection of his power. Perhaps that is so, and of course it will be impossible to reproduce what is gone forever.
      Robert Ross, 23 December 1900

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