Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) was an Irish writer, poet, and prominent aesthete who, after writing in different forms throughout the 1880s, became one of London’s most popular playwrights in the early 1890s. Today he is remembered for his epigrams, plays and the tragedy of his imprisonment, followed by his early death.
Wilde’s parents were successful Dublin intellectuals and from an early age he was tutored at home, where he showed his intelligence, becoming fluent in French and German. He attended boarding school for six years, then matriculated to university at seventeen years of age. Reading Greats, Wilde proved himself to be an outstanding classicist, first at Dublin, then at Oxford. His intellectual horizons were broad: he was deeply interested in the rising philosophy of aestheticism (led by two of his tutors, Walter Pater and John Ruskin) though he also profoundly explored Roman Catholicism and finally converted on his deathbed.
After university Wilde moved to London, into fashionable cultural and social circles. As a spokesman for aestheticism, he tried his hand at various literary activities; he published a book of poems, lectured America and Canada on the new “English Renaissance in Art” and then returned to London to work prolifically as a journalist for four years.
He was introduced to Constance Lloyd in 1881, daughter of Horace Lloyd, a wealthy Queen’s Counsel. He proposed to her, and they married on the 29 May 1884 at the Anglican St. James Church in Paddington in London. The couple had two sons, Cyril (1885) and Vyvyan (1886).
Known for his biting wit, flamboyant dress, and glittering conversation, Wilde was one of the best known personalities of his day. At the turn of the 1890s, he refined his ideas about the supremacy of art in a series of dialogues and essays; though it was his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which began a more lasting oeuvre. The opportunity to construct aesthetic details precisely, combined with larger social themes, drew Wilde to writing drama. He wrote Salome in French in Paris in 1891, but it was refused a licence. Unperturbed, Wilde produced four society comedies in the early 1890s, which made him one of the most successful playwrights of late Victorian London.
In mid-1891 Wilde was introduced to Alfred Douglas, an undergraduate at Oxford at the time. Known to his family and friends as “Bosie”, he was a handsome and spoilt young man. An intimate friendship sprang up between Wilde and Douglas and by 1893 Wilde was infatuated with Douglas and they consorted together regularly in a tempestuous affair.
At the height of his fame and success, whilst his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest, was still on stage in London, Wilde sued his lover’s father for libel. After a series of trials, Wilde was convicted of gross indecency with other men and imprisoned for two years, held to hard labour. In prison he wrote De Profundis, a long letter which discusses his spiritual journey through his trials, forming a dark counterpoint to his earlier philosophy of pleasure. Upon his release he left immediately for France, never to return to Ireland or Britain. There he wrote his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a long poem commemorating the harsh rhythms of prison life.
Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on 30 November 1900 destitute in Paris at the age of forty-six.