Oscar Wilde, having written that “life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about,” might have appreciated his mythologized status on Uncyclopedia, “The Content-Free Encyclopedia,” where his wit is memorialized as a series of fake quotations and humorous biographical falsehoods, but the real story of the Irish poet and playwright is nearly as impressive in its outrageousness.
Wilde is best known for his comedies of error (The Importance of Being Earnest being the most acclaimed example) and for the sodomy trial that sent him to prison and contributed to his death at age 46. He began his writing career with a book of poetry, branching out into editorship of a women’s magazine; his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray; essays on the aesthetic movement (a philosophy that sought to divorce artistic merit from political and social criticism); a book of children’s stories called The Happy Prince; and his beloved plays. His lecture circuits took him across the UK and into the US, where he famously met Walt Whitman and bragged about kissing him.
Though never famous for his sense of decorum, Wilde’s homosexual exploits did not land him in any serious trouble until he developed a relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, aka “Bosie”, the son of the Marquis of Queensberry. Queensberry, best known for inventing the modern rules of boxing, took issue with Bosie’s decadent lifestyle, and left a letter for Wilde accusing him of “posing as a Somdomite [sic].” The allegation – and possibly its lamentable spelling – drove Wilde into a fury, and he initiated a private prosecution against Queensberry for criminal libel. Since the initial allegation was true, Wilde found himself in an awkward place when he was called to the stand, and was forced to retract the accusation under threat of male prostitutes he had visited being called to testify against him. A warrant for his arrest for sodomy and gross indencency was issued, and he lost his trial, receiving the maximum sentence of two years’ hard labor; the 50,000 word letter he composed to Bosie during his incarceration titled De Profundis (Latin for ‘Out of the Depths’) was later published.
After he was released, Wilde traveled to Paris, where he reunited with Bosie until their families threatened to cut off funds. He developed cerebral meningitis and died alone in a hotel. Though he was initially buried in the Cimetière de Bagneux outside Paris, his remains were later transferred to Père Lachaise Cemetery, inside the city proper, and outfitted with a large tomb featuring a modernist angel, whose oversized genitalia were later stolen. A tradition sprang up near the end of the 20th Century of visitors planting lipstick-enhanced kisses on Wilde’s tomb, though a wall of glass, erected in 2011, has put a stop to the practice.
Because he married and expressed affection for his wife, Constance, there remains some controversy as to whether Wilde was gay or bisexual; however, he preferred the term Socratic to describe his sexuality, linking him to the Classical Greek tradition of pederasty, the erotic and – in his view – pedagogical relationship between an older and younger man.