Wilde, Oscar Fingal Oflahertie Wills

Wilde, Oscar Fingal O’flahertie Wills

 

Born Oct. 16, 1854, in Dublin; died Nov. 30, 1900, in Paris. British writer and critic; Irish by nationality.

Wilde graduated from Oxford University in 1879. He achieved his first literary success with the publication of the collection Poems in 1881. Influenced by J. Ruskin’s teachings on art, Wilde became an adherent of the aesthetic movement and in his writings proclaimed the cult of beauty as an antidote to the practicality of everyday life in bourgeois society. In 1882 he undertook an extended tour of the United States, where he lectured on aesthetics. While in that country, he published Vera, or The Nihilists (Russian translation, Berlin, 1925), a revolutionary melodrama in which the young author gave vent to his rebellious spirit. The Duchess of Padua, a tragedy in verse, followed in 1883 (Russian translation by V. Briusov, 1911). After completing his travels, Wilde returned to London, where he contributed to various newspapers and journals.

In 1895, Wilde was brought to trial on a morals charge, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison. After his release in 1897, he settled in Paris. His experience, however, left a permanent mark on him. He gave testimony to his deep sufferings in the poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898; Russian translation by V. Briusov, 1915) and his prose apologia, De Profundis (published posthumously in 1905).

As an artist, Wilde identified himself with the antibourgeois current in literature and the theater. When he wrote, at the end of the 19th century, British bourgeois society was suffering from a general malaise brought on in part by ideological and social conflicts. Although Wilde was influenced to a degree by socialism, as evidenced by his essay “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891), he remained essentially the aesthete who lived primarily for art. Art, he held, is not only valuable in and of itself, it is a fundamental part of life. His espousal of “art for art’s sake, ” however, brought him close to decadent aestheticism. Yet Wilde’s work, on the whole, is not without social significance. His early poetry, strongly influenced by French symbolism, is largely recherché, full of literary allusions; but his later works are concerned with social themes. In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, for example, the decadent theme of love in the face of death is modulated by the poet’s compassion.

Wilde wrote fairy tales, such as “The Happy Prince” and “The Star-Child, ” and prose poems, which are distinguished for their lyricism and elevated style and content. In two short stories, “The Canterville Ghost” and “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime, ” he gave free rein to the wit and irony for which he was famous. The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), an example of the intellectual novel of the late 19th century, shows the brilliant stylist at his best, especially in the homily on amorality that Lord Henry Wot-ton, a principal character in the novel, is made to deliver. The author himself, however, observes that the cult of beauty and the pursuit of pleasure do not necessarily lead to a rejection of true morality—an observation ignored by the novel’s first readers, who regarded the work as a defense of aesthetic amorality.

Wilde’s tragedies The Duchess of Padua, Salome (1893; published originally in French), and A Florentine Tragedy (1895; published in 1908, unfinished) constitute attempts by the poet to revive the drama of grand passions. Wilde’s comedies of manners, on the other hand, have an entirely different character, being full of witty paradoxes and epigrams on the mores of the ruling classes. Among them are Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1892), and The Importance of Being Earnest (produced in 1895; published in 1899). Social criticism animates An Ideal Husband (1895), a comedy intended to expose the nefarious methods employed by bourgeois careerists.

During the 1880’s, Wilde wrote several critical essays, later collected and published under the title Intentions (1891), that dealt with the works of contemporary British writers who were close to him, among them W. Morris, W. Pater, and C. A. Swinburne. He held a high opinion of folk songs and admired the poetry of P. J. de Béranger. As a critic, Wilde expressed profound respect for the artistic mastery of H. de Balzac, L. N. Tolstoy, I. S. Turgenev, and F. M. Dostoevsky.

WORKS

Complete Works. London-Glasgow, 1966.
Critical Writings. London, 1970.
The Letters. Edited by R. Hart-Davis. London, 1962.
The Critical Heritage. Edited by K. Beckson. London [1970].
In Russian translation:
Poln. sobr. soch., vols. 1–4. Edited by K. I. Chukovskii. St. Petersburg, 1912.
Izbr. proizv., vols. 1–2. Moscow, 1960.
P’esy. Moscow, 1960.

REFERENCES

Istoriia angliiskoi literatury, vol. 3. Moscow, 1958.
Chukovskii, K. “Oskar Uail’d.” In his book Liudi i knigi. Moscow, 1960. Pages 625–70.
Harris, F. Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, vols. 1–2. New York, 1918.
Pearson, H. Oscar Wilde: His Life and Wit. London-New York, 1946.
San Juan, E. The Art of Oscar Wilde. Princeton, N.J., 1967.
Mason, S. Bibliography of Oscar Wilde [2nd ed.]. London [1967].
A. A. ANIKST