Life Wisdom From Oscar Wilde On His Birthday

Alas, he is long dead. Helpfully, he wrote a lot of the good stuff down.

1. On this day in 1854, in Dublin, Ireland, a baby was born. It was named Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde.

Pictured here is a different baby, but no matter.

2. Within 46 years, that baby had become a man, suffered, made literature, and died.

Napoleon Sarony

He wrote many poems, essays, letters, and stories.

In The Soul of Man Under Socialism, he wrote, “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.”

3. He seems to have spent a lot of time lounging around and thinking things over.

Library of Congress

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma,” he once said. “In the afternoon — well, I put it back again.”

But don’t get the wrong idea: as a writer he was very productive. The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, a hefty paperback, is 1,216 pages long.

4. He was brilliant and hilarious.

This is a sculpture of him in Dublin’s Archbishop Ryan Park.

In The Critic As Artist, he wrote, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”

5. The brilliance and hilarity just kept coming.

Wilde, “Fancy Portrait” (Punch cartoon, 1892)

Here’s an exchange of dialogue from Lady Windermere’s Fan:

LORD DARLINGTON: Ah, what a fascinating Puritan you are, Lady Windermere!
LADY WINDERMERE: The adjective was unnecessary, Lord Darlington.
LORD DARLINGTON: I couldn’t help it. I can resist everything except temptation.
LADY WINDERMERE: You have the modern affectation of weakness.
LORD DARLINGTON: It’s only an affectation, Lady Windermere.

6. At least one famous artist painted his portrait.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Portrait of Oscar Wilde, 1895

Now here’s an exchange from The Importance of Being Earnest:

JACK: Well, I won’t argue about the matter. You always want to argue about things.
ALGERNON: That is exactly what things were originally made for.
JACK: Upon my word, if I thought that, I’d shoot myself … . (A pause.) You don’t think there is any chance of Gwendolen becoming like her mother in about a hundred and fifty years, do you, Algy?
ALGERNON: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.
JACK: Is that clever?
ALGERNON: It is perfectly phrased! And quite as true as any observation in civilized life should be.
JACK: I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays. You can’t go anywhere without meeting clever people. The thing has become an absolute public nuisance. I wish to goodness we had a few fools left.
ALGERNON: We have.
JACK: I should extremely like to meet them. What do they talk about?
ALGERNON: The fools? Oh! About the clever people, of course.
JACK: What fools.

7. And Stephen Fry has played him in a movie.

YouTube

Wilde’s modernness made him a target for Victorian homophobia. He found himself prosecuted for “gross indecency” and sent to prison. Here’s a scene showing his response to the prosecutor.

The movie Wilde, one of several about Wilde, also starred Jude Law, Michael Sheen, Vanessa Redgrave, and Tom Wilkinson. Not bad, not bad.

8. His work has inspired exquisite Art Nouveau…

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley, 1894.

“It is not wise to find symbols in everything that one sees,” says Herod in Wilde’s Salomé. “It makes life too full of terrors.”

9. …and freaky vintage pulp paperbacks.

“Nothing can cure the soul but the senses,” observes one character in The Picture of Dorian Gray, “just as nothing can cure the senses but the soul.”

Both the senses and the soul may be troubled after studying this image for too long.

10. His wisdom is enduring and versatile.

In Wilde’s play A Woman of No Importance, Lady Hunstanton says, “I don’t believe in women thinking too much. Women should think in moderation, as they should do all things in moderation.” To which Lord Illingworth replies, “Moderation is a fatal thing, Lady Hunstanton. Nothing succeeds like excess.”

But you can see how people might enjoy repurposing these lines to be about drinking instead of thinking.

11. Hence the frequent smooching of his gravestone.

In the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris.

“Death must be so beautiful,” says the ghost in his short story The Canterville Ghost. “To lie in the soft brown earth, with the grasses waving above one’s head, and listen to silence. To have no yesterday, and no tomorrow. To forget time, to forget life, to be at peace.”

Not long before his death in Paris on November 30, 1900, Wilde is reported to have said, “This wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. Either it goes or I do.”

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