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Oscar Wilde Remembered
by Bridget Haggerty
"My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has got to go." Those were the last words of Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde who died on November 30, 1900, in the Hotel D'Alsace, a Left Bank flophouse.
Biographers attribute his death to meningitis caused by syphilis, but on November 24th, 2000, it was reported by Reuters that South African researchers now believe his death was due to a chronic and destructive middle ear disease.
According to Dr. Ashley Robins, a psychiatrist and pharmacologist with the University of South Africa, the disease spread to the brain and eventually killed him. In a report in the Lancet Medical Journal, Robins and his colleague, Dr. Sean Sellars, propose that, despite the lack of medical evidence, the syphilis rumor persisted because it suited the scandal and controversy that surrounded the writer during and after his sensational trial for "gross indecency."
Ear infections were very common before the age of antibiotics and Wilde suffered from a particularly severe form of a disease called cholesteotoma, which worsened while he was in prison. After his release and exile to France, he apparently had an operation in his hotel room several weeks before he died.
"People have always speculated about the operation but nobody has been able to take it further," said Robins. But he and Sellars, a specialist in ear, nose and throat disease, searched through medical literature and believe it was major ear surgery - a radical mastoidectomy, to clear out the infection from the middle ear. "We haven't been able to find out who did the operation. That remains an enigma," Robins added.
In any event, Wilde's renowned wit and intellectual prowess were evident right up to his death, which makes syphilis even less likely. Tragically, while he recovered from the operation, he had a fatal relapse the following month. He was 46 years old.
Today, he is buried in the Paris cemetery of Pere Lachaise. His final resting place is an elegant art-nouveau tomb sculpted by Jacob Epstein; and his remains keep company with other famous celebrities, including Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf. As always, on the anniversary of his death, it is expected that floral tributes will flood the burial site.
Wilde was born in Dublin on October 16th, 1854; his father was an eminent surgeon and his mother a talented poet. As a boy, he was was not very popular with his class mates. He was big for his age, clumsy, and careless about his appearance. But while his sloppy dress and dirty face and hands did not endear him to either masters or pupils, it was his talent for creating appropriate, but scathing, nicknames for a good many of them that ultimately made him an outcast. In those days, the idea that he would amount to anything would have been met with derision.
He attended Trinity College in Dublin and then, in 1874, he won a scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford. There, he quickly gained a reputation for the brilliant wit and studied aestheticism which were to dominate his later work. In 1878, he won the prestigious Newdigate poetry prize for Ravenna. By 1879, he was already a minor celebrity when he settled in London, and was popular enough to be satirized by Gilbert & Sullivan in Patience, which debuted in 1881, the same year that Wilde's first book, Poems, was published. A lecture tour of America added to his renown and his notoriety - he called Niagara Falls "the bride's second disappointment." His financial position was also secured when he married the wealthy Constance Lloyd in 1884. They had two sons during a period in which he produced very little of literary merit. But then, The Happy Prince and Other Tales came out in 1888, followed by Intentions in 1891 - the same year his famous novel The Picture of Dorian Grey was published. After that, he achieved huge theatrical success with Lady Windemere's Fan, Salome, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest.
At the height of his career, judgment and common sense left him when he became intimately involved with Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas who was 16 years his junior, a poet and whose most memorable line was "I am the Love that dare not speak his name."
A living rebuke to Victorian hypocrisy, Oscar was also a gay martyr. In 1895, he was arrested in London and convicted for "committing indecent acts," based on a law passed in 1885. If uniformly enforced, it would have filled British prisons and depopulated much of Oxford, Cambridge, Eton, Harrow, Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament!
Convicted on charges of homosexuality, he was sentenced to two years hard labor at Reading Gaol. But, even at this lowest ebb in his life, his wit never left him. While waiting in a driving rain for the train to take him to prison, he quipped: "If the Queen can't treat her prisoners any better than this, she doesn't deserve to have any!"
Despite the scandal and his apparent love for another, his wife, Constance, did not divorce him; but Wilde never saw his two sons again. A week before his death he converted to Catholicism, ''the only religion to die in.''
Writes Martin Nolan, in a recent story in the Boston Globe: "In Ireland, a writer is sometimes known as a failed talker. Wilde wrote plays, he said, to support what he called his reckless extravagance. "Do you want to know the great tragedy of my life?" he said to Andre Gide. "I have put my genius into my life and only my talent into my works."
After a century, Oscar Wilde has outlived his foes and his own notoriety and he is the curator of his own legend. These lines from what is considered his best poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," are etched on his tomb:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long broken urn
For his mourners will be outcast men
And outcasts always mourn.
In his day, Wilde illuminated Europe and America through his poems, plays, and essays. A hundred and one years later, they are still being produced and read. And, his quips, quotes and epigrams still sparkle. Here are a few of our personal favorites:
"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."
"Nothing succeeds like excess."
"The truth is rarely simple and never pure."
"One should always be a little improbable."
"Time is a waste of money."
"There is no sin except stupidity."
"The well-bred contradict other people. The wise contradict themselves."
"One should always give a woman anything she can wear in the evening."
"The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it."
"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars."
"I am not English. I am Irish - which is quite another story..."
...Ah, yes Oscar, so it is!
May you rest in peace and may we also add that we agree with the cleaning lady who testified at your trial and said: "I think people should be allowed to do what they want, as long as they don't do it in the street and frighten the horses."
Thu, Dec 7, 2017
Holly and Ivy hanging up and
something wet in every cup*
Not so long ago, Irish Christmas decorations were much simpler than they are now. The children gathered holly and ivy for adorning, windows, doorways, mantles and pictures, and the father would carve out a turnip in which would be placed a large red candle. This would go in the window to light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve. Only in relatively recent times did an Irish family have a Nativity scene and a decorated tree in the house. As for Mistletoe, it's quite rare in ireland and is generally associated with ancient Celtic and Druidic fertility celebrations; this is most likely where the custom of kissing under the mistletoe comes from.
*Old Irish Christmas toast
Image: Pashley Manor Gardens.
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