What makes Oscar Wilde an Irish referent? Throughout the 18th century, Dublin underwent economic development that destroyed its stifling medieval walls and built modern bridges in their place.
Due to the Ascendancy, the city was divided between those who made the decisions and had freedom of action, and those whose position and, in general, life, was restricted to the laws of the former. On the other hand, what this Ascendancy brought with it was a deep artistic and cultural movement: many of its members had an important role in the literary context of the 19th and 20th centuries. Among them we can highlight George Bernard Shaw, Nobel prize-winning author; Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats, the initiators of the Celtic Revival movement; Somerville and Ross, Hubert Butler, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett…
In the midst of this context of construction of a cultural identity, we highlight a figure that we can undoubtedly consider as one of the greatest references in Irish literature: Oscar Wilde. He was born in Dublin, in the cradle of a family closely linked to culture, as his mother was known in 1840 for writing strident poetry and articles for The Nation. He started out studying at Trinity College but soon moved to Oxford.
Wilde as a writer
He has been described as decadent, dandy, aesthete, witty, playwright, poet, novelist, critic, public lecturer… all these various adjectives respond to each part of an artist’s soul that did not fit the molds of his predecessors. His work can be classified in the current aesthetic philosophy, which exalts and prioritizes beauty, and that we can see perfectly built in The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890). We read in the prologue of Wilde’s famous novel:
“No artist is ever morbid. The artist can express everything. Thought and language are for the artist instruments of art”
And so it is, the power that the artist has to create, to give life to the work, the work being an entity in itself. Thus, the creative individual is nothing more than the father of a concept or structure that is defined and exists as an independent system, and that has symbols and ideas to contribute to society. There is a certain interest in evading or dispensing with everyday reality, discrediting and challenging bourgeois morals and customs. This movement implies a deep philosophical reflection: for true aesthetes, being superficial and simplistic is almost like being a criminal since it is not only convenient to achieve beauty externally, but also searching the balance and inner beauty. “Beauty must be complete, imposing itself as a lifestyle and as a precept to be applied”.
Regarding his work, apart from working as a poet, playwright and novelist, he also worked as an interior decoration, a journalist and, in general, became one of the best-known personalities of his day. In 1890 he wrote his only novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, a year later he wrote Salomé, and produced four society comedies, which led him to be one of the most successful playwrights of Late-Victorian London.
Homosexuality: What has it meant in his career
As we have already mentioned, Wilde became the center of attention due to his relevant role in the literary world. In addition, his public image as a married man with two children gave him courage and authority. But the truth is that all that was just an alibi, Wilde was forced by Victorian society to cover up his homosexuality. But there was a day when the scandal broke: the Marquis of Queensberry, father of Wilde’s lover Alfred Douglas, left a malicious note at a club the writer frequented.
In this note we can read how Queensberry accuses him of being a sodomite, to which Wilde responded with a defamation complaint. This trial turned against the writer, as it became a media event that exposed his homosexuality, which meant two years of hard work in the Reading jail. This stay in prison considerably affected his health and forced him to go into exile in Paris.
Although it was a tragic episode, the author did not hide from his sexuality, giving a deep lesson to the society of the time:
“Love that dare not speak its name,” and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.”
But what is to be expected of a society that in 1885 had approved a law that defined sexual relations between men as “serious indecencies”; that imposed the personal on the professional, devaluing his life’s work; that he did not let him see his children, and that little by little he was taken away from friendships and projects.
Wilde in Ireland
The writer is honored in Dublin with a sculpture that has a beautiful story behind it. The English sculptor Danny Osborne was its creator, commissioned by the Guinness Ireland Group, as a memorial to the author. The statue was built in 1997 and was the first to commemorate Wilde, although that is not the one we can visit today since, in 2010, the first one began to crack and had to be replaced.
As for the meaning, the statue consists of Wilde’s body on a large quartz boulder that the sculptor obtained from the Wicklow Mountains, with an eye toward his old home, on the 1 Merrion Square W, Saint Peter’s, D02. In addition, the sculpture also includes two pillars positioned parallel to the body of the writer: the first one represents a pregnant woman, which corresponds to the body of Wilde’s wife, Constance Lloyd; the second one is a naked male torso, representing Dionysus, god of fertility, festivities and wine. It is seen as an icon of the cult of beauty and, for that reason, it represents both homosexuality and Wilde’s way of understanding art. He is also the patron god of theater.
It is located in a corner of the park, which makes the effect that the sculptor wanted to achieve more perfect. This effect is to give two visions of Wilde’s expression: one half of the face is smiling, and refers to the successful Wilde that everyone remembers; the other half of the face has a lost look, and refers to the broken Wilde, the one that did not fit in his time, the hidden Wilde. In addition, the sculpture is positioned in front of the writer, featuring inscriptions that are actual quotes that copy the personal handwriting of figures including Seamus Heaney, John B. Keane and Michael D. Higgins.
Oscar Wilde’s biography is very extensive and rich as he had dedicated a large part of his life cultivating his work. Thus, in conclusion, we can summarize his action in that, in addition to being a reference in the literary field, he was apart of the gay movement. In addition, his writings on politics and specifically, socialism, were very important. An example would be The Soul Man Under Socialism, which argues that capitalism crushes creativity, as people are so focused on solving their social problems caused by capitalism.
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