“Morality does not help me. I am a born antinomian.* I am one
of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws. But while I
see that there is nothing wrong in what one does, I see that
there is something wrong in what one becomes. It is well that I
have learned this.”
* = “antinomian”: one who rejects a socially established morality.
Oscar Wilde’s Demise
So wrote Oscar Wilde in March of 1897 in an exceptionally long letter to Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde died of cerebral meningitis on
today’s date one hundred and twelve years ago – November 30, 1900. The letter was posted from “H.M. Prison, Reading”. It was there that the celebrated writer, poet and dramatist was confined following his conviction on charges of sodomy. It was Wilde’s close relationship with Lord Douglas (pictured, above – whom he called “Bosie”) that led to his downfall at the hands of the younger man’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury (author of the famous boxing rules). Bosie is believed to be the basis for the title character in Wilde’s novel “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. The story tells of a very handsome young man who sees the inner-decay of his soul reflected in an oil painting which grows progressively more hideous with each passing day. That character has an older mentor who early in the story declares:
“I like persons better than principles, and I like persons with no principles better than anything else in the world.”
Oscar Wilde and “Bosie”
It was during this time in prison that Wilde wrote the 50,000-word letter to Douglas from which a small fragment is quoted above. He was not allowed to send it while he was still a prisoner, but he did give it to an associate after his release with instructions to take it to Lord Douglas, but Douglas denied ever having received it. It’s first complete publication came in 1962 with the publication of “The Letters of Oscar Wilde” from which it was quoted for this posting.
The Wit of Oscar Wilde
Wilde was known for his flowing wit, but one of his best moments came with two simple words in an exchange recorded by Barbara Tuchman:
“Since the death of Tennyson in 1895, the post (of Poet Laureate of England) had remained vacant….(many of the would-be) candidates were mediocrities, one of whom, Sir Lewis Morris, offered an opening to what a contemporary called ‘the most spontaneously witty thing ever uttered in England’. Morris, who wanted the Laureateship badly, complained to Oscar Wilde, ‘There is a conspiracy of silence against me, a conspiracy of silence. What ought I to do, Oscar?’
‘Join it.’ replied Wilde.”
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“The Letters of Oscar Wilde” Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1962; p. 468.
“Oscar Wilde. a Certain Genius” by Barbara Belford, Random House, New York,2000; pp. 305-06.
“The Proud Tower” by Barbara Tuchman, Macmillan Co., 1966, Folio Society edition, 1997; p. 32.
Image of Wilde: