You came to me to learn the Pleasure of Life and the Pleasure of Art. Perhaps I am chosen to teach you something much more wonderful, the meaning of Sorrow, and its beauty.
– Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
In 1891 Oscar Wilde met Lord Alfred Douglas in the architectural jewel-town of Rouen. Douglas was a 21 year old Oxford undergraduate and talented poet who was familiar with Dorian Gray, and Wilde was an Irish playwright married with two sons, but the connection was patent: they swung full-throttle into a tempestuous and scandalous love-affair.
Douglas was a selfish, spoilt ‘mummy’s boy’ who spent his money on gambling and a harem of boys, he was always in feud with his father, and undoubtedly he was difficult to love, but the and Wilde both shared a fascination with schoolboys, and each other, and decadence, manifesting a ‘lad’s love’ members-only-club where they penned sonnets and smoked pipes, and wrapped themselves up in the charm of Uranian poetry.
London is a desert without your dainty feet… Write me a line and take all my love — now and for ever. Always, and with devotion — but I have no words for how I love you. Oscar
Douglas predominately wrote Uranian poetry, which was used as a modem to include homosexual gender variant females, construing a voice that refers to the third sex, someone with ‘a female psyche in a male body’ who is sexually attracted to men. English advocates used it to liberate themselves from the homosexual strait-jackets on sale during the Victorian era. In 1898 Wilde wrote ‘to have altered my life would have been to have admitted that Uranian love is ignoble. I hold it to be noble – more noble than any other forms’.
According to Plato’s Symposium (the Ancient Greek origin of the concept of platonic love) there are two accounts of Aphrodite’s birth; one is that the Goddess of Love is created from Zeus and Dione, (the more modern assumption) and one is that she was born from Uranus (the Heavens) and so ‘the female has no part’ in this birthing – basically highlighting the dichotomy between ‘common’ and ‘heavenly’ love. Douglas and Wilde finally had a place that they could house their love, a language that they could communicate in and a creative process they could systematise to suit their desires:
You send me a very nice poem, of the undergraduate school of verse, for my approval: I reply by a letter of fantastic literary conceits [reproduced above]: I compare you to Hylas, or Hyacinth, Jonquil or Narcisse, or someone whom the great god of Poetry favoured, and honoured with his love. The letter is like a passage from one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, transposed to a minor key. It can only be understood by those who have read the Symposium of Plato, or caught the spirit of a certain grave mood made beautiful for us in Greek marbles. It was, let me say frankly, the sort of letter I would, in a happy if wilful moment, have written to any graceful young man of either University who had sent me a poem of his own making, certain that he would have sufficient wit or culture to interpret rightly its fantastic phrases.
Wilde’s struggle for his own autonomy and individualism became a theme in his plays, he wrestled with his own need for radical personal freedom and a need for society itself to be radically different, the first being inseparable from the second. He set out to demystify the prevailing order of stern social conduct and tried to transgress the constraints of culture (nature versus reality) and break away from the slavery of custom. For Wilde, although desire is deeply at odds with society in its existing forms, it does not exist as a pre-social authenticity: it is always within, and informed by, the discrimination which it also transgresses.
The love that Wilde and Douglas shared was still, as Wilde infamously wrote in his poem ‘Two Loves’, a love that dared not speak its name let alone scream its name from the rooftops of raging queens, so suspicions of sin and sodomy flared up in their immediate environment. People started to gossip and Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry began a public execution of Wilde after being outraged by the oddity of his son and the company he choice to keep. Douglas came from a long line of chronically vicious and violent mad-men, brutes who brawled in streets and slit their own throats in suicide. The hereditary of malicious temperament continues here as his father wrote to Douglas:
Secondly, I come to the more painful part of this letter—your intimacy with this man Wilde. It must either cease or I will disown you and stop all money supplies. I am not going to try and analyze this intimacy, and I make no charge; but to my mind to pose as a thing is as bad as to be it. With my own eyes I saw you both in the most loathsome and disgusting relationship as expressed by your manner and expression. Never in my experience have I ever seen such a sight as that in your horrible features. No wonder people are talking as they are. Also I now hear on good authority, but this may be false, that his wife is petitioning to divorce him for sodomy and other crimes. Is this true, or do you not know of it? If I thought the actual thing was true, and it became public property, I should be quite justified in shooting him at sight. These Christian English cowards and men, as they call themselves, want waking up.
Your disgusted so-called father,
The trial was an ongoing attack fuelled by gossip, stone throwing and name calling, Douglas’s father called Wilde a ‘sodomite’, and he fought back with no avail against hired detectives, de-constructed love-letters as texts and young male prostitutes speaking up of his shame. At the screening of The Importance of Being Earnest rotten vegetables were thrown at Wilde, he was booed and hissed, spat at and cursed at, and in 1895 the case of gross indecency went to trial. After only four years of union and writing and love and decadence he was arrested and sentenced to two years of hard labour, sadly just at the pinnacle of his fame and success.
Wilde didn’t have much chance to enjoy the life he filled to the brim before depression and poverty took hold, who could proudly revel in love that was surrounded by so much stigma, a love that was deemed a crime then, one Wilde was imprisoned for, and one which forced Douglas into exile. It was during the course of their affair that Wilde wrote Salome and the four great plays which to this day rest as the cornerstones of his legacy. Wilde wrote to Douglas: ‘We have known each other now for more than four years. Half of the time we have been together: the other half I have had to spend in prison as the result of our friendship’ – and then prison destroyed his health, his will power and even his stunted his creative growth.
One of the greatest, gruelling and heartfelt literary pieces that highlights his gift for intellectualism, his courage and his despair that surfaced from this tragedy was De Profundis (‘out of the depths’) a long letter Wilde wrote to Douglas from prison. Wilde tries to make sense of man on the brink in isolation: the art of expiation and the experience of suffering, the tradition of failure and a conscious renunciation of tradition as focused on in the depth model of identity and placement of desire. He invested suffering with the experience of meaning, and this within a confessional narrative whose aim was always a deepened self-awareness – ‘I could not bear my sufferings to be without meaning’. Wilde continued….
No matter what your conduct to me was I always felt that at heart you really did love me. Though I saw quite clearly that my position in the world of Art, the interest my personality had always excited, my money, the luxury in which I lived, the thousand and one things that went to make up a life so charmingly, and so wonderfully improbable as mine was, were, each and all of them, elements that fascinated you and made you cling to me; yet besides all this there was something more, some strange attraction for you: you loved me far better than you loved anybody else. But you, like myself, have had a terrible tragedy in your life, though one of an entirely opposite character to mine. Do you want to learn what it was? It was this. In you Hate was always stronger than Love. Your hatred of your father was of such stature that it entirely outstripped, o’erthrew, and overshadowed your love of me. There was no struggle between them at all, or but little; of such dimensions was your Hatred and of such monstrous growth. You did not realise that there is no room for both passions in the same soul. They cannot live together in that fair carven house. Love is fed by the imagination, by which we become wiser than we know, better than we feel, nobler than we are: by which we can see Life as a whole: by which, and by which alone, we can understand others in their real as in their ideal relations. Only what is fine, and finely conceived, can feed Love. But anything will feed Hate. There was not a glass of champagne you drank, not a rich dish you ate of in all those years, that did not feed your Hate and make it fat. So to gratify it, you gambled with my life, as you gambled with my money, carelessly, recklessly, indifferent to the consequence. If you lost, the loss would not, you fancied, be yours. If you won, yours you knew would be the exultation, and the advantages of victory. . . .
– Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
But no matter how much they loved each other they embodied that romantic paradox that serves as a curse, no matter how much heartfelt swoon and tender care surfaced, even with the friendship that remained steadfast and gripping: they continued to hurt each other out of spite, peer pressure, and protection of themselves.
Our ill-fated and most lamentable friendship has ended in ruin and public infamy for me, yet the memory of our ancient affection is often with me, and the thought that loathing, bitterness and contempt should for ever take that place in my heart once held by love is very sad to me: and you yourself will, I think, feel in your heart that to write to me as I lie in the loneliness of prison-life is better than to publish my letters without my permission or to dedicate poems to me unasked, though the world will know nothing of whatever words of grief or passion, of remorse or indifference you may choose to send as your answer or your appeal. . . .
But most of all I blame myself for the entire ethical degradation I allowed you to bring on me. The basis of character is will-power, and my will-power became absolutely subject to yours. It sounds a grotesque thing to say, but it is none the less true. Those incessant scenes that seemed to be almost physically necessary to you, and in which your mind and body grew distorted and you became a thing as terrible to look at as to listen to: that dreadful mania you inherit from your father, the mania for writing revolting and loathsome letters: your entire lack of any control over your emotions as displayed in your long resentful moods of sullen silence, no less than in the sudden fits of almost epileptic rage.
– Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
Douglas was Wilde’s literary muse, his evil genius, his restless lover, and together they make one of history’s greatest creative and intellectual power couples. Beloved of Wilde, betrayed by Wilde, betrayer of Wilde, Douglas raged at his fate and grew more vindictive in his disputes. Despite this, and all the arguing and blame-throwing, the men decided to reunite and try again after all the ‘wide abysses now of space and land’ between them.
My own Darling Boy,
I got your telegram half an hour ago, and just send a line to say that I feel that my only hope of again doing beautiful work in art is being with you. It was not so in the old days, but now it is different, and you can really recreate in me that energy and sense of joyous power on which art depends. Everyone is furious with me for going back to you, but they don’t understand us. I feel that it is only with you that I can do anything at all. Do remake my ruined life for me, and then our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world.
I wish that when we met at Rouen we had not parted at all. There are such wide abysses now of space and land between us. But we love each other. Goodnight, dear. Ever yours,
After a few months of trying to reignite the friendship and love-affair, against all the warnings from their friends and loved ones, they reunited in Rouen then moved to Naples for a fresh start.
How can you keep on asking is Lord Alfred Douglas in Naples? You know quite well he is — we are together. He understands me and my art, and loves both. I hope never to be separated from him. He is a most delicate and exquisite poet, besides — far the finest of all the young poets in England. You have got to publish his next volume; it is full of lovely lyrics, flute-music and moon-music, and sonnets in ivory and gold. He is witty, graceful, lovely to look at, lovable to be with. He has also ruined my life, so I can’t help loving him — it is the only thing to do.
Oscar Wilde, Selected Letters of Oscar Wilde
Isn’t that the absolute ideal in companionship, that one creative soul can unite with another? But it simply wasn’t enough, Douglas had promised to use funds from his father’s estate to support them both, and his growing reluctancy to this commitment raised alarm in Wilde, he was given hand outs instead and all the monetary disputes only split the men’s relationship at the seams. With all the pressures the distance, the financial bickering, the punishments, the hearsay and the passing of time, the two separated and went on crusading different paths.
Douglas grew vicious and hateful of Wilde, he protested that he suffered more than his lover, he regretted helping him with translations or ever supporting him at all, he was disgusted and condemned him for his homosexuality. Wilde returned to Paris to live out the rest of his days, impoverished and dampened, and Douglas moved to England in late 1898.
Douglas wastefully channelled his literary talent into magazines towards campaigning against Wilde. He seemed to have an inherent hatred that needed ventilating and took to the stand to declare Wilde ‘the greatest force of evil that has appeared in Europe during the last 350 years’‘. He dedicated the rest of his life to getting caught up in a series of libels and law suites, and after a clash with Churchill and endless conspiracies, he was sentenced to six months in prison. His health deteriorated with the conditions of incarceration and his characteristic temperament of frailty and fragility didn’t help him recover. Echoing Wilde he wrote In Excelsis (‘in the highest’), his last poetic major work. And later after Wilde’s death, he married and had a son, then in 1945 aged 74 years old Douglas died of congestive heart failure and is now buried in the Franciscan Monastry in Crawly, Sussex.
Oscar Wilde was Oxford-educated: he was suckled on the Greats and his parentage was of Dublin intellectuals. He had lectured on English Renaissance in Art, was taught by John Ruskin, and was known for his glorious and flamboyant dress (velvet knee-breeches and frilly shirts mostly), praised for his caustic charm and clinquant conversations. But after the tragedy of punishment in prison, a punishment that acted in depth upon the heart, he ended up being released in ill health, and he grew weary, with no energies to write. It was suggested that his intellectualism was that of a diseased mind, that he had corrupted and contaminated the wholesome, manly, simple ideals of English life with his abnormal perversions. He was sanctioned and crushed, swept to the margins and left to further decay. Wilde’s centering and de-centering of desire and transgressive aesthetic that manifested in the intellectual mainstream caused him poverty and deprivation, and essentially caused him his life, a life that describes a perfect tragic parabola.
‘The only people I would care to be with now are writers and people who have suffered: those who know what beauty is, and those who know what sorrow is: nobody else interests me.’
– Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
He spent the last three years of his remarkable entity swaggering through Europe and staying in cheap hotel rooms, unable to resuscitate his ingenuous creative grasp, injured by the punishment of love, existing as a evidence that society knows how to dispose of man. He was broken, humiliated and had lost his will, nothing remained in his ‘shattered life but the mournful musty odour of what he had been‘ (De Profundis). Wilde died of cerebral meningitis in 1900 aged 46 years old, his remains are buried in a tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, smeared in lipstick kisses and offerings from a fanfare of pilgrims fascinated by his life and writings – his epitaph beautifully reads:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.