We can but highly recommend a magnificent biography of Oscar Wilde by the author of other excellent biographies, such as Joyce’s: Oscar Wilde, by Richard Ellmann. Ellmann offers us his profound knowledge of Wilde with the utmost credibility, unaffected by his obvious devotion towards the writer and the person. The riches and precision of the vocabulary that he employs and the vast array of facts about Wilde’s work and life give the reader a sensation of following Wilde and even being an observer of his contradictions, delights, afflictions, and, what’s more important, of his development as a human being.
Ellmann starts every chapter with a quotation of Wilde’s words and after that provides us with a thorough display of details of his writings, life, relations, joys, and misfortunes. Under this light we confirm what we could glimpse when reading every one of his books, that Wilde was pure excess, just like life, and he could not be stopped by morals, even though these could (and did) crush him. “Though he offered himself as an apostle of pleasure, his created work contains much pain” (p. xiv).
He was the best company, witty and an unequalled conversationalist, always generous with his guests and acquaintances, lovers or even strangers. He didn’t receive the same token when he was accused of immorality and sent to prison. Most of his friends abandoned him and refused to help, and the few years he lived after being in jail he was ruined. He died in exile accompanied only by a couple of friends, Reggie Turner and especially Robert Ross, who never left him. His personality and his intelligence were not fit for the times, which were but rigid and hypocritical, and nothing was more alien to Wilde, whose passion for life was endless and could not possibly be hidden.
Life or art, what comes first? Both were irresistible for Wilde, but there can be no doubt when knowing him in such depth as Ellmann does: Life is generosity and splendor, but it comes second, as it can only imitate art, and only the latter can come near perfection and is a mirror to life. Art is the true creator, and only creators can shape life. This explains why Wilde was so careful with every detail, every word he chose, every garment he wore, his hair, his surroundings, his home and its decoration, etc. Everything had to be perfect, a work of art, for life deserves no less. Morality is only a constraint and limits the creator. Only intelligence and taste can prevail. That’s why he never confined himself to one specific faith or group (he played with the idea of becoming a Christian and joined masonry at the same time!). Why not taste them all? He had to be sent to prison by the society that he had exposed to put limits to his passion for life, and that killed him. We can imagine the suffering of such sensibility imprisoned. No blue china, no champagne, no books, no words, no air. A man of his delicacy could not survive the lack of beauty and the fetid air of jail. His purity was suicidal.
“Essentially Wilde was conducting, in the most civilized way, an anatomy of his society, and a radical reconsideration of its ethics. He knew all the secrets and could expose all the pretense. Along with Blake and Nietzsche, he was proposing that good and evil are not what they seem, that moral tabs cannot cope with the complexity of behavior. His greatness as a writer is partly the result of the enlargement of sympathy which he demanded for society’s victims” (p. xiv). “We inherit his struggle to achieve supreme fictions in art, to associate art with social change, to bring together individual and social impulse, to save what is eccentric and singular from being sanitized and standardized, to replace a morality of severity by one of sympathy” (p. 553).
Wilde, we dare add, couldn’t possibly have had a more appropriate name and definitely honoured it, as Ellmann’s biography depicts with such precision and elegance.
[Poem from The Ballad of Reading Gaol]