Oscar Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900) was an Irish playwright, poet and author, notable for such works as Lady Windermere’s Fan, The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray. He was a celebrity of the Victorian era and rose to fame not only for the books, plays and poems that he wrote, but also for the extravagant, bohemian lifestyle that he chose to lead at odds with the cultural orthodoxy at the time. He was well equipped to reach such a position as he had immense natural wit and was known to be a great conversationalist and raconteur.
His sense of humour was also famous and has remained so right up to the present with his love of absinthe being represented amongst them. Wilde famously described the various stages of absinthe thus: “After the first glass you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, and that is the most horrible thing in the world.” It is no wonder that he enjoyed the taste of the Green Fairy, no self-respecting bohemian active during his heyday could have done otherwise. Wilde moved to France between February and May in 1983 and while there he wrote a play called Salome in French, it was surely while staying here that he developed a taste for the drink.
Wilde became acquainted with fellow English poet Ernest Dowson who was also a fan of absinthe. Once after hearing someone criticise Dowson for his drinking Wilde replied, “If he didn’t drink, he would be somebody else. Personality must be accepted for what it is. You mustn’t mind that a poet is a drunk, rather that drunks are not always poets.”
Like many of his contemporaries of the era, Oscar Wilde chose to lead a life of aestheticism and debauchery, both of which helped to influence the works he produced. Wilde went to America to tour and give lectures on the subject of asceticism which were very successful as the crowds he drew were attracted to his charm and wit. While appreciating life’s natural beauty one day he compared it to his favourite drink claiming: “A glass of absinthe is as poetical as anything in the world, what difference is there between a glass of absinthe and a sunset.” After his achievements in America he eventually moved back to London where he met and later married Constance Lloyd with whom he had two children. Constance was an heiress and was given a comfortable allowance by her father, however this was seldom enough for the extravagant lifestyle which the two lived.
Although their family life was happy, as is now commonly known, Wilde was a homosexual.
Fortunately for Wilde, his natural inclination to belong to the more unorthodox areas of Victorian society meant that dealing with his sexuality was not too difficult for him. However, it was still at odds with what was considered decent and natural by most people at the time and his love affair with the young aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas was to lead to one of the darker periods of his life. Although by now Wilde’s propensity to act extravagantly was already well known, Douglas, who had a reputation to be an extremely spoilt individual, acted-up in public to the point of recklessness. By this point, Wilde was now extremely successful financially, earning around £100 a week just for his play-writing and was therefore easily suited to playing the sugar daddy to the spoilt rich kid. Such an affair was certain to end badly, particularly considering that the father of his young lover was none other than the Marquess of Queensbury, the inventor of the modern rules of boxing. One day the Marquess confronted Wilde at his home for the purpose of a fight, later claiming that his opponent had acted in a cowardly manner.
This violent confrontation was not enough to satisfy the Marquess who later sent Wilde a letter accusing him of being a sodomite, a felony at the time. Wilde proceeded to take the Marquess to court on a charge of criminal libel. However, in his defence the Marquess hired a team of detectives who uncovered all the lurid details of his son’s affair. After losing his case, Wilde was bankrupted through having to cover the Marquess’s legal costs and was immediately after prosecuted by the crown on a charge of sodomy and found guilty receiving a sentence of two years hard labour.
After being freed, Wilde went to live in Paris where he could restart his previous love affair with absinthe while forgetting the pain of his time in London to where he was never to return. Although his peacock spirit was dulled by imprisonment and the rejection of a society that had previously been thrilled by his dazzling talent and personality his spirit wasn’t entirely crushed as he kept his sense of humour to the end: in his last few days Wilde exclaimed “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death, One of us has to go!”