I love Oscar Wilde. I think it was him who first introduced me to the heady world of Decadence. Yes, he was the grand master of the bon mot, and yes, his society plays really are spectacular, but it’s Oscar’s darker side that really intrigues me. And it was this side that won out in the end, leading to Wilde’s spectacular fall from social grace, and his exposure as a lover of boys, resulting in his incarceration in Reading Gaol. Somewhat surprisingly for a man who has become one of the great gay icons, Wilde’s poetry mostly lacks obvious homoeroticism (his short stories and his play, Salome, are another matter, but I’ll be discussing those later). Wilde’s sometime lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, wrote far more explicit verses on the theme of gay desire. However, Oscar’s poems are filled with profound aesthetic beauty, celebrations of sensation, and bitterness towards a hypocritical society that condemns a lifestyle they do not understand. One of my particular favourites:
To drift with every passion till my soul
Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play,
Is it for this that I have given away
Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control?
Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll
Scrawled over on some boyish holiday
With idle songs for pipe and virelay,
Which do but mar the secret of the whole.
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God:
Is that time dead? Lo! But with a little rod
I did but touch the honey of romance –
And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?