IN THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, Oscar Wilde wrote that “To get back my youth I would do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or be respectable.” One can pick up almost any of Wilde’s works, and find endless humorous quotes and witty observations lurking on every page. It is this great tongue-in-cheek quotability of Wilde that makes him one of my favorite writers from the nineteenth century. Visiting his grave in Paris, then, was very exciting.
Oscar Wilde, along with literally thousands of other monumental writers, artists, politicians, and thinkers, is buried at Cimetière du Père-Lachaise (“Cemetery of the Seat of the Father”), including, to name a few, Jim Morrison, Delacroix, Edith Piaf, Chopin, and Molière. On my last day in Paris, my friend and I made a pilgrimage to the cemetery.
The first part of Oscar Wilde’s life was decadent and wildly successful. Born in Dublin, he eventually attended Oxford and worked his way into English high society. He became a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement. Somewhat hedonistic, this movement urged people to make every aspect of life artistically pleasing and decadent. Pictures of Oscar Wilde reveal the degree to which he practiced this philosophy:
Wilde came to the United States in 1882 to go on a year-long lecture tour. When he was entering the country, a customs official asked him if he had any goods to declare, to which Wilde said “I have nothing to declare except my genius.” Despite the newspapers which originally mocked Wilde for his foppish appearance, he improved his lectures during the tour, and many critics took him quite seriously by its end. After the success of his America tour, Wilde went on to produce such classics as The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Ernest, The Selfish Giant, etc.
Despite his initial success and fame, Oscar Wilde ended his life surrounded by scandal and debt. After spending two years imprisoned in England after being legally attacked by the Marquess of Quensberry, Wilde left prison destroyed and sick. He was so destroyed, financially, physically, and socially, that he fled to Paris, where he still had some friends. Wilde wrote one last poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, about his two years in prison and how it ruined him. The last few stanzas are devastating:
In Reading gaol [jail] by Reading town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.
And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.
And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Still, he maintained his wit and humor even in his most harrowing days. When a surgeon told him how much a very crucial surgery would cost him, Wilde replied, “I suppose I shall have to die beyond my means.” He did die shortly thereafter, in a Paris hotel room surrounded by friends. He was subsequently buried at Père-Lachaise.
Since his death, Wilde has remained one of the most popular writers in the English language of all time. His grave, too, has become a necessary destination for his readers, and for years people have showered his tomb in affection: