Epitaph: Oscar Wilde
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
(from Wilde’s poem, The Battle of Reading Goal)
Dear Mr Wilde,
As much as I appreciated: The Picture of Dorian Grey, you’re a difficult man to fathom. Indeed, it seems you even had trouble finding yourself:
“The final mystery is oneself. When one has weighed the sun in the balance, and measured the steps of the moon, and mapped out the seven heavens star by star, there still remains oneself. Who can calculate the orbit of his own soul?”
― Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
So, I won’t presume to know you. Or, what made you tick. After all, we’ve never met and I can’t linger now. I’m on a very tight schedule writing Letters to Dead Poets…an Express Train from A-Z with very limited stops. So, I can’t read all there is to know, juggle all the facts and delve into the semantics to become your expert. That is someone else’s journey. Instead, I am a stranger simply passing through.
Yet, I have brought you a cafe au lait.
On my way, I popped into the Café de la Paix. When I mentioned your name, like a miracle your golden angel appeared through the mist, floating in the middle of the square. Such an incredible fusion of serendipity and science, yet only a reflection. What does it mean? I don’t believe in coincidence, do you?
My deepest apologies, I couldn’t afford Le Grand Brunch. However, I “secured” a Cafe au Lait. Knowing how you waxed lyrically about the virtues of decadent indulgence, I thought you’d like to try a Tim Tam Explosion. You simply bite off the opposite corners and use the biscuit like a straw. Even if you’ve discovered restraint, you’ll never stop at one! Just make sure it doesn’t fall in. Take it from me, it’s such a waste.
Even by my audacious standards, I know I’m being incredibly presumptuous assuming that we’ve already moved onto coffee, and even Tim Tams. However, I must carpe diem seize the day. A train waits for no one.
Alright! Alright! No need to get so impatient! I thought I was the one asking the questions. Yet, you persist!
“What are you doing here? If you’re in such a damned hurry, why did you bother coming here at all?”
Well, Mr Wilde, I’m sorry. Out of all the dead poets, I thought you’d be most thrilled to arrive in the 21st Century. Was I wrong?
Anyway, back to your question, I don’t know why I am here. Indeed, not being one for peacock plumes, I’m struggling to find much common ground.
Yet, I’m also struggling to find myself. Indeed, this has become a never-ending quest. That search for meaning, which takes each of us down that solitary road. That is, if we have the guts to escape the hubbub, listen to the wind and keep trekking down “the road not taken”.
“Nature….she will hang the night stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send word the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.”
― Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
Anyway, back to your question, I’m simply here retracing my steps.
When I last visited your grave in July 1992, I was a 22 year old backpacker staying at the Hotel Henri IV with my friends. After leaving Paris and settling down in Heidelberg, a friend sent me a letter from Paris. She not only encouraged me to pursue my writing, she’d also copied out a letter that she’d found at your grave. It was a lengthy quote from “The Preface” to A Picture of Dorian Grey.
I’d done a poetry reading at the Shakespeare Bookshop a few weeks beforehand and indeed a friend’s mother had sent me a letter addressed to: “Rowena: Poet in Residence in Paris”. Yet, a potent combination of heartbreak and existential angst, had grabbed me by both ankles and dragged me deep down into the murkiest depths of the River Seine.
That’s the side of Paris no one warns you about. That the City of Love has another face and is equally the City of Heartbreak, disillusionment and despair.
Turning back the clock to 1900, you and your beloved Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, were dining at Café de la Paix. After the death of his father, he’d inherited a fortune. Shamed and penniless, you turned to him for help at the height of your suffering. Yet, in a brutal act of betrayal, he refused to help.
In a letter to Robert “Robbie” Ross, you wrote:
I asked Bosie what you suggested – without naming any sum at all – after dinner. He had just won £ 400 at the races, and £ 800 a few days before, so he was in high spirits. When I spoke to him he went into paroxysms of rage, followed by satirical laughter, and said it was the most monstrous suggestion he had ever heard, that he would do nothing of the kind, that he was astounded at my suggesting such a thing, that he did not recognise I had any claim of any kind on him. He was really revolting: I was quite disgusted. I told Frank Harris about it, and he was greatly surprised: but made the wise observation “One should never ask for anything: it is always a mistake.” He said I should have got someone to sound Bosie, and ask him for me. I had also the same idea, but you did not seem to like the prospect of a correspondence with Bosie where money was concerned, and I am not surprised.
It is a most horrible and really heart-breaking affair. When I remember his letters at Dieppe, his assurances of eternal devotion, his entreaties that I should always live with him, his incessant offers of all his life and belongings, his desire to atone in some way for the ruin he and his family brought on me – well, it sickens me, it gives me nausea.
The affair occurred in the Café de la Paix, SO, of course, I made no scene. I said that if he did not recognise my claim there was nothing more to be said.
On the other hand, in what could be called: The Tale of Two Men, Robert Ross not only stood by you but looked after you and your family well beyond death without any personal gain. He remained your friend.
TO R. R.
ON REREADING THE “DE PROFUNDIS” OF OSCAR WILDE
He stood alone, despairing and forsaken:
Alone he stood, in desolation bare;
From him avenging powers e’en hope had taken:
He looked,—and thou wast there!
Why hadst thou come? Not profit, no: nor pleasure,
Nor any faint desire of selfish gain,
Had moved thee, giving of thy heart’s pure treasure,
To share a culprit’s pain.
In that drear place, as thou hadst lonely waited
To greet with noble friendship one who came
Handcuffed from prison, pointed at, and hated,
Bowed low in mortal shame,
No thought hadst thou of any special merit,
So simple, natural, seemed that action fine
Which kept alive, in a despairing spirit,
The spark of the divine,
And taught a dying soul that love is deathless,
Even as when its holiest accents fell
Upon a woman’s heart who listened, breathless,
By a Samarian well.
Florence Earle Coates
Yet, while you were involved with these men you were married to Constance Lloyd, the mother of your two sons. She the boys changed their name to Holland and fled to Genoa. Yet, she paid you an allowance and when your mother died, you write: “My wife, always kind and gentle to me, rather than that I should hear the news from indifferent lips, travelled, ill as she was, all the way from Genoa to England to break to me herself the tidings of so irreparable, so irremediable, a loss.”
In De Profundis, you wrote about your family:
“Her death was terrible to me; but I, once a lord of language, have no words in which to express my anguish and my shame. She and my father had bequeathed me a name they had made noble and honoured, not merely in literature, art, archaeology, and science, but in the public history of my own country, in its evolution as a nation. I had disgraced that name eternally. I had made it a low by-word among low people. I had dragged it through the very mire. I had given it to brutes that they might make it brutal, and to fools that they might turn it into a synonym for folly.”
Relationships are so complex.
So, there you were at the very end dying at the l’hôtel d’Alsace on rue des Beaux Arts you were not alone but you had lost your world.
However, I have to ask: In losing your world, did you somehow find yourself? Find out why you were here? Or, does it matter?
For me, it does. Although I might never find all the answers, the questions guide my path like stars in the sky.
Moreover, as Helen Keller wrote:
Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.’
Thought I just heard you mumble something about wanting more Tim Tams, so I’d better find another packet. Don’t go anywhere. I promise I’ll be back.
PS I forgot to mention that only two months after your death on 30th November, 1900, your beloved Queen Victoria finally passed away on the 22nd January, 1901. Obviously, your death was the final tipping point and she finally succumbed to grief.