“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.”
Psalms 130:1, sung in Handel’s glorious oratorio, “Messiah.”
Brilliant. Witty. Epigramist. Great conversationalist. Playwright. Short-story writer. Novelist. Poet. Essayist. Social critic. Lecturer. Book reviewer. Journalist. Magazine editor. Classicist. Scholar. Dandy. Aestheticist. Individualist. Profound. Humane.
That was Oscar Wilde, one of the greatest multi-faceted geniuses ever to have graced the planet.
He reached the height of fame in 1895 with his celebrated play in London, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” He wrote the play, “Salome,” in French, but England refused it a performance license because biblical themes were taboo.
Later Richard Strauss turned it into an opera with its erotic “Dance of the Seven Veils” and stunning image of the head of John the Baptist “served” on a platter.
Wilde’s novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” blended themes of decadence, duplicity and beauty. His essay, “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” rips society: “Democracy means bludgeoning of the people by the people” and “that monstrous and ignorant thing, public opinion.”
But all his brilliance, fame and glory crashed in tragedy: three trials hinging on homosexuality and libel, sentence to two years of hard labor in prison and exile in France.
“The love that dare not speak its name” was considered a “gross indecency” in Victorian Britain. But the real indecency was the conviction and jailing of an innocent man and a magnificent spirit.
Wilde’s friends advised him not to file suit for libel, but his poor judgment prevailed. It was the beginning of his tragic ending. Wilde writes about it and of Jesus with truth and wisdom in “De Profundis”:
• “Out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth had come a personality infinitely greater than any made of myth and legend”…“ ‘He that is without sin among you let him first cast a stone at her.’ Jesus said. It is worthwhile living to have said that.”
• “Mary Magdalene, when she sees Christ, breaks an alabaster vase that one of her seven lovers gave her and pours the sweet-smelling spices over his tired dusty feet. That moment sits forever in paradise with the biblical Ruth and Dante’s Beatrice.”
• “When I was brought down from prison, handcuffed between two policemen, a gentleman gravely raised his hat to me. A large crowd was hushed into silence by an action so fine and so simple. Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that.”
In letters to the Britain’s Daily Chronicle, Wilde laments that a prison warden was fired because he gave sweet biscuits to a starving child.
He remarks: “What is inhuman in life is officialdom. It is supposed that because a thing is the rule it is right. Justices and magistrates are an ignorant class.”
On an upbeat note, Wilde notes that the “prisoners are generally extremely kind and sympathetic toward each other.” He quotes Carlyle approvingly about “the silent charm of human companionship.”
And he is “struck by the singular kindness and humanity to me and other prisoners” of Warder Martin when he spoke.
Wilde also relates prison sorrow in his poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”: “And alien tears will fill for him / Pity’s long broken urn, / For his mourners will be outcast men / And outcasts always mourn.” These lines are engraved on Wilde’s tomb at the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
Reading assignment for next week: “De Profundis” and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. (email@example.com)