“Weird Lover Wilde”
I had already seen pictures of Jacob Epstein’s memorial to Oscar Wilde – a 10-ton male angel “flying” over Oscar’s grave. It was paid for by an “anonymous lady in admiration of the poet”. When first erected in 1909 it caused quite an uproar due to its rather large member, which the cemetery authorities soon covered with a discreet plaque in the shape of a fig-leaf. In 1922, it was hacked off – probably by students, although there is a rumour that the cemetery director uses it as a paperweight…
I duly stood at the front and took my own unremarkable version of the image that has been reproduced so many times. On wandering round to the back of the monument though, I was surprised to find the step littered with flowers and little messages to Oscar, some scribbled on old metro tickets and cigarette packets, weighted down with stones. There was also a large plaque completely covered in graffiti. What I found even more fascinating was the fact that most of this graffiti was dated July & August 1993 – within the two months prior to my visit. Do the cemetery authorities perform a “clean-up” every few months, only for people to start over again? Very strange…
Oscar Wilde was born in 1854 in Dublin to unconventional parents – his mother was a poet and journalist, his father an antiquarian, gifted writer, and specialist in diseases of the eye and ear. After his childhood in Ireland in 1874 he moved to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he shocked the community with his eccentric clothes and irreverent attitude towards religion.
He moved to London after his graduation, and his lifestyle and humorous wit soon made him spokesman for Aestheticism, the late 19th century movement in England that advocated art for art’s sake. He worked as an art reviewer, lecturer, journalist and author of various plays and novels, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Earnest, and An Ideal Husband, amongst many others.
Although by now married and the father of two children, Wilde’s personal life was open to rumours. His downfall came with his intimate association with Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”), an athlete and a poet. He was tried on charges of homosexuality (then illegal in Britain) and was sentenced in 1895 to two years hard labour for his crime of sodomy.
Wilde was first in Wandsworth prison, London, and then Reading Gaol and by the time of his release in 1897, he was a broken man. He lived under the name Sebastian Melmoth near Dieppe, then in Paris. He wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, revealing his concern for inhumane prison conditions.
But his trial and the two years of hard prison labour had had a serious effect on his health. He died of cerebral meningitis on November 30, 1900, penniless, in a cheap Paris hotel at the age of 46. “If I were to outlive the century, it would be more than the English could stand,” he had said.
He was originally buried in utmost obscurity at a grave in Bagneaux Cemetery to the south of Paris. There must have been plans to transfer the body from the start, since he was buried in quicklime – this was usually done to speed up decomposition, so that moving it to another location would be a ‘clean’ affair.
In 1909, when the great day finally came and he was to be moved to Pere Lachaise, the gravediggers were shocked by the sinister sight of Wilde: his body was preserved very well and his hair and beard appeared to have grown even longer. The quicklime had only served to preserve the body, instead of skeletizing it.
One of Oscar’s wishes was to be talked about 100 years after his death. I think he’d have been rather amused at the way things have turned out…
– “Dearest Oscar Wilde, England is little changed since your imprisonment. We will fight for liberty and equality in your name. Your name and works live on. ‘Keats and Yeates (sic) are on your side’. Lots of Love always”
– “I’ve lost the endless paradise for the fire of HELL”
– “When the rain comes, holdst up thy hands. For as surely as the rain that caresses your fingers, friends will not desert you. Truth and Loyalty are one”
– “The Unforgettable Fire – OW & U2 – Thank you for being the inspiration”
– “You’re the one for me, Fatty”
A dreaded sunny day
So let’s go where we’re happy
And I meet you at the cemetry (sic) gates
Oh, Keats and Yeats are on your side
A dreaded sunny day
So let’s go where we’re wanted
And I meet you at the cemetry gates
Keats and Yeats are on your side
But you lose
‘Cause weird lover Wilde is on mine
– Morrissey, 1986