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Wilde, Oscar (1854-1900)  
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Indeed, Wilde's brief period of serious achievement, which began in 1888 with the publication of his collection of fairy tales, The Happy Prince, coincides with his period of homosexual activity.

Over the next seven years, he was to produce important prose works such as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890, 1891), The Soul of Man under Socialism, Intentions (1891), Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (1891), and House of Pomegranates (1891), as well as the five successful plays: Salomé (1893), Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895).

Wilde's Fall and Its Consequences

This brief period of genuine accomplishment ended abruptly on February 18, 1895, only four days after the triumphant opening of The Importance of Being Earnest, when the Marquess of Queensberry left a card for Wilde at his club: "To Oscar Wilde, posing somdomite [sic]."

Encouraged by Douglas, who loathed his father, Wilde sued Queensberry for criminal libel: a suit that was won by the bitter and unstable Marquess and that was to culminate in Wilde's own prosecutions for "gross indecency between males."

The severity of Wilde's sentence--which contributed to his premature death in exile in Paris in 1900--and the extremity of his suffering rendered him a martyr in the struggle for homosexual emancipation.

Yet Wilde is, it must be acknowledged, an unlikely martyr and an ambiguous one. His martyrdom, after all, resulted as much from his own folly as from the viciousness of his persecutors, who were not eager to prosecute him or other homosexuals of high social standing or artistic prominence.

Indeed, his trials and conviction may fairly be blamed on his (and Alfred Douglas's) willed stupidity and penchant for self-dramatization, and perhaps as well on his unconscious need for exposure and punishment.

The theme of martyrdom runs through much of his work, early and late, and probably reflects the strong masochistic element in his personality, even as it also mirrors his sense of alienation. Moreover, his disastrous decision to prosecute Queensberry for alleging that he posed as a was itself reactionary rather than defiant.

Even after the debacle of his libel suit against Queensberry, Wilde could have escaped his own prosecution by fleeing to the Continent, a solution tacitly suggested by the magistrate, who apparently delayed issuing the warrant for his arrest in order to permit him to go abroad.

That he did not go into exile, as so many prominent Victorian homosexuals had done when faced with the prospect of scandal and prison, is a measure less of his rebelliousness than of his felt need to maintain his position in society.

Even the eloquent defense in his second trial of "the Love that dare not speak its name"--"a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you will find in the sonnets of Michael Angelo and Shakespeare. . . . that deep, spiritual affection which is as pure as it is perfect"--is sharply undercut by the fact that the speech, largely untrue and certainly misleading, was designed to deny the physical expression of his homosexuality rather than to defend it.

The only hero of the Wilde trials was the procurer Alfred Taylor, who loyally refused to testify against his client and consequently shared his harsh punishment.

Wilde's own folly and masochism may have brought him into the prisoner's dock at Old Bailey, but once there he was victimized by the bigotry and hypocrisy of a society that he had ridiculed and exposed and yet could never completely reject. He became the scapegoat for his society's sexual and moral insecurities.

Wilde's Pretrial Reticence in Depicting Homosexuality

Not surprisingly, however, those insecurities were also Wilde's own, as indicated by the reticence and coyness of his depictions of homosexuality in texts such as "The Portrait of Mr. W.H." and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Although Wilde deserves enormous credit for bravery in even broaching gay themes at a time when it was dangerous to do so, his gay texts before his fall tend to be divided against themselves. Heir to a homosexual aesthetic tradition that stretches from Winckelmann to Pater and the center in England of fin de siècle dandyism and decadence, Wilde still remains surprisingly moralistic in these works.

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