Wilde & the Wallpaper

Oscar Wilde died on this day in 1900, in the nick of time: “If another century began and I was still alive, it would really be more than the English could stand.” During his three-and-a-half years after prison, the only writing Wilde completed was The Ballad of Reading Gaol, this finished within a few months of his release. There were many other projects – one was for “The Ballad of the Fisher-Boy,” a celebratory counterstatement to Reading Gaol, based on his recent enjoyment of “fisher-lads, who draw great nets, and are bare-limbed” – but few ideas got beyond the talking stage. And though Wilde maintained his ability to turn a phrase as he roamed Europe over these last years, looking for companionship or handouts, most of his comments are darkly shaded:

  • On visiting his wife’s grave in Genoa, where the marker made no reference to her having had a husband: “I was deeply affected – with a sense, also, of the uselessness of all regrets. Nothing could have been otherwise, and Life is a very terrible thing.”
  • On life in a small Italian town: “In Paris I am bad; here I am bored: the last state is the worst.”
  • To an old friend who, in an elaborately-phrased excuse, refused Wilde’s request for funds: “In so light a matter, my dear Fullerton, sentiment need not borrow stilts.”
  • About his only remaining relationship options: “The Cloister or the Café – there is my future. I tried the Hearth, but it was a failure.”

Richard Ellmann’s biography, source for the above, says some version of Wilde’s legendary last words – “My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death; one or the other of us has to go” – were actually uttered a month before his death, after coming in from what would be a last night out.

Another famous Dubliner is tied to this day – Jonathan Swift, born there in 1667. The exact location seems pregnant with significance: a few blocks this way was St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where Swift would be Dean; much closer that way, almost his backyard, was Dublin Castle, representing the Englishness he would both covet and skewer; the specific address, his uncle’s home at 7 Hoey’s Court, almost perfect for perhaps the most famous scoffer in literature.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.