Farewell, My Dear Oscar.
I spent so much time with Oscar Wilde on this trip. I visited his prison cell in Reading, England. I read through his entire Prison Writings despite growing more and more mired in my own depressions while doing so. Each day to get to central London I transferred at Clapham Junction, the train station where he was jeered at and spat on by onlookers when he was taken away. Every time I went to the West End I walked by the Cafe Royal, where he entertained Bosie and overspent on booze and fancy dinners. In reading his Prison Writings I felt sorry for him, then sorry for Bosie, then angry at him, then angry at Bosie. And in the end, I just wound up sad about the whole situation he found himself in.
When I decided to end my travels in Paris, it didn’t immediately come to mind that I’d be in the city where Oscar passed away. But now that I have found myself here, I think it’s a most appropriate place for me to be.
Pére Lachaise cemetery is a very decent place to be buried. There will always be people waking around. The cobblestone streets and alleyways are easy to get lost in, making it likely that one’s grave, however obscure, will be seen by someone. On the flipside, because it’s such a large space, finding specific graves is difficult without a detailed map. But having visited twice before, I knew where I needed to go.
When Oscar was released from Reading Gaol Prison in May of 1897, he left Britain for northern France. He changed his name and tried to live anonymously. Aside from one poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, he wrote no other creative works. No plays, no novels, no stories. He had, he said, “lost the joy of writing.” He no longer had the spirit for it. He did write two long letters to British newspapers on the state of the country’s prisons. For obvious reasons he became an advocate of prison reform in his final years.
In August 1897, Oscar and Bosie met again. They lived together for some months in Naples, Italy, in the shadow of both of their families’ disapproval. Constance, Oscar’s wife, had been sending him three pounds a week ($387 by 2016 standards). Bosie had some money, as he always did, though he did not share much of it, even with Oscar. Ultimately, the familial disapproval won out, and under the threat of being cut off financially, the two men parted. They would not see each other again. It is worth noting that both men, at various periods, expressed extreme regret over their entire relationship. Bosie died 45 years after Oscar, so his version is the most recent. (He calls Oscar a “force of evil” among other things.) But Oscar’s version of events, having been put to paper so beautifully in De Profundis, is the one that people remember.
Oscar returned to Paris, a city where he had lived in 1883 and during which time he met Robert Sherard, his dear friend and one of the few sources of comfort during his incarceration. Paris was not as kind to Oscar fifteen years later. He was lost. He spent most of his money on alcohol and had a few same-sex encounters that left him desolate.
In October 1900 Oscar grew weaker from the cerebral meningitis that would kill him a month later. At his bedside were his friends Robert Ross and Reginald Turner. Having received a “spiritual renewal” while in prison, Oscar desired very strongly to be baptized in the Catholic Church (he was previously baptized in the Anglican Church). So, while Oscar was on his deathbed, Ross found a priest, and Oscar, in his final moments, got his wish.
His grave in Pére Lachaise is easy to spot. It is one of the most conspicuous graves in the cemetery, not to mention one of the most popular for tourists.
The sculptor, Jacob Epstein, had initially sketched a version of the tomb where two men hang their heads in mourning. I’m glad he went with this sphinx instead.
Robert Ross, Oscar’s dear friend, paid for the tomb’s commission. Ross was thought to be Oscar’s first male lover in the mid 1880s. Oscar wrote to him constantly while he was incarcerated. He was the executor of Oscar’s literary estate, and was responsible for purchasing back the rights to all the works that had been sold when Oscar filed for bankruptcy. Ross published the definitive edition of Oscar’s works in 1908.
Ross himself was a journalist. He was also an open homosexual during a time when it was dangerous to do so. He served as a mentor to the homosexual poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. In short, he was a gay rights activist.
When he was a student at Cambridge, Ross endured bullying due to his sexuality and also his outspoken journalism. He caught pneumonia after being dunked in a fountain by several students who were encouraged by one of their professors. Ross wanted an apology from the students and the professor to be fired. He got the apology but not the firing. He dropped out of school, went home, and came out to his family.
Ross was loyal to Oscar. It is believed they met before Ross went to Cambridge in 1886, and their friendship remained until Oscar’s death. Ross even kept in touch with Oscar’s sons until his own death in 1918. It saddens me, after learning all this, that Bosie is still the man most intimately tied to Oscar. He is not.
At his request, Robert Ross’ ashes were placed inside Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Pére Lachaise. There is no mention of them, but they are there. The two of them are intimately bound in death as they were in life.
And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
I asked Oscar some questions when I stood by his tomb. If he had the chance to live his life over again, would he do it differently? Would he have cut Bosie out of his life completely, rather than always being accommodating when the boy came knocking? Would he rather have lived and died as a successful, but mortal playwright rather than become an immortal icon of injustice? My intuition tells me, for all of those questions: yes.
When he was the most celebrated playwright in Britain, at the peak of his fame and fortune, he wished for immortality. He wished that his life of excesses, of celebrations, of constant inspiration would continue forever. As an artist he was aware of the power he wielded, and he was not humble. Ultimately, he did achieve immortality, but not for the reasons he had hoped. He is immortal because of the torture that he endured at Reading Gaol, and the words he wrote during that time. It makes this quote, from An Ideal Husband, a particularly painful one:
When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.
By the end of his time in prison, he discovered that narcissism, and with it the desire to live forever, leads men to ruin. It led to his ruin. In De Profundis, he rejects his old life through and through.
I will admit that the reason I asked those questions is a selfish one. This trip, now coming to a close, has left me with such regret over the things that I chose not to do in my life, the relationships and friendships I squandered, the jobs I did not take, the life that I did not lead. And while the realist in me says to just move on and accept what I have gone through, I can’t seem to stop questioning myself and all the choices I’ve made. It’s not a pleasant feeling. I have a feeling that most people reading this know, at least a little bit, what I am talking about.
So, posing that question to Oscar was, in my passive way, an attempt to glean some guidance over what I should do with myself and my life. My time in Boston and this trip were steps in the right direction. Now I must figure out what the next steps should be and then have the courage to take them. I’ll look to my fellow writers for guidance, including Oscar, whose words never seem to fail me:
To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.
To breathe, eat, drink, and sleep is not enough. Settling for comfort is not enough. I’ve done it too much. There is so much more out there to see and do, more observations to be made, more histories to learn, more places to see, more ways to inspire and touch people. It won’t be easy to do it all, but I’ll try my damned best.