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The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, Page 1

Oscar Wilde

  The Wit and Wisdom of

  Oscar Wilde

  The Wit and Wisdom of

  Oscar Wilde



  Dover Publications, Inc.

  Mineola, New York


  Copyright © 2012 by Dover Publications, Inc.

  All rights reserved.

  Bibliographical Note

  The Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde is a new work, first published by Dover Publications, Inc., in 2012.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

  Wilde, Oscar, 1854–1900.

  The wit and wisdom of Oscar Wilde / Oscar Wilde; selected and edited by Bob and Odette Blaisdell.

  p. cm.

  Includes bibliographical references.

  eISBN-13: 978-0-486-16842-5

  1. Wilde, Oscar, 1854–1900—Quotations. I. Blaisdell, Robert.

  II. Blaisdell, Odette. III. Title.

  PR5812.B54 2012



  Manufactured in the United States by Courier Corporation






















  The gods had given me almost everything. I had genius, a distinguished name, high social position, brilliancy, intellectual daring: I made art a philosophy, and philosophy an art: I altered the minds of men and the colours of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder …

  —De Profundis

  Notwithstanding Wilde’s disapproval of the public’s interest in the biography of the artist, his life is one of the most interesting and compelling and finally unfortunately tragic in literature. He was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1854 to the wealthy and witty Jane Francesca Wilde (a writer known as “Speranza”) and Dr. William Wilde. After starring at Trinity College, Dublin, in Classics, he won a scholarship to Oxford in 1874. A genius who fairly ranked himself as a genius, he published poems and plays, toured and lectured, wrote stories and the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), before hitting his full stride in 1892 with his comedy Lady Windermere’s Fan, followed shortly after by A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and his and perhaps English literature’s funniest play, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Although he married in 1884 and fathered two boys, whom he adored, he was homosexual, and sometimes quite openly and proudly so, in spite of the dangers and disgrace any public revelation of it in London would mean at the time. His devotion to the selfish young Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie,” as Wilde called him), led him into a hopeless lawsuit for libel against Douglas’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury. The disastrous result of this was that Wilde himself was arrested for “committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons” and imprisoned for two years. His wife divorced him and he lost any legal connection to his children. After his release from prison in 1897, he left England for France. Always bad with money and now at a loss for writing, he struggled to make ends meet and lived on the generosity of friends. He died in 1900, from complications related, so argues his biographer Richard Ellmann, to syphilis.

  In order to have a fresh appreciation of Wilde’s wonderful wit and wisdom, my daughter Odette and I have harvested the quotations not from previous quotation collections but from the primary and secondary sources listed at the end of this book. Wilde composed (and thought and spoke) on the look-out for epigrammatic statements. When he was witty, he was very witty; even when he was not much in the mood he was witty. (We could have quoted everything but the stage-directions from The Importance of Being Earnest. Everybody is funny.) In the comedies before The Importance of Being Earnest, there are usually two or three designated wit-makers.

  Discounting the poetry and children’s stories, the wit is practically the work: wit delighting in its own play; wit for wit’s sake. In the lone novel of his career, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the goading Lord Henry cannot seem to help himself from delivering bon mot after bon mot. Word-play and paradoxical summation was a compulsion for Wilde. In one of his early plays, Vera, a character remarks of another: “He would stab his best friend for the sake of writing an epigram on his tombstone.” (In The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dorian remarks wonderingly at Lord Henry: “You would sacrifice anybody, Harry, for the sake of an epigram.”) On the other hand, in spite of his delight in the keen put-down, Wilde was a devoted and kind friend and man. The crashing down of his sensational career was a brutal shock; he reflected during his imprisonment in 1897: “I want to get to the point when I shall be able to say, quite simply and without affectation, that the two great turning-points of my life were when my father sent me to Oxford, and when society sent me to prison.” Prison refined and revealed some of the wisdom he was previously inclined to mock in himself and others. He was always determinedly surprising himself into new discoveries about what he really believed and felt.

  The source cited for a few of the quotations may surprise those acquainted with Wilde’s words; Wilde, having found just the right sparkle to an observation, sometimes repeated himself:

  “Men marry because they are tired; women, because they are curious: both are disappointed.”

  —Lord Henry, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ch. 4 (1890)

  Men marry because they are tired; women because they are curious. Both are disappointed.

  —Lord Illingworth, A Woman of No Importance,

  Act 3 (1893)

  Or he kept refining himself:

  “Moderation is a fatal thing. Enough is as bad as a meal. More than enough is as good as a feast.”

  —Lord Henry, The Picture of Dorian Gray,

  Ch. 15

  Moderation is a fatal thing, Lady Hunstanton. Nothing succeeds like excess.

  —Lord Illingworth, A Woman of No Importance,

  Act 3

  There are many ways to categorize precious gems, and we have made categories that Wilde’s interests seemed to suggest (e.g. “Distinguishing Characteristics”; “Talk”; “Writers and Writing”). On the use of quotation marks: in the plays and critical dialogues (e.g. The Critic as Artist), we have not used quotation marks, noting instead the name of the character. In the fiction, we have used quotation marks to distinguish the characters’ words from the narrator’s. In the quoted conversations by Wilde’s interviewers, acquaintances and friends, quotation marks distinguish those representations from Wilde’s own composed words; almost always, Wilde quoted himself better than anyone else could. As Ellmann notes: “Many renderings of Wilde’s conversation stultify his wit, and for the way he really talked one has to fall back on his letters.” His letters? If Wilde had had use of instant messaging, his fame and wit would have spread even faster and wider! His letters are lively, entertaining, and, in the late 1890s, in the midst of his suffering over his stumbles and falls and ruminations about his two years in jail, heartbreaking. Wilde’s correspondence, including the desperately unhappy De Profundis, in which he addressed his beloved Bosie from prison, should be part of any interested reader’s
Wilde experience.

  The lettered code that follows some quotations is keyed to the list of Sources for Wilde’s conversations on page 216.

  The Wit and Wisdom of

  Oscar Wilde

  Chapter 1


  Life is not complex. We are complex. Life is simple, and the simple thing is the right thing.

  —Letter from prison [April 1, 1897]

  Life’s aim, if it has one, is simply to be always looking for temptations. There are not nearly enough. I sometimes pass a whole day without coming across a single one.

  —Lord Illingworth, A Woman of No Importance, Act 3

  “The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. Resist it, and your soul grows sick with longing for the things it has forbidden to itself, with desire for what its monstrous laws have made monstrous and unlawful.”

  —Lord Henry, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ch. 2

  Life is never fair … And perhaps it is a good thing for most of us that it is not.

  —Lord Goring, An Ideal Husband, Act 2

  … you’ve lost your figure and you’ve lost your character. Don’t lose your temper; you have only got one.

  —Cecil Graham, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 3

  To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance …

  —Lord Goring, An Ideal Husband, Act 3

  One should always be a little improbable.

  —“Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young”

  “It is always a silly thing to give advice, but to [take] good advice is absolutely fatal. I hope you will never fall into that error. If you do, you will be sorry for it.”

  —Erskine, “The Portrait of Mr. W. H.”

  I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.

  —Lord Goring, An Ideal Husband, Act 1

  You know what beautiful, wise, sensible schemes of life people bring to one: there is nothing to be said against them: except that they are not for oneself.

  —Letter [November 16, 1897]

  … it is absurd to have a hard-and-fast rule about what one should read and what one shouldn’t. More than half of modern culture depends on what one shouldn’t read.

  —Algernon, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 1

  … the truth isn’t quite the sort of thing one tells to a nice, sweet, refined girl.

  —Jack, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 1

  A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.

  —Gilbert, The Critic as Artist, Part 2

  “I can sympathize with everything, except suffering. … I cannot sympathize with that. It is too ugly, too horrible, too distressing. There is something terribly morbid in the modern sympathy with pain. One should sympathize with the colour, the beauty, the joy of life. The less said about life’s sores the better.”

  —Lord Henry, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ch. 3

  It is always with the best intentions that the worst work is done.

  —Gilbert, The Critic as Artist, Part 2

  “Had I been treated differently by the newspapers in England and in this country, had I been commended and endorsed, for the first time in my life I should have doubted myself and my mission.”

  —Wilde, as quoted in conversation [OW]

  … there are moments when one has to choose between living one’s own life, fully, entirely, completely—or dragging out some false, shallow, degrading existence that the world in its hypocrisy demands.

  —Lord Darlington, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 2

  To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.

  —“The Soul of Man under Socialism”

  “To realize one’s nature perfectly—that is what each of us is here for.”

  —Lord Henry, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ch. 2

  One should never take sides in anything . . . Taking sides is the beginning of sincerity, and earnestness follows shortly afterwards, and the human being becomes a bore.

  —Lord Illingworth, A Woman of No Importance, Act 1

  The Philistine may … object that to be absolutely perfect is impossible. Well, that is so: but then it is only the impossible things that are worth doing nowadays!

  —“Mrs. Langtry as Hester Grazebrook”

  To ask whether Individualism is practical is like asking whether Evolution is practical. Evolution is the law of life, and there is no evolution except towards Individualism.

  —“The Soul of Man under Socialism”

  Complex people waste half their strength in trying to conceal what they do. Is it any wonder they should always come to grief?

  —Letter from prison [April 6, 1897]

  It was horrid of me not to answer before, but a nice letter is like a sunbeam and should not be treated as an epistle needing a reply.

  —Letter [c. July, 1883]

  Cultivated idleness seems to me to be the proper occupation for man.

  —Letter [August 13, 1890]

  If a man needs an elaborate tombstone in order to remain in the memory of his country, it is clear his living at all was an act of absolute superfluity. Keats’s grave is a hillock of green grass with a plain headstone, and is to me the holiest place in Rome.

  —Letter [January 14, 1885]

  To undress is romance, to dress, philanthropy.

  —Letter [c. November 23, 1898]

  He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time.

  —The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ch. 4

  … it is always nice to be expected, and not to arrive.

  —Lord Goring, An Ideal Husband, Act 3

  At every single moment of one’s life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been.

  —De Profundis

  “When we are happy we are always good, but when we are good we are not always happy.”

  —Lord Henry, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ch. 6

  A man whose desire is to be something separate from himself, to be a member of Parliament, or a successful grocer, or a prominent solicitor, or a judge, or something equally tedious, invariably succeeds in being what he wants to be. That is his punishment.

  —De Profundis

  In this world there are only two tragedies. One is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

  —Dumby, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 3

  … “too late now” are in art and life the most tragical words.

  —Letter [March 23, 1883]

  I am one of those who are made for exceptions, not for laws.

  —De Profundis

  Chapter 2


  “A man’s face is his autobiography. A woman’s face is her work of fiction.”

  —Wilde, as quoted in conversation [OW]

  Wicked women bother one. Good women bore one. That is the only difference between them.

  —Cecil Graham, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 3

  … the strength of women comes from the fact that psychology cannot explain us. Men can be analysed, women … merely adored.

  —Mrs. Cheveley, An Ideal Husband, Act 1

  A man who moralizes is usually a hypocrite, and a woman who moralizes is invariably plain.

  —Cecil Graham, Lady Windermere’s Fan, Act 3

  “We women, as someone says, love with our ears, just as you men love with your eyes, if you ever love at all.”

  —Duchess of Monmouth, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ch. 17

  Nothing is so aggravating as calmness. There is something positively brutal about the good temper of most modern men. I wonder we women stand it as well as we do.

  —Mrs. Allonby, A Woman of No Importance, Act 2

  … the Ideal Man should talk to us as if we were goddesses, and treat us as if we were children. He should refuse all our serious requests, and gratify every one of our whims. He should encourage us to have caprice
s, and forbid us to have missions. He should always say much more than he means, and always mean much more than he says.

  —Mrs. Allonby, A Woman of No Importance, Act 2

  I don’t mind plain women being Puritans. It is the only excuse they have for being plain.

  —Lord Illingworth, A Woman of No Importance, Act 1

  LORD CAVERSHAM: No woman, plain or pretty, has any common sense at all, sir. Common sense is the privilege of our sex.

  LORD GORING: Quite so. And we men are so self-sacrificing that we never use it, do we, Father?

  —An Ideal Husband, A ct 3

  Do you know, I don’t believe in the existence of Puritan women? I don’t think there is a woman in the world who would not be a little flattered if one made love to her. It is that which makes women so irresistibly adorable.

  —Lord Illingworth, A Woman of No Importance, Act 1

  “… no woman is a genius. Women are a decorative sex. They never have anything to say, but they say it charmingly. Women represent the triumph of matter over mind, just as men represent the triumph of mind over morals.”

  —Lord Henry, The Picture of Dorian Gray, Ch. 4