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Oscar Wilde - Up Close (8th June 2021)
Presented by Giles Ramsay

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"I put all my genius into my life; I put only my talent into my works” - words by one of the world's most original and controversial writers, the subject of visiting on-line speaker Giles Ramsay who examined the public and private life of this fascinating man in a recent presentation to members of The Arts Society Alton.

Born into a respectable Dublin family in 1854, Oscar Wilde died in Paris in November 1900, in his forty-fifth year. He was the son of Sir William Wilde, an eminent Irish surgeon, and his mother was a woman of considerable literary ability.

In 1874 he entered Magdalen College, Oxford, where he won his two "firsts" in the Classical School, and a prize for English verse. But the bent of his mind was not academic or scholarly. Even while he was at Oxford, he was the most prominent leader in the new ‘aesthetic’ movement, as it was called.

It appears that the aestheticism of the day was largely a misreading of the spirit of Hellenism. Moral and physical excellence were "beautiful;" moral and physical defects were "ugly", hence the philosophic basis of the new aesthetic movement, or cult of the beautiful.

The beautiful in life was the only thing worth pursuing; ugliness was the thing to be avoided. But the fallacy of the aesthetic doctrine of that day, as many understood it, was that it narrowed down the comprehensive Greek ideal of beauty to mere physical or material beauty.

The extravagances of the aesthetic school are almost forgotten now, but its somewhat warped and one-sided philosophy was not born with Wilde, although it waned after his death. Oscar Wilde had great literary gifts. His romance, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which embodies his philosophy of aestheticism, is a book of unmistakable tragic power. In 1892 he appeared as a writer of comedies with Lady Windermere's Fan. This was followed by A Woman of No Importance and An Ideal Husband. His plays were witty, paradoxical and perverse. There was little variety in the characterisation, but the work in other respects was considered technically admirable. In 1895, following his notorious court cases, Wilde disappeared from public life. Two years later, on his release from prison, he published The Ballad of Reading Gaol, perhaps his most powerful piece of writing. Wilde's life is one of the saddest in English literature. His abilities were sufficient to win him a place as a man of letters, but they struggled in vain against his weakness of character.

Tony Cross