Oscar Wilde was a people person. When Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera spoofing the aesthetic movement, was due to tour America, Wilde contracted with Richard d’Oyly Carte to tour with it as a kind of undercard fighter. Before performances, he appeared onstage in knee breeches and lectured on the “English renaissance.” Whether or not American audiences bought Wilde’s ideas, it was hoped, he’d at least give them some idea of what Gilbert and Sullivan were roasting.
In the event, Wilde was a hit. His speaking tour took on a life of its own, and the aesthetical young man journeyed to the American West, meeting Mormons (he bestowed on the women his highest plaudit, “charming”) and miners. (It was in Leadville, Colorado, that Wilde claimed to have seen the sign: “Please don’t shoot the piano player, he’s doing the best he can.”) In one city, he accepted the grand marshalship of that year’s St. Patrick’s Day parade.
Now, Wilde’s descendants are taking pains to make his tomb a bit less accessible to pilgrims. The grave marker, which stands in Paris’ Pere-Lachaise Cemetery and features an art-nouveau sphinx designed by Sir Jacob Epstein, had become a kind of Wailing Wall, a thing to be reverently touched or kissed. Not only have custodians scrubbed the stone clean of lipstick, they’ve surrounded it with a seven-foot glass barrier. Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland told the New York Times, “We are not saying, ‘Go away’”; instead, “’Try to behave sensibly.’ ”
Holland, along with Wilde’s other well-wishers, may be right that the constant snuffling and pawing is eroding the stone. Certainly the tomb has already seen more than its fair share of abuse – on two occasions, vandals, apparently armed with a hammer and chisel, castrated the poor sphinx. Still, with nothing on my side but a limited, deeply sentimental understanding of Wilde’s nature, I believe he’d have encouraged devoted visitors in the laying-on of hands and lips.
In “De Profundis,” the long letter he addressed to Bosie Douglas shortly before his release from prison, Wilde chastises his uncaring garçon fatal by comparing his nature to Robbie Ross’s. Several months into his prison sentence, when Wilde was hauled “handcuffed and with bowed head,” into the Court of Bankruptcy, Ross “waited in the long and dreary corridor, that before the crowd…he might raise his hat to me.”
Characteristically, Wilde elaborates:
Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that. It was in this spirit and with this mode of love that the saints washed the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek…When Wisdom has been profitless to me, and Philosophy barren…the memory of that little, lowly silent act of Love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity, made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken and great heart of the world.
Maybe drawing parallels between Ross’s hat tip and a pilgrim’s prostration misses Wilde’s entire point. If Wilde admired the first for its simplicity, the other’s extravagance might have made him recoil. One thing about Ross’s gesture that Wilde clearly did appreciate was its timing. The dissolution of his estate to pay the Marquess of Queensberry’s court costs represented the low point of Wilde’s life; in “De Profundis,” he mourns the sale of his library, and his Burne-Jones and Whistler originals. Ross lifted his hat When Wilde’s spirits most needed lifting. These days, Wilde gets nothing but praise. (Is there anyone who hasn’t starred in a high–school production of The Importance of Being Earnest?) Kissing his tomb is less like comforting a leper than paying homage to a pope.
But Wilde paid homage to a pope, too. In 1879, while still an Oxford undergraduate, he was received by Leo XIII in a private audience. In “Rome Unvisited,” he writes: “A pilgrim from the northern seas–/What joy for me to seek alone/The wondrous temple and the throne/Of him who holds the awful keys!” It was a bad poem, but it demonstrates that Wilde understood the enthusiasm that drew people to grandeur – particularly when that grandeur had a sacrificial foundation. In the same poem, he writes of “the only God-anointed king,” who “Holds high the mystic sacrifice,/And shows his God to human eyes/Beneath the veil of bread and wine.”
For that God, Wilde was never above expressing an imaginative sympathy that hinted at a kind of identification. In “De Profundis,” he writes of Jesus as the “supreme Individualist” whose “place is among the poets.” When he goes on to describe the Passion – “the crucifixion of the Innocent One before the eyes of his mother and the disciple whom he loved: the soldiers gambling and throwing dice for his clothes: the terrible death by which he gave the world its most eternal symbol,” Wilde sounds as though he’s reliving his own ordeal at the Old Bailey.
I like to think that this Christlike self-concept, whether a symptom of incipient conversion or of lifelong grandiosity, would incline Wilde to receive even the sloppiest homage offered him. Wilde the Christian would understand that many vistors who feel drawn to his tomb identify with his painful, degraded end as much as they enjoy his writing. (In this sense, they are the opposite of Bosie Douglas, who once told Wilde he was uninteresting when off his pedestal.) He’d offer the stone of his monument as a balm for the wounded in a Happy Prince-like spirit of self-giving. Wilde the Man of Destiny would simply accept the devotion as his due, the way he did when he told an audience that its appreciation of Lady Windermere’s Fan was “most intelligent.” Both would say, in the words St. Bernadette heard, “Let processions come hither.”