Richard Ellmann on Oscar Wilde: “He belongs more to our world than to Victoria’s. Now beyond the reach of scandal, his best writings validated by time, he comes before us still, a towering figure, laughing and weeping, with parables and paradoxes, so generous, so amusing, so right.” Photograph: Napoleon Sarony/Getty Images
Eileen Battersby pays tribute to one of the world’s greatest writers on the 161st anniversary of his birth, assessing his literary legacy and his remarkable life
“ …over our heads will float the Blue Bird singing of beautiful and impossible things, of things that are lovely and that never happened, of things that are not and that should be.” From The Decay of Lying (1889)
On this day, October 16, in 1854 was born one of the world’s most magical and compelling literary writers, an artist of extraordinary wit and learning, whose genius would be countered by his humanity and reckless quest for love and perfection. Oscar Wilde paid a heavy price for his romantic urges and belief in beauty. A wry fatalism certainly stalked him throughout his short life which ended in a hotel room in Paris in 1900, as did an eloquent defiance which he simply could not help. The epigrams flowed. Yet his rich and diverse legacy is as full of sorrow as it is of humour, insight and observation. It is as difficult to move through a day without hearing at least some reference to Wilde – be it a quote from his work or a paraphrase – as it is of Shakespeare or Yeats. Wilde endures as do the respective works of an Elizabethan dramatist and an Irish poet born less than 11 years after Wilde. This trio infiltrate our consciousness; their words shape our responses.