Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), the author of The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, has been gaining in popularity and academic respect for his literary achievements. The revival of his 1895 play, An Ideal Husband, on Broadway and in a 1999 film proved very successful. However, the Irish playwright’s personal lifestyle, rather than his artistic achievements, still remains the main focus of public attention. Wilde is well-known as the “Apostle of Aestheticism,” the Victorian advocate of personal decadence, the fop whose persona defines the very word, the homosexual martyr jailed for the “love that dare not speak its name.” Wilde’s flamboyance and eccentricity raise even more questions when contrasted to his lifelong fascination and struggle with Catholicism, and to its influence on his work.
In November 2000, the Jesuit weekly La Civilità Cattolica marked the centenary of Wilde’s death by publishing a piece by Rev. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., that was widely seen as an attempt to rehabilitate Wilde in the eyes of the Church. Spadaro wrote of Wilde’s years in prison and how they were a catalyst to his spiritual development, particularly the writing of his famous “Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898). The English press reported on Spadaro’s piece with its usual ironic distance, as if to suggest that those trendy Catholics were at it again, attempting to glom onto a popular phenomenon for their own purposes. Some conservative American Catholics saw Spadaro’s embrace of Wilde as further evidence that the Jesuits had lost their moral core: Why, they asked, are we praising one of history’s most famous homosexuals and advocates of immoralism and claiming him as Catholic?
It is true that the name Oscar Wilde as a cultural force belongs in part to the gay community. But Spadaro was correct in pointing out that Wilde’s life and work present a far more complicated picture. It is not an accident that Catholic virtues can be recognized in some of Wilde’s best characters, while the personal failures of other characters are drawn so subtly that they can only be fully perceived through the eyes of the Christian faith. That this faith is central to the author’s moral universe should be clear enough from his children’s stories (for example, “The Selfish Giant”), which portray Christian theological themes. Surely Wilde’s work can be fully appreciated and celebrated as springing from the Catholic intellectual and moral tradition, completely apart from his personal vices.
A Picture of Oscar Wilde?
A sporadic attender of Mass and benediction throughout his life, Wilde loved the Catholic liturgy. In this he might have been akin to the protagonist of his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, of whom he wrote:
It was rumored of him once that he was about to join the Roman Catholic communion, and certainly the Roman ritual had always a great attraction for him. The daily sacrifice, more awful really than all the sacrifices of the antique world, stirred him as much by its superb rejection of the evidence of the senses as by the primitive simplicity of its elements and the eternal pathos of the human tragedy that it sought to symbolize. He loved to kneel down on the cold marble pavement and watch the priest, in his stiff flowered dalmatic, slowly and with white hands moving aside the veil of the tabernacle, or raising aloft the jeweled, lantern-shaped monstrance with that pallid wafer that at times, one would fain think, is indeed the “panis caelestis,” the bread of angels, or, robed in the garments of the Passion of Christ, breaking the Host into the chalice and smiting his breast for his sins. The fuming censers that the grave boys, in their lace and scarlet, tossed into the air like great gilt flowers had their subtle fascination for him. As he passed out, he used to look with wonder at the black confessionals and long to sit in the dim shadow of one of them and listen to men and women whispering through the worn grating the true story of their lives. But he never fell into the error of arresting his intellectual development by any formal acceptance of creed or system, or of mistaking, for a house in which to live, an inn that is but suitable for the sojourn of a night, or for a few hours of a night in which there are no stars and the moon is in travail.
Contrary to speculation, Wilde denied that he himself was Dorian Gray and claimed to identify more closely with Basil Hallward, the pious painter in the story whose main fault is an exaggerated affection for beautiful things. He also denied that he was the model for Lord Henry, Dorian’s philosophically minded mentor who preaches libertinism, nihilism, and conspicuous bachelorhood but talks of those temptations far more than he acts on them. Wilde once wrote that Dorian was someone “I would like to be—in other ages, perhaps.”
When The Picture of Dorian Gray was published in 1891, it was alternately condemned as prurient and overly moralizing. By today’s standards, the latter line of attack characterizes the book more closely. Dorian sells his soul in exchange for eternally youthful looks, while the figure of Dorian in the portrait, regarded by all who have seen it as perfection itself, gradually ages and reveals in hideous detail the grotesqueries of Dorian’s sins, which are many. The story’s moral is drawn from Catholic tradition: The soul (the painting) is severely stained by sin regardless of the outward claims or even the appearance of piety of the individual himself. Try as we might to prevent it, evil actions bring their own punishment, in either this life or the next. In the end, Dorian thrusts a knife into the painting, stabbing himself as a result. When his body is found, the painting is found restored to its original perfection.
Wilde’s most popular plays, quite apart from their immense achievements as dramas and comedies and their timeless ability to delight, continually refer to religious themes. Wilde claimed to do art only for art’s sake, but in practice, he drew stark lines between good and evil, even as he showed how the complexities of sin and redemption evade easy social categorization. We find in his work many people who stumble into small sins that grow larger through their unwillingness to face them. We find pietistic Victorians who come to understand that suppressing vice requires more than the right social companions and rigid standards of social etiquette. We find characters reversing severe moral judgments on others in light of their own experiences, and other characters praising free living only to discover the truth and utility of traditional standards of right and wrong.
Wilde’s Controversial Conversion
The story has long circulated that Wilde converted to Catholicism just before his death in Paris on November 30, 1900. But it is often dismissed as either fiction or the aberrant action of a very sick man in a moment of grave weakness. Richard Ellmann’s 1988 biography of Wilde, which incorrectly speculates that syphilis was the cause of his early demise at age 46, treats the conversion as a minor detail, perhaps further evidence of the broken man that Wilde had become after his two years in prison for sodomy. In a particularly uncomprehending passage, Ellmann compares the application of sacred oils to Wilde’s hands and feet during the last rites to “putting a green carnation in his buttonhole.” Thus, Ellmann encourages us to overlook Wilde’s conversion and not let it spoil our image of him as an icon of the gay lifestyle.
But Rev. Cuthbert Dunne, C.P., the priest who was with Wilde at his death, told a different story. When he arrived, Wilde was semi-comatose, so Dunne did not give him Holy Communion, but he did provisionally baptize him. In a report, Dunne wrote that, once roused, Wilde “gave signs of being inwardly conscious. He made brave efforts to speak, and would even continue for a time trying to talk…. Indeed I was fully satisfied that he understood me when told that I was about to receive him into the Catholic Church and give him the Last Sacraments. From the signs he gave as well as from his attempted words, I was satisfied as to his full consent. And when I repeated close to his ear the Holy Names, the Acts of Contrition, Faith, Hope and Charity, with [an] act of humble resignation to the Will of God, he tried all through to say the words after me.” Moreover, at “subsequent visits, he repeated the prayers with me again and each time received Absolution.”
Why was a priest at Wilde’s deathbed in the first place? Wilde had often said to his friends that “Catholicism is the only religion to die in.” And in a letter written after his death, his lifetime Catholic friend Robert Ross revealed, “I had always promised to bring a priest to Wilde when he was dying, and I felt rather guilty that I had so often dissuaded him from becoming a Catholic, but you know my reasons for doing so.” Ross had wondered whether Wilde was really serious about wanting to convert. Also, Ross feared that Wilde would “relapse” into sinful behavior after converting, which would “cause grave scandal.”
Indeed, it is hard to know how serious Ross himself was about his faith. Wilde variously referred to Ross as a “pagan-Catholic” and a “low-church Catholic.” Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, who converted to Catholicism years after Wilde’s death and even became aggressively orthodox in his religious views, reported that Ross had had his own troubles with the faith. In any case, Ross later felt guilty and wondered if he had been wrong for having stood at the entryway to the Church to try to keep Wilde from coming in. And yet, on at least one earlier occasion, Ross had urged Catholicism on Wilde, and Wilde had responded, “No, Robbie. It isn’t true.” This exchange might have discouraged further attempts on Ross’s part.
Cured by Leo XIII?
Events during Wilde’s travels in Rome in the year of his death underscore just how sincere about Catholicism he was. On Holy Saturday in 1900, he went to tea at the Hotel de l’Europe. According to his account, a man he did not know (he implies that it might have been an angel) suddenly came up to him and asked if he would like to see Pope Leo XIII the next day. Wilde bowed his head and said “Non sum dignus [I am not worthy],” but the man produced a ticket.
On Easter, Wilde appeared in the front row among the pilgrims at the Vatican and received a blessing from the pope, the first of many that would follow during that month and the next. He speculated that Leo’s blessing healed him from the effects of food poisoning from a spoiled mussel, effects that had lingered for five months. Such poisoning is no small matter. It causes the entire body to break out in spots and can even be fatal. But Wilde’s symptoms disappeared after the papal blessing, and he wrote that he sincerely believed that “the Vicar of Christ made me whole.” As the months passed, Wilde made other trips to the Vatican and reported to friends that he had had a private audience with and been blessed “many times” by Leo, who “is no longer of flesh and blood: he has no taint of mortality…. My position is curious: I am not a Catholic: I am simply a violent Papist.”
In an interview with a reporter from the Daily Chronicle of London three weeks before his death, Wilde attributed his “degeneracies” to the fact that he had not entered the Church when he was young. He especially regretted having been denied “the artistic side of the Church and the fragrance of its teachings.” He told the reporter, “I intend to be received before long.”
A Secret Baptism
It turns out, however, that the baptism Wilde underwent before dying might not have been necessary. He had been baptized a Catholic at the age of four or five by Rev. L.C. Fox of Dublin. His mother, although not a Catholic or even a believer, had procured the baptism secretly, in defiance of his agnostic father’s wishes, and because it was done privately, it was never registered. His father, a non-practicing Protestant and a Mason, sensed his son’s interest in the Church (he had befriended priests at school in Dublin) and forbade his conversion, even expressing the hope that his schooling at Oxford, which at the time did not admit Catholics, would purge him of his religious deviation. His father went so far as to threaten to disinherit young Wilde if he decided to follow through on his interest in the faith.
Contrary to his father’s hopes, Oxford did not cure him of his interest in all things Catholic. He filled his dormitory room, one visitor reported, with photographs of Cardinal Manning and Pope Pius IX. And in his studies, he began reading intensely in Catholic literature, coming greatly to admire John Henry Newman and making Thomas à Kempis’s Imitation of Christ his nightly devotional book. He recommended that his anti-Catholic friend William Ward read a book about the First Vatican Council. Of the doctrine of papal infallibility that the council had promulgated in 1870, Wilde wrote Ward, “I don’t know what to think myself. I wish you would come to Rome with me and test the whole matter. I am afraid to go alone”—doubtless because he feared that he would convert. He didn’t make it to Rome then, but he advised friends headed there to look not only for the hand of man in the art and architecture but also for “a little of God’s.” He admitted to being at a loss to understand why the Anglican church “should be so anxious to believe the Blessed Virgin conceived in sin.” Of Christ’s incarnation as God made man he was certain: It was both beautiful and necessary “to help us grasp at the skirts of the Infinite. The atonement is I admit hard to grasp. But I think since Christ, the dead world has woke up from sleep.”
Despite his fascination with Catholicism, Wilde joined the Masons at Oxford, probably for social and familial reasons: He had already been disinherited by his father’s half- brother because of his “Romanish leanings.” But Masonry did not rid him of those leanings. In his letter to Ward, he continued:
I now breakfast with Father Parkinson, go to St. Aloysius, talk sentimental religion to [a Catholic friend Archibald] Dunlop and altogether am caught in the fowler’s snare, in the wiles of the Scarlet Woman—I may go over in the vacation. I have dreams of a visit to Newman, of the holy sacrament in a new Church, and of a quiet and peace afterwards in my soul. I need not say, though, that I shift with every breath of thought and am weaker and more self-deceiving than ever. If I could hope that the Church would wake in me some earnestness and purity I would go over as a luxury, if for no better reasons. But I can hardly hope it would, and to go over to Rome would be to sacrifice and give up my two great gods ‘Money and Ambition.’ Still I get so wretched and low and troubled that in some desperate mood I would seek the shelter of a church which simply enthrals me by its fascination.
Wilde came as close to converting as he ever would as a young man in the winter of 1877. He spent hours with Rev. Sebastian Bowden of the Brompton Oratory, London’s most fashionable Catholic church, and he even made an informal confession. The priest urged him to come back and presumably be received. But at the appointed hour, instead of Wilde himself, a courier appeared to deliver a large box of lilies. It was Wilde’s way of saying that he was not yet prepared to take the final step.
After leaving Oxford in 1878, and with the literary and financial success that arrived after 1880 as his plays became hits, Wilde gradually lost interest in Catholicism, though the thematic material and moral universe of the Catholic faith appeared constantly in his work. He appeared to have given up the idea of converting entirely, particularly after the success of several editions of his poetry and short stories and The Picture of Dorian Gray, his only novel. Yet he never attacked the faith, and the language of Catholic liturgy and life frequently animated his conversations, even in his period of high decadence.
Finding Faith in Prison
As his libel/sodomy trials began in April 1895, he told Douglas: “If I win this case, as of course I shall, I think we must both be received into the dear Catholic Church.” Instead, he was imprisoned. One of his first requests to Ross from prison was for books, among them the Bible, “Dante and all Dante literature…. [A]lso, try and get me a good life of St. Francis of Assisi.” His book-length letter to Douglas, published after his death as De Profundis, appears for the first time in its original form in the just-published Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (Henry Holt, 2000), along with an essay on the life of Christ written for his former lover. What De Profundis lacks in doctrinal orthodoxy (it tends to portray Jesus as a Romantic artist rather than the Savior), it makes up for in its poetry:
The world had always loved the Saint as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of God. Christ, through some divine instinct in him, seems to have always loved the sinner as being the nearest possible approach to the perfection of man…. Of course the sinner must repent. But why? Simply because otherwise he would be unable to realise what he had done. The moment of repentance is the moment of initiation. More than that. It is the means by which one alters one’s past. The Greeks thought that impossible. They often say in their gnomic aphorisms “Even the Gods cannot alter the past.” Christ showed that the commonest sinner could do it. That it was the one thing he could do. Christ, had he been asked, would have said—I feel quite certain about it—that the moment the prodigal son fell on his knees and wept he really made his having wasted his substance with harlots, and then kept swine and hungered for the husks they ate, beautiful and holy incidents in his life. It is difficult for most people to grasp the idea. I dare say one has to go to prison to understand it. If so, it may be worthwhile going to prison.
Wilde’s first letter after leaving prison, written on May 18, 1897, the very date of his release, was to a Jesuit retreat house in London. While that letter hasn’t survived, one account has Wilde asking to retire there for six months. Another account says he merely asked for a priest to visit him so that he might “take part in a religious discussion”—or, more likely, make his confession. In any case, the letter was quickly answered, and either the Jesuits refused to accept him or they refused to visit him. It is undisputed that when Wilde, who otherwise affected an unbroken spirit after his prison years, read the Jesuits’ letter, he completely broke down and sobbed bitterly for the first time in front of friends. He made one more attempt to connect with the Catholic Church before leaving England for Paris a few days later. He visited the Brompton Oratory, but Bowden, the priest who had worked to convert him years earlier, was out for the day. Choosing not to unburden himself on a stranger, Wilde put off converting once again.
In Paris, he continued to write to Douglas, frequently raising the subject of faith. On June 6, 1897, he wrote: “I have been to Mass at ten o’clock and to Vespers at three o’clock. I was a little bored by a sermon in the morning, but Benediction was delightful. I am seated in the Choir! I suppose sinners should have the high places near Christ’s altar? I know at any rate that Christ would not turn me out.” In these years of exile, he attended Mass often, made pilgrimages, and prayed, but these periods of piety were punctuated by exactly the kind of lapses into his old homosexual lifestyle that Ross feared would bring scandal to the faith.
“My Heart is Weary”
In the end, however, Christ did not turn Wilde out—despite his sins, his unconscionable behavior toward his wife and two sons (the scandal of his trials had alienated them from him), his self-deceptions and deceptions of others, his vanity and pomposity, and all the other character failings that he wore so conspicuously on his sleeve. Only on the day before he died, and only thanks to the intervention of Ross—the man who had so often discouraged his conversion and who later downplayed it—and the priest whom Ross had found one week earlier, did Wilde finally receive any sacraments other than the baptism he was given secretly as a young boy.
And only at the last possible moment did Wilde finally embrace the One who was truly his lifelong lover. In his stricken silence at the end, he might have recalled his 1881 poem, “San Miniato”:
See, I have climbed the mountain side
Up to this holy house of God,
Where once that Angel-Painter trod
Who saw the heavens opened wide,
And throned up the crescent moon
The Virginal white Queen of Grace
Mary! Could I but see thy face
Death could not come at all too soon.
O crowned by God with thorns and pain!
Mother of Christ! O mystic wife!
My heart is weary of this life
And over-sad to sing again.
O crowned by God with love and flame!
O crowned by Christ the Holy One!
O listen ere the searching sun
Show to the world my sin and shame.