Wilde at Oxford

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Every Oxford college can tell a thousand tales of queer love won and lost but Magdalen easily ranks as one of the queerest because of its illustrious alumni. Poet and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) and his soulmate Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945) were both at Magdalen, although not at the same time.

Wilde arrived at Magdalen in Oct 1874. He occupied three different rooms: Number 1, 2 Pair Right, in Chaplain’s for his first year; Number 8, Ground Floor Right, in Cloisters for his second and third years; and—the most splendid, overlooking the Cherwell—Kitchen Stairs, 1 Pair Left, for his final year.

It was as an undergraduate at Oxford that Wilde’s erotic feelings for other men came to fruition for the first time. There was, of course, no concept of ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ at this time. The medically-derived term ‘homosexual’ was also not yet in English usage. Wilde’s generation, however, was familiar with the homoerotic traditions of the ancient Greeks and it was this ‘Greek love’ that resonated with Wilde’s own developing eroticism.

At Magdalen Wilde began writing poetry, many of his poems celebrating great male lovers of men from Greek history and mythology. Gossip was never far away from Wilde and within a year of his arrival at Magdalen a fellow undergraduate, John Bodley, recorded in his diary: ‘old Wilde is a damned compromising acquaintance’ who was in the habit of leaving ‘foolish letters from people who are “hungry” for him…for his friends to read’.

Wilde courted several women during his time at Oxford—there is an unproven story that he caught syphilis from one of the prostitutes that worked Oxford’s High St—but simultaneously engaged in several passionate erotic dalliances with other men. These affairs were interrupted by periods of tortured self-doubt and remorse. This was a dark and dangerous time for homoerotic relationships, as Wilde would eventually discover to the cost of us all.

Having attained a double first in Greats (no easy feat, despite his nonchalance regarding his academic efforts), Wilde left Oxford in 1878 vowing to become famous, or if not famous, notorious. He succeeded at both. A succession of brilliantly insightful comic plays, most notably Lady Windermere’s Fan (1892) and The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), made Wilde the toast of London society, a role he relished. Prose works and poems such as The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) have similarly entered the canon of English literature as classics.

Torn about his sexuality and anxious for social acceptance, Wilde eventually married and fathered two children while continuing to pursue affairs with men. He continued to visit Oxford frequently after graduating, referring to the city as ‘the capital of romance’.

Known fondly as ‘Bosie’, Lord Alfred Douglas attended Magdalen between 1889 and 1893, although he left without taking his degree. He is best remembered for his romance with Oscar Wilde but was a recognised poet in his own right. His first serious poem, ‘Autumn Days’, was published in The Oxford magazine in 1890.

From December 1892 to June 1893 Douglas edited The Spirit Lamp, an undergraduate journal that included many poems, stories, and essays with homoerotic themes. In 1894 Douglas was asked by John Francis Bloxam—also a man-loving Oxonian—to contribute to another undergraduate journal, The Chameleon. Douglas contributed two poems, ‘In Praise of Shame’ and ‘Two Loves’. In the latter, Douglas famously referred to homoeroticism as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.

On 18 Feb 1895, only four days after the triumphant opening of Earnest, Douglas’ father—the bitter, half-crazed ninth Marquess of Queensberry—left a card at Wilde’s London club marked ‘To Oscar Wilde, posing as somdomite’. Yes, he spelt it wrong. Encouraged by Douglas—who hated his father—Wilde sued Queensberry, igniting the most notorious scandal of the Victorian era. Its reverberations were felt throughout Europe. There were three trials in all, faced by Wilde with unprecedented dignity and courage but culminating in his conviction for ‘gross indecency between males’, his public humiliation, two years imprisonment in Reading gaol, and his subsequent exile.

During Wilde’s trials Douglas escaped to France to avoid being called upon as a witness. His first collection, Poems, was published in France in 1896 while Wilde was in prison. It was published anonymously in English and was a huge success. After Wilde was released he and Douglas resumed their relationship in France but Wilde was clearly a broken man—demonstrated by his early death in 1900.

From the ashes of his fall, however, Wilde has subsequently emerged as a beacon of queerness across the world, a symbol of defiance in the face of ignorance, contempt, and prejudice. Wilde even dubbed himself ‘the infamous St Oscar of Oxford, Poet and Martyr’. He remains a shining star that we can all look up to.

The 1997 biopic, with Stephen Fry as Wilde and Jude Law as Bosie, largely portrays Wilde’s life after he left Oxford although some scenes were filmed at Magdalen College.


Further reading:

An account of Wilde’s time at Oxford can be found in chapter two of Oscar Wilde (1987) by Richard Ellmann.

Transcripts of all Wilde’s fascinating correspondence whilst at Oxford can be found in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (2000), edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis.

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