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The Best Anecdotes Featuring Oscar Wilde

It’s Oscar Wilde’s birthday today – he was born on 16 October 1854 – so in honour of this, we’ve compiled some of our favourite anecdotes featuring the great author and wit. Wilde is probably known for his conversation as much as for his literary works. Here are some of the funniest and most thought-provoking stories featuring the man who, as well as being a great wit, was also often rather wise, too (and as the etymologies of the words suggest, the two are not unrelated).

The most famous anecdote involving Wilde concerns his arrival in the United States in the 1880s, when he was already a known figure in England – part of the reason for his trip to America was to promote the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience, which mocked the kind of dandy aesthete embodied by Wilde – but he was known for his flamboyant behaviour and his wit, rather than his writing (at this stage he had published just one volume of poetry). Asked by customs if he had anything to declare, Wilde memorably replied, ‘Only my genius.’ Or did he? There is some doubt over whether this famous Oscar Wilde one-liner was ever uttered.

Wilde2Another anecdote concerns Wilde’s time as an undergraduate at Oxford. When Wilde was studying Classics, he had to undertake a viva voce or oral examination, for which he had to translate from the Greek version of the New Testament. The chosen passage for translation was from the story of the Passion of Christ. Wilde began to translate, and the examiners were satisfied, and told him that he had done enough. Most students would have gladly stopped there, but Wilde ignored them and continued to translate. Again the examiners attempted to stop him, and this time succeeded, telling him that they were satisfied with his translation. `Oh, do let me go on,’ said Wilde, ‘I want to see how it ends.’

On another occasion, Wilde mentioned that he had been hard at work redrafting his poetry. ‘I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma,’ he said. ‘And in the afternoon?’ his friend asked. ‘In the afternoon,’ responded Wilde, ‘– well, I put it back again.’

Wilde was at breakfast with guests one day, and, despite his own line that ‘only dull people are brilliant at breakfast’, on this occasion Wilde proceeded to display his sparkling wit. The host of the breakfast was talking to an attractive blonde woman, and Wilde asked the host’s wife if she was jealous. She assured Wilde that her husband didn’t know a pretty woman when he saw one. Another guest gallantly interjected, ‘I beg to differ – what about yourself?’ The wife answered, ‘Oh, I was an accident.’ ‘Rather,’ Wilde responded, ‘a catastrophe!’

Another anecdote concerns the theme of jealousy. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who shared a historic dinner party with Wilde, recounted how Wilde told the following story, after talk had turned to the way in which the fortune of our friends makes us discontented. ‘The devil,’ said Wilde, ‘was once crossing the Libyan Desert, and he came upon a spot where a number of small fiends were tormenting a holy hermit. The sainted man easily shook off their evil suggestions. The devil watched their failure and then he stepped forward to give them a lesson. “What you do is too crude,” said he. “Permit me for one moment.” With that he whispered to the holy man, “Your brother has just been made Bishop of Alexandria.” A scowl of malignant jealousy at once clouded the serene face of the hermit. “That,” said the devil to his imps, “is the sort of thing which I should recommend.”‘ This same dinner party was also the occasion on which both Doyle and Wilde agreed to write, respectively, the second Sherlock Holmes novel and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Our final favourite anecdote concerns a joke at Wilde’s expense. The renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt – who, as we’ve revealed previously, was the first person to play Hamlet on film – was once talking to Wilde when he went to light up a cigarette. He inquired, ‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ Bernhardt shot back, ‘Oscar, I don’t mind if you burn.’ In Bernhardt, one wonders, had the witty Wilde met his match?

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About interestingliterature

A blog dedicated to rooting out the interesting stuff about classic books and authors.

Posted on October 16, 2013, in Literature and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 65 Comments.

  1. I love a bit of Wilde, thank you for the anecdotes, wonderful stuff.

  2. Great post. Keep them coming. My favorite quote from Oscar Wilde was his comment about Niagara Falls “It must be the second disappointment for American married couples.”

  3. Reblogged this on Bastet and Sekhmet's Library and commented:
    Today is Oscar Wilde’s Birthday…what a better way to celebrate than reading some anecdotes!

  4. Fantastic payoff line about having “met his match”. Worthy of Wilde and Bernhardt put together.

  5. Delightful reading… :-)

  6. There’s another Wilde putdown, by the artist Whistler, who made some terse and witty comment (can’t remember what it was!) Reputedly, Oscar said ‘I wish I’d said that’ To which Whistler riposted ‘You will, Oscar, you will!’

    • Oh yes, how could I forget that corker? Haha! Wonder if there was much truth in that biting line. Mind you, Wilde could work (or rework) others’ material in his own unique style, I suppose…

  7. Reblogged this on NU VORBI, SCRIE! and commented:
    A little bit more of Wilde, today. Never enough, though.

  8. Oh he was fabulous! Keeps us tittering all these years later…

  9. :-) Thanks, from another who shares respect for this man’s birthday today.

  10. Love that last one! Great post, thank you for sharing!

  11. I know you only do literature, but like me I think you understand how truly diverse it is! Happy bday Oscar!
    I have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award,
    http://yadadarcyyada.wordpress.com/2013/10/16/versatile-blogger-award/
    :)

  12. Reblogged this on I Love Geekology 101 and commented:
    I love Oscar Wilde. On a trip to Paris while I was in college, a professor would only let me turn in my paper in her Aesthetes & Decadents class if I brought back a picture of Wilde’s tombstone. I still haven’t been forgiven for getting my friends lost in that Parisian cemetery!

    • I’d love to go to the cemetery – where Jim Morrison’s also buried, I believe (among others!).

      • That’s the spot. Morrison isn’t there anymore. They moved his body because of the vandalism to his grave, but his headstone is still there. People still leave little tributes there for him. Chopin is there too, and lots of others. It’s really beautiful…and creepy, kind of like New Orleans cemeteries.

  13. My daughter covered Wilde in her PhD thesis (alongside Alfred Hitchcock and several 19th century French writers) and then did post-doc work out in LA at the Clark Library (which has the most extensive collection for Wilde). When I visited she showed me several very humorous postcards and little things like matchbook covers where Wilde jotted down a few notes and witty bon mots. In my generation I suppose Oscar Levant comes the closest to Wilde; besides, Wilde didn’t play the piano.

    • I’d love to see those postcards and matchbook covers! I bet it was wonderful to be able to work on, and handle, such things. Your daughter’s thesis sounds like a good read – some interesting connections, which we like here at IL…

  14. Superb! I haven’t read anything by Wilde in ages. I need to go back to “The Importance of Being Earnest” and “Dorian Gray”: two great, though quite different works.

    • I need to reread ‘Earnest’, as I haven’t revisited that for some years. Every now and then I get the urge to read something by him I haven’t read before – next time I think it’ll have to be one of his lesser-known plays (maybe ‘Vera’)…

  15. Thanks for the great post… I needed cheering up today : )

  16. rthorndikebreeze

    Reblogged this on Thinking in Public.

  17. I nominated your blog for the Dragon’s Loyalty Award. Stop by my blog and pick it up any time http://meltwaterblog.wordpress.com/2013/10/17/dragons-loyalty-award/

  18. After freed from the prison Wilde spent his days in Europe where Frank Harris met Wilde and urged him to write something in the vein of the Ballad, he said he had thought of another ballad as a counter statement to the Reading goal. The Ballad of the Fisher-boy reflecting his life in a limbo. He would rather celebrate freedom than prison, joy instead of sorrow, kissing instead of hanging. He could recite three stanzas from memory which according to Harris was not unpromising. But to get down to write it he dared not. As he told William Rothenstein, ‘The intense energy of creation has been kicked out of me.’

  19. Humorous and delightful indeed! His and G. B. Shaw’s anecdotes are by far the most amuzing ones I’ve ever read.
    Thank you for publishing them!

  20. This is my favorite of the ones you mention: “On another occasion, Wilde mentioned that he had been hard at work redrafting his poetry. ‘I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning and took out a comma,’ he said. ‘And in the afternoon?’ his friend asked. ‘In the afternoon,’ responded Wilde, ‘– well, I put it back again.’” As a writer, I can soooo relate to this ;)

  21. Reblogged this on 1WriteWay and commented:
    I’ve been remiss with my reblog of Interesting Literature’s posts. This one is on Oscar Wilde. Click, read, and enjoy :)

  22. Fabulous piece about a fabulous man!

  23. I can relate to the one about the comma. Only for me it takes days.

  24. In ‘The Western Canon: Books and Schools of the Ages,’ Harold Bloom dubs Wilde “sublime” and proclaims that he was “right about everything.”

    • I never knew that, Scott – thanks! I need to read Bloom’s book. I like the fact that he includes William Empson’s book on Milton in his canon as the one work of literary criticism (I think)…

  25. From an ink smeared page

    Great work on Oscar Wilde!
    And thanks for following my blog :)

  26. Reblogged this on ambulivictor's Blog and commented:
    THIS IS WHAT YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT OSCAR WILDE:

  27. Reblogged this on Misadventures of an Average Twenty Something and commented:
    My favorite author of all-time.

  28. Reblogged this on Freedom for Cetaceans.

  29. I have long had a soft spot for this snarky put down of banal small-talk, which I think is attributed to Wilde:
    Man: “I walked past your house today.”
    Wilde: “Thankyou!”

  30. Reblogged this on Somebody Else's Problem Field and commented:
    Oscar Wilde was a man of intelligence unfortunately for himself.
    Especially since he wrote in The Importance of Being Earnest, ” “I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound.”
    If you want to avoid problems, do not be Oscar Wilde. His ways are far too thought provoking and wise, and you may upset your delicate sensitivites.

  31. I am back here again exploring the page once more and came upon my Oscar. Thank You. I am currently writing about surprising Wilde facts, such as Florence Balcombe’s rejection of his marriage proposal to favor Bram Stoker. I am sure that many fellow Wildeans would agree that, like Oscar himself said, he put his talent into his works, but his genius went straight into how he chose to live his life. I am aware of the fact that I need a life, but let me add an even sadder fact: I still feel the pain of his verdict in 1895. No matter how many times I read about it, the thought of a man going from the zenith of success all the way doing to eating dirt in the very same year just keeps touching my heart. To read the vicissitudes that he endured in Holloway prison and how his intellect continued to decay…it is murders. The Victorian middle classes killed him….and that jackbutt Charles Brookfield may he be burning as we speak. (Vented). lol

  32. Chintan Lalwani

    Thank goodness for the party where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle & Oscar Wilde met. Wonderful article :)

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