Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was a successful poet, playwright, novelist, short-story writer, and writer of fairy tales for children. And this, of course, is to say nothing of his sparkling wit and conversation, and the many memorable quotations he is known for.
Below, we consider Oscar Wilde’s writing, bringing together the best of his work across a range of genres and modes. Are these the best works by Wilde? We think so.
1. The Ballad of Reading Gaol.
He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed …
This long poem, written after Wilde had served two years in prison following his downfall in 1895, sees Wilde reflecting on the nature of sin, crime, love, and hatred in a long poem that has given us a number of famous lines, ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’ being the most memorable.
Wilde dedicated the poem to a fellow prisoner, Charles Thomas Woolridge (‘C. T. W.’), a soldier who had been convicted for murdering his wife and who was hanged in Reading Gaol in July 1896 – the first execution that had taken place at the prison for eighteen years.
You can read our analysis of Wilde’s poem here.
Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone
She is at rest …
Although Wilde’s poetry, with a few notable exceptions, isn’t as widely read as his other works today, this short lyric shows that he was capable of writing fine poetry. It was written in the 1880s while Wilde was still an up-and-coming literary figure.
The poem was written for someone in particular: Wilde’s own sister. Isola Wilde was just nine years old when she died, while recovering from a fever, during a visit to Edgeworthstown Rectory, in Ireland. Her death affected Wilde greatly.
3. ‘The Happy Prince’.
‘The Happy Prince’ (1888) is probably the most famous fairy tale for children which Wilde wrote. It was written several years before he wrote his one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, but in some ways it might be viewed as a fairy-tale version of that later Gothic narrative, but with the central conceit inverted.
Whereas Dorian Gray will remain outwardly beautiful while he commits foul and evil deeds (because his portrait, kept out of sight in the attic, turns grotesquely ugly while Dorian Gray the man remains young and handsome), the Happy Prince loses his outward beauty as he commits more and more generous and selfless acts.
We have analysed this classic Wilde story here.
4. ‘Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime’.
One of Wilde’s finest short stories for adults (as distinct from his fairy stories for younger readers), this tale focuses on a man who has his palm read by a chiromancer, who predicts that the title character will commit murder. The poem explores the theme of superstition with Wilde’s trademark wit and skill.
5. The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Wilde’s famous preface to this – his one novel, published in book form in 1891 after being serialised the year before – states that ‘there is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book’. But in many ways Wilde’s only novel is the ultimate Victorian moral fable, about the dangers of living a selfish life driven by the pursuit of ‘new sensations’ above all else. The novel is a witty blend of Gothic horror with the ideas underpinning Aestheticism, or the ‘art for art’s sake’ movement.
The story is essentially a variation on the Faust tale, with the titular Dorian Gray (a young, handsome man) giving his soul in exchange for the ability to remain young and handsome while the portrait of him ages and decays, especially as Dorian slides further into moral corruption and sin.
We have analysed this novel here.
6. The Importance of Being Earnest.
Wilde’s best-known play, from 1895, The Importance of Being Earnest – which sees two male friends, Jack Worthing and Algernon Moncrieff, creating the perfect fictional excuse to explain their double lives to those closest to them – has been read in light of Wilde’s own double life (wife and children in Chelsea, assignations with young men in Soho). It’s a very witty play whose plot is in the tradition of old English comedies and farces. It’s known for Lady Bracknell’s famous two-word line: ‘A handbag?’
In 2007, a first edition of the play was donated to a charity shop in Nantwich, Cheshire. Aptly, it was placed in a handbag.
7. ‘The Portrait of Mr. W. H.’
A short story (later expanded into a novella) inspired by the mysterious dedicatee of Shakespeare’s Sonnets from 1609, ‘Mr W. H.’ One of the characters in Wilde’s story believes he has cracked this literary mystery: ‘W. H.’ refers to Willie Hughes, a boy actor with whom Shakespeare was in love. This actor is the ‘Fair Youth’ to whom the majority of the sonnets are addressed. However, the character’s determination to prove his theory will end in tragedy, in a fine Wilde story that deserves to be better-known.
8. ‘The Critic as Artist’.
Among the other genres Wilde wrote in, he was a dab-hand at the Socratic dialogue: two men staying up all through the night discussing important issues relating to art and the world. Here, Gilbert and Ernest talk about the role of the critic, with Wilde characteristically turning the usual relationship on its head and arguing that the critic is often more creative than the artist himself.
Although Wilde is best-known for his comic plays like The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, he also wrote serious plays about weighty topics: here, in a daring move, he chose the topic of Salome, who asks Herod Antipas for the head of John the Baptist in exchange for dancing the sensuous Dance of the Seven Veils for Herod.
Wilde originally wrote the play in French, in 1891, but it was translated into English three years later. Curiously, it was Wilde’s play that gave us the phrase ‘dance of the seven veils’ to describe Salome’s suggestive performance!
10. De Profundis.
Here’s a question for you: which great work did Oscar Wilde write while imprisoned in Reading Gaol? Not The Ballad of Reading Gaol – that was written while he was in exile in France following his release from prison – but De Profundis, his long letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. It’s heartfelt, honest, moving, and a must-read for anyone interested in Wilde’s life and his downfall.
About Oscar Wilde
The life of the Irish novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is as famous as – perhaps even more famous than – his work. But in a career spanning some twenty years, Wilde created a body of work which continues to be read an enjoyed by people around the world: a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray; short stories and fairy tales such as ‘The Happy Prince’ and ‘The Selfish Giant’; poems including The Ballad of Reading Gaol; and essay-dialogues which were witty revivals of the Platonic philosophical dialogue.
But above all, it is Wilde’s plays that he continues to be known for, and these include witty drawing-room comedies such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as a Biblical drama, Salome (which was banned from performance in the UK and had to be staged abroad). Wilde is also often remembered for his witty quips and paradoxes and his conversational one-liners, which are legion. They include, ‘Work is the curse of the drinking classes’, and ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius’ (when travelling through customs in America).
Wilde’s life – his generosity to others, his double life as a family man and someone who engaged with extramarital affairs with other men, and his subsequent downfall when he was put on trial for ‘gross indecency’ – has been movingly written about in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde and in the 1997 biopic Wilde, with Stephen Fry in the title role.
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Agree with the selections although I’ve a soft spot for ‘The Harlot’s House’. There’s a clip of Vincent Price (a favourite actor of mine) reciting the whole poem off the cuff on an old Wogan TV show online which is worth tracing. I’d also recommend the classic biography by Ellman (the best one ?) and the recent Rupert Everett film about Wilde’s final days ironically entitled The Happy Prince.
For more about the Yellow Book, go to Wikipedia
The fairy tales are worth a read as well.