“All trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death, and three times I have been tried. The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the house of detention, and the third time to pass into prison for two years. Society as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on just and unjust alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.” –Oscar Wilde, De Profundis
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was an Irish playwright, novelist, essayist, and poet born in Dublin. At the height of his fame and success, while his masterpiece, The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), was still on stage in London, Wilde had the Marquess of Queensberry prosecuted for libel.
Married to Constance Lloyd and father of two children Cyril (1885-1915) and Vyvyan (1886-1967), Wilde was also conducting an ongoing affair with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, the third son of the Marquess of Queensbury. When the outraged Marquess called Wilde a homosexual, the Irish playwright took the foolish decision to sue for libel.
Wilde had three trials, and “being a homosexual” was not the specific charge in any of them. He started legal proceedings himself, in response to harsh provocation, and the charge he brought was one of libel, though it arose in relation to claims about his sexual behavior. The outrageous behavior of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, and the father of Wilde’s lover, Douglas, spurred Wilde to legal action. Wilde looks like a paragon of respectability next to Queensberry. A loud atheist who attacked Christianity, he was a terrible husband; his miserable first marriage ended in divorce, and his second marriage was annulled. Before the Wilde trials, a series of events had made Queensberry hypersensitive to sexual relations between men. The most important was the death of his oldest son and heir, Francis, Viscount Drumlanrig, in 1894. Drumlanrig was rumored to have had an affair with Lord Rosebery, the Prime Minister. Supposedly threatened with exposure, he killed himself, although his death was recorded as a shooting accident. In Queensberry’s eyes, having lost one son to “snob queers,” he was not going to lose another. Even though his first wife had mostly raised his sons, Queensberry fashioned himself as a concerned father when he learned of Douglas’s relation with Wilde. His threats escalated, including angry visits to Wilde’s home, an attempted disruption of a performance of Wilde’s Importance of Being Earnest, and, finally, leaving his card at Wilde’s club, on which he had written: “for Oscar Wilde / posing ‘Somdomite’.
Even though Wilde’s friends urged him to avoid a trial, Wilde accused Queensberry of libel, and the trial began on 3 April 1895. Sir Edward Clarke represented Wilde; Edward Carson represented Queensberry. To the surprise of many, Clarke never even called Lord Alfred Douglas to defend himself; Wilde claimed that he prevented Douglas from doing so. Near the end, Clarke tried and failed to get Carson to agree to a modified charge, and Wilde lost the case. Wilde faced the worst even as his friends abandoned him and he went bankrupt to pay Queensberry’s legal costs of ₤600. Soon after the libel trial, he was arrested and taken to the magistrates’ court in Bow Street, and from there to Holloway Prison. He was indicted not for sodomy but for the lesser and somewhat vaguer charge, “gross indecency,” a misdemeanor rather than a felony, which carried a maximum sentence of two years. the jury convicted him of gross indecency. The vehemence with which the judge, Justice Wills, denounced Wilde may have reacted against the weakness of the prosecution: “That you, Wilde, have been the centre of a circle of extensive corruption of the most hideous kind among young men, it is . . . impossible to doubt”. Wilde received the maximum sentence of two years; Wills had the option of including hard labour or not, and he made sure that it was included.
Following his release, he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol which was dedicated to Charles Thomas Woodridge “Sometime Trooper of the Royal Horse Guards” who was executed for murdering his wife prompting Wilde to famously write:
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Jail broke his spirit “and that each day is like a year, a year whose days are long,” and a lonely, desolate, poverty-stricken Wilde died in Paris in 1900 at age 46.