Another Side of Oscar Wilde

The world remembers him as a poet and playwright-but Oscar Wilde was also something of a libertarian reformer.


"A man who can dominate a London dinnertable can dominate the world," Wilde once said. And Oscar Wilde, at the height of his career in 1895, dominated London dinnertables, London stages, and London opinion. Two of his plays opened that year to great success. His epigrams and activities were repeated—often by him—in the best of homes, while his philosophy of art and life could be found in most London newspapers. He was intensely admired and intensely disliked. For Oscar Wilde was, among other things, a propagator of radical ideas.

Aesthetically, he advocated art for art's sake. On a personal level, he declared pleasure to be the purpose of life, at a time when duty and God assumed that role. Also on a personal level, he was openly homosexual. These aspects of Wilde have been discussed in hundreds of books and essays. But Oscar Wilde the libertarian and advocate of social reform has been next to completely ignored.

In Liberty and the Great Libertarians, Charles Sprading includes an excerpt from Wilde's essay The Soul of Man under Socialism. This essay and Wilde's lengthy poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol are his most important political works. But Wilde was primarily a playwright, a poet, and a novelist. He only occasionally strayed into political or ethical theory, and his importance as a libertarian stems from the events and consequences of his life rather than from his theory, especially when it comes to penal reform.


Although theory is not Wilde's main importance, it does shed light on the events of his life. The Soul of Man under Socialism contains Wilde's most explicit political statements. "Every man must be left quite free to choose his own work. No form of compulsion must be exercised over him.…And by work I simply mean activity of any kind.…All association must be quite voluntary. It is only in voluntary association that man is fine."

Concerning government he wrote: "There is such a thing as leaving mankind alone; there is no such thing as governing mankind. All modes of government are failures." Curiously, however, under socialism he would have the "State" remain as a "voluntary association" to "organise labour and be the manufacturer and distributor of necessary commodities." Wilde did not spell out how this State differs from a government.

To achieve this ideal, Wilde proposed voluntary socialism with its rejection of private property. "For the recognition of private property has really harmed Individualism and obscured it, by confusing a man with what he possesses." Wilde's analysis of this issue was naive and very superficial. His objections to private property were aesthetic rather than moral or economic; he believed that property had a "decaying" and unattractive effect on man's soul, though morally it was acceptable. Private property, he argued, "made gain not growth its aim. So that man thought that the important thing was to have, and did not know that the important thing is to be." In this, Wilde was undoubtedly influenced by William Morris, a popular artist and leading socialist of the time whom Wilde admired in both respects.

Most of The Soul of Man under Socialism, and the portion that is quoted by Sprading, deals with the deadly effect of authoritarianism upon art and the artist. On this issue Wilde is less confused: government is totally opposed to individuality in art; government is a means by which the public comes to control art; "the form of government that is most suitable to the artist is no government at all."

This pamphlet has never been considered important by the English Socialist movement, perhaps because of its voluntarism or perhaps because of its wandering literary style. But according to Robert Sherard, a biographer of Wilde, it was popular on the Continent, as well as in America, where "large pirated editions were printed and sold by revolutionary groups." In England itself, though, "its most immediate result was to create feelings against Wilde among the influential and moneyed classes." (But since Sherard was a friend and defender of Wilde, his claims may be somewhat exaggerated.)


Wilde's ideas created a backlash of resentment. At the same time, his homosexuality was becoming the subject of gossip. On April 3, 1895, ignoring the good advice of friends, he brought the Marquis of Queensberry to trial on charges of libel based upon a note that Queensberry had written. The note accused Wilde of posing as a "somdomite" (sic). The trial was a disaster. Not only did Wilde lose the case, but information revealed during the trial exposed Wilde himself to criminal prosecution.

On April 26, having been denied bail and the right to read the charges brought against him, Oscar Wilde was tried under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1895. The act, only four months old, had created a new offense: indecency between males in private (public indecency had long been prohibited). It was for private actions that Wilde was prosecuted twice and eventually sentenced to two years with hard labor; he spent the last one and a half years of this sentence in Reading Gaol.

The trials of Oscar Wilde brought the best legal professionals of the day into conflict over an unpopular law (the act was called "the blackmailer's charter") applied to an even more unpopular man. For although Wilde had charmed society, he was thoroughly disliked by the general public, which he had often ridiculed. Wilde was prosecuted twice. The first prosecution of April 26, 1895 ended inconclusively when the jury voted not guilty on charges of conspiracy and were unable to agree on the other counts. Although the government could have dropped the matter, less than a month later Wilde was again tried on similar, though amended, charges.

The case would not be forgotten soon. "The Wilde affair," wrote Phillip Julian, "was a turning point in the literary and social life of England, as the Dreyfus affair [was] in France. Considering the controversy it caused and the reform that followed it, the prosecution and imprisonment of Wilde was a mistake even from the government's point of view." And Hesketh Pearson suggested that, "in view of the sensation which he had created, he should have been told to leave the country."

Why did the matter continue? Frank Lockwood, then solicitor general, reportedly confessed that he dared not back down, for "it would be said all over the world that we dropped the case owing to the names mentioned in the Marquis of Queensberry's letters." Introduced into the first trial, these letters identified as homosexual various members of "society"—among them, Sir Lockwood's nephew by marriage.


A fair hearing, Wilde did not get. Newspapers and public opinion condemned him bitterly. Newspaper coverage was so prejudiced that one editor risked being sent to jail for contempt of court by publishing the details of the jury's voting in the April 26 trial even though Wilde had not yet been convicted of any offense. The atmosphere of the trial was best expressed by Justice Willis who, in passing sentence, declared it to be totally inadequate, as the offense had been the worst one he had ever tried—presumably including cases of murder.

Wilde's ability as a conversationalist and wit was evident during the trials. His testimony reads like a well-written play. At one point he made an impromptu short speech on the nobility of love between "an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him." The spontaneous applause that followed this speech undoubtedly influenced the jury, which was unable to reach a verdict.

In the April trials Wilde was more than able to fence with the prosecutor. When the prosecutor grew impatient with hearing of Wilde's doctor he snapped, "Never mind your doctor's advice." "I never do," replied Wilde. By the third trial, however, Wilde was physically and intellectually exhausted. He conducted himself with dignity, but his former confidence and sparkle were gone.

One of the few newspapers, either in America or in England, to strongly protest the prosecution and imprisonment was Benjamin Tucker's Liberty. "The imprisonment of Oscar Wilde," Tucker wrote, "is an outrage that shows how thoroughly the doctrine of liberty is misconceived. A man who has done nothing in the least degree invasive of any one; a man whose entire life, so far as known or charged, has been one of strict conformity with the idea of equal liberty… is condemned to spend two years in cruel imprisonment at hard labor.…Men who imprison a man who has committed no crime are themselves criminals." Later, Tucker again came to Wilde's defense, against the otherwise liberal E.B. Foote, Jr., who declared that Wilde should have been sentenced to twenty years instead of two.

The controversy continued during his imprisonment. Letters in the London Daily Chronicle and other papers complained loudly about Wilde's mental state and the conditions in which he lived. The outcry prompted R.B. Haldane, a Liberal M.P. and member of the Home Office Committee, to visit Wilde and investigate the claims. Prison life was brutal. "The cells in which hard labour prisoners were confined for twenty-three out of the twenty-four hours in the day were badly ventilated, and the sanitary conditions were primitive. The plank bed on which the prisoner was condemned to lie at night was an instrument of torture." These were the conditions that Wilde sought to change.


Wilde was released from prison on May 19, 1897. That same month a letter of his was published in the Daily Chronicle under the heading, "The Case Of Warder Martin: Some Cruelties of Prison Life." The letter described a small child who spent 23 hours a day in hideous conditions in solitary confinement for stealing food—and he had not even been convicted of the offense. When the child refused to eat the wretched prison food, Warder Martin tried to encourage him with a sweet biscuit; Martin was dismissed for doing so.

Most of this letter dealt with the treatment of children in prison. Children were subject to the same brutality as adults, but as Wilde observed: "A child can understand a punishment inflicted by an individual such as a parent or guardian, and bear it with a certain amount of acquiescence. What it cannot understand is a punishment inflicted by society. It cannot realize what society is." The letter went on to describe individual children Wilde had seen during his imprisonment. "The child's face was like a white wedge of sheer terror.…the next morning I heard him at breakfast-time crying and calling to be let out. His cry was for his parents.…Yet he was not even convicted of whatever little offence he has been charged with." Wilde also described the plight of a retarded prisoner who was punished constantly for his harmless but strange behavior. The man went insane.

This letter attracted a great deal of attention and, according to Francis Winwar, "succeeded in bringing prison reform." Frank Harris credits the letter with having brought about improvement in the treatment of children in British prisons.

On March 24, 1898, Wilde published another controversial letter in the Chronicle. This letter, headed "Don't Read This If You Want to Be Happy Today," was prompted by the Prison Reform Bill then under debate in the House of Commons. The bill suggested such reforms as increasing the number of inspectors and official visitors who had access to the prisons. Wilde argued that such reforms were "useless" and again pointed to the wretched conditions of prison life. "The misery and tortures that prisoners go through in consequence of the revolting sanitary arrangements are quite indescribable. And the foul air of the prison cells…is so sickening and unwholesome that it is no uncommon thing for warders, when they come in the morning out of fresh air and open and inspect each cell, to be violently sick."

Wilde suggested other reforms: adequate food, improved sanitation, adequate reading material, visitors once a month, the right to send and receive a letter at least once a month, noncensorship of mail, and adequate medical care. The letter ends: "And the first and perhaps the most difficult task is to humanize the governors of prisons, to civilize the warders and to Christianize the chaplains." This letter was signed, "The author of The Ballad of Reading Gaol."


The Ballad of Reading Gaol, published in 1898, is one of the most acclaimed poems of the English language and a major piece of literature in penal reform. Its theme is the hanging of a prisoner named C.T. Wooldridge, which occurred while Wilde was imprisoned. It filled Wilde with horror and despair:

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
We had crossed each other's way:
But we made no sign; we said no word, We had no word to say.

In The Ballad Wilde does not question the validity of any particular law but castigates all Law for cruelty and degradation:

I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
But this I know, that every Law
That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother's life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.

It is a condemnation of all prisons and all prison systems:

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun;
And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
Ever should look upon.

Because of Wilde's notoriety, The Ballad of Reading Gaol was published under the pseudonym C.3.3., the number assigned to Wilde at Reading Gaol—Block C, third cell, on the third floor. The poem was immensely popular. The first edition of 800 copies (plus 30 copies on vellum) sold within the first week and was quickly followed by a second edition of 1,000. Within three months there were six printings, and translations appeared in almost every European language. In 1899, Benjamin Tucker was the first to publish it in America as a book. It has remained one of the most published works in English.

Even the London Times devoted a lead article to praising it. Although The Ballad was poetry, it was received as a pamphlet on prison reform. The Daily Chronicle's review was typical, concentrating heavily on the horrors of prison life rather than the poem itself.

Liberty devoted a column to reviewing this, as Tucker put it, "incomparable poem." He urged "every reader of Liberty…to help this book to a wide circulation by asking for it at the bookstores and newsstands in his vicinity." A fourth of the next issue's space was given over to reporting the response of other publications to The Ballad.


Shortly after its publication Wilde wrote to George Ives, a criminologist and figure in penal reform: "I have no doubt we shall win, but the road is long, and red with monstrous martyrdoms. Nothing but the repeal of the Criminal Law Amendment Act would do any good." Wilde planned another work on prison life but died before it could be actualized.

It was imprisonment that killed Wilde. From a position of success and esteem he was reduced to sewing bags and sorting oakum. During his imprisonment, outside events played their part. His mother, whom he loved deeply, died. His wife divorced him and he never again saw his two sons, to whom much of his work had been dedicated. He was declared bankrupt and deserted by friends. On his release, he left England to avoid ostracism and scandal. But even in France, where he initially settled, many hotels refused to house him or to allow him to dine. Although he sent checks to prisoners he knew were being released, lack of money was a constant problem that inhibited his work. Other than The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde produced no work of quality after his release.

Wilde's death was the result of an injury to his ear caused when he fainted one Sunday during compulsory religious services. Despite his complaints of great pain, Wilde was denied treatment for months. It was only through the pressure of his friends and some officials that he was eventually hospitalized for the injury. Unfortunately, it formed into the abscess that contributed to greatly to his death.

Although many people considered the "social conscience" revealed in The Ballad to be a sharp break with his past, Wilde had consistently opposed injustice.

His sympathy toward penal reform can be traced back to The Soul of Man under Socialism, 1891: "One is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted; and a community is infinitely more brutalized by the habitual employment of punishment, than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime."

When in 1886 a bomb exploded in the Chicago Haymarket, killing a number of policemen, it resulted in the dubious accusation and subsequent hanging of a group of American and German revolutionaries who became known as the "Chicago Martyrs" George Bernard Shaw began the thankless task of circulating a petition on behalf of the seven men. With one exception, he was unable to obtain a signature to protest the injustice. Of all "heroic rebels and sceptics on paper," wrote Shaw, "there was only one of them who had sufficiently the courage of his convictions to make a public gesture on behalf of the anarchists. This was Oscar Wilde."

Wilde's sympathy toward anarchists was shown again when a young poet, John Barlas, felt impelled by social indignation to commit an act of "propaganda by deed"—firing a revolver in the House of Commons. Although he and Barlas were not on good terms, Wilde stepped forward to bail him out and afterward stood as his security when Barlas was bound over.


Throughout his career Wilde opposed censorship. The rehearsals for his play Salome were in their third week when, in June 1892, a license necessary for public performance was denied. The play introduced onto the stage biblical characters, which was prohibited by an ancient law whose original purpose was to suppress Catholic mystery plays. Wilde deplored this action in a lecture at the Author's Club and in interviews. In more dramatic moments he announced intentions to renounce his British citizenship. All to no avail. Salome was not produced in England until thirteen years later, five years after his death.

Wilde's opposition to censorship was broader than his desire to see Salome staged. It was deeply rooted in his art-for-art's-sake position. Art is autonomous, he maintained—independent of morality and all other nonaesthetic considerations. It must be judged as good or bad art solely in terms of aesthetic criteria, not by the standards of ethics. His position was capsulized in the preface of his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray: "There is no such thing as a moral or immoral book. Books are well written or badly written. That is all."

During his trials Wilde's commitment to freedom of expression and the autonomy of art were effectively used to discredit his character. His books were quoted as evidence of his depravity and the corrupt influence he had on youth. His refusal under oath to declare specific works "immoral" or to advocate censorship of these works helped to create the atmosphere in which he was sentenced to hard labor.

Today Wilde is remembered for his later plays, which satirized the moral, political, and social customs and standards of his day. He was a brilliant man with a tragic life, a life which—as Benjamin Tucker put it—was "one of strict conformity with the idea of equal liberty."

Wendy Grosscup is a free-lance writer.