Saturday, April 27, 2013

Oscar Wilde and Christ the Poet


 In 1997 I went to see the movie "Oscar Wilde" (starring the incomparable Stephen Fry) with my friend Rev Bill Miller and
a group of clergy and lay people from several more or less liberal churches—Methodists, Church of Christ, and Quaker--who met every month or so to go to a movie and to discuss it from a more or less theological standpoint. After returning from the movie, and after an intense and interesting discussion with these open-minded Christians, I wrote this review/reflection about the little known Christian side of Wilde's life.

      Wilde is best known for his clever comedies, his macabre and beauitfully written novel "Portrait of Dorian Gray," and his unforgettably witty oneliners, such as "America is the only country that went from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between,"  "Life is too important to be taken seriously," "Women are meant to be loved, not understood," "Nowadays people know the price of everything, and the value of nothing."

     The movie does an excellent job of depicting Wilde’s quriky human complexities,  but barely touches on  the religious dimension of Wilde’s work and life. The only religious reference that Wilde makes in the movie was his clever line: “I mean to die a Catholic, but I don’t intend to live like one.” From this remark, audiences would be hard put to realize that, while in jail, Wilde composed one of the most moving and original religious confessions of this century, “De Profundis.” The film describes this work  merely as a “farewell letter to [his lover] Lord Douglas.”

     Wilde’s story moved me more than I expected in part because Wilde played an important role in my spiritual development that I had almost forgotten. In college, I wrote poetry, fancied myself an aesthete, and was attracted to the works of French decadent poets like Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Verlaine, and also to the “Fin de Siecle” artists and writers like Aubrey Beardsly and Wilde. Like Wilde and the decadents (as well as like the Rolling Stones and the Beatles), I saw the world of drugs as a stimulus for artistic expression. I plunged into the depths with the enthusiasm of a convert and paid a heavy price. But at the time it seemed worth risking all to create a poem that would dazzle with its originality and beauty.

      In my junior year  I became a student  of Anne Sexton, another poet whose religious dimension is sometimes overlooked. During that period (in which I still considered myself an agnostic and studiously avoided church),   I read “De Profundis” and was powerfully moved by what seemed to me Wilde’s utterly original depiction of Jesus as an artist, and the artist as Christ-like. After watching the movie,  I re-read these words and imagined Wilde in his prison cell penning them, and was moved to tears.

    The movie depicts Wilde writing fairy tales in prison, which is so far from reality as to be almost ludicrous. In fact, while in prison, Wilde turned to the Gospels and read them in the original Greek:

Of late I have been studying with diligence the four prose poems about Christ.  At Christmas I managed to get hold of a Greek Testament, and every morning, after I had cleaned my cell and  polished my tins, I read a little of the Gospels, a dozen verses taken by chance anywhere.  It is a delightful way of opening the day.  Every one, even in a turbulent, ill-disciplined life, should do the same.  Endless repetition, in and out of season, has spoiled for us the freshness, the naivete, the simple romantic charm of the Gospels.  We hear them read far too often and far too badly, and all repetition is anti-spiritual.  When one returns to the Greek; it is like going into a garden of lilies out of some, narrow and dark house.
    As this passage suggests, Wilde’s approach to the Gospels was aesthetic rather than theological—which is to say, it was “felt” rather than reasoned out (or rationalized). Another way of saying this is that Wilde read the Gospels not as a rule book or as a historical document, but as a work of art in the profoundest sense. Wilde’s ambition was to write a work depicting Christ as the ultimate artist, and in a sense that is what he achieved in “De Profundis.” I heartily recommend that serious Christians interested in art should read the whole work since it is one of the most profound and original spiritual confessions of this century.

     It is impossible to do justice to this work in a brief essay. So much depends on the style and tone that it is tempting simply to quote passages like the following:

       If ever I write again, in the sense of producing artistic work, there are just two subjects on which and through which I desire to express myself:  one is 'Christ as the precursor of the romantic movement in life':  the other is 'The artistic life considered in its relation to conduct.'  The first is, of course, intensely fascinating, for I see in Christ not merely the essentials of the supreme romantic type, but all the accidents, the wilfulnesses even, of the romantic temperament also.  He was the first person who ever said to people that they should live 'flower-like lives.'  He fixed the phrase.  He took children as the type of what people should try to become.  He held them up as examples to their elders, which I myself have always thought the chief use of children, if what is perfect should have a use.  Dante describes the soul of a man as coming from the hand of God 'weeping and laughing like a little child,' and Christ also saw that the soul of each one should be A GUISA DI FANCIULLA CHE PIANGENDO E RIDENDO PARGOLEGGIA. 
      He felt that life was changeful, fluid, active, and that to allow it to be stereotyped into any form was death.  He saw that people should not be too serious over material, common interests:  that to be unpractical was to be a great thing:  that one should not bother too much over affairs.  The birds didn't, why should man?  He is charming when he says, 'Take no thought for the morrow; is not the soul more than meat? is not the body more than raiment?'  A Greek might have used the latter phrase.  It is full of Greek feeling.  But only Christ could have said both, and so summed up life perfectly for us.His morality is all sympathy, just what morality should be.  If the only thing that he ever said had been, 'Her sins are forgiven her because she loved much,' it would have been worth while dying to have said it.  His justice is all poetical justice, exactly what justice should be.  The beggar goes to heaven because he has been unhappy.  I cannot conceive a better reason for his being sent there.  The people who work for an hour in the vineyard in the cool of the evening receive just as much reward as those who have toiled there all day long in the hot sun.  Why shouldn't they?  Probably no one deserved anything.  Or perhaps they were a different kind of people. 
     Christ had no patience with the dull lifeless mechanical systems that treat people as if they were things, and so treat everybody alike:  for him there were no laws:  there were exceptions merely, as if anybody, or anything, for that matter, was like aught else in the world!
     That which is the very keynote of romantic art was to him the proper basis of natural life.  He saw no other basis.  And when they brought him one, taken in the very act of sin and showed him her sentence written in the law, and asked him what was to be done, he wrote with his finger on the ground as though he did not hear them, and finally, when they pressed him again, looked up and said,  Let him of you who has never sinned be the first to throw the stone at her.'  It was worth while living to have said that.
    Like all poetical natures he loved ignorant people.  He knew that in the soul of one who is ignorant there is always room for a great idea.  But he could not stand stupid people, especially those who are made stupid by education:  people who are full of opinions not one of which they even understand, a peculiarly modern type, summed up by Christ when he describes it as the type of one who has the key of knowledge, cannot use it himself, and does not allow other people to use it, though it may be made to open the gate of God's Kingdom.
Wilde would have understood the “culture war” taking place between the fundamentalists and conservatives in America today. In Wilde’s view, Jesus’ “chief war was against the Philistines.  That is the war every child of light has to wage.  Philistinism was the note of the age and community in which he lived.  In their heavy  inaccessibility to ideas, their dull respectability, their tedious orthodoxy, their worship of vulgar success, their entire preoccupation with the gross materialistic side of life, and their  ridiculous estimate of themselves and their importance, the Jews of  Jerusalem in Christ's day were the exact counterpart of the British  Philistine of our own."

Sound familiar? In Wilde’s view, what “saves” people are not their professions of faith or their their do-goodism, but “beautiful moments” in which they realize their true nature as children of God. Wilde writes: “The cold  philanthropies, the ostentatious public charities, the tedious formalisms so dear to the middle-class mind, [Christ] exposed with utter and relentless scorn….Those whom he saved from their sins are saved simply for beautiful moments in their lives.  Mary Magdalen, when she sees Christ, breaks the rich vase of alabaster that one of her seven lovers had given her, and spills the odorous spices over his tired dusty feet, and for that one moment's sake sits for ever with Ruth and Beatrice  in the tresses of the snow-white rose of Paradise.  All that Christ  says to us by the way of a little warning is that every moment  should be beautiful, that the soul should always be ready for the  coming of the bridegroom, always waiting for the voice of the lover, Philistinism being simply that side of man's nature that is  not illumined by the imagination.  He sees all the lovely  influences of life as modes of light:  the imagination itself is  the world of light.  The world is made by it, and yet the world  cannot understand it:  that is because the imagination is simply a  manifestation of love, and it is love and the capacity for it that  distinguishes one human being from another.”

Those who have been raised on the social Gospel may find such religious aestheticism suspect, but Wilde had a genuine love for ordinary people, and a social conscience. The Ballad of Reading Goal is a powerful statement against capital punishment.

But Wilde was not interested in social reform for its own sake. He was at heart an individualist. He saw Jesus not a reformer trying to change the way we live our lives, but as a visionary whose presence changes us at the depths of our being.

“Indeed, that is the charm about Christ, when all is said:  he is just like a work of art.  He does not really teach one anything, but by being brought into his presence one becomes something.”

     Wilde questions the motives, and the goals, of reformers who would turn criminals into capitalists:

“[Christ’s] primary desire was not to reform people, any more than his primary desire was to a relieve suffering.  To turn an interesting thief into a tedious honest man was not his aim.  He would have thought little of the Prisoners' Aid Society  and other modern movements of the kind.  The conversion of a  publican into a Pharisee would not have seemed to him a great achievement.  But in a manner not yet understood of the world he regarded sin and suffering as being in themselves beautiful holy  things and modes of perfection.” 

Wilde goes on to say, “It seems a very dangerous idea.  It is—all great ideas are  dangerous.  That it was Christ's creed admits of no doubt.  That it is the true creed I don't doubt myself.”
“There is something so unique about Christ.  Of course just as there  are false dawns before the dawn itself, and winter days so full of  sudden sunlight that they will cheat the wise crocus into  squandering its gold before its time, and make some foolish bird  call to its mate to build on barren boughs, so there were  Christians before Christ.  For that we should be grateful.  The  unfortunate thing is that there have been none since.  I make one  exception, St. Francis of Assisi.  But then God had given him at  his birth the soul of a poet, as he himself when quite young had in mystical marriage taken poverty as his bride:  and with the soul of  a poet and the body of a beggar he found the way to perfection not  difficult.  He understood Christ, and so he became like him.  We do  not require the Liber Conformitatum to teach us that the life of  St. Francis was the true IMITATIO CHRISTI, a poem compared to which  the book of that name is merely prose.”

      The movie ends with another clever line from Wilde: “Like St. Francis, my last days have been wedded to poverty, but unlike St. Francis, this marriage has not been a success.” Audiences watching “Wilde” cannot fully appreciate the irony of Wilde unless they realize that Wilde in his latter days did in fact aspire to make his life an Imitatio Christi. Perhaps the movie-makers had a glimmering of this. As Wilde was led out of the court room, and faced the jeering crowds, some of whom spat upon him, I could not help thinking of Jesus being led to the Place of Skulls.


Today, thank God, gays do not face the death penalty or imprisonment for trying to realize their true nature. Wilde, like many homosexuals today, did not feel at home in the conventional church, but he did feel a deep attraction for Christ. We may find fault with his theology, but we cannot question his love of Christ and his yearning for the Divine. The movie “Wilde” does a fine job of depicting Wilde’s human side, but only when we read “De Profundis” and “Reading Goal” do we realize that Wilde was also a spiritual seeker whose life was tragically cut short.

PS I just found Wilde's quote on war and find it very insightful, only it needs to be modernized. "As long as war it regarded as evil, it will always have its fascination. When it is looked upon as stupid and uncool, it will cease to be popular."


  1. Thank you Anthony for opening my eyes to this side of Oscar Wilde of which I was completely ignorant. I too enjoyed watching this movie of his life but I am more deeply moved to learn about his spiritual life.

  2. Hmmm...seems as though more should read about Oscar Wilde. I aurely am going much deeper to find more about us all.

  3. I have listened to this audio book more times than l can count because l cannot read much anymore after an illness. But l have given this beautiful book to others and shared quotes with friends. I think it is gorgeous.