Just recently, it seems there’s been a spate of particularly notable birthdays. Last weekend saw the 70th birthday of local legend and one of the ultimate ‘working class heroes’, John Lennon. Celebrations were in full swing not just here in his birthplace, as they will continue to be for the next couple of months (until the 30th anniversary of his death), but all the way around the world. And it’s fitting; it’s likely that only the remotest corners and populations of the globe will have failed to have heard of Lennon, and love or loathe him or his work, nobody can deny the considerable cultural impact he had and continues to have long after his passing.
The weekend just gone provided another anniversary of another much admired artistic figure. There was not so much of a fanfare or birthday party replete with sing-a-longs, streamers and monuments unveiled– perhaps it’s because 156 isn’t so much of an obvious milestone as 70 – but nevertheless, Saturday 16th October was the 156th birthday of Oscar Wilde, writer, poet, playwright and master of wit and wisdom. Despite the obvious lack of festivities to mark the day, we can be sure that fans of Wilde the world over will have celebrated just as fervently, by reading or reciting something from his literary catalogue, laughing at his razor sharp and well observed humour or recalling his seemingly off-the-cuff soundbite-style quotes, so ahead of their time but incredibly relevant, as much as now as they were when first uttered over a century ago. Plus, a certain internet search engine commemorated the special date by displaying one of their famous ‘doodles’ which portrayed the portrait from Wilde’s most famous work, and his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. So that is certainly something.
In many respects, Lennon and Wilde have much in common. Both are idolised by many and keep attracting, mesmerising and inspiring new fans years after their respective deaths. Both were charismatic but quite often viewed as controversial. Both died at prematurely early ages, in quite different but equally tragic circumstances. But most significantly, both left behind legacies, becoming representatives of particular causes due to their actions – though in Wilde’s case, he could not have expected how his own defence of his sexuality in the face of so much misunderstanding and discrimination could have given those born many years later so much strength, determination and pride in having to fight their own battles. But the greatest legacy both men could leave behind was surely in the wealth of their creative work, considered to be among the most respected in their individual fields. To quote one of Wilde’s many marvellous quotes: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all”. Oscar Wilde certainly lived. And to celebrate that life, here is one of his poems; not as much acknowledged as his plays, but still quite brilliant and immensely moving, considering what is known of his life.
Is it thy will that I should wax and wane,
Barter my cloth of gold for hodden grey,
And at thy pleasure weave that web of pain
Whose brightest threads are each a wasted day?
Is it thy will–Love that I love so well–
That my Soul’s House should be a tortured spot
Wherein, like evil paramours, must dwell
The quenchless flame, the worm that dieth not?
Nay, if it be thy will I shall endure,
And sell ambition at the common mart,
And let dull failure be my vestiture,
And sorrow dig its grave within my heart.
Perchance it may be better so–at least
I have not made my heart a heart of stone,
Nor starved my boyhood of its goodly feast,
Nor walked where Beauty is a thing unknown.
Many a man hath done so; sought to fence
In straitened bonds the soul that should be free,
Trodden the dusty road of common sense,
While all the forest sang of liberty,
Not marking how the spotted hawk in flight
Passed on wide pinion through the lofty air,
To where the steep untrodden mountain height
Caught the last tresses of the Sun God’s hair.
Or how the little flower he trod upon,
The daisy, that white-feathered shield of gold,
Followed with wistful eyes the wandering sun
Content if once its leaves were aureoled.
But surely it is something to have been
The best belovèd for a little while,
To have walked hand in hand with Love, and seen
His purple wings flit once across thy smile.
Ay! though the gorgèd asp of passion feed
On my boy’s heart, yet have I burst the bars,
Stood face to face with Beauty, known indeed
The Love which moves the Sun and all the stars!
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)