Wilde joins the establishment 100 years late

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Oscar Wilde was yesterday welcomed back to the literary establishment when his name finally joined an august roll-call at Poets' Corner in Westminster Abbey.

The ceremony, led by the poet Seamus Heaney, Dame Judi Dench, Sir John Gielgud and Wilde's grandson Merlin Holland, comes exactly 100 years after the first performance of The Importance of Being Earnest at the St James's Theatre, London, and just three months before the centenary of his conviction for homosexuality at the Old Bailey.

The ceremony began with an enactment by Dame Judi and Michael Dennison of the play's "handbag scene", in which John Worthing explains to the formidable Lady Bracknell how he came to be found in a black handbag at Victoria Station.

To laughter, Dame Judi declaimed the memorable line: "To lose one parent, Mr Worthing, may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose two looks like carelessness."

Sir John read an extract from De Profundis, Wilde's poignant letter from Reading jail to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. "I treated art as a supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction," he read. "I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram."

Wilde's greatness was not only celebrated by himself yesterday. Mr Heaney applauded the writer "who had entered the language as decisively as he first entered America with nothing to declare except his genius". On and off stage, he added, Wilde had delivered his one-liners with the perfect pitch of a struck tuning fork. Wilde had been not only a brilliant entertainer but a dedicated poet who in the end had fulfilled the world's most solemn expectations.

The unveiling was carried out by Mr Holland, who pressed a switch to illuminate the window over Tennyson's grave on which his grandfather's name has been inscribed.

But few present at the ceremony can have missed the irony of such an event to honour a man so viciously condemned by society. Then, after his public disgrace, the Daily Telegraph observed: "The man has now suffered the penalties of his career, and may well be allowed to pass from that platform of publicity which he loved into that limbo of disrepute and forgetfulness which is his due. The grave of contemptuous oblivion may rest on his foolish ostentation, his empty paradoxes, his insufferable posturing, his incurable vanity."

Today's newspapers, no doubt, will tell a rather different story.