The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde

Peter Ackroyd’s The Last Testament of Oscar Wilde (1983) is a fictional memoir of Wilde, written (supposedly) between 9 August 1900 and his death on 30 November that year. In the book, Wilde writes in a letter to a friend, ‘the world does not care for memoirs from those it has already forgotten. And so I write for myself — at least I am a good audience’ (p. 110).

  • So it is that the English treat me as a criminal, while my friends continue to regard me as martyr. I do not mind: in that combination I have become the perfect representative of the artist. p. 2
  • I have lied to so many people — but I have committed the unforgivable sin. I have lied to myself. p. 3
  • There are some artists who ask questions, and others who provide answers. I will give the answer and, in the next world, wait impatiently for the question to be asked. p. 5
  • What captivity has been to the Jews, exile has been to the Irish. For us, the romance of our native land begins only after we have left home; it is really only with other people that we become Irishmen. I once said to William Yeats that we were a nation of brilliant failures: but I have since discovered that in failure there is a great strength to be earned. The Irish nation has sought its bread in sorrow; like Christ it knows how weary the way has been and, like Dante, how salt the bread when it has been found — and yet out of these sufferings has sprung a race of incomparable poets and talkers. p. 7
  • I believe that poverty is responsible for my remarkable gift of passive contemplation. p. 8
  • When Bellerophon was thrown from Pegasus by Zeus, who envied his transports, he was suddenly forced to contemplate the details of a thorn bush: I may have to become reconciled to my wallpaper. p. 9
  • English, for example, is remarkable for the number of colour words with which it can express gloom — they are quite unknown in French. Baudelaire was responsible for adding despair to the French tongue, but he succeeded only in being euphonious. pp. 9-10
  • … to lose one’s powers as an artist — that is the unendurable punishment. p. 12
  • Perhaps I might begin a new career touring the schools of England and lecturing the young on the influence of architecture upon manners — prison taught me a great deal on that particular subject. p. 12
  • Society passed sentence on the artist; the coming generation will pass its own sentence on the society which did so. In them my work may live. p. 12
  • I go to fashionable places only when accompanied by rich friends — the English will always bow to wealth. p. 12
  • ‘The Englishman,’ he said, ‘will do anything whatever in the name of principle.’ It is a perfect remark, and Shaw forgot only to add that the name of that principle is self-interest. pp. 12-13
  • …the art of life is the art of defiance. p. 13
  • And, if anyone were foolish enough to write my biography, then the fatefulness of my life would touch him, also. There will, in any event, be no royalties. p. 15
  • I learned, too late, that the English can laugh and at the same time strike you down, without the least compunction. It is the secret of their success as a nation. p. 25
  • … it takes a steady course of biblical study in childhood to remove any taint of Christianity from the adult. p. 25
  • I cannot exist without cigarettes: the first, and I think the most awful, experience of prison life came when I was denied them. The secret of my identity disappeared at once: like God, my face should always been seen behind clouds. p. 27
  • I have always been my own chorus. p. 29
  • I was, I believe, seventeen but already I felt like an eagle who has been forced to find rest among sparrows. p. 31
  • ‘And what do you want to do, Oscar?’ one of them might say. ‘To do? I don’t want to do anything. I want to be everything.’ p. 32
  • I felt a secret pleasure in renouncing my own sins — especially those which I had not committed. p. 33
  • I intensely dislike the telephone. It is suitable only for really intimate conversations. p. 34
  • There is something both magnificent and terrible about one’s first book — it goes out into the world unwilling because it takes so much of its creator with it also, and the creator always wishes to call it home. p. 37
  • I essayed several personalities, in order to find one which was closest to my own. p. 39
  • We sought fame and, in our innocence, found notoriety instead. p. 43
  • In those days women controlled society, as they have done in all the really civilised periods. The men were too busy, or too dull, to play a major part in the social life which we entered then for the first time. p. 43
  • I knew from the beginning, of course, that I would never posses the absurd gravitas of the English gentleman, who employs scorn when he has nothing to say and adopts an air of preoccupation when he has nothing whatever to think about. p. 44
  • And indeed it is possible that I was not impressed by the great and the distinguished because they were not impressed by me. p. 45
  • Whistler lived opposite us in Chelsea; he was a frequent visitor, but he came only so that he could talk about himself in different company. p. 46
  • I write only in the mornings — the early light flatters the imagination, just as the evening light flatters the complexion. p. 47
  • You can do two things with the English — you can shock them, or you can amuse them. You can never reason with them[.] p. 48
  • Now, in my ruin, there seems to me to be something of melancholy about those who wish to stand above others. It is both offensive and yet pitiable, ironic but also touching: it is the cry of the child for attention and the roar of the beast in pain. p. 48
  • Two young Americans joined us. They insisted that they had been thrown out of Harvard for immoral conduct. I told them that it was immoral to go there in the first place. p. 51
  • But I became aware also of a peculiar but now to me familiar phenomenon: as soon as I had expressed my philosophy, I ceased to adhere to it. p. 53
  • Imitation changes, not the impersonator, but the impersonated. p. 55
  • When I met Whitman, therefore, I came to him not as a disciple but as an equal — the only situation in which true artists can ever meet. p. 55
  • I suppose that I have always eaten that which is dear to me. p. 57
  • There is a mirror in my room here, but I never look into it: the mirror itself would be quite safe, of course, but I might crack. p. 57
  • Of course I have no objection myself to being photographed: I owe so little to realism now that I am the perfect subject and, fortunately, I rarely move. p. 58
  • The young never understand youth in others: that is their tragedy. The old do, always: that is theirs. p. 58
  • I am walking evidence that oral literature did not perish with Homer, for I carry my verses in my mouth and in my heart. p. 60
  • Once I dreamt that I seemed to be a mask lying on the counter of a shop in Piccadilly. Many people came in and tried me upon their faces: I saw myself reflected in the mirrors, a strange white thing, but then they laughed and flung me back upon the counter. p. 73
  • She [Constance—his wife] looked at me with pity in that dreadful place but it was I who pitied her — I had descended into Hell through my own vanity and weakness but she, unknowing, had been taken there. p. 75
  • Tite Street is hideous, of course. All streets in London are hideous. p. 76
  • When she [Constance] bore our first son, the sight of her with child repelled me somewhat: it is charming in religious art, but not elsewhere. p. 78
  • I do not suppose that anyone had experienced marital discord until Meredith invented it. pp. 78-79
  • Modern English writing is not of great importance: bad work is always over-rated and good work is never understood. p. 80
  • Life is a very complex thing. There are those who, like Medusa, long for death and are granted eternal life; and there are those who, like Endymion, desire life and are frozen in endless sleep. p. 80
  • …women could write more interestingly than men on the really important topics of civilisation: dress, food and furniture. p. 81
  • It is a drab little thoroughfare — an Oxford Street which is all street and no Oxford[.] p. 81
  • Office life was strangely interesting: it was as if I had become part of a large family consisting almost entirely of mad aunts, and nephews who did not know how to spell. p. 81
  • ‘And she [Constance] found Arthur removing three empty bottles of champagne from your bedroom —’ ‘What else does one do with empty bottles?’ p. 91
  • Did I tell you about my new story? I have called it “The Double Beheading”. I have no theme as yet, but the title is delightful don’t you think? p. 91
  • Outcasts, since they dwell in the shadows, learn to recognise each other by small signs and movements. p. 98
  • But the poor are truly the outcasts of the world. […] The unseen host of the poor bear the marks of our civilisation like scars; that is why the middle class never look at them. It would be to examine the wounds which they themselves have inflicted. The deed is done, but the consequences must be shunned. p. 98
  • I have always been convinced that our civilisation has the transparency and evanescence of a bubble floating, in that charming manner which bubbles have, before being blown away in the wind. p. 99
  • It is a mysterious truth, but then sorrow is always mysterious; the paper which I write on now, the clothes I am wearing, the bed upon which I sleep: they have all been by the toil of others, created out of the indigence and the suffering of the poor. I am lying on the poor. I am writing with them. They are my food and my drink. I see their pain everywhere, like paint. p. 99
  • It is fitting that I, who sought youth and the pleasures of youth, now have no friends of my own age. p. 100
  • But shame is a curious thing: it is quite helpless in the face of more powerful emotions. p. 108
  • The great mystery of Faust lies not in the separation between the intellect and the senses, but rather that sensation was for him an actual refinement of the intelligence. p. 108
  • I shall tell you a secret which, like all secrets, I expect you to forget. p. 110
  • I threw away the letter; confessions on hotel notepaper are always dreary. p. 110
  • It was male love which inspired Michaelangelo in his perfect sonnets; it inspired Shakespeare to immortalise a young man in words of fire just as it guided the hands of Plato and of Marlowe. pp. 112-113
  • When in the Symposium Socrates quite refutes the argument of Aristophanes — that man and woman are but two torn natures striving to be reunited — he proclaimed a great truth which modern civilisation, with the possible exception of Ibsen, seems to have forgotten: men and women are not complementary, they are antagonistic. The great romances have always been between men. p. 113
  • He [Alfred Taylor] understood that although reality cannot be imagined — it is too awful for that — it can be made imaginary. p. 114
  • …like Jesus, I have always performed my better miracles for those who have believed. p. 116
  • I like to be seen with the boys — some of my friends thought it scandalous that I should do so, but the greater scandal is to be ashamed of one’s companions. p. 116
  • My first really impressive work was The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was not a début but it was the next best thing, a scandal. It could not have been otherwise: I wanted to rub the faces of my generation in their own century, at the same time as I wished to create a novel which would defy canons of conventional English fiction. p. 121
  • I have always asserted that out of joy only can creative work spring, but it is possible that out of fear and pain, also, joyous words can come. p. 124
  • When Christ said, ‘Your sins will be forgiven you because you have loved,’ the English public says, ‘Your crimes will be punished because you have dared to love.’ p. 125
  • Much has been written about the love of an older man for a younger man, but very little has been said about the passions which the younger man can conceive for the older. That love is far more dangerous for it breeds pride in him who is loved. p. 127
  • … one kills the thing one loves[.] p. 130
  • I had always asserted that an interpretation is more interesting than a fact: I was proved unfortunately to be right. p. 138
  • ‘And you have stolen lines from other writers. Listen to this one —’ ‘I did not steal them. I rescued them.’ p. 161
  • The proprietor of the hotel, I cannot remember his name, asked me if this was the first year of the twentieth century of the last year of the nineteenth: I advised him to ask his children. Only they know. p. 179
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