Vissi d’Arte

Reflections on the Life of Oscar Wilde

Preliminary remarks

Towards the end of December Oscar Wilde was in Cannes in southern France, having been invited by Frank Harris, to see a performance of La Tosca together with Harold Mellor, an acquaintance of his. La Tosca, the title role, was played by Sarah Bernhardt, one of the famous actresses of her time, who is still unforgotten today. Towards Oscar Wilde however, who admired her, she showed little gratitude and refused to help him out financially while he was in pre-trial confinement because she feared she might jeopardize her own career. The Tosca performance led to a tearful reunion of Mrs. Bernhardt and Mr. Wilde who had forgiven her. Hopefully though, Sarah Bernhardt felt bad enough about her lack of generosity of then.

The play La Tosca had been written by Victorien Sardou (1831-1908), the most famous dramatist in Europe at the time and a representative of melodramatic realism. He also wrote Fedora which Wilde saw in 1883 together with Robert Sherard, a friend of his, in a Vaudeville-Theatre in Paris. Again, the title role was played by Sarah Bernhardt. Wilde was quite familiar with Sardou’s works and it is said that his first play, Vera, the Nihilist (1880) leans heavily on Sardou’s Fedora. Yet Sardou refused to sign a petition for Wilde’s early release from prison in 1895, stating that he did not want to be pulled into a swamp as repugnant as this. 

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) wanted to turn Sardou’s drama into an opera and asked the dramatist for permission. Sardou gladly agreed and the famous composer of La Bohème and Manon Lescaut was promised a 15% share in profits. Luigi Illica was to write the libretto and a reading was scheduled at Sardou’s house. Guiseppe Verdi also participated, deeply impressed by the manuscript which he would have liked to set to music himself had he not felt too old by then. Actually a gentleman named Franchetti should have written the opera but after some scheming he gave up the rights and Puccini could start working. To get himself into the right mood he went to see the play once more with Sarah Bernhardt performing in Florence that time.

Illica wrote the libretto which Guiseppe Giacosa was to put into verse in accordance with the composer. After considerable quarrelling the work was finally completed and the première was scheduled for 14 January 1900 in Rome. Oscar Wilde was not present, however, firstly because he had never cared much for music and secondly because he was staying at the Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris at the time.


La Tosca and Scarpia are the two main characters of the opera, a famous singer the former, chief of police the latter. Tosca, being both excessively jealous and pious, is handicapped by a combination of fatal weaknesses. In the decisive scene Scarpia explains to Tosca the price she has to pay for wanting to save her lover’s life. Cavaradossi is in jail, being tortured. „A woman who gives herself willingly is not worth speaking of. I have had fill of those! But to humiliate you withall your scorn and rage, to break your resistance, and twist you in my arms, by God, that‘s where the savour of it lies. It would only spoil the feast for me if you gave in.“ Those are the words chosen by Sardou. The opera does not quote them literally yet expresses them musically. Scarpia puts considerable pressure on Tosca, she is caught in a real dilemma, wanting to save her lover yet deeply disgusted by Scarpia and the reward he claims – a night with him in return for her lover’s release. Tosca starts reflecting on her past, her dreams, the fact that she never did anyone any harm and should now have to pay such a high price. Why should fate put her of all people to such a test? This scene constitutes the main part of the opera and climaxes in Tosca’s aria „Vissi d’arte“. EMI’s Maria Callas at Covent Garden in 1962 and 1964 renders a masterful performance of that scene both in terms of acting and singing. Although the recording also reveals Callas‘ vocal weaknesses - the diva had reached the end of an extraordinary career in opera history by then - the scene belongs to the most gripping ever performed on an opera stage. An earlier EMI recording, Maria Callas: Début à Paris, 19.12.1958 renders Callas‘ voice almost unadulterate. The performance, however, does not come close to that of 1964. 

I would like to draw attention to some aspects which the lives of both Maria Callas and Oscar Wilde have in common: both were totally committed to art and both went to their limits. She gave her voice, he gave his life. (Wilde, by the way, also used his beautiful voice like an instrument when he told stories and could thus fascinate audiences as much as Maria Callas did.) Both artists had short careers, both found the loves of their lives – by which both perished in personal as well as artistic terms, and both died before their time in Paris. Many more parallels could be drawn but that is yet another story.

Towards comparison and explanation

As I began to do research on Oscar Wilde, focussing on his life rather than on his works which more competent critics have dealt with, I became aware of similarities with Tosca‘s aria. There also seemed connections between Oscar Wilde and Sardou which I do not want to elaborate on here, and there was, of course, the opera’s climax, Tosca’s aria, starting with words that summarized Wilde‘s life : Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore, I lived for art, I lived for love.

Wilde grew up when a movement which had been started by the so-called Pre-Raphaelites became extremely popular in England, and in Oxford in particular. Since Wilde was substantially influenced by this movement I shall go into some detail here. It was initiated by a group of young English painters who called themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and saw their task in reforming art to a point of making it a form and way of life. By depicting what was pure and beautiful an artist was to strive to approach ideal beauty, to live a pure form of aestheticism; l’art pour l’art, art for art‘s sake became the main maxim.

Throughout his life Oscar was strongly motivated by the aesthetic aspect. His teachers in Oxford, Walter Pater and John Ruskin, provided him with the necessary equipment to orient his life accordingly. They were the main representatives of the aesthetic movement which intended to restore beauty to everyday life. Although Wilde was particularly impressed by Ruskin he did not agree with him entirely. While Ruskin considered ethics as the pillar of aesthetics Wilde thought beauty and ethics incompatible, one reason being that he found ethic and moral thought in 19th century England unconvincing.

Walter Pater was influenced by classical antiquity, hellenism and the renaissance. He also favoured an ethic worldview, which bordered on hedonism however, because in his eyes the highest ethic principle was the pursuit of sensual pleasure – contrary to Ruskin whose views were less self-centered and included a social component. Pater preached pleasure and enjoyed what was beautiful, an aesthete in the true, i.e. positive sense of the word. The negative side of him did not want to be bothered with the bare realities of everyday life. Wilde led his life according to those principles.

In some translations of the libretto Tosca’s aria starts with the words: “I devoted my life to beauty alone“ – words which apply to Oscar Wilde more than to any other representative of the aesthetic movement. Wilde was guided by a desire for the beauty of form. He worshipped form like a god. To him, form was the measure of all things in art. Form was everything, while content was nothing. And morals or morality had little or nothing to do with either, least of all the morals or morality of his time. Recognizing, demonstrating and maintaining the beauty of things through form led to a formal aestheticism which placed art above life and nature. L’art pour l’art became la vie pour l’art, living for art’s sake, a life in which beauty was much more relevant than conventionally accepted morals. For form’s sake Wilde often made concessions to his written texts. For the beauty of a word or a sentence at times the plot of a story could suffer, lose much of the charm it had when he presented it to an audience before putting it on paper.

To Wilde himself however, his life was more important than his works. He aimed at living it “beautifully“, which meant exquisite (though expensive) dress, a luxurious home, a beautiful wife and beautiful children. He surrounded himself with people who could afford to embrace his theories on art and beauty both in terms of financial means and intellectually. Oscar Wilde designed himself and became a living work of art, a live performance so to speak. We remember his famous words to André Gide: “My genius I gave to my life, my works just get my talent.“

It could seem almost paradoxical for a man so devoted to beauty that, as far as Wilde’s features are concerned, only a few are described as remarkable or appealing, namely his eyes, his full hair and particularly his pleasant voice. The rest was rather far from corresponding to ideal beauty. Wilde was described as tall (1,91 m !) and corpulent, his skin was pale and especially his teeth gave him permanent reason for unhappiness. Protruding in dense rows, some of them black in colour and containing inumerable gold fillings in as many cavities. Well aware of this blatant flaw, Wilde always made sure to cover his mouth with one finger or one hand when he spoke. How cruel a handicap for the master of conversation who could charm any audience with his almost unparallelled skill. 

His devotion to beauty remained, a life committed to beautiful things, beautiful thoughts, striving to be a perfect work of art. I shall return to that aspect later.

Next to beauty, there was another love in Wilde’s life. It might be described as “hellenic“ and far from appealing to Wilde’s Christian contemporaries who were caught up in the daily effort of surviving and lacked both sense and time for aesthetic or hellen(ist)ic concerns. And so here we are, witnessing the greatest love story of the 19th century. Meeting Bosie, a.k.a. Lord Alfred Douglas, must have sent shockwaves through Oscar because everything that Wilde ever worshipped had come alive in Bosie: Lord Douglas was considerably younger than Wilde, a poet of striking physical beauty, an aristocrat who stemmed from one of the country’s most influential families. And he was intelligent and quite knowledgeable. Wilde might have been able to resist each individual feature, yet facing a combination of them he was helpless. He fell for Bosie head over heels, had found the love of his life, his idol. The fact that Wilde also had a feminine side explains why he got so easily attached. In the face of Alfred Douglas’ overwhelming personality, living proof of the Aesthetic, the Beautiful life, the work of art Wilde had devoted so much time and effort to had lost its meaning, Wilde’s goddess had come alive. From now on he worshipped and served Bosie until the bitter end.

Scarpia pushes Tosca to prostitute herself in order to redeem her lover. But instead, she kills Scarpia to free herself. And eventually she commits suicide, when she realizes that she has been betrayed after all, because her lover is shot despite her efforts. Oscar Wilde’s downfall had many causes, a major one being the fact that Wilde sacrificed himself, easily gave in to his lover‘s wishes and humours. And his end resembles that of La Tosca: Wilde chooses death when he realizes that society has betrayed him. The end of his prison term did not mean the end of his punishment. Divine Bosie turned away from him, refused to be worshipped by someone who had become a persona non grata, whose fame had turned to notoriety and with whom appearing in public was by now little short of utter embarassment.

Tosca’s aria continues as follows:

I never did harm to a living soul
With a secret hand
I relieved as many misfortunes as I knew of

Those lines may quite literally be applied to Oscar Wilde’s life. Most of his contemporaries described him as loveable and charming, a true gentleman. His generosity was boundless. Whenever he had money he shared it with whoever asked for support, and if he happened to be short of funds he went out of his way to borrow money in order to help. It is said that he was once the only person to sign a petition to free a jailed contemporary who, in turn, did not bother to do the same for Wilde when he was imprisoned. Most of Wilde’s so-called friends disappeared rather quickly when he was jailed and continued to keep their distance when he was free again. Oscar felt quite hurt by such behaviour. As it was so utterly against his own nature he could barely understand why others should behave in such a way. Wilde was not an envious person and happy for everyone who was successful. He had a talent to cheer people up and did so without expecting anything in return.

Only shortly before Wilde faces his downfall, i.e. with the filing of charges against The Marquess of Queensbury, a number of people describe him as having changed substantially. He became arrogant, hurting, stubborn, his tone harsh, he seemed irritable, a hunted beast. His appearance, rather far from the beauty which meant so much to him, had further suffered and became even less appealing because of excessive self-indulgence.

Personally I do not think that he was as ugly as some people have described him. On some photos he is shown as quite an impressive figure. My favourite shows Oscar Wilde under the statue of Marcus Aurelius in Rome. Nonchalantly elegant, unshakeable and with a serious face which hardly smiled anymore. But Wilde maintained his composure until the very end - yet another story.

Once out of prison Wilde became his old self again. Spending lavishly although he could afford it even less now, supporting his former inmates who were worse off than himself and always ready to please others, children for instance, for whom he threw a splendid party on the occasion of Queen Victoria’s jubilee. He may have been the one to get the most from such occasions as they allowed him to forget bad times, loneliness and boredom. He enjoyed pleasing others, yet rarely did anyone ever respond in kind. Only very few of his friends stood by him until the end.

Tosca‘s fate quite resembled Wilde‘s. Her friendly and helpful nature led her straight into an impasse ending in murder and suicide. 

The aria continues:

Always with true faith
my prayer
rose to the holy shrines.
Always with true faith
I gave flowers to the altar.
I gave jewels for the Madonna’s mantle,
and I gave my song to the stars, to heaven,
which smiled with more beauty.

We have mentioned the aesthetic movement and the fact that Oscar Wilde had decided to spread its word to the world in general and to Oxford‘s upper class in particular. Such a movement could of course only find followers among people who possessed a certain level of education and who had time to spare. Oxford, where the sons of the nobility and the upper middle class went to university, provided Wilde just the environment he was looking for, social circles he felt comfortable in, the altar on which he could offer the flowers of his conversational skills.

To Wilde, loving beauty had become at once his nature, a need and belief, something he completely identified with. Aestheticism to him had become like a goddess he served. He felt at home in the world of Greek thought and used the important elements of form and language to spread its word. Wilde was the most vehement representative of the movement which, as mentioned above, climaxed in l’art pour l’art, art for art’s sake. How did he go about it?

The elegantly dressed dandy began to bring aesthetics to the world by using poetry. He published Poems, a collection for which he was promptly accused of plagiarism, a judgement which is not quite justified. Poetry allowed Wilde to approach linguistic perfection which indeed he did by accumulating an enormous variety of ways of expression he could call upon at any time. This skill was coupled with his excellent education and the extraordinary memory Wilde was blessed with. “Il savait tout,“ Henry de Regnier said of him, he knew everything.

Wilde’s impressive voice was also an asset. It was said to range from the sound of a cello to a tenor and was described as so overwhelmingly beautiful that it seems a pity that it was not conserved for future generations to hear. The Swan, a piece in the Carnival of Animals written for the Cello by Camille Saint-Saens, a contemporary of Wilde’s, might give a certain idea of how Wilde’s voice may have sounded when he told his stories in public.

Given the abundance of his skills, Wilde, the master of conversation, was invited to every, preferably noble, society. People flocked round, scrambled for him. It was enough for an invitiation to an event to mention: “Oscar Wilde will be present“ for its success to be guaranteed. Wilde was spoiled, always the center of attention, audiences hung on his lips when he told his stories or made conversation, always anxious not to hold monologues but to include his audience. Such gatherings were never boring or stiff, as the English upper class tended to be then. When Oscar Wilde appeared and sent his song up to the stars in the sky (i.e. the upper class and nobility) that society was bound to shine brighter just as Wilde himself beamed when he was satisfied with his performance as, not to forget, he was a gifted actor as well.

At the height of his success, it never occurred to Wilde that he might only be accepted as an entertainer, not as a true member of the upper class. At times it seems he had to play the jester, a very well-bred one though. At the end of an event, which rather often lasted over a weekend and took place in the spacious castles and mansions at the countryside, Wilde must have been quite exhausted from talking, eating heavy food, drinking noble wines and lacking physical activity. When it was time for sports Wilde took refuge in libraries and reappeared when food was served.

Returning to our opera, we hear Tosca’s lament after noting that she, too, wished only for the best, the beautiful :

In the hour of grief
why, why, o Lord,
why do you reward me thus?
(kneeling before Scarpia)
Look at me, oh, behold!
With clasped hands I beseech you!
And, vanquished, I implore
The help of your word!

For Tosca there is no compassion because, out of love, she has manoeuvered herself into a dilemma which Scarpia unscrupulously takes advantage of. Tosca does not realize who she is dealing with. She just knows that for her there is no way back because her retreat would mean the death of her lover. Yet her religion also prohibits her to “prostitute“ herself. Feeling trapped and hunted down like an animal, desperate, Tosca grabs a a knife within reach and thrusts it into Scarpia’s chest. The aforementioned 1964 video recording with Maria Callas shows this scene as a highlight. One can literally see Tosca think! When she realizes that she was betrayed - her lover is shot despite her efforts - she jumps to death. And is quick about it. Oscar Wilde‘s death takes much longer.

Prostitution then was worse than murder. Homosexuality was worse than murder. Or so it seemed at least when we look at the reaction of Victorian England to Wilde‘s trial and punishment. His descent came as unexpectedly as it was rapid. Why did Wilde let things get to that point, why was he unable to defend himself and seemed to accept whatever was done to him almost without complaint? Answering those questions would go beyond the framework of this essay.

Wilde knew the punishment for his (alleged) crimes. When it descended upon him he accepted it. The first months in prison almost broke him but he survived the ordeal. De Profundis, his second-last work, became a means of reflection, reflection on his life, beautiful at first, then shattered, a means to raise hope for a new life after prison. Recapitulation helps him to put the past behind him. After living a beautiful work of art he will turn to living a life of humility and diligence.

What I found most moving about De Profundis is the fact that none of Wilde’s hopes to begin a new life came true. It took him only a few weeks in liberty to realize that. And so his imprisonment had not come to an end. On the contrary, now was the beginning of an execution which took three long years. There was no compassion for Wilde. Humiliation and rejection did not cease and became a source of constant sorrow which ended up manifesting itself openly. Wilde started suffering from neurasthenia, an illness he mistook for food poisoning (from mussels), doctors attributed it to a vitamin deficiency due to the excessive consumption of tobacco and alcohol. The itching rash over his face and upper body was due, however, to a nervous weakness (in the literal sense of the term) which, I think, should rather be called psychastenia, because it was caused by a weakness of the soul and spirit. Just imagine, the man to whom his appearance always meant the utmost, who was always impeccably dressed and never lost his composure, finally has to suffer from skin rash. Wilde was indeed spared nothing.

His family was no longer by his side, Bosie had soon disappeared again after a short and hardly pleasing interlude after Wilde’s liberation. Now, his worst enemies, boredom and chronic lack of funds, became his steady companions. Absinth was the new friend he turned to hoping to escape them. To overcome loneliness at least for hours, he bought the company of young boys who approached him neither out of their own accord nor for free. And the very few friends he still had could not take care of him permanently as, inspite of all, he was still demanding and wasteful.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol was his last work. Wilde hoped it would bring recognition and, of course, some financial succes. But even now his hopes were in vain. No mercy for him. 

After his release from prison Wilde said to André Gide: “My life resembles a work of art. Never does an artist start working on the same piece twice.“ Thus explaining why he could not live the same life he had lived before his incarceration. Maybe he referred to his life as a writer because aesthetic life was long over, outdated. The true reasons for his decline were obvious to everyone, yet too painful for Wilde to openly acknowledge.

When he realized that the ballad would not be successful, that he was even forced to publish it anonymously to gain a penny, that his name would remain tabooed forever, he relinquished. He gave up, it seems, gave himself up to the tides of time, now either consciously or unconsciously hoping that the end would come soon.

Why was Wilde treated so? Probably for the simple reason that people are the way they are and will never change. Wilde’s way of life appealed only to a small section of English society, namely nobility and the well-educated upper middle class. It was the bourgeois masses, however, who pronounced judgement on him, people who had not even the slightest thing to do with his ways of thinking and living, contrary to the Christian belief they adhered to, if only for appearance. One did not talk about what went on behind closed doors. Hypocrisy is the appropriate term here, very widespread in bourgeois circles of 19th century England, and totally foreign to Wilde. Yet he became its victim. Neither able to understand nor accept, much less make concessions to it. Maybe Wilde should not have disobeyed the 11th commandment: Thou shalt not get caught. Could it be that he brought his reward on himself?

Many texts describe Wilde as the epitome of someone who stayed true to himself and maintained his individuality. Which means that throughout his life he never accepted to be disciplined in any way. He strictly refused to be forced to do things, neither when it came to material choices nor when choosing his friends. He was uncompromising in every respect. Consequently, confrontation with the rest of society was inevitable. He wanted to see how far he could take things and so he did!

Conclusive remarks

Isn’t it almost ironic that Wilde would have been restored (financially at least) if he had held out for another three years only? A seemingly endless period of time for him then. He would have been in the clear again, financially rehabilitated by the Germans, of all people, whom Wilde never quite liked. He had learned, and then pushed to the back of his mind, some German and picked it up again during his time in prison: “The only place to learn that language“, he said.

Wilde would have seen financial success through music, through Richard Strauss‘ opera Salome in particular. Another irony of fate because Wilde never thought much of music anyway and understood only little of it. His literary work was soon published in Germany by Max Meyerfeldt who contributed considerably to the fact that Wilde’s debts could soon be paid.

This essay is an attempt to illustrate how I got the idea to compare Tosca to Oscar (notice the pun!) and I hope to have shown why Tosca and her aria Vissi d’arte remind me of Wilde. I will think of him now whenever I here it or Saint-Saens‘ The Swan. Hopefully some readers have become curious enough to listen to the entire La Tosca or to add further details to this text. Some parts could certainly be more elaborate and many aspects deserve to be treated individually.

Gabrielle de la Triolet, April 2002