Defiant and Proud Even in Death: The curious Story of Oscar Wilde's Tomb
An exceptional gravestone is draped in a tale of melancholy.
Perhaps in no era but the Victorian could a writer like Oscar Wilde have existed. The conservatism usually associated with that moment in the history of the United Kingdom found a liberating and critical corollary in the works of Wilde. His sharpness while never renouncing elegance and lucidity found ways to express the limitations of his time, thereby transcending them.
While an artist’s work is usually enough to assess his value, in Wilde’s case the facts of his life are inseparable from the impact he had on the literature of the English-language. The persecution Wilde suffered for his homosexuality is perhaps the element of his biography most remembered. This, in turn, led to one of the most notable pieces of English prose, Wilde’s De Profundis, a letter he wrote to “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas, his aristocratic lover, from prison.
The singular union of genius and sensitivity, challenge and pride, persisted around the figure of Wilde even after his death. These were realized in the tomb that sculptor Jacob Epstein made for the writer’s remains, buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, the city where Wilde spent his last days broken by poverty.
From its beginnings, the monument shared the controversy which engulfed Wilde’s final years. Epstein’s preliminary sketches involved two young people invoking attitudes of seduction and sexual attraction. Recalling both Wilde’s life and allusions to his work, for all of this, the proposed tomb stoked still further debate as to whether or not the writer deserved any monument at all.
In the end, Epstein opted for the figure of the sphinx. This, although it remained essentially intact, was further transformed in the wake of the artist’s interest at the time in the ancient art of Egypt and India, evident in the sculpture’s final appearance. The choice was not incidental, as Wilde had used the mythical creature in his own work, particularly the poem entitled The Sphinx, and dedicated by Wilde to Marcel Schowb.
It might also be mentioned that, among all the details, Epstein left the sphinx completely nude, and with a virile member and exposed testicles. This detail caused a public scandal at the time and, overnight, the sphinx’s genitals were covered in cement. Under instruction from Robert Ross, Wilde’s lover and his literary executor, Epstein eventually replaced the testicles with a figure in the form of a butterfly. In 1961, the sculpture was mutilated again and, since then, the butterfly figure’s whereabouts have been unknown.
Finally, it’s also worth mentioning two anecdotal details. The first is that the person in charge of unveiling the statue was none other than Aleister Crowley, considered the last great magician of the 20th century. Secondly, for many years the tradition when visiting the tomb was to leave the mark of a kiss on its surface. The practice arose spontaneously but ceased in 2011 when the heirs of Wilde considered that the tomb was suffering irreversible damage because of such kisses.
The epitaph that accompanied Wilde on his last journey is a passage from the Ballad of Reading Gaol:
And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
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