The Epigram King Oscar Wilde, Revisited

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Yesterday I began listening to Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, one of Wilde’s several plays written to critique British society at the end of the nineteenth century. The story is immensely relevant today, and his pointed observations equally timeless.

With Wilde, naturally, it can be sometimes challenging to determine when and where he is serious and what is just playfulness. He had a clever wit, occasionally indecent and frequently insightful, as you can see from these excerpts from his writings. The situations he creates and banter between characters is much like the best of Monty Python. A key to Wilde’s effectiveness is his use of the epigram. Sparknotes explains the epigram in this manner.

Wilde’s plays are often read for their witty epigrams; indeed, these epigrams are what make his plays “subversive.” “Wit” is defined here as the quality of speech that consists in apt associations that surprise and delight or the utterance of brilliant things in an amusing fashion; the epigram is a brief, pointed, and often antithetical saying that contains an unexpected change of thought or biting comment.

Delivered in a social intercourse that consists of rapid-fire repartee, the tone of Wilde’s epigrams are often “half-serious,” playing on the potential for the listener’s misunderstanding — for example, taking a phrase literally, too seriously, or not seriously enough. Rhetorically, they tend to involve a combination of devices: the reversal of conventionally paired terms, irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, and paradox. Take then, for example, Lord Goring’s rejoinder to his father, Lord Caversham, when the latter accuses him of talking about nothing: “I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.” At one level, Goring’s epigram is clearly sarcastic; at another, it is paradoxical, as in a sense one cannot know anything about nothing. The epigram also shifts between conventionally valorized terms: whereas most people would hope to have something substantive to talk about, Goring loves to talk about nothing.

As one might imagine, the “threat” in these games of rhetoric is the concomitant shift in the values — aesthetic, ethical, philosophical, or otherwise — taken up in conversation. Consequently, the apparently frivolous epigram becomes the primary vehicle by which the play mocks the values and mores of the contemporary popular stage.

More examples of his use of this style of speech here follow, some from his plays and the latter from his life.

“I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself.” — An Ideal Husband

“Ah! Don’t say you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong.” — The Critic as Artist

“It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray

“The General was essentially a man of peace, except in his domestic life.”
The Importance of Being Earnest

“All that I desire to point out is the general principle that Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” — Intentions

“To love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” — An Ideal Husband

“Moderation is a fatal thing, Lady Hunstanton. Nothing succeeds like excess.”
A Woman of No Importance

“It is perfectly monstrous the way people go about nowadays saying things against one, behind one’s back, that are absolutely and entirely true.”

“Always forgive your enemies. Nothing annoys them so much.”

“Whenever cannibals are on the brink of starvation, Heaven, in its infinite mercy, sends them a fat missionary.”

“It is very easy to endure the difficulties of one’s enemies. It is the successes of one’s friends that are hard to bear.”

“I often take exercise. Why only yesterday I had breakfast in bed.”

And finally, his last words… “One of us must go.” — Oscar Wilde

Originally published at
Wilde illustration and flower foto by the author.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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