Lines to Love: The Oscar Wilde Edition


Today is Oscar Wilde’s birthday, and since I consider myself fairly wild about Oscar, I thought it the perfect time to trot out my favorite aphorisms, maxims, pearls of wit, and other such piffle that only Oscar could pen. 

Limiting the field of my favorites for this post was particularly difficult. From the vast body of his work- his plays, his poems, his short stories, and his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray- it is difficult to select the choice morsels, but I have set myself the task, and I find I cannot complain about it one iota. In fact, dear readers, I’m loving every minute of it.

The Importance of Being Earnest is chock full of absurdities from Bunburyism and hand-bag babies to that rather ridiculous but delightful interlude in the garden concerning muffins and the eating thereof. 

Algernon Montcrreif is a fount of piffle and profundity. (I realize I’ve used piffle twice in close proximity, but if one must overuse a word, piffle is the perfect pick, to say nothing of the fabulously Austenesque P&P pairing of Piffle and Profundity.) Forgive the aside. Back to Algernon and his trumpery: 

“If I am occasionally a little over-dressed, I make up for it by being always immensely over-educated.”

I quite like this next one; I like it so much, I quote it in my first novel on a balcony in Paris at a rather delightful and sophisticated party.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.

“All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.”

“The only way to behave to a woman is to make love to her, if she is pretty, and to someone else if she is plain.”

I simply must address the muffins, or, quote Algernon’s addressing the issue of muffins: 


Phew! I’m glad Wilde afforded us that life changing gem. I don’t know about you, but I shall endeavor at all times to eat my muffins thusly. 

From The Important of Being Earnest, I always naturally progress to An Ideal Husband. I blame this entirely on Rupert Everett, for he played both Earnest’s Algernon Montcreif and Ideal’s Lord Goring with perspicacity and aplomb. (The p’s are getting me today, dear readers. I simply can’t resist the alliterations. I beg your indulgence here.)

And on we go to Lord Goring:

“I love talking about nothing, father. It is the only thing I know anything about.”

“I am always saying what I shouldn’t say. In fact, I usually say what I really think. A great mistake nowadays. It makes one so liable to be misunderstood.”


“To love oneself is the beginning of a life-long romance.”

“Everyone one meets is a paradox nowadays. It is a great bore. It makes society so obvious.”

I can’t not mention the buttonhole, as I always think of Oscar Wilde when I see one, and the reason why I chose this article's banner:

I am the only person of the smallest importance in London at present who wears buttonholes.

I will end with Oscar’s play, A Woman of No Importance. It is perhaps my favorite (although that’s nearly impossible to determine). The depiction of English society, the discourse between Lords and Ladies, is cold and cruel and mean. Written at a time when Wilde was suffering keenly at the hands of said society, I believe the truths and hopes with which he ended this play were his own beseeching and reminder to that society of what they should rise above and toward.


“Who, being loved, is poor? Oh, no one.”

The alliteration and rhyme of this line is just too good not to mention, especially as I’m all p’s today: 

“He took up the cudgels for that pretty prude with wonderful promptitude.”

As with selecting the lines of his I love, lighting upon words to describe the man himself is equally as difficult. Synonyms to fully describe the man often become antonyms of each other. He was both a sensualist and a moralist, tender and caustic, compassionate and reproachful, light-hearted and sober. 

He rubbed shoulders with the upper crust and counted many of the ton among his acquaintances, if not also his friends. Yet, he experienced first hand the caprice of society when he fell madly and unrestrainedly in love with Lord Alfred Douglas. While the ton outwardly subscribed to his charmingly declaimed cutting remarks and seemingly embraced his urbane, nonchalant touting of all things epicurean, in the end it was all hollow pomp and circumstance. Where once he was welcomed in society, he was quickly ostracized. 

I actually believe the character Hester Worsley’s excoriation of English society in A Woman of No Importance was airing of his own frustrations with those who shunned him. 

You rich people in England, you don’t know how you are living. How could you know? You shut out from society the gentle and the good. You laugh at the simple and the pure. Living, as you all do, on others and by them, you sneer at self-sacrifice, and if you throw bread to the poor, it is merely to keep them quiet for a season. With all your pomp and wealth and art you don’t know how to live— you don’t even know that. You love the beauty that you can see and touch and handle, the beauty that you can destroy, and do destroy, but of the unseen beauty of life, of the unseen beauty of a higher life, you know nothing. You have lost life’s secret. Oh, your English society seems to me shallow, selfish, foolish. It has blinded its eyes, and stopped its ears. It lies like a leper in purple. It sits like a dead thing smeared in gold. It is all wrong, all wrong.

Outcast from England after his two-year imprisonment for gross indecency, Oscar ended his days alone and in impecuniosity in Paris, yet, even to the end, he maintained that self-same wit he was most noted for, declaring of his hotel room (in which he holed himself away increasingly in the months before his death):

My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One of us has got to go.

Yet, in his going, Oscar Wilde left a treasure trove of artistic achievement for us to love. In the end, his works of fiction have been embraced universally and have carved out a place for him in the pages of literature that is more lasting than any of the nameless ton

As The Importance of Being Earnest’s Miss Prism defined: 

The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.

But as truth is stranger that fiction, perhaps it would be best to end with Lord Goring’s hope-filled wisdom: 

All I know is that life cannot be understood without charity, cannot be lived without charity. It is love, and not German philosophy, that is the true explanation of the world, whatever may be the explanation of the next.

Happy Birthday, Oscar!

Are there any Oscar Wilde quotes that you love? The irresistibly witty ones? The funny ones? The cutting ones? Or, perhaps, the tender ones? Please share.