The Women of Homer
When asked what he intended to do after finishing at Oxford, the young Oscar Wilde—who was already well known not only for his outré persona (“I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china,” etc.), but for his brilliant achievements as a classics scholar—made it clear in which direction his ambitions lay. “God knows,” the twenty-three-year-old told his great friend David Hunter Blair, who had asked Wilde about his postgraduate plans, and who later fondly recalled the conversation in his 1939 memoir, In Victorian Days. “I won’t be a dried-up Oxford don, anyhow. I’ll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.”
As we know, his prediction would be spectacularly fulfilled: like a character in one of the Greek tragedies he was able to translate so fluently as a student, his short life followed a spectacular trajectory from fame to infamy, from the heady triumphs of his post-Oxford days, when he was already famous enough to be lampooned by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience, to the dreadful peripeteia of the trials and imprisonment. But to some of those who knew him at the time, Wilde’s emphatic rejection of the scholarly life must have come as something of a surprise.
He had, after all, shown a remarkable flair for the classics from the start. At the Portora Royal School, where he’d been sent in the autumn of 1864, just before his tenth birthday, he won the classical medal examination with his extempore translations from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon (the tragedy he loved above all others) and the Carpenter Prize for his superior performance on the examination on the Greek New Testament. Later, at Trinity College, Dublin, he took a first in his freshman classical exams and went on to win the Berkeley Gold Medal for his paper on a subject that was, perhaps, not without augury: the Fragmenta comicorum graecorum, “Fragments of the Greek Comics,” the great scholarly edition by the early-nineteenth-century German philologue Augustus Meineke. (According to his friend Robert Sherard, he occasionally pawned the medal when he needed money, but managed always to redeem it, keeping it until the end of his life.)
After transferring to Magdalen College, Oxford, in the autumn of 1874, Wilde scored highest marks on his entrance exams, and finished by taking a prestigious double first in “Greats,” the relatively recent, classics-based curriculum officially known as literae humaniores. Always attentive to his image, he liked to imply that these successes came easily—“He liked to pose as a dilettante trifling with his books,” Hunter Blair recalled—but in fact put in “hours of assiduous and laborious reading, often into the small hours of the morning.” Whatever his taste for lilies and Sèvres, he was a…
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