OSCAR WILDE

By Richard Ellmann Knopf. 630 pp. $24.95

ON FEBRUARY 28, 1895, the author of The Importance of Being Earnest, London's newest hit comedy, scribbled in pencil an anguished note to his friend Robert Ross. "Dearest Bobbie, Since I saw you something has happened. Bosie's father has left a card at my club with hideous words on it. I don't see anything now but a criminal prosecution. My whole life seems ruined by this man. . . . I don't know what to do."

"Bosie" was the pretty and amoral Lord Alfred Douglas; his father the bellicose Marquess of Queensberry, who had established the rules for boxing. On the calling card -- left 10 days earlier at the Albemarle Club -- were the words, with the now-famous misspelling: "To Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite."

The fate of Oscar Wilde, who like a hero of classic tragedy plummeted from the heights of fame to utter ruin, has attracted many biographers, among them that prince of liars Frank Harris and the anecdotal Hesketh Pearson. Lively as their books are, they cannot compete with this capacious, deeply sympathetic and vastly entertaining new life by Richard Ellmann. Ellmann, who died last year, spent most of his distinguished career studying the Irish literary renaissance: two early books on Yeats are standard references, and his James Joyce is generally regarded as the best literary biography of our time. In that book Ellmann focused on an exile who endured poverty, censorship, blindness and family tragedy to emerge the saint of modernism, the most admired writer of the century. In Oscar Wilde Ellmann's tale is very nearly the opposite: A figure of showy splendor, "refulgent, imperial," quickly conquers London and then, through hubris, romantic infatuation, and indecision, loses everything -- family, reputation, possessions -- to end a wraith-like spectre cadging drinks on the grands boulevards of Paris, eventually suffering a gruesome death in a cheap hotel room.

In the past Wilde's fall usually appeared a cautionary tale. Homosexuals revered him as a martyr to "the love that dare not speak its name." (The phrase occurs in a poem by Douglas.) Evangelists called him an unclean beast, the subject of more than 700 sermons in the United States alone between 1895 and 1900. In the popular memory he spoke entirely in epigrams and witticisms: "I can resist everything except temptation . . . . The English country gentleman galloping after a fox -- the unspeakable in full pursuit of the unedible . . . . It is only an auctioneer who should admire all schools of art . . . . In old days men had the rack; now they have the Press . . . . At twilight nature becomes a wonderfully suggestive effect, and is not without loveliness, though perhaps its chief use is to illustrate quotations from the poets." To modern readers though, Ellmann among them, Wilde appears chiefly as a fearless artist and social critic who, like a kamikaze pilot, used himself as the bomb to explode the bourgeois values, pretensions and hypocrisies of late Victorian society.

OSCAR FINGAL O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Ireland on October 16, 1854. Both parents were remarkable, his father the most distinguished ear and eye doctor in Britain, his mother -- known as Speranza -- an Irish nationalist, German translator and celebrated hostess. Their second son grew up to be 6 feet 3 inches tall, tending to fat, with blubbery lips; the photographs show a plump, rather bland face, with kindly eyes.

At Oxford he nevertheless cut a dashing figure, casting off his Irish brogue, traveling on holidays to Italy and Greece, finding himself torn between the moralism of Ruskin and the paganism of Pater. Throughout these years he toyed with becoming a Roman Catholic, all the while attending the meetings of an Oxford Freemason lodge. He made stupid remarks, worthy of any sophomore; he once called Mrs. Browning's "Aurora Leigh," "much the greatest work in our literature." He also made stupid mistakes, catching syphilis from a local prostitute.

And yet he was insufferably brilliant from the beginning. At a key examination he was asked to construe some lines of Greek from the New Testament about Christ's betrayal and passion. When after a moment, he was asked to stop translating, Wilde held up an admonitory finger: "Hush, hush, let us proceed and see what happened to the unfortunate man." (Another time he casually referred to the 20 Commandments.) Before he left Oxford, Wilde managed to win the Newdigate poetry prize and take a rare double first degree degree. Had he tempered his excesses he might have become one of the great scholars of the age.

But not Oscar. "I'll be a poet, a writer, a dramatist. Somehow or other, I'll be famous, and if not famous, notorious." As Ellmann notes, "Wilde's life is as full of tragic prolepses as an Ibsen play." In London the graduate set himself up as a poet and man of letters, a latter-day pre-Raphaelite. His poems were decadent, inspired by Gautier and Baudelaire; one described a young man's lovemaking with a statue, another the passion of a nymph for a corpse. Soon, though, Wilde was trading quips with painter James Whistler and establishing his reputation as the leading young esthete, a position confirmed when he was parodied in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, ("Walk down Picadilly, with a poppy or a lily in your medieval hand"). This new fame led to an unusual offer: A speaker's bureau wished to send him to America to lecture on the esthetic movement, rather a mystery to homespun Yankee spectators of the Gilbert play.

Wilde's tour began in New York, where he "had nothing to declare but his genius" and led him around the country on a grueling schedule. He shocked his audience by appearing in knee breeches (an outfit, Ellmann tells us, he took from the initation ceremonies of the Freemasons). Besides the esthetic movement, he also talked about "The House Beautiful." Once a woman asked him how she should arrange some decorative screens; Wilde answered: "Why arrange them at all? Why not let them occur?" The lecturer met U.S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Walt Whitman and Henry James. (The repressed novelist and the flamboyant showman never got along, in later years partly because Wilde's plays were so fabulously successful and James' such dismal failures.) In Colorado he went down a mine and swigged whisky with the toughest miners. When he left America he was famous.

After his return to England Wilde decided to get married. Earlier he had flirted seriously with a pair of women: Florence Balcombe who wed Bram Stoker (later the author of Dracula) and Violet Hunt who became the companion of novelist Ford Madox Ford. But rumors were now flying about his increasingly epicene mannerisms and pronouncements; marriage would silence them. Wilde's bride Constance Lloyd appears to have been a sweet, intelligent and understanding woman, who loved her husband and deserved a better one. They had two sons in rapid succession -- Cyril and Vyvyan -- but while Constance was occupied with the children Oscar went off to visit Oxford and was seduced by the 17-year-old Robbie Ross. Soon thereafter, he met the blond and beautiful Alfred Douglas.

From here on Wilde dallied with self-destruction. In his writing he had always preached a flaunting of Victorian values but now in his private life he lived closer and closer to the dangerous edge. Douglas piloted him into a world of expense and excess -- opulent dinners at Willis' restaurant, hotel suites, boy prostitutes, sordid maisons de passe. In a celebrated phrase, Wilde said it was like "feasting with panthers." Ellmann mentions precisely what Wilde liked to do with "renters", as male pick-ups were called, but goes to some pains to defend his subject. "What seems to characterize all Wilde's affairs is that he got to know the boys as individuals, treated them handsomely, allowed them to refuse his attentions without becoming rancorous, and did not corrupt them."

Of course, this was not how the Marquess of Queensberry came to see his son's intimate companionship with Wilde. Bosie hated his macho father, and clearly egged Wilde into defying him, promising the support of his brother and mother. Angry and frustrated, Queensberry eventually tried to disrupt the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest. When he failed, he consulted his solicitors, and then wrote his famous accusation. Apparently, he was advised that it would be easier to prove that Wilde acted like a sodomite than that he actually was one; hence the wording.

From the very moment he received the card, Wilde was doomed. Repeatedly in his biography Ellmann emphasizes the peculiar fatality that shadowed Wilde. In his children's stories, like "The Happy Prince" and "The Birthday of the Infanta," most of the characters die for love. The "poisonous" relationship between Lord Henry Wotton and Dorian Gray in The Picture of Dorian Gray uncannily prefigured the Wilde-Douglas association a few years later. A famous palmist found Wilde's left hand that of a king, "but the right that of a king who will send himself into exile," around his 40th year.

Wilde went to his solicitor and assured him there was no truth to Queensberry's charge. A.C. Humphreys consequently advised him to sue for libel. Ellmann finds the lawyer naive in not realizing the truth; but he avoids admitting that Wilde lied to his counselor. At any event, the trial began, with Wilde showing off and Sir Edward Carson being brilliant in his cross-examination. (Ironically, the two had known each other as boys; Wilde said Carson attacked him "with all the ferocity of an old friend.") Letters to Bosie were produced, filled with passionate language addressed to "My Dear Boy," and several male prostitutes presented damaging testimony. In the end, Wilde lost his suit; therefore Queensberry's accusations were true. Indeed, the evidence suggested that Wilde was doing more than "posing." Under the law covering sexual offenses, the government had no choice but to issue a warrant for his arrest.

HE MIGHT have gotten away. There was time to catch the boat train to France. But at a time when decisive action was needed, Wilde hesitated. Bosie wanted him to fight, as did his mother; Frank Harris, Ross and others urged flight. He couldn't make up his mind. So he sat in the Cadogan Hotel, calling for hock and seltzer, a half-packed suitcase on his bed, until the burly policemen knocked at the door. After he was booked, his friends made bail; but no hotel in London would have him. He had to beg his brother to take him in. "Willie, give me shelter or I shall die in the streets." He got a small camp bed in a corner. (When Willie went around town defending Oscar, Wilde said "My poor, dear brother, he would compromise a steam engine." One thing the naive Willie reportedly said, as vindication of Oscar's character, was that you could leave any woman alone with him and she would be safe.)

Eventually, Oscar found his way to the house of Ada Leverson, widely known by her nickname the Sphinx. This time he was given the bedroom of her young son who was away on holiday. "So among the rocking horses and dollhouses," writes Ellmann with quiet eloquence, "he received his solicitors and friends, gathering the threads of destitution and disgrace."

At his first trial the jury couldn't come to a decision; in the next Wilde was found guilty and given the maximum sentence: Two years. This may not sound like much, but meant six hours a day on a treadmill, a diet of water and starches, a plank for a bed, a bucket for a toilet. The first year almost killed Wilde. But he suffered his greatest humiliation when he was transferred to Reading Prison and had to wait in handcuffs on the platform at Clapham Junction in the rain: a jeering crowd gathered and a man spat at him. At Reading he encountered the wife-murderer who was to become the subject of his last literary work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, with its haunting refrain: "Each man kills the thing he loves."

In prison Wilde apparently tried to kill his love for Douglas. He wrote a long letter -- never sent -- explaining himself, excoriating Bosie for having caused him to waste his life, for bankrupting him with extravagances, for causing his destruction at the hands of Queensberry. But as Ellmann tells us, the thing to remember about De Profundis, as this book-length cri de coeur is known, is that it is a love letter. It ends with a call for a meeting and a reconciliation.

After prison Wilde never saw his wife or sons again. He went to live in France; he found he had no talent left; the gods had abandoned him. "I spend my evenings reading The Tentation by Flaubert. I don't think I shall ever write again: la joie de vivre is gone and that with will-power, is the basis of art." He began to borrow money from friends, promising plays he knew he would never finish. He went back to Bosie, and to a spendthrift's life in Italy -- until the money ran out. Eventually he found himself, like so many others, down and out in Paris. "I have discoverd," he wrote in a letter, "that alcohol taken in sufficient quantity produces all the effects of drunkenness." The actress Ellen Terry glimpsed him "looking into the window of a pastry shop, biting his fingers." Once Sir Edward Carson almost pushed a man into the gutter when, "about to apologize, he recognized him as Wilde." Obviously, his life over, he was simply waiting for the final curtain. "How evil it is to buy love, and how evil to sell it! And yet what purple hours one can snatch from that grey slow-moving thing we call Time."

Wilde's end, from cerebral meningitis, finally came in a dingy hotel bed, where at the moment of dying fluids exploded from every orifice of his body. He had just turned 46.

In one of his essays Cyril Connolly imagines that Wilde never received Queensberry's card. Instead the playwright grew rich and ladened with honors, was knighted, and came, in the fullness of years, to be one of the most venerated literary figures in England. It might have happened. Richard Ellmann's brilliant life makes clear that it should have.

Michael Dirda is an assistant editor of Book World.