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The Beauty of Idleness: exploring the university days of Oscar Wilde

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Too often any intelligence is bought with the acquisition of excessive conceit or a boring solemnity. Rarely does it inflame the personality to burn with wit and levity, acting as a bellows to the spark of character. Oscar Wilde in his time in University managed to not only retain this flame, but let it burgeon.

Discarding that which was useful, he instead devoted himself to what was beautiful. Throughout his time he ignored professors' advice, arrived late to a start of term, was caught 'about the streets all evening', and took up a serious hobby of smoking: in short he was an exemplary student.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

Wilde's time at university was a time of internal tension. Torn between various tendencies, it manifested itself in a struggle between his intended conversion to Catholicism and his love for the Hellenic spirit. This conflict was personified by two tutors he respected—Prater and Ruskin—, localized in his visits to Greece and Rome, and eventually quelled by an embracing of such internal conflict.

As Richard Ellmann concludes about Wilde's university days in his biography, Wilde had learnt to ignore the simplicity of dogma, and in doing so became a dramatist. Finally graduating with a puff of smoke in the face of life, Wilde's time at university cannot be confined to his fretful thoughts.

Boyish playfulness and adolescent insouciance are in some ways the hallmark of Wilde's comedic writing. He properly brought this to the ancient halls of Oxford, in many ways anticipating a little of Bertie Wooster and a little of Jeeves in the same personage. In one night at a performance of travelling yodelers, Oscar and his brother Willie jumped on stage in front of the curtain that had closed and began playing a Strauss waltz on the piano. After being forcibly removed by stage hands they continued their revelries in the streets.

This spirit in action was articulated in writing when he wrote "progress in thought is the assertion of individualism against authority". Forever opposed to the two excess of authority and hedonism, puritanism and sensualism, Wilde maintained the unfettered joy of youth alongside the maturing intellect of his age.

This self-confidence appeared in his academic life when, having won the Newdigate award for poetry, he was obliged to sit with the Professor of Poetry Shairp and listen to his suggestions for its upcoming recital. Having obliged the professor, Wilde left the poem as it was; always confidant in the genuine individual over compromised hand of committee.

It is clear however the subject that Wilde devoted most of his time and energy to was Beauty. To him it was far from an abstract, it was a tendency to which he endeavoured to imbue in each conversation, fashion choice, and action he embarked upon. His famous quote which made its way around Oxford during his time, "I find it harder and harder to live up to my blue china", speaks to his preoccupation with beauty in the person and outside it.

The interest in the aesthetic lead later in life to provide a theme in The Picture of Dorian Gray, a man whose fate revolved around his portrait. Employing the maxim of Victor Hugo that "the beautiful is as useful as the useful... perhaps even more so" Oscar Wilde cut through the modernity of an industrial England and its overly utilitarian character. 

While Oscar Wilde can be remembered for more than any biographer can capture in a single book, his university days provide an example of what is important over what is useful. Surrounded by the modern university's stress on 'useful' skills, 'employable' traits, and 'responsible' behaviour Oscar Wilde points to those precepts and giggles. The proper engagement of a university student is not mindless activity, but thoughtful idleness.  

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