Standing in the dock in 1895 on trial for gross indecency, playwright Oscar Wilde was asked to explain the phrase ‘the Love that dare not speak its name’. ‘It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection,’ Wilde responded. ‘There is nothing unnatural about it.’
The phrase came from a poem called ‘Two Loves’ by Wilde’s lover, Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Wilde explained that the line referred specifically to the ‘intellectual’ love between an elder and younger man (Wilde was 38 and Douglas 22 when they met), but the phrase was ultimately adopted as a euphemism for homosexual relationships. Although Wilde denied the charges against him, he didn’t deny his love for Douglas, as demonstrated in this exchange with Prosecutor Charles Gill in which love letters between Wilde and Douglas were presented to the court:
Gill: In letter number one you use the expression ‘Your slim gilt soul,’ and you refer to Lord Alfred’s ‘red rose-leaf lips.’ The second letter contains the words, ‘You are the divine thing I want,’ and describes Lord Alfred’s letter as being ‘delightful, red and yellow wine to me.’ Do you think that an ordinarily constituted being would address such expressions to a younger man?
Wilde: I am not happily, I think, an ordinarily constituted being.
Gill: It is agreeable to be able to agree with you, Mr. Wilde? (Laughter.)
Wilde: There is nothing, I assure you, in either letter of which I need be ashamed.
In the 20th century Wilde’s defence of his relationship with Douglas would inadvertently turn him into a gay icon. However Wilde himself didn’t benefit from his public stand in court. After his first trial ended in a hung jury he was convicted on retrial and sentenced to two years hard labour. He was bankrupted and suffered from increasing ill health. After prison, he travelled in Europe and reunited briefly with Douglas but died three years after his release. In De Profundis, a long letter written while in prison and published in 1905, Wilde wrote:
Society as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on just and unjust alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed.
Visit Oscar Wilde’s plaque at 34 Tite Street, Chelsea, SW3 4JA.