I Am Dying, As I Have Lived, Beyond My Means

Oscar Wilde? Robert Ross? Frank Harris? Hesketh Pearson? Josiah Flynt? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend, Oscar Wilde was resting with his eyes closed on his deathbed when two physicians began discussing the necessity of a very expensive operation to extend his life. Wilde opened his eyes and said:

I suppose that I shall have to die beyond my means.

Another version of the tale states that the ailing and impoverished wit was enjoying a convivial meal with friends in Paris when he asked for a bottle of champagne. When it was brought he declared:

I am dying, as I have lived, beyond my means.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900. The strongest evidence known to QI appeared in a letter dated December 14, 1900 that was sent from Robert Ross to More Adey. Ross was a close friend of Wilde’s who saw him frequently during his final days in Paris. Adey was an English art critic and editor. The ellipses in the following passage were present in the published text. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

On October 25th, my brother Aleck came to see him, when Oscar was in particularly good form. His sister-in-law, Mrs. Willie, and her husband, Texeira, were then passing through Paris on their honeymoon, and came at the same time. On this occasion he said he was “dying above his means” . . . . he would never outlive the century . . . . the English people would not stand him—he was responsible for the failure of the Exhibition, the English having gone away when they saw him there so well-dressed and happy . . .

Wilde’s quip used the word “above” instead of “beyond” in this version of the tale. The “Exhibition” was a reference to the Paris Exhibition of 1900 which was held between April and November.

Common advice states that one should make a budget and not overspend, i.e., one should not live beyond one’s means. Wilde’s humorous wordplay was based on twisting this guidance.

Ross’s letter was published in the 1916 book “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions” by Frank Harris. The missive also appeared in “The Letters of Oscar Wilde” edited by Rupert Hart-Davis which was published in 1962. 2

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading I Am Dying, As I Have Lived, Beyond My Means

Notes:

  1. 1916, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris, Volume 2 of 2, Section: Appendix, Letter from Robert Ross to More Adey, Date: December 14, 1900, Quote Page 596, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1962, The Letters of Oscar Wilde, Edited by Rupert Hart-Davis, Epilogue, Letter from Robert Ross to More Adey, Date: December 14, 1900, (Text from Frank Harris, vol.2, pp. 595-603), Quote Page 847 and 848, Published by Rupert Hart-Davis, London. (Verified on paper)

Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes

Oscar Wilde? Frank Harris? Irish Barrister? Wilton Lackaye? Margaret Waters? Well-Known Young Clubman? Gustav Traub? Mike Romanoff? Samuel George Blythe? Arthur M. Binstead? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The scintillating conversationalist Oscar Wilde enjoyed modifying dusty platitudes to construct comical alternatives. For example, he permuted an old complaint about the working class to yield:

Work is the curse of the drinking classes.

Oddly, I have not found a citation for this statement dated before the death of Wilde. Would you please examine the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Oscar Wilde died in November 1900. The earliest published instance of this quip located by QI occurred in the caption of a newspaper cartoon in 1902. The details are given further below.

Yet there is good evidence that Oscar Wilde did craft this statement. In 1916 the writer and outsized personality Frank Harris who was a friend of Wilde’s published a biography titled “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions”. Harris described a party he threw during which Wilde delivered the remark. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

A little later I gave a dinner at the Savoy and asked him to come. He was delightful, his vivacious gaiety as exhilarating as wine. But he was more like a Roman Emperor than ever: he had grown fat: he ate and drank too much; not that he was intoxicated, but he became flushed, and in spite of his gay and genial talk he affected me a little unpleasantly; he was gross and puffed up. But he gave one or two splendid snapshots of actors and their egregious vanity. It seemed to him a great pity that actors should be taught to read and write: they should learn their pieces from the lips of the poet.

“Just as work is the curse of the drinking classes of this country,” he said laughing, “so education is the curse of the acting classes.”

Yet even when making fun of the mummers there was a new tone in him of arrogance and disdain. He used always to be genial and kindly even to those he laughed at; now he was openly contemptuous.

The accuracy of the above ascription to Wilde depends on the veracity of Harris who was a direct witness. Harris explained the long delay before the appearance of his book in the introduction. Wilde was a controversial figure and Harris’s sympathetic work condemned the harshness of Wilde’s punishment. Harris waited more than ten years hoping that someone else would write a comparable book. He acted when he finally felt compelled to present his own viewpoint.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Work is the Curse of the Drinking Classes

Notes:

  1. 1916, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris, Volume 1, Quote Page 166, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

Genius Is Born, Not Paid

Oscar Wilde? Frank Harris? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The following passage from a philosophical magazine of 1815 asserts that intellectual gifts are innate: 1

That genius is born, is a trite truth; education never creates, it only cultivates and directs the faculties.

An ancient adage states this controversial thesis concisely for the realm of poetry:

A poet is born, not made.

There are many examples of great poets and other geniuses such as Vincent van Gogh and Nikola Tesla who died in poverty. Oscar Wilde who was also financially strapped at the end of his life was aware of the pitfalls of brilliance, so he modified an adage with acerbic wordplay:

Genius is born, not made.
Genius is born, not paid.

Would you please examine this expression?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the 1916 biography “Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions” by Frank Harris. A section about Wilde’s last year of life in 1900 described a party during which the witticism was delivered. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2 3

The entertainment usually started with some humorous play on words. One of the company would say something obvious or trivial, repeat a proverb or commonplace tag such as, “Genius is born, not made,” and Oscar would flash in smiling, “not ‘paid,’ my dear fellow, not ‘paid.'”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Genius Is Born, Not Paid

Notes:

  1. January 1815, The Philosophical Magazine And Journal, Volume 45, Dr. Spurzheim’s demonstrative Course of Lectures, Start Page 50, Quote Page 52, Printed by Richard and Arthur Taylor, Shoe Lane, London. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1916, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions, Frank Harris, Volume 2, Quote Page 412, Brentano’s, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1916 October, The Phoenix, Volume 5, Number 5, Oscar Wilde as a Talker, (Excerpt from Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions by Frank Harris), Start Page 146, Quote Page 147, Published by Michael Monahan, South Norwalk, Connecticut. (Google Books Full View) link