Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Wilde Given Overdue Tribute

LONDON -- Oscar Wilde, the Irish poet, playwright, storyteller and wit whose work still captivates millions, was given his first statue in London - a century after he was disgraced and jailed for homosexuality.

Wilde is modeled in what was his favorite pose, talking and holding a cigarette in his upraised right hand.

"A cigarette in Wilde's day was a symbol of a young man's decadence and modernity and is now a symbol of political incorrectness," said actor Stephen Fry on Monday, who played the lead role in the film "Wilde."

"Showing him smoking is yet again a big finger shoved in the face of society," Fry added.

The striking memorial near Trafalgar Square is a one-and-a-half times life-size bronze head of Wilde rising from a 3-meter coffin-shaped block of black marble, and titled "A Conversation with Oscar Wilde 1854-1900."

The block "makes a seat on which passersby can complete the work by sitting to have a chat," said sculptor Maggi Hambling, interviewed at the statue's unveiling ceremony next to one of London's historic churches, St. Martin-in-the-Fields.

Passers-by heard actors Judi Dench and Nigel Hawthorne read an extract from Wilde's "A Woman of No Importance," and afterward they swarmed around the memorial, stroking the head and taking snapshots.

"All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars," is inscribed on the marble block, a line from Wilde's play, "Lady Windermere's Fan."

A committee of 19 writers, actors, academics, philanthropists and journalists, including Seamus Heaney, the Nobel Literature Prize-winning Irish poet, raised pounds 150,000 ($249,000) to pay for the statue.

It was unveiled on the anniversary of Wilde's death at age 46 in Paris in self-exile and poverty. He had been sentenced to two years in jail in 1895 for homosexual practices revealed during his abortive libel action against the Marquis of Queensberry.

The marquis had objected to Wilde's association with his son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Wilde was released from prison on May 18, 1897, three years before his death.

"The fight that he waged for diversity in our society - the right to be different - I think we have made substantial strides toward winning and it is partly because of him," said Culture Secretary Chris Smith, one of two openly homosexual ministers in the Labour government's 22-member Cabinet.

Among Wilde's best-remembered sayings were: "I have nothing to declare but my genius," when arriving at the New York customs house. And: "America has been discovered before, but it has always been hushed up."