On the fourth day of trial, Wilde took the stand. His arrogance of the first trial was gone. He answered questions quietly, denying all allegations of indecent behavior. The most memorable moment of the trial came in Wilde's response to a question about the meaning of a phrase in a poem of Lord Alfred Douglas. Prosecutor Charles Gill asked, "What is 'the Love that dare not speak its name'?" Wilde's response drew a loud applause--and a few hisses:
"The love that dare not speak its name" in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect.
It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the "Love that dare not speak its name," and on account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection.
There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so the world does not understand. The world mocks it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it."
Edward Clarke followed Wilde's testimony with a powerful summation on behalf of his client. Clarke closed by asking the jury to "gratify those thousands of hopes that are hanging on your decision" and "clear from this fearful imputation one of our most renowned and accomplished men of letters of today and, in clearing him, clear society from a stain." Clarke's closing speech left Wilde in tears, and he scribbled out a note of thanks which he passed to his counsel.
The jury deliberated for over three hours before concluding that they could not reach a verdict on most of the charges (the jury acquitted Wilde on charges relating to Frederick Atkins, one of the young men with whom he was accused of having engaged in a gross indecency.) On May 7, Wilde was released on bail.
Unlike an acquittal, a hung jury gives the prosecution another bite at the apple. Wilde enjoyed three weeks of freedom until the start of his second criminal trial.
The Liberal government determined to go all-out to secure a conviction in Wilde's second trial, even when people such as Queensberry's attorney Edward Carson were urging, "Can you not let up on this fellow now?" There is much speculation about the government's aggressive position on the Wilde case.
Prime Minister Archibald Primrose, Earl of Rosebery. Rosebery was suspected of having had a homosexual affair, when he was Foreign Minister, with Francis Douglas, another one of Queensberry's good-looking sons. It was shortly after Francis Douglas was "killed in a hunting accident" (probably a suicide), that Queensberry went on the rampage against Oscar Wilde.
There is plausible evidence in the form of ambiguous letters to conclude that Rosebery was threatened with exposure by Queensberry or others if he failed to aggressively prosecute Wilde. It is interesting to note that during the two months leading up to Wilde's conviction, Rosebery suffered from serious depression and insomnia. After Wilde's conviction, his health suddenly improved.
Wilde's second prosecution was headed by England's top prosecutor, Solicitor-General Frank Lockwood . Although the trial resembled in many ways the first, the prosecution dropped its weakest witnesses and focused more heavily on its strongest. Prosecutors, like everyone, can learn from experience. The evidence that Wilde engaged in sexual activity with young men was compelling.
In his closing speech for the defense, Clarke argued that Wilde's "brilliant promise had be clouded" by false accusations, and that his "bright reputation" had "been nearly quenched in the torrent of prejudice sweeping through the press." Clarke urged the jury to acquit Wilde so that "he might live among us in honor and repute, and give in the maturity of his genius gifts to our literature."
ockwood had the last word in the trial, and used it to offer what Wilde described as an "appalling denunciation [of me]--like something out of Tacitus, like a passage in Dante, like one of Savonarola's indictments of the Popes of Rome." He told the jury that the evidence showed just what sort of man Wilde was.
"Wilde is a man of culture and literary tastes, and I submit that his associates should have been his equals." Instead, Lockwood said, Wilde chose to have relationships "with these illiterate boys you have heard in the witness box.
After over three hours of deliberation, the jury returned its verdict: guilty on all counts except those relating to Edward Shelley. Wilde swayed slightly in the dock; his face turned gray. Some in the courtroom shouted "Shame!" while cheered the verdict.
The Wilde trials caused public attitudes toward homosexuals to become harsher and less tolerant. Whereas prior to the trials there was a certain pity for those who engaged in same-sex passion, after the trials homosexuals were seen more as a threat, more as predators. The Wilde trials had other effects as well.
They caused the public to begin to associate art with homo-eroticism, and to see effeminacy as a signal for homosexuality. Many same sex relationships seen as innocent before the Wilde trials became suspect after the trials. After the Wilde trials, every male relationship of any intensity came under a cloud, every effeminate gesture raised an eyebrow,
and the arts and homosexuality became linked in the public mind. People with close same sex relationships grew anxious, concerned about doing anything that might suggest impropriety.
Wilde served two years in prison, the last eighteen months being spent at Reading Gaol. He came out chastened and bankrupt, but not bitter. He told a friend that he "had gained much" in prison and was "ashamed on having led a life unworthy of an artist." In his prison writing, De Profondis, Wilde says, " I became a spendthrift of my genius and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy."
After his release, Wilde traveled in Europe. He met up again with Douglas, a reunion Wilde described as "psychologically inevitable." But their time together in Naples did not go well. Wilde described it as "the most bitter experience of a bitter life."Wilde died on November 30 , 1900 in a Paris hotel room. His words, in De Profundis, tell of the lessons learned from his trials:
“All trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death, and three times I have been tried. The first time I left the box to be arrested, the second time to be led back to the house of detention, and the third time to pass into prison for two years. 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. She will hang with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling,
and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.” [Oscar Wilde, De Profundis]
One final observation about the Wilde trials, often overlooked, deserves mention. Prior to Wilde's trials, prosecutions for consensual homosexuality in England were about as rare as they were in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. What offended Victorian society about Wilde's conduct was not so much that it involved sex with other males.
What people found offensive was that Wilde had sex with a large number of young male prostitutes. Wilde was not prosecuted because he was the lover of a social equal who happened to be male. Wilde was prosecuted because of his participation in a not very discreet prostitution ring.
Had Wilde merely pursued relationships with men of his own age--especially men of his own social class--he never would have found himself in the dock at Old Bailey.
As it was, darker days for gay men in England ollowed the Wilde trials. But social attitudes kept changing, as they always do. In 1967, some seven decades after the trials, private consensual acts involving adults, including same-sex sodomy, were decriminalized in England.