Flying Toward Dreams Comes with Cost

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Jacqui Haining, Staff Columnist

Like any other creatively-inclined young adult, I have a favorite poem. Short and to the point, it bridges the mentality of the ancient world to the nineteenth century to the current and the life experience of the poem’s mistreated author with our own journeys in self-exploration and expression. The poem is “Icarus” by Oscar Wilde: Never regret thy fall, / O Icarus of the fearless flight / For the greatest tragedy of them all / is never to feel the burning light.

Here, Wilde retells the Ancient Greek myth of Icarus, the son of the master craftsman Daedalus who constructed the labyrinth in Crete. King Minos funded Daedalus’ labyrinth to imprison the Minotaur, the bloodthirsty combination of a bull’s head and a human’s body, and was the sight of numerous myths. For example, Ancient Greek hero Theseus was tasked with navigating the labyrinth and surviving his encounter with the Minotaur.

Daedalus’ and Icarus’ misfortune started here. Daedalus had given Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos and lover of Theseus, a ball of string and instructions to help Theseus survive the labyrinth and defeat the Minotaur. Daedalus’ kindness and commitment to his beliefs made him a criminal in the eyes of the King, who sentenced Daedalus and his son, Icarus, to imprisonment in the very labyrinth.

Daedalus planned an escape for Icarus and himself. He made two sets of wings out of wax and feathers with the intent of flying off the island together. Daedalus, however, warned Icarus not to fly too close to the sea, lest the water log his wings, and not fly too close to the sun, lest the wax melt in its heat. Upon their ascent, Icarus ignores his father’s words and flies toward the sun, his wings disintegrating.

Icarus plunges to his death in the sea below. The Ancient Greek myth typically blames Icarus for his own death, emphasizing his irresponsibility and hubris, or extreme pride. Oscar Wilde took a new perspective on Icarus’ story. Instead of harping on Icarus’s failure or stupidity, Wilde hails Icarus’s fortitude and passion. Icarus, according to Wilde, is the true hero of the story, the one character willing to go against all odds to pursue his dream and accepts the adventure and risks of his identity.

To understand Oscar Wilde’s connection to Icarus and Daedalus, one must first hear Wilde’s own life story. Wilde was born in Ireland in 1854 and became one of Britain’s most popular playwrights, authors, and poets by the 1890s for his works “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Importance of Being Earnest,” among others. He became an important proponent of the philosophical field of aestheticism, a creative movement that emphasized beauty, opposed to allegory or moral teaching, as the primary function of art, music, and literature. Continuing his work, Wilde eventually moved to London, where he became involved in the fashionable circles of the time.

But Wilde found much temptation in London’s socialite circles. There, Wilde met his passionate lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. Their love kindled at a time when homosexual acts were a punishable offense in Victorian England, and Lord Douglas’ own father sent private detectives to unearth evidence of Wilde’s gay private life after learning of the romance. Wilde was convicted for “gross indecency” (homosexual acts) and spent nearly three years in prison where he suffered solitary confinement and hard labor in the mines before dying in exile.

Wilde and Douglas gambled Wilde’s career and fame, choosing to risk their wings melting for a sweet taste of the sun’s warm glow. But who could blame Wilde for following his heart? Who was he truly hurting by flying high, other than himself by extension of the bigoted society around him? Wilde was given two cruel options: to live in a metaphorical, social “prison” by ignoring his heart and love for other men, or to sit in jail and crumble from the brutal labor shackled in the mines? He chose to be himself.

I deeply admire Oscar Wilde’s authenticity and bravery during his prosecution, imprisonment, and life in disgrace. His poem “Icarus” is a reminder to remain true to yourself, your character, and your passions, just like Wilde and his hero of Greek myth.

November 30 marked the 121st anniversary of Oscar Wilde’s death. I ask you to take a moment to think of Oscar and his dear Icarus, who both flew the dangerous path to pursue their dreams of love and the sun: two sources of gravitational pull which can both warm the soul and burn it down.