At Magdalen he read Greats from 1874 to 1878, and from there he applied to join the Oxford Union, but failed to be elected.
Attracted by its dress, secrecy, and ritual, Wilde petitioned the Apollo Masonic Lodge at Oxford, and was soon raised to the "Sublime Degree of Master Mason". During a resurgent interest in Freemasonry in his third year, he commented he "would be awfully sorry to give it up if I secede from the Protestant Heresy". He was deeply considering converting to Catholicism, discussing the possibility with clergy several times. In 1877, Wilde was left speechless after an audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome. He eagerly read Cardinal Newman's books, and became more serious in 1878, when he met the Reverend Sebastian Bowden, a priest in the Brompton Oratory who had received some high profile converts. Neither his father, who threatened to cut off his funds, nor Mahaffy thought much of the plan; but mostly Wilde, the supreme individualist, balked at the last minute from pledging himself to any formal creed. On the appointed day of his baptism, Father Bowden received a bunch of altar lilies instead. Wilde retained a lifelong interest in Catholic theology and liturgy.
While at Magdalen College, Wilde became particularly well known for his role in the aesthetic and decadent movements. He wore his hair long, openly scorned "manly" sports though he occasionally boxed, and decorated his rooms with peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers, blue china and other objets d'art, once remarking to friends whom he entertained lavishly, "I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china." The line quickly became famous, accepted as a slogan by aesthetes but used against them by critics who sensed in it a terrible vacuousness. Some elements disdained the aesthetes, but their languishing attitudes and showy costumes became a recognised pose. Wilde was once physically attacked by a group of four fellow students, and dealt with them single-handedly, surprising critics. By his third year Wilde had truly begun to create himself and his myth, and saw his learning developing in much larger ways than merely the prescribed texts. This attitude resulted in him being rusticated for one term, when he nonchalantly returned to college late from a trip to Greece with Prof. Mahaffy.
Wilde did not meet Professor Walter Pater until his third year, but had been enthralled by his Studies in the History of the Renaissance, published during Wilde's final year in Trinity. Pater argued that man's sensibility to beauty should be refined above all else, and that each moment should be felt to its fullest extent. Years later in De Profundis, Wilde called Pater's Studies... "that book that has had such a strange influence over my life". He learned tracts of the book by heart, and carried it with him on travels in later years. Pater gave Wilde his sense of almost flippant devotion to art, though it was Professor John Ruskin who gave him a purpose for it. Ruskin despaired at the self-validating aestheticism of Pater; for him the importance of art lay in its potential for the betterment of society. He too admired beauty, but it must be allied with and applied to moral good. When Wilde eagerly attended his lecture series The Aesthetic and Mathematic Schools of Art in Florence, he learned about aesthetics as simply the non-mathematical elements of painting. Despite being given to neither early rising nor manual labour, Wilde volunteered for Ruskin's project to convert a swampy country lane into a smart road neatly edged with flowers.
Wilde won the 1878 Newdigate Prize for his poem "Ravenna", which reflected on his visit there the year before, and he duly read it at Encaenia. In November 1878, he graduated with a rare double first in his B.A. of Classical Moderations and Literae Humaniores (Greats). Wilde wrote a friend, "The dons are 'astonied' beyond words – the Bad Boy doing so well in the end!"
Debut in society
After graduation from Oxford, Wilde returned to Dublin, where he met again Florence Balcombe, a childhood sweetheart. She, however, became engaged to Bram Stoker (who later wrote Dracula), and they married in 1878. Wilde was disappointed but stoic: he wrote to her, remembering "the two sweet years – the sweetest years of all my youth" they had spent together. He also stated his intention to "return to England, probably for good". This he did in 1878, only briefly visiting Ireland twice.
Unsure of his next step, he wrote to various acquaintances enquiring about Classics positions at Oxbridge. The Rise of Historical Criticism was his submission for the Chancellor's Essay prize of 1879, which, though no longer a student, he was still eligibleto enter. Its subject, "Historical Criticism among the Ancients" seemed ready-made for Wilde – with both his skill in composition and ancient learning – but he struggled to find his voice with the long, flat, scholarly style. Unusually, no prize was awarded that year. With the last of his inheritance from the sale of his father's houses, he set himself up as a bachelor in London. The 1881 British Census listed Wilde as a boarder at 1 Tite Street, Chelsea, where Frank Miles, a society painter, was the head of the household. Wilde would spend the next six years in London and Paris, and in the United States where he travelled to deliver lectures.
He had been publishing lyrics and poems in magazines since his entering Trinity College, especially in Kottabos and the Dublin University Magazine. In mid-1881, at 27 years old, Poems collected, revised and expanded his poetic efforts. The book was generally well received, and sold out its first print run of 750 copies, prompting further printings in 1882. Bound in a rich, enamel, parchment cover (embossed with gilt blossom) and printed on hand-made Dutch paper, Wilde would present many copies to the dignitaries and writers who received him over the next few years. The Oxford Union condemned the book for alleged plagiarism in a tight vote. The librarian, who had requested the book for the library, returned the presentation copy to Wilde with a note of apology.[Richard Ellmann argues that Wilde's poem "Hélas" was a sincere, though flamboyant, attempt to explain the dichotomies he saw in himself:
To drift with every passion till my soul Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play.
Aestheticism was sufficiently in vogue to be caricatured by Gilbert and Sullivan in Patience (1881). Richard D'Oyly Carte, an English Impressario, invited Wilde on a lecture tour of North America, simultaneously priming the pump for the U.S. tour of Patience and selling the most charming English aesthete to the American public. Wilde arrived on 3 January 1882 aboard the SS Arizona and criss-crossed the country on a gruelling schedule, lecturing in a new town every few days.[Notes 2] Originally planned to last four months, it was continued for over a year due to the commercial success. Wilde sought to juxtapose the beauty he saw in art onto daily life. This was a practical as well as philosophical project: in Oxford he had surrounded himself with blue china and lilies, now one of his lectures was on interior design. When asked to explain reports that he had paraded down Piccadilly in London carrying a lily, long hair flowing, Wilde replied, "It's not whether I did it or not that's important, but whether people believed I did it". Wilde believed that the artist should hold forth higher ideals, and that pleasure and beauty would replace utilitarian ethics.
Wilde and aestheticism were both mercilessly caricatured and criticised in the press, Springfield Republican, for instance, commented on Wilde's behaviour during his visit to Boston to lecture on aestheticism, suggesting that Wilde's conduct was more of a bid for notoriety rather than a devotion to beauty and the aesthetic. T.W. Higginson, a cleric and abolitionist, wrote in "Unmanly Manhood" of his general concern that Wilde, "whose only distinction is that he has written a thin volume of very mediocre verse", would improperly influence the behaviour of men and women. Though his press reception was hostile, Wilde was well received in diverse settings across America; he drank whiskey with miners in Leadville, Colorado and was fêted at the most fashionable salons in every city he visited.