Thursday, October 12, 2006

Oscar Wilde

Flamboyant, witty, and linguistically masterful, Oscar Wilde was a dramatic genius whose comedies are still noted as containing some of the most brilliant dialogue ever written for the stage. He was born into a prominent Anglo-Irish family in Dublin in 1854, and while at Oxford, became acquainted with the inimitable John Ruskin. His sole novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was published in 1891; however, it was his four comedic plays that brought him lasting fame: Lady Windermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), An Ideal Husband (1895), and his most famous The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). At one point in 1895, three of his plays were running simultaneously in London. His fall from grace in late 1895 was decisive: while carrying on a clandestine love affair with another man, he was outed by the father, a nobleman. Wilde was arrested as a homosexual and served two years at hard labor, during which his wife sought a legal separation and his friends deserted him. Upon his release from prison, he migrated to France and finished "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (named for the prison in which he served time). He died suddenly in 1900, at the age of forty-six.

"The Ballad of Reading Gaol" is about a man whom Wilde saw hanged while in Reading. The trooper, anonymous in the poem as he was in life, had slit his wife's throat with a razor. Wilde's final vision sees us all as anonymous sufferers, subject to the whims of our mistakes and the judgement of those who uncover them. In short, Wilde takes a man whose brutal crime made him inhuman, and shows his human side. Few could have done it as masterfully as did he; however, none could have used the English language to create such pathos for an absolutely anonymous individual, whose identity is constructed only as a crime. Below are selections from the Ballad. I hope you enjoy them.
He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When the found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
"That fellow's got to swing."

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain
My pain I could not feel

I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame
On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
Into an empty space


Six weeks the guardsman walked the yard
In a suit of shabby grey:
His cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay,
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every wandering cloud that trailed
Its ravelled fleeces by.

He did not wring his hands, as do
Those witless men who dare
To try to rear the changeling Hope
In the cave of black Despair:
He only looked upon the sun,
And drank the morning air.

He did not wring his hands nor weep,
Nor did he peek or pine,
But he drank the air as though it held
Some healthful anodyne
With open mouth he drank the sun
As though it had been wine!

And I and all the souls in pain,
Who tramped the other ring,
Forgot if we ourselves had done
A great or little thing,
And watched with gaze of dull amaze
The man who had to swing.

For strange it was to see him pass
With a step so light and gay,
And strange it was to see him look
So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
Had such a debt to pay.


So with curious eye and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.

At last the dead man walked no more
Amongst the Trial Men,
And I knew that he was standing up
In the black dock's dreadful pen,
And that never would I see his face
For weal or woe again.

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
We had crossed each other's way:
But we made no sign, we said no word,
We had no word to say;
For we did not meet in the holy night,
But in the shameful day.

A prison wall was round us both,
Two outcast men we were:
The world had thrust us from its heart
And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
Had caught us in its snare.


There is no Chapel on the day
On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain's heart is far too sick,
Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
Which none should look upon.

So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
And then they rang the bell,
And the warders with their jingling keys
Opened each listening cell,
And down the iron stair we tramped,
Each from his separate Hell.

Out into God's sweet air we went,
But not in wonted way,
For this man's face was white with fear,
And this man's face was grey,
And I never saw sad men who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw sad men who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners called the sky,
And at every happy cloud that passed
In such strange freedom by.

But there were those amongst us all
Who walked with downcast head,
And knew that, had each got his due,
They should have died instead:
He had but killed a thing that lived,
Whilst they had killed the dead.

For he who sins a second dime
Wakes a dead soul to pain,
And draws it from its spotted shroud,
And makes it bleed again,
And makes it bleed great gouts of blood,
And makes it bleed in vain!

Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb
With crooked arrows starred
Silently we went round and round
The slippery asphalt yard;
Silently we went round and round,
And no man spoke a word.
I've given you about 1/5 of the poem, some each of the beginning, middle, and end. I hope you enjoyed it, that it gave you food for thought, but most of all, that I inspired you to read the rest of the poem. Wilde's was a great voice, one that fell silent for the rest of his short life after completing this Ballad...


Anonymous Liam Ledwidge said...

Thank you for keeping the works of Oscar Wilde alive. Liam Ledwidge, Dublin.

10:50 AM  

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