Saturday, August 14, 2010
The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde
Wilde, an Irish playwright, poet and novelist spent two years in three English prisons, the last being Reading Gaol, serving hard labour for "gross indecency."
I remember reading his only novel "The Picture of Dorian Gray" when I was a teenager and really being captivated by it. Wilde's sharp observational writing and flamboyantly chaotic life have ensured that he continues to loom large as one of literature's most memorable characters.
And you know I didn't think I would want to read The Ballad of Reading Gaol, it being an enormously long poem after all. But from the first verse I was caught up in the rhythm of it and couldn't stop reading. It is a ballad that depicts, or almost chants really, about the dark, soul destroying existence of life behind bars at the end of the 19th century.
We were as men who through a fen
Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was Hope.
The poem explores what it was like for the prisoners in the lead up to a hanging. It is really very moving. And I guess the whole thing has extra poignancy because Wilde has not made this up, this reflects his lived experience as a prisoner. When the poem was first published in 1898, it was not attributed to Wilde but written under the name C.3.3., standing for "cell block C, landing 3, cell 3."
So with curious eyes 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.
Wilde was the celebrated and then notorious "bad boy" of his day. After being released from prison he went to France, never to return to the UK. He died in Paris at age 46 in abject poverty. It is a very sad story and one that has always intrigued me.
You can read The Ballad of Reading Gaol online if you are interested.
The portrait of Wilde included in this post was sourced from Wikipedia