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Oscar Wilde and the Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde was one of the most representative authors of the Victorian age, the phase of English history that corresponds to the reign of the Queen Victoria (1837 – 1901). The Victorian society is to be considered a very significant moment for English history and culture but also contained some contradictions difficult to understand; scientific development, enormous increase of commercial business, international power and prestige for United Kingdom, a rich and fine literature were the first side of a coin that showed, on the “dark side”, social inequalities, pollution and, in our case, hypocrisy. Homosexuality, in exemplum, was not tolerated at all and the existing laws condemned it very firmly, even to the jail and the hard work.

There was, then, a wit and brilliant novelist, poet, aphorist. And there was a lord, Alfred Douglas who fell in love with him. Surely, the guy had been fascinated and fallen in love with the author of The Picture of Dorian Gray and many other interesting masterpieces because he was wit, he had education, an intelligence and a sagacity which certainly made him seem something special in such an hypocrite and mediocre society (perhaps Alfred should be quiet fed up with). 

To stop the relationship between Oscar and Alfred, Lord Douglas senior, Marquis of Queensberry and Alfred’s father, prosecuted for libel, a charge carrying a penalty of up to two years in prison. The trial discovered evidence that caused Wilde to drop his charges and led to his own arrest and trial for gross indecency with other men. After two more trials he was convicted and imprisoned for two years’ hard labour.

Of course, a condemn like that one  comported to have almost killed him because the hard life of a jail and of the works was too hard to suffer for any human being and, over all, for a sensitive and delicate person.

How could such a gentle being face such an appalling and difficult situation? How could an educated gentleman, used at humanities, literature, fine arts, live in a squalid place, without freedom, without the possibility to cultivate his interests, strangely watched by the other jailbirds and having for skythat little tent of blue”?

In 1897, when he was in prison yet, Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis which was published in 1905, a long letter which discusses his spiritual experience through his judgments, creating a shady counterpoint to his earlier philosophy of pleasure.

Upon his release he definitely left Ireland and Britain, never to return, moved to France and there he wrote his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), a long poem remembering the cruel rhythms of prison life, exactly two years before to die, only forty six years old.

In the Ballad of the Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde tells us the sufferance he lived in that time of two years, when he wanted to pray and he could not, he wanted to weep and it was difficult, he walked and the detainees whispered ‘that fellow’s got to swing!”. The first image Wilde gives us is that one of a prisoner who does not wear the colours of the blood and the wine, although his hands had been found red after the murder of his wife. Now he wears a suit of shabby grey and, wistfully all the day, takes sometimes a look at that little tent of blue quiet similar to the sky. Oscar walked and a voice whispered someone was destined to be hanged.

Secondly, Wilde lists the crimes of the people of the Reading Gaol and the types of the humanity he had to live with. There is that one who killed the thing of his love, who strangled, who used knives, crying or not, with tender words or in silence and, reasoning in terms of literary categories, it seems a minimal reference to the Love – Death relationship which is an important reading key of Victorian poetry and literature.

Someone is not aware of his crime, tells himself the victim is still alive; the Doctor cannot know the thirst a person has before that the hangman makes his throat became unable to be thirsty anymore.

In the Stanza II, the images of the first section come again (the person in shabby grey, wistfully all the day and watching the fellow who had to swing). Green or dry a man must die and one can wonder if his last look will be at the sky and if his destiny will be the same. Day by day, indeed, each other’s way come across and they do not have sing to make or word to say, like vessels in a storm or outcast people caught by the Sin.

In the 3rd, there is the description of the work; stones are hard in the Debtors Yard (we have to remember that Victorian laws foresaw the jail for debts too, considered as crimes, and it was really present in Charles Dickens’ novels).

Warders watched at the prisoners by each side of a dripping wall for the possibility the man could die or others also looked at his anguish when he tried to pray or weep, even fearing himself should rob the scaffold of its prey.

Then, Oscar speaks of the authorities. Governor had been really strong on the regulations and the doctor considered the Death nothing else but a natural fact. As the Chaplain, he called twice a day, he smoked twice a day and drank his quart of beer.

The man was resolute and tied to show courage and not fear at all; he said often he was glad, although the hands of the hangman were near; what human pity, furthermore, should give him a consolation? What human and fraternal word?

How did the prisoners look? Without any doubt, shaven head and feet of lead, they made a merry masquerade, they trod the Fool’s Parade with slouch and swing around the ring, and they simply were the Devil’s Own Brigade.

They tore the tarry rope to shreds with blunt and bleeding nails; they rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors, and cleaned the shining rails: And, rank by rank, they soaped the plank, and clattered with the pails.

They sewed the sacks, they broke the stones, and they turned the dusty drill: they banged the tins, and bawled the hymns, and sweated on the mill.
But the terror remained yet in their hearts, lying; furthermore, time by time the hangman went with his little bag, shuffling through the gloom, the Fear moved through the corridors and everyone had to tremble as he crept into his numbered tomb. When Terror moved along the gaol and another guilty had been found, sprites, phantoms and strange creatures seemed to appear, to dance grotesques and make arabesques, and the unique savour on each mouth was that of Remorse. They prayed, grew afraid of the justice of the Sun and, as the moaning wind went wandering round and they felt the minutes crawl like a wheel of turning steel, they somewhere else God’s  dreadful dawn was red. They had to clean their cells but the Lord of Death, with icy breath, entered to kill, only needing three yards of cord and a sliding board.

The life of those hopeless beings had nothing else to do but to wait for the sign to come, and for all the jail you could year the moan of helpless anguish, like the sound that frightened marshes hear from some leper in his lair.

What is the Justice? What is the Human Justice? Justice goes its way for Man’s grim and will not swerve aside, slaying the weak and the strong with iron heel, they  saw the greasy hempen rope Hooked to the blackened beam, And heard the prayer the hangman’s snare Strangled into a scream.

At the end of the 3rd stanza, a very powerful motto:

None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
more deaths than one must die.

The Stanza number IV start within a religious issue: There is no chapel on the day/ on which they hang a man. It means that, in the day of an execution, religious function are not to be done and the look of the Chaplain is so sick, wan and pale that no one should look upon. For absurd, going to the chapel was however something of relax in the daily gloom of the prisoners; in the days when it is not possible, the jailbirds stay close till nigh on noon; in a particular moment, warders open the cells and everyone is free to look for his own Hell, in the sweet air of God but without the possibility to rejoice, because faces are white, grey or too wistfully at the day. They walked like ape or clown, on the asphalt yard and the recollection of horrible things hurried like a terrible wind, in the company of Terror and Horror.

The Warders with shining uniform strutted up and down, over all on Sunday, when the suits were especially fine, and retained their herd of brutes; despite of their apparent splendour, the quicklime of their boots revealed the work they had been at, for where a grave had opened wide, /there was no grave at all.
A man had a pall, below a prison – yard and was naked, for greater shame.

Then, another strong consideration of Oscar Wilde:

They think a murderer’s heart would taint
each simple seed they sow.
It is not true! God’s kindly earth
is kindlier than men know,
and the red rose would but blow more red,
the white rose whiter blow.

Mercy of our Lord! Wilde distinguishes the justice according to men from that one of Christ, who brings His will to light and who died for every one of us. The spirit of the man hemmed by the prison-wall may not walk by night with is fetters bound; he is at peace and there is nothing to make him mad or have terror at noon, because the unholy ground where he lies has neither Sun nor Moon. He has been hanged as a beast, without a requiem, and hid in a hole, food for flies, with the eyes stark and staring.

Neither the Chaplain acted as a Christian, to pray by his grave or to mark with him with that cross which means that Christ went down for all the sinners.

In the V Stanza, Wilde affirms to not know whether Laws is right or wrong; he only knows, like all who lie in gaol, that the jail is strong; each day seems a year and a year whose days are long. He also knows for sure, on the other hand, that every Law That men have made for Man,/  Since first Man took his brother’s life, / And the sad world began,/  But straws the wheat and saves the chaff / With a most evil fan.

Moreover, every prison built by men is made of bricks of shame and the bars only serve to avoid Jesus Christ could see how men maim other men.

Bad habits, moreover, grow up easily in the jail, where the only Warder is Despair: the vile starve the child, scourge the weak, flog the fool, and gibe the old and many other bad things. Some grow mad, some grow bad; each cell becomes a lewd and dark latrine, where any morality finishes and the Sin rules.

Food is appalling: water is brackish and disgusting; bread is full of chalk and lime. Sleep serenely is impossible, ‘because Sleep cries to Time (anyway, every stone one lifts by day/ becomes one’s heart by night).

Silence is even worse than a brazen bell; no human voice comes near to whisper something gentle; a pitiless and hard eye watches through the door and they became even more rot and rot, in the soul and in the body.
However, God’s eternal Laws are kind/ And break the heart of stone./ And every human heart that breaks, / In prison-cell or yard, /Is as that broken box that gave/ Its treasure to the Lord,/ And filled the unclean leper’s house /With the scent of costliest nard (of course a quotation from the Holy gospel, referring to Mary Magdalene, who scented the head of Christ with nard and dried his feet with her hair, in the house of the leper).

Ah! Happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
and cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

In the verses above, Wilde sees the breaking of the heart and the peace of pardon as a way to make straight one’s plan and wash the soul from the sins, as a sort of purification.   The person too, who had been strangled, and kept naked with the stark and staring eyes can hope in the holy and merciful hands that took 
the Thief to Paradise, because God loves broken and contrite hearts

and the crimson stain that was of Cain
became Christ’s snow-white seal.

 6th Stanza is the last. Oscar Wilde finishes the poem just remembering what Reading gaol is: a pit of shame, where the wretched man lies in a burning winding-sheet and is destined to a grave without name. There is neither forgiveness nor pity, no need to waste the foolish tear neither heave the windy sigh. The man who killed the thing they love had to die

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all 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!

When it comes down to do it, Oscar Wilde’s main goal in this Ballad is to demonstrate that the jail, as an institution, does not obtain what it has been foreseen for but, on the contrary, it is a inhuman establishment, which only manages to make people worse than they were.

 PS: This article, like the previous one about Wilde,

was originally a short thesis for a university exam …

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