Thursday, 28 June 2012

Study: The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde

"To regret one's own experiences is to arrest one's own development. To deny one's own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one's own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul." - Oscar Wilde, De Profundis

(research from Wikipedia, De Profundis, and Bloom’s How To Write About Oscar Wilde by Amy S. Watkin, Harold Bloom)

On 25 May 1895, Oscar Wilde and Alfred Douglas were convicted of gross indecency, not to each other (though they had a difficult relationship), but to young men of a lower class, and sentenced to two years' hard labour,

Wilde had advised Douglas to leave the country, so Douglas did not serve the sentence (though he would serve time in jail later in his life). This would have been a conflict for Wilde. On one hand, he did not want to see his lover suffer the same fate as he, and yet, when his lover’s touch seemed far away and cold, he knew that he would most likely not be in prison if it was not for Douglas’s father and his public accusations of sodomy.

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!

Oscar Wilde was a very famous writer during the time of his conviction. The Importance of Being Earnest had only recently opened and was incredibly successful, and he was already quite the social celebrity across the Western World for his works and his personality.

Unfortunately, to be homosexual or to be involved in homosexual acts was against the law at this time, and so for this man, who lived his life for beauty, it was quite a fall from grace. It would also have been heartbreaking for him, not only to leave his relationship with Douglas, but also to part with his wife and children, as he would have been conflicted with the love that is considered “wrong” and his faith in God. Even with his betrayal to his family, his sons adored him and respected him greatly. Wilde felt terrible about the misery he had brought on his wife and children for his conviction, and hoped that his imprisonment and then future penance, would re-establish his position. (William Butler Yeats.)

We learnt later that Oscar Wilde was prisoner C.3.3 (cell block C, landing 3, cell 3) and that he and his friends had to appeal for him to be allowed books and writing materials. Each night, his writings were taken to the Governor and delivered to him the next morning.

Some of the books he read in prison included: Ancient Greek texts, Dante’s Diving Comedy, En Route by Joris-Karl Huysman, St Augustine, Cardinal Newman and Walter Pater.

The guardsman, which he refers to in his ballad, was Charles Thomas Wooldridge (1866-7 July 1896), a trooper in the Royal House Guards. He cut the throat of his wife, Laura Ellen, and was sentenced to be hung from the neck until dead.

After his release, Wilde, who was appalled by the conditions in the prison and wrote letters to newspapers of the brutal conditions advocating for penal reform. He also felt that the dismissal of a warder for giving food to an anemic child prisoner was outrageously unjust.

In his ballad, he is not making a comment on the justice of the laws, which convicted himself or the man; he is commenting on the brutal punishments that all prisoners collectively share.

Wilde seemed to have many different personalities amongst his different sets of peers, possibly inspiring the line, those who live more lives than one.

It is also interesting to note that Wilde’s own father committed adultery, and was ridiculed for this socially and retreated from life. The parallels between his father’s life and his own are eerily similar.

Wilde lives in the Victorian Era, known for its earnestness, virtue, morality and restraint – all of these, which Wilde struggled against and, as evident in some of his work, made fun of.


The Outsider – people who live on the fringe of society. Wilde, being an Irishman in England and a homosexual in a time when it was illegal in England would feel this way. Even though he was loved amongst his peers and admirers, he always felt as if he did not quite belong to them; an Individualist.

Suffering – suffering from the harsh conditions in Prison but also with ones faith and relationship with their God.

Inhumanity – the dismissal of a Warder for helping an anemic child and the Warders only concern for no suicides in the prison, certainly seem inhuman. Prisoners also seem to be treated as less or more than human, having them work long hours and quite hard and pointless tasks.

Forgiveness – Wilde desperately wanted to be forgiven by the Catholic Church and take some time to do penance and develop his connection to the Catholic faith, he was denied this peace by the Church.

Death – not just physical death, but death of ones goodness, ones soul. In the poem, the man “dies” quite a few times. It seems to me more like a gradual breakdown: death of ones mind, ones feelings, ones soul and then their physical body.

Guilt – Wilde seems to see all sins, all cruelties towards his fellow man as equal. He can’t help but feel guilty for not being punished like the guardsman for something that his Church says he’ll be punished for when he dies. He might have also noticed the fear and relief by his fellow prisoners and the guilt that feeling lucky for not being hung would bring. There would be moments of relief and then self-hate for something that could be perceived as selfish. It is a race of survival, and one will think and do desperate things, and upon reflection than bring upon a great depression.

Justice – what is justice, really? Is killing someone who killed someone else really just? Is the law correct; are humans to be treated this way for their sins?

Love – love for ones religion, for ones fellow man. Wilde went to jail for what Douglas’ father did to him, and yet Douglas did not help Wilde. He did not return Wilde’s love. He essentially abandoned him.

Morality – the moral treatment of fellow human beings within the prison, which led Wilde to call for penal reform.

Debt – the feeling like they owe someone for the pain they are going through, their debt to society.

Imagination – the shadows and sounds of the prison wall stirring up terrifying images. Imagining what the guardsman must be thinking, how he looked when he died, what was going on in the other prisoners heads.

Religion – Wilde makes numerous references to biblical texts throughout the ballad. To Jesus Christ on the cross, to what Jesus died for, to God’s forgiveness. His desperation to be redeemed by religion was great and he was completely heart-broken when he was rejected.

Self-denial – denying ones current circumstances; they aren’t going through these things. The guardsman is in a state of self-denial. He simply stares out of the window and doesn’t feel any of the things being described in the text as happening to him. Wilde and the other prisoners feel every thing for him because he can’t.

Double Lives – Wilde had many different versions of himself for his different sets of peers. He feels as if one by one, these different selves are all slowly dying.

Betrayal – essentially betrayed by Douglas, by society who had loved him. Wilde often seemed to offer to take the higher moral path, the sacrifice, and his lover let him. This would have brought up many conflicting emotions, including betrayal.

De Profundis

. . . Suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralysing immobility of a life every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchangeable pattern, so that we eat and drink and lie down and pray, or kneel at least for prayer, according to the inflexible laws of an iron formula: this immobile quality, that makes each dreadful day in the very minutest detail like its brother, seems to communicate itself to those external forces the very essence of whose existence is ceaseless change.

“It is always twilight in one's cell, as it is always twilight in one's heart.”

“The poor are wise, more charitable, more kind, more sensitive than we are. In their eyes prison is a tragedy in a man's life, a misfortune, a casuality, something that calls for sympathy in others. They speak of one who is in prison as of one who is 'in trouble' simply. It is the phrase they always use, and the expression has the perfect wisdom of love in it. With people of our own rank it is different.
With us, prison makes a man a pariah. I, and such as I am, have hardly any right to air and sun. Our presence taints the pleasures of others. We are unwelcome when we reappear. To revisit the glimpses of the moon is not for us. Our very children are taken away. Those lovely links with humanity are broken. We are doomed to be solitary, while our sons still live. We are denied the one thing that might heal us and keep us, that might bring balm to the bruised heart, and peace to the soul in pain. . . .”

“I must say to myself that I ruined myself, and that nobody great or small can be ruined except by his own hand. I am quite ready to say so. I am trying to say so, though they may not think it at the present moment. This pitiless indictment I bring without pity against myself. Terrible as was what the world did to me, what I did to myself was far more terrible still.”

“I was a man who stood in symbolic relations to the art and culture of my age. I had realised this for myself at the very dawn of my manhood, and had forced my age to realise it afterwards. Few men hold such a position in their own lifetime, and have it so acknowledged. It is usually discerned, if discerned at all, by the historian, or the critic, long after both the man and his age have passed away. With me it was different. I felt it myself, and made others feel it. Byron was a symbolic figure, but his relations were to the passion of his age and its weariness of passion. Mine were to something more noble, more permanent, of more vital issue, of larger scope.”

“The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a FLANEUR, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.
I have lain in prison for nearly two years. Out of my nature has come wild despair; an abandonment to grief that was piteous even to look at; terrible and impotent rage; bitterness and scorn; anguish that wept aloud; misery that could find no voice; sorrow that was dumb. I have passed through every possible mood of suffering. Better than Wordsworth himself I know what Wordsworth meant when he said -
'Suffering is permanent, obscure, and dark And has the nature of infinity.'”

“When you really want love you will find it waiting for you.”

“Reason does not help me. It tells me that the laws under which I am convicted are wrong and unjust laws, and the system under which I have suffered a wrong and unjust system.”

“Many men on their release carry their prison about with them into the air, and hide it as a secret disgrace in their hearts, and at length, like poor poisoned things, creep into some hole and die. It is wretched that they should have to do so, and it is wrong, terribly wrong, of society that it should force them to do so. Society takes upon itself the right to inflict appalling punishment on the individual, but it also has the supreme vice of shallowness, and fails to realise what it has done. When the man's punishment is over, it leaves him to himself; that is to say, it abandons him at the very moment when its highest duty towards him begins. It is really ashamed of its own actions, and shuns those whom it has punished, as people shun a creditor whose debt they cannot pay, or one on whom they have inflicted an irreparable, an irremediable wrong. I can claim on my side that if I realise what I have suffered, society should realise what it has inflicted on me; and that there should be no bitterness or hate on either side.”


A website where you can click on any day, and find someone who was executed, puts into perspective the enormity of that particular punishment.

“The first 106 inmates, who were forced to walk from Carrickfergus Prison in chains, arrived in 1846. These inmates, who were men, women and children, completed the changeover of the two prisons. Children from impoverished working-class families were often imprisoned at the gaol in the early years for offences such as stealing food or clothing. Women inmates were kept in the prison block house until the early 1900s. Ten year old Patrick Magee, who had been sentenced to three months in prison hanged himself in his cell in 1858.

-        Really interesting notes regarding modern prison life from an inmate, including a moment that describes watching a fellow prisoner commit suicide.

Extract from A Hanging by George Orwell

And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working - bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming - all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned - reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone - one mind less, one world less.

Wilde’s connection to Bobby Sands is important, because not only are they both Irish, Wilde’s own mother fought for the struggle of the Irish People against English tyranny.

Hunger: the breath at the end of the film is as powerful as the cry for Freedom in Braveheart.

Sands’ Diary

“…with a deeply rooted and unquenchable desire for freedom.”

“…rob us of our true identity, steal our individualism, depoliticise us, churn us out as systemised, institutionalised, decent law-abiding robots.”

“The Screws are staring at me perplexed. Many of them hope (if their eyes tell the truth) that I will die. If need be, I’ll oblige them, but my God they are fools. Oscar Wilde did not do justice to them for I believe they are lower than even he thought. And I may add there is only one thing lower than a Screw and that is a Governor. And in my experience the higher one goes up that disgusting ladder they call rank, or position, the lower one gets…

Weeping Winds
By Bobby Sands
Oh! Cold March winds your cruel laments
Are hard on prisoners’ hearts,
For you bring my mother’s pleading cries
From whom I have to part.
I hear her weeping lonely sobs
Her sorrows sweep me by,
And in the dark of prison cell
A tear has warmed my eye.
Oh! Whistling winds why do you weep
When roaming free you are,
Oh! Is it that your poor heart’s broke
And scattered off afar?
Or is it that you bear the cries
Of people born unfree,
Who like your way have no control
Or sovereign destiny?
Oh! Lonely winds that walk the night
To haunt the sinner’s soul
Pray pity me a wretched lad
Who never will grow old.
Pray pity those who lie in pain
The bondsman and the slave,
And whisper sweet the breath of God
Upon my humble grave.
Oh! Cold March winds that pierce the dark
You cry in aged tones
For souls of folk you’ve brought to God
But still you bear the moans.
Oh! Weeping wind this lonely night
My mother’s heart is sore,
Oh! Lord of all breathe freedom’s breath
That she may weep no more.



Chris in the Studio said...

I have not read Oscar Wild yet. I'm going to get something of his this weekend. Thinking about "The Picture of Dorian Gray" Any thoughts or works of his that struck you Caitlin?

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