My grandma Rose is a very old lady, and is sadly suffering from advanced dementia. But her eyes still come alight when you bring up anything to do with history or literature, and remarkably she is still able to recite entire Shakespearean sonnets and Robbie Burns poems – in fact she loves nothing more, and when I was at university in Edinburgh I would call her every year on Burns Night to chat about our shared love for the great Scot. Literature is something that we have always really bonded over, and a few years ago she gave me a tiny red book with beautiful gold embossing on the front. The title shimmers down the side in miniscule capital letters, but there is no author marked anywhere – inside or out. My grandma must have been perplexed by this, because she has cut out a picture of the man himself, Oscar Wilde, and sellotaped it to the inside front cover.
Anyway, the little book has three sections. The first is ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ itself, and I have to admit that I pronounced that word as ‘gay-ol’ until I was definitely old enough to know better. This takes up around half of the total length. Wilde then presents five ‘Poems in Prose’: ‘The Artist’, ‘The Doer of Good’, ‘The Disciple’, ‘The Master’, and ‘The House of Judgement’. Finally, there are eighteen poems. ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ is too long to replicate here, but what I can do is give you the low-down on its historical context.
In 1895, Oscar Wilde was sent to Reading Gaol after being convicted of sodomy. Back in those days of course, homosexuality was a criminal offence – and one taken so seriously that the judge issued this statement at the sentencing:
“It is the worst case I have ever tried. I shall pass the severest sentence that the law allows. In my judgment it is totally inadequate for such a case as this. The sentence of the Court is that you be imprisoned and kept to hard labor for two years.”
Bit OTT dontcha think Mr. Judge? Anyway, you can read more about the whole sorry situation here. Wilde went into exile in Dieppe and then Naples, and it was during this time that he wrote ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’. When it was published in 1898, the author’s name was given as C. 3. 3., which had been Wilde’s number during his jail-time. Although this doesn’t appear anywhere on my little book either, so it seems that Heron Books were going for a super-mysterious sort of thing.
There are so many fantastic portions of the poem that I would love to go into detail about, but there simply isn’t time. Instead, I’ll just tell you to make sure to read it at some point in your life, and for now I’ll leave you with one such poignant excerpt. I must apologize that it’s not the cheeriest of sentiments to send with you into the weekend! But whatever you’re up to, have a good one.
The vilest deeds like poison-weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate
And the Warder is Despair.
More Oscar Wilde: http://www.poemhunter.com/oscar-wilde/
Artwork Credit: Taken from the ‘Bookchums’ blog post about Literary Traditions, which is definitely worth checking out! Have you kissed Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Paris? Let me know in the comments if you have ever partaken of any of these traditions, ESPECIALLY if you have ever been a contestant in the Hemingway Look-Alike Contest.