“And 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!"
(from 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol')
Not quite what you might expect from Oscar Wilde, the brilliantly witty dramatist who created a series of rip-roaringly funny comedies in polite Victorian society.
Wilde, as portrayed in an unhappy place of confinement
About those plays. And all those witty epigrams. The Importance of Being Earnest has to be my favourite, not least for the character Lady Bracknell, best played by Dame Maggie Smith at the Aldwych in a killer black dress in 1993. All that scorn and dismissiveness. A handdbaggg!!
That dress, as worn by Lady Bracknell, on display at the V&A Museum
Gwendolen comes out with the best lines, though. When complimented just a shade too much by Jack, who calls her perfect, she replies: “Oh I hope I am not that. It would leave no room for developments, and I intend to develop in many directions.”
Gwendolen later advises that “One should always have something sensational to read in the train”. Quite so.
It’s not all fun and games. All Wilde’s plays have something secretive and potentially destructive to offer. Wilde was always turning things round and saying something startling and unexpected, but completely brilliant and thought-provoking. The plays show the way, then, to a deeper and more troubling understanding of humanity if you choose to look for it.
Wilde was also the author of so many wonderful short stories for children. Beautifully told but tragic too. I defy any reader not to be moved by The Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince. If they don’t get you, The Nightingale and the Rose surely will. So, even in his happiest of writings there seem to be at least traces of a more distressing pattern which he elaborated on in the remainder of his creative career.
The Happy Prince, soon to come down from his pedestal
Killing off those happier, times, Wilde wrote some deadly verse, and it came from a time of desperation. The line ‘Yet each man kills the thing he loves’ is typically hard to fathom, and it has none of the frivolity from his days in high society. This is the beginning of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, not just poem but a traumatic and darkly lyrical expression of regret in a cruel and dreary place of incarceration. Wilde wrote this poem in 1898, after being released from prison.
Trumping this ballad, his most exhausting piece, written inside Reading Gaol, was De Produndis (‘from the depths’), a 55,000 word letter to his former young lover and tormentor Lord Alfred Douglas, known affectionately as Bosie. In captivity, Wilde had plenty of time to search his soul deeply and he came to the conclusion that Bosie had been damaging to him ethically as well as artistically during the whole time they had spent together.
An artist's impression of a scary looking, soul-destroying Bosie
As bad as the physical conditions were in prison, just as bad was the loss of freedom to express himself as he had been accustomed to. Only in writing could Wilde release his energies and his genius. Even this had its limits. Behind bars, Wilde was permitted only four sheets of paper per day. At the end of each writing session, he dutifully handed in his sheets to a prison warden. Many years later, the whole letter was assembled and published. It makes terrible reading.
An extract from this work is currently on display at the Artists and Writers in Reading Prison exhibition.
Half of Wilde's daily paper allowance in prison in 1897
The reason for Wilde’s imprisonment defies belief nowadays. He was accused by the Marquess of Queensbury – father of Bosie – of “posing as a somdomite” (a deliberately misspelt taunt). Wilde was urged by Bosie to take out a court action. Reluctantly, and never able to resist Bosie’s demands, Wilde sued the Marquess for libel. This was a disastrous move. Queensbury turned the tables, exposing Wilde as a homosexual, which was legally deemed to be 'gross indecency' and therefore a criminal offence. Wilde was also made bankrupt on account of the court costs. In the third of three trials, Wilde was convicted and sentenced to 2 years of hard labour in prison. This confirmed his descent into disgrace in the eyes of his formerly adoring public, and brought on his slow decline into oblivion. In 1900, not long after release, he moved to Paris. Destitute and addicted to absinthe, Wilde died from illness due to a severe ear infection.
In gaol, Wilde was forced to pick oakum, stitch mail sacks and break stones. A dreadful list of tasks all damaging to his sensitive, artistic hands. Worse than the physical pain, in some ways, was an almost unbearable sense of humiliation and degradation.
C2.2, Wilde's cell, as it looks in 2016
There was one redeeming factor. The greatest of hardships can sometimes bring forth the greatest pieces of writing. De Profundis is a damning and extensive indictment of the relationship between two mismatched souls. A remarkable outpouring of criticism and blame from one who saw himself essentially as a victim. A triumph of self-loathing and rancour towards another, lesser being in literary form.
Wilde starts the letter by blaming himself, the older and supposedly more responsible party. But he swiftly moves on to tell the younger partner who was really at fault. Wilde also links the failure in the relationship to his failure to write. The problem was that they spent too much time together, and that Bosie would never leave him alone. Wilde tells Bosie: “during the whole time we were together I never wrote a single line” and “while you were with me, you were the absolute ruin of my art”.
A harsh reality, but somehow a place where Wilde felt free to write
But Wilde was not just railing at Bosie. He was also complaining to an intolerant society that was prejudiced against the “love that dare not speak its name”. Cast out by the society that he had once held dear, Wilde was resilient, until he finally gave in. Passionate, but ultimately wretched. A champion of beauty and aesthetic delights who succumbed to life in a convict suit, confined in a dark and dismal cell. A man brought low by the heartless and ignorant opinions of others. An artist restrained, but never completely silenced.
© Eddie Hewitt 2016
See Prison Culture: Inside Reading Gaol - by Connected Cultures here