History of Literature

Oscar Wilde

I. "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

"The Paradox"

II. "The Picture of Dorian Gray"

III. Oscar Wilde "Salome" Illustrations by Beardsley


Oscar Wilde


Oscar Wilde

(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

born , Oct. 16, 1854, Dublin, Ire.
died Nov. 30, 1900, Paris, Fr.

Irish wit, poet, and dramatist whose reputation rests on his comic masterpieces Lady Windermere's Fan (1892) and The Importance of BeingEarnest (1895). He was a spokesman for the late 19th-century Aesthetic movement in England, whichadvocated art for art's sake; and he was the object of celebrated civil and criminal suits involving homosexuality and ending in his imprisonment (1895–97).

Wilde was born of professional and literary parents. His father, Sir William Wilde, was Ireland's leading ear and eye surgeon, who also published books on archaeology, folklore, and the satirist Jonathan Swift; his mother was a revolutionary poet and an authority on Celtic myth and folklore.

After attending Portora Royal School, Enniskillen (1864–71), Wilde went, on successive scholarships, to Trinity College, Dublin (1871–74), and Magdalen College, Oxford (1874–78), which awarded him a degree with honours. During these four years, he distinguished himself not only as a classical scholar, a poseur, and a wit but also as a poet by winning the coveted Newdigate Prize in 1878 with a long poem, Ravenna.He was deeply impressed by the teachings of the English writers John Ruskin and Walter Pater on the central importance of art in life and particularly by the latter's stresson the aesthetic intensity by which life should be lived. Like many in his generation, Wilde was determined to follow Pater's urging “to burn always with [a] hard, gemlike flame.” But Wilde also delighted in affecting an aesthetic pose; this, combined with rooms at Oxford decorated with objets d'art, resulted in his famous remark: “Oh, would that I could live up to my blue china!”

In the early 1880s, when Aestheticism was the rage and despair of literary London, Wilde established himself in social and artistic circles by his wit and flamboyance. Soon the periodical Punch made him the satiric object of its antagonism to the Aesthetes for what was considered their unmasculine devotion to art; and in their comic opera Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan based the character Bunthorne, a “fleshly poet,” partly on Wilde. Wishing to reinforce the association, Wilde published, at his own expense, Poems (1881), which echoed, too faithfully, his discipleship to the poets Algernon Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and John Keats. Eager for further acclaim, Wilde agreed to lecture in the United States and Canada in 1882, announcing on his arrival in New York City that he had “nothing to declare but his genius.” Despite widespread hostility in the press to his languid poses and aesthetic costume of velvet jacket, knee breeches, and black silk stockings, Wilde for 12 months exhorted the Americans to love beauty and art; then he returned to Great Britain to lecture on his impressions of America.

In 1884 Wilde married Constance Lloyd, daughter of a prominent Irish barrister; two children, Cyril and Vyvyan, were born, in 1885 and 1886. Meanwhile, Wilde was a reviewer for the Pall Mall Gazette and then became editor of Woman's World (1887–89). During this period of apprenticeship as a writer, he published The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888), which reveals his gift for romantic allegory in the form of the fairy tale.

In the final decade of his life, Wilde wrote and published nearly all of his major work. In his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (published in Lippincott's Magazine, 1890, and inbook form, revised and expanded by six chapters, 1891), Wilde combined the supernatural elements of the Gothic novel with the unspeakable sins of French decadent fiction. Critics charged immorality despite Dorian's self-destruction;Wilde, however, insisted on the amoral nature of art regardless of an apparently moral ending. Intentions (1891), consisting of previously published essays, restated his aesthetic attitude toward art by borrowing ideas from the French poets Théophile Gautier and Charles Baudelaire and the American painter James McNeill Whistler. In the same year, two volumes of stories and fairy tales also appeared, testifying to his extraordinary creative inventiveness: Lord Arthur Savile's Crime, and Other Stories and A House of Pomegranates.

But Wilde's greatest successes were his society comedies. Within the conventions of the French “well-made play” (with its social intrigues and artificial devices to resolve conflict), he employed his paradoxical, epigrammatic wit to create a form of comedy new to the 19th-century English theatre. His first success, Lady Windermere's Fan, demonstrated that thiswit could revitalize the rusty machinery of French drama. In the same year, rehearsals of his macabre play Salomé, written in French and designed, as he said, to make his audience shudder by its depiction of unnatural passion, werehalted by the censor because it contained biblical characters. It was published in 1893, and an English translation appeared in 1894 with Aubrey Beardsley's celebrated illustrations.

A second society comedy, A Woman of No Importance (produced 1893), convinced the critic William Archer that Wilde's plays “must be taken on the very highest plane of modern English drama.” In rapid succession, Wilde's final plays, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest, were produced early in 1895. In the latter, his greatest achievement, the conventional elements of farce are transformed into satiric epigrams—seemingly trivial but mercilessly exposing Victorian hypocrisies.

I suppose society is wonderfully delightful. To be in it ismerely a bore. But to be out of it simply a tragedy.
I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.
All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.
I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time. That would be hypocrisy.

In many of his works, exposure of a secret sin or indiscretion and consequent disgrace is a central design. If life imitated art, as Wilde insisted in his essay “The Decay of Lying” (1889), he was himself approximating the pattern in his reckless pursuit of pleasure. In addition, his close friendship with Lord Alfred Douglas, whom he had met in 1891, infuriated the Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas' father. Accused, finally, by the marquess of being a sodomite, Wilde, urged by Douglas, sued for criminal libel. Wilde's case collapsed, however, when the evidence went against him, and he dropped the suit. Urged to flee to France by his friends, Wilde refused, unable to believe that his world was at an end. He was arrested and ordered to stand trial.

Wilde testified brilliantly, but the jury failed to reach a verdict. In the retrial he was found guilty and sentenced, in May 1895, to two years at hard labour. Most of his sentence was served at Reading Gaol, where he wrote a long letter to Douglas (published in 1905 in a drastically cut version as De Profundis) filled with recriminations against the younger man for encouraging him in dissipation and distracting him from his work.

In May 1897 Wilde was released, a bankrupt, and immediately went to France, hoping to regenerate himself asa writer. His only remaining work, however, was The Ballad ofReading Gaol (1898), revealing his concern for inhumane prison conditions. Despite constant money problems he maintained, as George Bernard Shaw said, “an unconquerable gaiety of soul” that sustained him, and he was visited by such loyal friends as Max Beerbohm and Robert Ross, later his literary executor; he was also reunited with Douglas. He died suddenly of acute meningitis brought on by an ear infection. In his semiconscious final moments, he was received into the Roman Catholic church, which he had long admired.

Karl Beckson


The Picture of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde

"There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all." The series of aphorisms that make up the "Preface" of Wilde's only novel was his response to those critics who had questioned the immorality and unhealthiness of the story after its scandalous first appearance in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine. However, for all its transgressive delights, The Picture of Dorian Gray could easily be read as a profoundly moral book, even a cautionary tale against the dangers of vice. Dorian's descent into moral squalor is neither admirable, as can be seen in his peremptory rejection of his fiancee, the actress Sybil Vain, nor enviable. Indeed the beautiful boy is the least interesting character in the book that
bears his name.
After the artist Basil Hallwarel paints Dorian's picture, his subject's frivolous wish for immortality comes true. As the picture of him grows old and corrupt, Dorian himself continues to appear fresh and innocent for decades, despite the lusts and depravity of his private life. To be sure, it is the epigrammatic wit of Lord Henry Wotton that encourages Dorian on his quest for sensuality and sensation, but Dorian's values pervert the deeply serious Wildean ethic that they superficially resemble. Whereas Oscar Wilde's essays advocate individualism and self-realization as a route to a richer life and a more just society, Dorian follows a path of hedonism, self-indulgence, and the objectification of others. It is, nonetheless, a story that poignantly reflects Wilde's own double life and anticipates his own fall into ignominy and shame. The conceit on which it is based—the painting in the attic—seems immediately to mutate from fiction into the stuff of myth.



Type of work:
Author: Oscar Wilde (1856-1900)
Type of plot: Comedy of manners
Time of plot: Late nineteenth century
Locale: London and Hertfordshire
First published: 1895

A play built on a pun and plotted around a misunderstanding over the name Ernest, this comic masterpiece is an attack on "earnestness": the Victorian false seriousness which results in priggishness, hypocrisy, and so-called piety.

Principal Characters

Algernon Moncrieff, called Algy, a young man of fashion, considerable worldly charm, and a confirmed Bunburyist; that is, he uses an imaginary sick friend's name and condition as an excuse to leave London when he finds his aristocratic aunt, Lady Bracknell, too domineering or her dinner parties too dull. He delights in the artificial, the trivial, the faddish, and he employs them for his own amusement, the only thing about which, as he insists, he is ever serious. Out for a jape, he poses as John Worthing's fictitious brother Ernest in order to court his friend's ward, Cecily Cardew. Though genuinely in love, he never abandons his pose of reckless pretense or his cynically amusing observations on country and city life, manners, fashions, and relatives.
John Worthing, J.P., called Jack, Algernon Mon-crieff's friend, who poses as Ernest in order to win the hand of Algy's cousin, the Honorable Gwendolen Fairfax, Lady Bracknell's daughter. Also a Bunburyist, he has invented a fictitious brother Ernest, a reprobate who is always getting into scrapes, as an excuse for his frequent visits to London. Jack is serious about most things, especially love. He was a foundling, brought up by a wealthy man who made Jack the guardian of his benefactor's granddaughter, Cecily Cardew. When Jack proposes to Gwendolen he arouses Lady Bracknell's displeasure because he cannot trace his family tree. All he knows is that he had been found abandoned in a leather bag left at Victoria Station. Finally his parentage is traced, and he learns that he is the long-lost son of Lady Bracknell's sister, that Algy is his younger brother, and that his Christian name really is Ernest. This last fact is the most pleasing, for Gwendolen could not possibly love him under any other name.
Lady Augusta Bracknell, Algernon Moncrieff's aunt, a strong-willed woman of fashion who lives only by society's dictates. The hostess at numerous dinner parties to which her nephew is always invited but which he seldom attends, she dominates the lives of all about her in the same compulsive fashion that makes her move only in the best circles. Although Jack Worthing is an eligible young bachelor of means, she rejects his suit of Gwendolen and advises him to find some acceptable relatives as quickly as possible. Although witty in her pronouncements, she never deviates into good sense about the artificial world she inhabits with other snobs and pretenders, but her sense of social superiority is punctured when she learns that her daughter's rejected suitor is her own nephew.
The Honorable Gwendolen Fairfax, Lady Bracknell's daughter, in love with Jack Worthing, whose name she believes to be Ernest. Although she moves in the same conventional snobbish social world with her mother, her outlook is whimsical and rebellious. Determined to marry the man of her choice, she is pleased to discover that Worthing, his parentage revealed, can offer her not only the right name and devotion but also family connections and wealth. She accommodates herself to her good fortune.
Cecily Cardew, an eighteen-year-old girl given to romantic dreams and a diary of fictitious events. She is the ward of Jack Worthing, who had been adopted by her eccentric grandfather. Lovely, determined, rusticated, she is seemingly without guile, but she is in reality as poised as her newly discovered friend, Gwendolen Fairfax. The dupe of her guardian's story that he has a wicked brother named Ernest in the city, she is charmed and won when that supposed roue, as impersonated by Algy Moncrieff, appears in the country. She is also pleased that the man she intends to marry is named Ernest. After learning the truth, she decides that she still loves him, in spite of his having such a name as Algernon.
Miss Letitia Prism, the forgetful authoress of a sentimental three-volume romance, the governess of Cecily Cardew and, earlier, of Jack Worthing. Bent on marriage herself, she contrives to keep her charge's mind on the serious business of learning inconsequentials. In the end she is revealed as the absentminded nurse who twenty-eight years before had placed the infant Ernest Moncrieff in a leather handbag deposited in the cloakroom at Victoria station and the manuscript of her novel in a perambulator.
The Reverend Frederick Chasuble, D.D., an Anglican clergyman who is amenable to performing any rite for anyone at any time, in much the same way that he fits one sermon into many contexts. Delightful in his metaphorical allusions, he meets his match in Miss Prism, whose allusions contain direct revelation of matrimonial intent.

The Story

Algernon Moncrieff, nephew of the aristocratic Lady Bracknell, was compelled by necessity to live a more or less double life, or he would have been completely at the mercy of his Aunt Augusta. To escape from her incredibly dull dinner parties, he had emulated that lady's husband by inventing a wholly fictitious friend named Bunbury, whose precarious state of health required Algy's absence from London whenever his aunt summoned him to attendance.
Algy's friend Jack Worthing was also forced by circumstances into a similar subterfuge for quite a different reason. He had under his care a young ward named Cecily Cardew, who lived at Jack's country place in Hertfordshire under the admirable tutelage of a stern governess, Miss Prism. Jack thought it necessary to preserve a high moral tone in the presence of Cecily and her governess. To escape from this atmosphere of restraint, he invented an imaginary brother named Ernest, who was supposed to be quite a reprobate and whose name and general mode of behavior Jack took over during his frequent trips to London.
To complicate matters, Jack had fallen in love with Gwendolen Fairfax, the daughter of Algy's aunt, Lady Bracknell. Moreover, Gwendolen had fallen in love with him, particularly with his name, Ernest, of which she was very fond. When Lady Bracknell learned "Ernest's" intentions toward Gwendolen, she naturally wanted to know something about his family history. Since Ernest, however, could supply nothing more definite than the fact that he had been found in a leather bag at the Victoria Railway Station, and that his true parentage was quite unknown, Lady Bracknell refused to consider his marriage to her daughter.
Jack realized that the time had come to put an end to Ernest. He even went so far as to appear at the manor house in Hertfordshire in deep mourning for his brother Ernest. His friend Algy, however, "Bunburying" as usual, had preceded him, posing as Earnest. Cecily took an immediate interest in Algy, the supposed brother of her guardian. When Jack and Algy came face to face. Jack promptly announced that his brother Ernest had been unexpectedly called back to London and was leaving at once. Algy, having meanwhile fallen in love with Cecily, refused to leave. Cecily, in turn, confessed that it had always been her dream to love someone whose name was Ernest.
Algy, realizing that his hopes of marrying Cecily depended on his name, decided to have himself rechris-tened Ernest, and to that effect he called upon the local clergyman, the Reverend Frederic Chasuble, D.D. Jack, however, had preceded him with a like request. Dr. Chasuble had an engagement for two christenings at five-thirty that afternoon.
In the meantime, Gwendolen arrived at the manor house. Because of the mix-up in names, both Gwendolen and Cecily believed that they were in love with the same man, the nonexistent Ernest.
When Jack and Algy appeared together, the real identities of the two pretenders were established. Both girls became furious. At first Jack and Algy upbraided each other for their mutual duplicity, but they finally settled down to tea and consoled themselves by vying with one another to see who could eat the last muffin on the plate. Cecily and Gwendolen at last decided to forgive their suitors, after Algy had admitted that the purpose of his deception was to meet Cecily, and Jack maintained that his imaginary brother was an excuse to go to London to see Gwendolen. Both girls agreed that in matters of grave importance—such as marriage—style and not sincerity was the vital thing.
Lady Bracknell, arriving in search of her daughter, discovered her nephew engaged to Cecily. Afraid that the girl, like her guardian, might possibly have only railway station antecedents, Lady Bracknell demanded to know Cecily's origin. She was informed that Cecily was the granddaughter of a very wealthy man and the heiress to one hundred and thirty thousand pounds. When she willingly gave her consent to the marriage, Jack refused to allow the match, pointing out that Cecily could not marry without his consent until she came of age, and that according to her grandfather's will she would not come of age until she was thirty-five. However, he said he would give his consent the moment Lady Bracknell approved of his marriage to Gwendolen.
There were, however, some objections to Jack as a suitable husband for Gwendolen, the main one being the question of his parentage. The mystery was cleared up to Lady Bracknell's satisfaction by the revelation that Miss Letitia Prism, Cecily's governess, was the nurse who had left Lord Bracknell's house with a perambulator containing a male infant which she had placed in a leather handbag and left in the cloakroom of the Victoria Station. The infant was the son of Lady Bracknell's sister, a circumstance which made Jack Algy's older brother. Jack's Christian name still had to be determined. It turned out to be—Ernest. The Reverend Chasuble was relieved of his two christenings that afternoon, and Gwendolen was happy that she was actually going to marry a man named Ernest.

Critical Evaluation

The object of unreserved praise since its opening in 1895, Oscar Wilde's last play stands as the triumphant culmination of his career as a playwright. Lady Win-dermere's Fan (1892), A Woman of No Importance (1893), and An Ideal Husband (1895) had brought Wilde repeated success on the London stage, exposing with epigrammatic wit the shallow and often evil social facades of the time. Then, with the highly desirable Ernest and the incomparable Bunbury, Wilde thrust evil off the stage entirely in favor of fantasy.
Some have claimed that The Importance of Being Earnest had no peer since Richard Sheridan's plays (an Irish link); others choose Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1712) as the work nearest in time worthy of comparison. Still others go so far as to deny any genuine comparison possible, finding the play utterly unique, one of a kind, and perfect in itself. Nevertheless, it is worth knowing what Victorian stage conventions are parodied and burlesqued in The Importance of Being Ernest, particularly the long-popular melodrama, as well as Gilbert and Sullivan musicals. There has been considerable critical effort expended in sorting out the play's position in the comic genre, whether high or low, farce, parody, or satire, but there has been wholehearted agreement that Wilde achieved his aim of writing brilliant language. Wilde's range allowed him to maneuver language from aphorism to pun and back again, always carrying forward the plot and developing the theme: No life can be lived in earnest without due regard for nonsense.
Wilde was intent, as his biographer Richard Ellmann documents, upon working a renaissance in cultural values in the English-speaking world. His speaking tour of America had had that purpose, and his theatrical ventures were likewise meant to challenge the mindless and complacent Victorian social assumptions. Undoubtedly, Lady Bracknell's thoughts on education were intended to be representative, in their inane way, of prevailing attitudes: "Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately, in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever." The plays that had been holding the stage since the Theater Act of 1843 were of two sorts, each for a separate audience: the suspense-packed, sentimental, morally simplistic melodramas, which incorporated the formulas of the romance, were the popular fare for the lower middle class; the spectacular Shakespearean stagings were for the fashionable upper middle class.
Wilde felt confident of his ability to challenge the likes of Arthur Pinero and Henry Arthur Jones, and his assurance was borne out in a succession of well-attended and acclaimed plays, the last of which he drafted in three weeks. George Bernard Shaw, the only newspaper critic who disliked The Importance of Being Earnest, was also intent on something new for the London stage, which he found in the plays of Henrik Ibsen. Wilde identified his chief difference from Shaw and Ibsen as one of purpose, his being a "verbal ricochet* expressing "a conflict between our artistic sympathies and our moral judgment." For Wilde, brilliant dialogue was essential to the examination of cultural values he had in mind.
Thematically, the play explicitly confronts the hypocrisy and sentimentality at the heart of Victorian values. The play's subtitle reveals Wilde's intention: A Trivial Play for Serious People, the trivial pursuit of both Jack and Algy is a game called Bunburying. When Jack vows that he will get rid of his invented brother Ernest once he has married Gwendolen, Algy sagely warns that a married couple need a Bunbury more than ever. The women in the play indulge in their own particular trivialities, one of which is keeping fictionalized diaries, and another (a coincidence necessary to both theme and plot), an irrational attachment to the name Ernest. "We live in an age of ideals," Gwendolen explains to her Ernest (actually Jack) in act 1; and though she may have confused ideals with romantic nonsense, she is unshakably determined to marry someone of that name because it "inspires absolute confidence." It is not simply that the serious contends with the frivolous in the play, but that the serious becomes the frivolous, and vice versa. As act 1 comes to a close, Jack is warning Algy that his friend Bunbury will get him into "a serious scrape one day." To which Algernon replies, "I love scrapes. They are the only things that are never serious." When Jack protests, "You never talk anything but nonsense," Algy insists, "Nobody ever does."
What is abundantly clear as the play proceeds is that everyone is laboring, some more or less consciously, under a pretense of earnestness, motivated by the need for social acceptance, a universal need. Furthermore, no one is really fooling anybody else. Algy sees through Jack's story about an aunt named Cecily who gave him his cigarette case, Lady Bracknell sees through her nephew Algy's story about the ailing Bunbury, and Gwendolen sees through Ernest/Jack's comments on the weather. If these individuals are living by fictions, they are shared fictions; everyone accepts Lane's explanation that there were no cucumbers in the market, "not even for ready money"—even though the audience watched as Algy and Jack devoured a plateful of cucumber sandwiches not five minutes earlier.
In act 2, the two men are still competing, this time for the title of greatest pretender, as Jack appears in darkest mourning for his recently departed brother Ernest, and then Algy, dressed in one of his Bunburying suits as the younger brother himself, the prodigal home for forgiveness. The women, surviving their initial shock at hearing their fiances' actual Christian names, decide to crush firmly any doubts they feel about the men's integrity. Gwendolen sums the matter up neatly: "In matters of grave importance, style, not sincerity is the vital thing." Finally, the play that begins by throwing a satirical light on social fabrications of all kinds ends with the protagonist apologizing for unknowingly, all his life, telling the truth. Paradoxically, hypocrisy and misrepresentation, however ridiculous, are central to social well-being.
The Importance of Being Earnest is a play that needs to be listened to, either on recording or in live performance, for the considerable impact of its language. Wilde had been practicing his epigrammatic talents since his Oxford days, and he began playing aphorisms off of platitudes as early as Lady Windermere's Fan. A Wilde trademark is the unexpected reversal of a well-worn phrase, as in this plea from Algy that Jack account for the inscription, "From little Cecily," in his cigarette case: "Now produce your explanation, and pray make it improbable." When Jack promises a perfectly simple explanation, Algy pompously intones, "The truth is rarely pure and never simple." With something as seemingly simple as a shift in emphasis, a play on words, or a shifting tone of voice, Wilde keeps the laughter coming, as when Lady Brack-nell, upon hearing that Jack has lost his parents, comments suspiciously, "To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, may be regarded a misfortune. To lose both looks like carelessness." Ingeniously clever plotting is matched by scintillating dialogue—sparkling repartee, devilish maxims, delightful non sequiturs—and over all looms the gigantic pun of earnest/Ernest.
It is dangerous to attempt the classification of Wilde's masterpiece beyond the level of comedy, but it is important to make the attempt. Can it really be a farce with such a prominent plot, an upper-class social scheme, and such intellectual amusement? On the other hand, how can the burlesque be ignored? The question becomes a test of taste and intelligence when the distinction between trivializing the serious and satirizing the sentimental and meretricious emerges. When Lady Bracknell learns that Cecily Cardew is to inherit one hundred thirty thousand pounds, she want a closer look at the young woman: "There are distinct social possibilities in your profile," the indomitable matron says to Mr. Worthing's ward, "The two weak points in our age are its want of principle and its want of profile." The scope of the satire here is broader than social hypocrisy; in Lady Bracknell's relentless matchmaking, civilization itself is the target. The answer could be that Wilde was drawing on his considerable resources within the broadest reaches of comedy to express what he had come to believe at Oxford, that truth implied its opposite, that for a thing to be true in art, its opposite had also to be true.
One solution to the question of genre, and a valid one, is the comedy of manners, a category that accommodates the highly sophisticated society, the satire, and the wit, and can even be adapted to self-parody. As H. G. Wells perceptively noted in his review of the play, so much of what is funny about The Importance of Being Earnest is its theatrical satire. The romance formula reaches preposterous dimensions when Jack and Algy, instead of a duel, engage in a muffin-eating contest, the befuddled attempts at being rechristened parody the stock regeneration theme, and the wicked brother is merely Algy. It was the mediocrity of late Victorian fantasies, of their theater, that Wilde was scoring, while presenting them with the real thing.







The Ballad of Reading Gaol





He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
"That fellow's got to swing."

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved
And so he had to die.

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!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame
On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
Into an empty place

He does not sit with silent men
Who watch him night and day;
Who watch him when he tries to weep,
And when he tries to pray;
Who watch him lest himself should rob
The prison of its prey.

He does not wake at dawn to see
Dread figures throng his room,
The shivering Chaplain robed in white,
The Sheriff stern with gloom,
And the Governor all in shiny black,
With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste
To put on convict-clothes,
While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes
Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
Fingering a watch whose little ticks
Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not know that sickening thirst
That sands one's throat, before
The hangman with his gardener's gloves
Slips through the padded door,
And binds one with three leathern thongs,
That the throat may thirst no more.

He does not bend his head to hear
The Burial Office read,
Nor, while the terror of his soul
Tells him he is not dead,
Cross his own coffin, as he moves
Into the hideous shed.

He does not stare upon the air
Through a little roof of glass;
He does not pray with lips of clay
For his agony to pass;
Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek
The kiss of Caiaphas.


Six weeks our guardsman walked the yard,
In a suit of shabby grey:
His cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay,
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every wandering cloud that trailed
Its ravelled fleeces by.

He did not wring his hands, as do
Those witless men who dare
To try to rear the changeling Hope
In the cave of black Despair:
He only looked upon the sun,
And drank the morning air.

He did not wring his hands nor weep,
Nor did he peek or pine,
But he drank the air as though it held
Some healthful anodyne;
With open mouth he drank the sun
As though it had been wine!

And I and all the souls in pain,
Who tramped the other ring,
Forgot if we ourselves had done
A great or little thing,
And watched with gaze of dull amaze
The man who had to swing.

And strange it was to see him pass
With a step so light and gay,
And strange it was to see him look
So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
Had such a debt to pay.

For oak and elm have pleasant leaves
That in the spring-time shoot:
But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
With its adder-bitten root,
And, green or dry, a man must die
Before it bears its fruit!

The loftiest place is that seat of grace
For which all worldlings try:
But who would stand in hempen band
Upon a scaffold high,
And through a murderer's collar take
His last look at the sky?

It is sweet to dance to violins
When Love and Life are fair:
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
Is delicate and rare:
But it is not sweet with nimble feet
To dance upon the air!

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.

At last the dead man walked no more
Amongst the Trial Men,
And I knew that he was standing up
In the black dock's dreadful pen,
And that never would I see his face
In God's sweet world again.

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
We had crossed each other's way:
But we made no sign, we said no word,
We had no word to say;
For we did not meet in the holy night,
But in the shameful day.

A prison wall was round us both,
Two outcast men were we:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
Had caught us in its snare.


In Debtors' Yard the stones are hard,
And the dripping wall is high,
So it was there he took the air
Beneath the leaden sky,
And by each side a Warder walked,
For fear the man might die.

Or else he sat with those who watched
His anguish night and day;
Who watched him when he rose to weep,
And when he crouched to pray;
Who watched him lest himself should rob
Their scaffold of its prey.

The Governor was strong upon
The Regulations Act:
The Doctor said that Death was but
A scientific fact:
And twice a day the Chaplain called
And left a little tract.

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
The hangman's hands were near.

But why he said so strange a thing
No Warder dared to ask:
For he to whom a watcher's doom
Is given as his task,
Must set a lock upon his lips,
And make his face a mask.

Or else he might be moved, and try
To comfort or console:
And what should Human Pity do
Pent up in Murderers' Hole?
What word of grace in such a place
Could help a brother's soul?

With slouch and swing around the ring
We trod the Fool's Parade!
We did not care: we knew we were
The Devil's Own Brigade:
And shaven head and feet of lead
Make a merry masquerade.

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

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.

So still it lay that every day
Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
And we forgot the bitter lot
That waits for fool and knave,
Till once, as we tramped in from work,
We passed an open grave.

With yawning mouth the yellow hole
Gaped for a living thing;
The very mud cried out for blood
To the thirsty asphalte ring:
And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
Some prisoner had to swing.

Right in we went, with soul intent
On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
Went shuffling through the gloom
And each man trembled as he crept
Into his numbered tomb.

That night the empty corridors
Were full of forms of Fear,
And up and down the iron town
Stole feet we could not hear,
And through the bars that hide the stars
White faces seemed to peer.

He lay as one who lies and dreams
In a pleasant meadow-land,
The watcher watched him as he slept,
And could not understand
How one could sleep so sweet a sleep
With a hangman close at hand?

But there is no sleep when men must weep
Who never yet have wept:
So we—the fool, the fraud, the knave—
That endless vigil kept,
And through each brain on hands of pain
Another's terror crept.

Alas! it is a fearful thing
To feel another's guilt!
For, right within, the sword of Sin
Pierced to its poisoned hilt,
And as molten lead were the tears we shed
For the blood we had not spilt.

The Warders with their shoes of felt
Crept by each padlocked door,
And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,
Grey figures on the floor,
And wondered why men knelt to pray
Who never prayed before.

All through the night we knelt and prayed,
Mad mourners of a corpse!
The troubled plumes of midnight were
The plumes upon a hearse:
And bitter wine upon a sponge
Was the savour of Remorse.

The cock crew, the red cock crew,
But never came the day:
And crooked shape of Terror crouched,
In the corners where we lay:
And each evil sprite that walks by night
Before us seemed to play.

They glided past, they glided fast,
Like travellers through a mist:
They mocked the moon in a rigadoon
Of delicate turn and twist,
And with formal pace and loathsome grace
The phantoms kept their tryst.

With mop and mow, we saw them go,
Slim shadows hand in hand:
About, about, in ghostly rout
They trod a saraband:
And the damned grotesques made arabesques,
Like the wind upon the sand!

With the pirouettes of marionettes,
They tripped on pointed tread:
But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,
As their grisly masque they led,
And loud they sang, and loud they sang,
For they sang to wake the dead.

"Oho!" they cried, "The world is wide,
But fettered limbs go lame!
And once, or twice, to throw the dice
Is a gentlemanly game,
But he does not win who plays with Sin
In the secret House of Shame."

No things of air these antics were
That frolicked with such glee:
To men whose lives were held in gyves,
And whose feet might not go free,
Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,
Most terrible to see.

Around, around, they waltzed and wound;
Some wheeled in smirking pairs:
With the mincing step of demirep
Some sidled up the stairs:
And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,
Each helped us at our prayers.

The morning wind began to moan,
But still the night went on:
Through its giant loom the web of gloom
Crept till each thread was spun:
And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
Of the Justice of the Sun.

The moaning wind went wandering round
The weeping prison-wall:
Till like a wheel of turning-steel
We felt the minutes crawl:
O moaning wind! what had we done
To have such a seneschal?

At last I saw the shadowed bars
Like a lattice wrought in lead,
Move right across the whitewashed wall
That faced my three-plank bed,
And I knew that somewhere in the world
God's dreadful dawn was red.

At six o'clock we cleaned our cells,
At seven all was still,
But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
The prison seemed to fill,
For the Lord of Death with icy breath
Had entered in to kill.

He did not pass in purple pomp,
Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
Are all the gallows' need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
To do the secret deed.

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.

For Man's grim Justice goes its way,
And will not swerve aside:
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
It has a deadly stride:
With iron heel it slays the strong,
The monstrous parricide!

We waited for the stroke of eight:
Each tongue was thick with thirst:
For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate
That makes a man accursed,
And Fate will use a running noose
For the best man and the worst.

We had no other thing to do,
Save to wait for the sign to come:
So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
Quiet we sat and dumb:
But each man's heart beat thick and quick
Like a madman on a drum!

With sudden shock the prison-clock
Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
Of impotent despair,
Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
>From a leper in his lair.

And as one sees most fearful things
In the crystal of a dream,
We saw the greasy hempen rope
Hooked to the blackened beam,
And heard the prayer the hangman's snare
Strangled into a scream.

And all the woe that moved him so
That he gave that bitter cry,
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
None knew so well as I:
For he who live more lives than one
More deaths than one must die.


There is no chapel on the day
On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain's heart is far too sick,
Or his face is far to wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
Which none should look upon.

So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
And then they rang the bell,
And the Warders with their jingling keys
Opened each listening cell,
And down the iron stair we tramped,
Each from his separate Hell.

Out into God's sweet air we went,
But not in wonted way,
For this man's face was white with fear,
And that man's face was grey,
And I never saw sad men who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw sad men who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners called the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
In happy freedom by.

But their were those amongst us all
Who walked with downcast head,
And knew that, had each got his due,
They should have died instead:
He had but killed a thing that lived
Whilst they had killed the dead.

For he who sins a second time
Wakes a dead soul to pain,
And draws it from its spotted shroud,
And makes it bleed again,
And makes it bleed great gouts of blood
And makes it bleed in vain!

Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb
With crooked arrows starred,
Silently we went round and round
The slippery asphalte yard;
Silently we went round and round,
And no man spoke a word.

Silently we went round and round,
And through each hollow mind
The memory of dreadful things
Rushed like a dreadful wind,
An Horror stalked before each man,
And terror crept behind.

The Warders strutted up and down,
And kept their herd of brutes,
Their uniforms were spick and span,
And they wore their Sunday suits,
But we knew the work they had been at
By the quicklime on their boots.

For where a grave had opened wide,
There was no grave at all:
Only a stretch of mud and sand
By the hideous prison-wall,
And a little heap of burning lime,
That the man should have his pall.

For he has a pall, this wretched man,
Such as few men can claim:
Deep down below a prison-yard,
Naked for greater shame,
He lies, with fetters on each foot,
Wrapt in a sheet of flame!

And all the while the burning lime
Eats flesh and bone away,
It eats the brittle bone by night,
And the soft flesh by the day,
It eats the flesh and bones by turns,
But it eats the heart alway.

For three long years they will not sow
Or root or seedling there:
For three long years the unblessed spot
Will sterile be and bare,
And look upon the wondering sky
With unreproachful stare.

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.

Out of his mouth a red, red rose!
Out of his heart a white!
For who can say by what strange way,
Christ brings his will to light,
Since the barren staff the pilgrim bore
Bloomed in the great Pope's sight?

But neither milk-white rose nor red
May bloom in prison air;
The shard, the pebble, and the flint,
Are what they give us there:
For flowers have been known to heal
A common man's despair.

So never will wine-red rose or white,
Petal by petal, fall
On that stretch of mud and sand that lies
By the hideous prison-wall,
To tell the men who tramp the yard
That God's Son died for all.

Yet though the hideous prison-wall
Still hems him round and round,
And a spirit man not walk by night
That is with fetters bound,
And a spirit may not weep that lies
In such unholy ground,

He is at peace—this wretched man—
At peace, or will be soon:
There is no thing to make him mad,
Nor does Terror walk at noon,
For the lampless Earth in which he lies
Has neither Sun nor Moon.

They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
They did not even toll
A requiem that might have brought
Rest to his startled soul,
But hurriedly they took him out,
And hid him in a hole.

They stripped him of his canvas clothes,
And gave him to the flies;
They mocked the swollen purple throat
And the stark and staring eyes:
And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud
In which their convict lies.

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonoured grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save.

Yet all is well; he has but passed
To Life's appointed bourne:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourner will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.


I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in goal
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.

But this I know, 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.

This too I know—and wise it were
If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
Ever should look upon!

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

For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity's machine.

The brackish water that we drink
Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
Is full of chalk and lime,
And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
Wild-eyed and cries to Time.

But though lean Hunger and green Thirst
Like asp with adder fight,
We have little care of prison fare,
For what chills and kills outright
Is that every stone one lifts by day
Becomes one's heart by night.

With midnight always in one's heart,
And twilight in one's cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far
Than the sound of a brazen bell.

And never a human voice comes near
To speak a gentle word:
And the eye that watches through the door
Is pitiless and hard:
And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
With soul and body marred.

And thus we rust Life's iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But 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.

Ah! happy day 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?

And he of the swollen purple throat.
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
His soul of his soul's strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
Became Christ's snow-white seal.


In Reading gaol by Reading town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he 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!



"The Paradox of Oscar Wilde"

Oscar on women and men

Women are sphinxes without secrets

American women are pretty and charming: little oases of elegant unreasonableness in a vast desert of practical common sense.

Many American women, on leaving their native land, adopt the appearance of chronic ill health, under the misapprehension that illness is a form of European refinement.

All women become like their mothers, that is their tragedy; no man does, that is his.

Never trust a woman who tells you her real age; a woman who tells you that would tell you anything.

Women are meant to be loved, not understood.

A woman will flirt with anyone in the world, so long as other women are looking on.

Women can discover everything except the obvious.

If a woman wants to hold a man, she has merely to appeal to the worst in him.

Crying is the refuge of plain women and the ruin of pretty ones.

If you really want to know what a woman means, which is dangerous, always look at her but never listen.

For fascinating women, sex is a challenge; for others, it is merely a defence.

35 is a very fattractive age: London society is full of women who have, of their own free choice, remained 35 for years.

Women give to men the very gold of their lives; but they always want it back in small change.

I like men who have a future, and women who have a past.

If a man is a gentleman he knows quite enough, and if he is not a gentleman, whatever he knows is likely to be bad for him.

Men become old, they never become good.

The world was made for men and not for women.

I sometimes think that God, in creating man, rather overestimated His ability.

Oscar on love and marriage

The Niagara Falls is simply a vast amount of water going the wrong way over some unnecessary rocks; the sight of that waterfall must be one of the earliest and keenest disappointments in American married life.

A man can be happy with any woman, so long as he does not love her.

The happiness of a married man depends on the people he has not married.

The husbands of very beautiful women usually belong to the criminal classes.

London if full of women who trust their husbands; one can always recognise them because they look so thoroughly happy.

Twenty years of romance makes a woman look like a ruin; twenty years of marriage makes her look like a public building.

The three women I have most admired are Queen Victoria, Sarah Bernhardt, and Lillie Langtry. The first had great dignity, the second a lovely voice, and the third a perfect figure; I would have married any one of them with the greatest pleasure.

The only real tragedy in a woman's life is that her past is always her lover, and the future is invariably her husband.

In married life, three is company, two is none.

The proper basis for a marriage is mutual misunderstanding.

There is nothing in the world like the devotion of a married woman; it's a thing that no married man knows anything about.

When a woman marries again, it is because she detested her first husband; when a man marries again; it is because he adored his first wife. Women try their luck, men risk theirs.

I have always been of the opinion that a man about to get married should know either everything or nothing.

Men marry because they are tired, women because they are curious; both are disappointed.

Oscar at Large

Anyone can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend; it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friends' success.

A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.

Perhaps, after all, America has never been discovered; I prefer to think that is has merely been detected.

Of course America has often been discovered before Columbus, but is was always hushed up.

The youth of America is their oldest tradition; it has been going on now for three hundred years.

If you find a box labelled American Dry Goods, you can be reasonably sure it will contain nothing but their novels.

Education is a wonderful thing, provided you always remember that nothing worth knowing can ever be taught.

It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information around.

Ignorance is a rare exotic fruit; touch it, and the bloom, has gone.

The only duty we owe history is to rewrite it.

The English country gentleman galloping after a fox - the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible.

Democracy is simply the bludgeoning of the people for the people by the people.

Work is the curse of the drinking classes.

I find that alcohol, taken in sufficient quantities, produces all the effects of intoxication.

Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.

A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing.

Fashion is what one wears oneself; what is unfashionable is what other people wear.

No great artist ever sees things as they really are; if he did, he would cease to be an artist.

Society often forgives the criminal but it never forgives the dreamer.

Thre is no such thing as a moral or immoral book; books are well written or badly written.

Examinations consist of the foolish asking questions the wise cannot answer.

Punctuality is the thief of time.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.

Oscar on life

The book of life begins with a man and woman in a garden; it ends with revelations.

The good end happily and the bad unhappily; that is what fiction means.

We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.

Experience is the name we all give to our mistakes.

The only thing worse in the world than being talked about is not being talked about.

Children begin by loving their parents. After a time, they judge them; rarely is ever do they forgive them.

The old believe everything; the middle-aged suspect everything; the young know everything.

Nothing succeeds like excess.

In this world there are only two tragedies; one is not getting what one wants, the other is getting it.

To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.

To get back one's youth, one merely has to repeat one's follies.

Young people nowadays assume that money is everything, and when they get older they know it.

It is better to have a permanent income than to be fascinating.

No man is ever rich enough to buy back his past.

A man cannot be too careful in his choice of enemies.

Every great man nowadays has his disciples, but it is always Judas who writes the biography.


When I had to fill in the immigration papers, I gave my age as 19, and my profession as genius; I added that I had nothing to declare except my talent.

I have put my genius into my life, whereas all I have put into my work is my talent.

I can resist everything except temptation.

I have very simple tastes, I am always satisfied with the very best.

I like talking to a brick wall, I find it is the only thing that never contradicts me.

Whenever people agree with me, I always feel I must be wrong.

One half of the world does not believe in God, and the other half does not believe in me.

Praise makes me humble, but when I am abused I know I have touched the stars.

I shall have to die, as I have lived, beyond my means.

To regain my youth I wold do anything in the world, except take exercise, get up early, or become respectable.

If this is the way Queen Victoria treats her prisoners, she doesn't deserve to have any.

I shall never makes a new friend in life, though I rather hope to make a few in death.

I have had my hand on the moon; what is the use of trying to rise a little way from the ground?

This wallpaper will be the death of me; one of us will have to go.


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