Oscar Wilde, His Life and Confessions, by Frank Harris

Chapter 19

His St. Martin’s Summer: His Best Work

Shortly before he came out of prison, one of Oscar’s intimates told me he was destitute, and begged me to get him some clothes. I took the name of his tailor and ordered two suits. The tailor refused to take the order: he was not going to make clothes for Oscar Wilde. I could not trust myself to talk to the man and therefore sent my assistant editor and friend, Mr. Blanchamp, to have it out with him. The tradesman soul yielded to the persuasiveness of cash in advance. I sent Oscar the clothes and a cheque, and shortly after his release got a letter22 thanking me.

A little later I heard on good authority a story which Oscar afterwards confirmed, that when he left Reading Gaol the correspondent of an American paper offered him £1,000 for an interview dealing with his prison life and experiences, but he felt it beneath his dignity to take his sufferings to market. He thought it better to borrow than to earn. He is partly to be excused, perhaps, when one remembers that he had still some pounds left of the large sums given him before his condemnation, by Miss S— — Ross, More Adey, and others. Still his refusal of such a sum as that offered by the New York paper shows how utterly contemptuous he was of money, even at a moment when one would have thought money would have been his chief preoccupation. He always lived in the day and rather heedlessly.

As soon as he left prison he crossed with some friends to France, and went to stay at the Hotel de la Plage at Berneval, a quiet little village near Dieppe. M. André Gide, who called on him there almost as soon as he arrived, gives a fair mental picture of him at this time. He tells how delighted he was to find in him the “Oscar Wilde of old,” no longer the sensualist puffed out with pride and good living, but “the sweet Wilde” of the days before 1891. “I found myself taken back, not two years,” he says, “but four or five. There was the same dreamy look, the same amused smile, the same voice.”

He told M. Gide that prison had completely changed him, had taught him the meaning of pity. “You know,” he went on, “how fond I used to be of ‘Madame Bovary,’ but Flaubert would not admit pity into his work, and that is why it has a petty and restrained character about it. It is the sense of pity by means of which a work gains in expanse, and by which it opens up a boundless horizon. Do you know, my dear fellow, it was pity which prevented my killing myself? During the first six months in prison I was dreadfully unhappy, so utterly miserable that I wanted to kill myself; but what kept me from doing so was looking at the others, and seeing that they were as unhappy as I was, and feeling sorry for them. Oh dear! what a wonderful thing pity is, and I never knew it.”

He was speaking in a low voice without any excitement.

“Have you ever learned how wonderful a thing pity is? For my part I thank God every night, yes, on my knees I thank God for having taught it to me. I went into prison with a heart of stone, thinking only of my own pleasure; but now my heart is utterly broken — pity has entered into my heart. I have learned now that pity is the greatest and the most beautiful thing in the world. And that is why I cannot bear ill-will towards those who caused my suffering and those who condemned me; no, nor to anyone, because without them I should not have known all that. Alfred Douglas writes me terrible letters. He says he does not understand me, that he does not understand that I do not wish everyone ill, and that everyone has been horrid to me. No, he does not understand me. He cannot understand me any more. But I keep on telling him that in every letter: we cannot follow the same road. He has his and it is beautiful — I have mine. His is that of Alcibiades; mine is now that of St. Francis of Assisi.”

How much of this is sincere and how much merely imagined and stated in order to incarnate the new ideal to perfection would be hard to say. The truth is not so saintly simple as the christianised Oscar would have us believe. The unpublished portions of “De Profundis” which were read out in the Douglas–Ransome trial prove, what all his friends know, that Oscar Wilde found it impossible to forgive or forget what seemed to him personal ill-treatment. There are beautiful pages in “De Profundis,” pages of sweetest Christlike resignation and charity and no doubt in a certain mood Oscar was sincere in writing them. But there was another mood in him, more vital and more enduring, if not so engaging, a mood in which he saw himself as one betrayed and sacrificed and abandoned, and then he attributed his ruin wholly to his friend and did not hesitate to speak of him as the “Judas” whose shallow selfishness and imperious ill-temper and unfulfilled promises of monetary help had driven a great man to disaster.

That unpublished portion of “De Profundis” is in essence, from beginning to end, one long curse of Lord Alfred Douglas, an indictment apparently impartial, particularly at first; but in reality a bitter and merciless accusation, showing in Oscar Wilde a curious want of sympathy even with the man he said he loved. Those who would know Oscar Wilde as he really was will read that piece of rhetoric with care enough to notice that he reiterates the charge of shallow selfishness with such venom, that he discovers his own colossal egotism and essential hardness of heart. “Love,” we are told, “suffereth long and is kind . . . beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things”— that sweet, generous, all-forgiving tenderness of love was not in the pagan, Oscar Wilde, and therefore even his deepest passion never won to complete reconciliation and ultimate redemption.

In this same talk with M. Gide, Oscar is reported to have said that he had known beforehand that a catastrophe was unavoidable; “there was but one end possible. . . . That state of things could not last; there had to be some end to it.”

This view I believe is Gide’s and not Oscar’s. In any case I am sure that my description of him before the trials as full of insolent self-assurance is the truer truth. Of course he must have had forebodings; he was warned as I’ve related, again and again; but he took character-colour from his associates and he met Queensberry’s first attempts at attack with utter disdain. He did not realise his danger at all. Gide reports him more correctly as adding:

“Prison has completely changed me. I was relying on it for that — Douglas is terrible. He cannot understand that — cannot understand that I am not taking up the same existence again. He accuses the others of having changed me.”

I may publish here part of a letter of a prison warder which Mr. Stuart Mason reproduced in his excellent little book on Oscar Wilde. He says:

“No more beautiful life had any man lived, no more beautiful life could any man live than Oscar Wilde lived during the short period I knew him in prison. He wore upon his face an eternal smile; sunshine was on his face, sunshine of some sort must have been in his heart. People say he was not sincere: he was the very soul of sincerity when I knew him. If he did not continue that life after he left prison, then the forces of evil must have been too strong for him. But he tried, he honestly tried, and in prison he succeeded.”

All this seems to me in the main, true. Oscar’s gay vivacity would have astonished any stranger. Besides, the regular hours and scant plain food of prison had improved his health and the solitude and suffering had lent him a deeper emotional life. But there was an intense bitterness in him, a profound underlying sense of injury which came continually to passionate expression. Yet as soon as the miserable petty persecution of the prison was lifted from him, all the joyous gaiety and fun of his nature bubbled up irresistibly. There was no contradiction in this complexity. A man can hold in himself a hundred conflicting passions and impulses without confusion. At this time the dominant chord in Oscar was pity for others.

To my delight the world had evidence of this changed Oscar Wilde in a very short time. On May 28th, a few days after he left prison, there appeared in The Daily Chronicle a letter more than two columns in length, pleading for the kindlier treatment of little children in English prisons. The letter was written because Warder Martin23 of Reading prison had been dismissed by the Commissioners for the dreadful crime of “having given some sweet biscuits to a little hungry child.” . . .

I must quote a few paragraphs of this letter; because it shows how prison had deepened Oscar Wilde, how his own suffering had made him, as Shakespeare says, “pregnant to good pity,” and also because it tells us what life was like in an English prison in our time. Oscar wrote:

“I saw the three children myself on the Monday preceding my release. They had just been convicted, and were standing in a row in the central hall in their prison dress carrying their sheets under their arms, previous to their being sent to the cells allotted to them. . . . They were quite small children, the youngest — the one to whom the warder gave the biscuits — being a tiny chap, for whom they had evidently been unable to find clothes small enough to fit. I had, of course, seen many children in prison during the two years during which I was myself confined. Wandsworth prison, especially, contained always a large number of children. But the little child I saw on the afternoon of Monday, the 17th, at Reading, was tinier than any one of them. I need not say how utterly distressed I was to see these children at Reading, for I knew the treatment in store for them. The cruelty that is practised by day and night on children in English prisons is incredible except to those that have witnessed it and are aware of the brutality of the system.

“People nowadays do not understand what cruelty is. . . . Ordinary cruelty is simply stupidity.

“The prison treatment of children is terrible, primarily from people not understanding the peculiar psychology of the child’s nature. A child can understand a punishment inflicted by an individual, such as a parent, or guardian, and bear it with a certain amount of acquiescence. What it cannot understand is a punishment inflicted by society. It cannot realise what society is. . . .

“The terror of a child in prison is quite limitless. I remember once in Reading, as I was going out to exercise, seeing in the dimly lit cell opposite mine a small boy. Two warders — not unkindly men — were talking to him, with some sternness apparently, or perhaps giving him some useful advice about his conduct. One was in the cell with him, the other was standing outside. The child’s face was like a white wedge of sheer terror. There was in his eyes the terror of a hunted animal. The next morning I heard him at breakfast time crying, and calling to be let out. His cry was for his parents. From time to time I could hear the deep voice of the warder on duty telling him to keep quiet. Yet he was not even convicted of whatever little offence he had been charged with. He was simply on remand. That I knew by his wearing his own clothes, which seemed neat enough. He was, however, wearing prison socks and shoes. This showed that he was a very poor boy, whose own shoes, if he had any, were in a bad state. Justices and magistrates, an entirely ignorant class as a rule, often remand children for a week, and then perhaps remit whatever sentence they are entitled to pass. They call this ‘not sending a child to prison.’ It is of course a stupid view on their part. To a little child, whether he is in prison on remand or after conviction is not a subtlety of position he can comprehend. To him the horrible thing is to be there at all. In the eyes of humanity it should be a horrible thing for him to be there at all.

“This terror that seizes and dominates the child, as it seizes the grown man also, is of course intensified beyond power of expression by the solitary cellular system of our prisons. Every child is confined to its cell for twenty-three hours out of the twenty-four. This is the appalling thing. To shut up a child in a dimly lit cell for twenty-three hours out of the twenty-four is an example of the cruelty of stupidity. If an individual, parent or guardian, did this to a child, he would be severely punished. . . .

“The second thing from which a child suffers in prison is hunger. The food that is given to it consists of a piece of usually badly baked prison bread and a tin of water for breakfast at half past seven. At twelve o’clock it gets dinner, composed of a tin of coarse Indian meal stirabout, and at half past five it gets a piece of dry bread and a tin of water for its supper. This diet in the case of a strong man is always productive of illness of some kind, chiefly, of course, diarrhoea, with its attendant weakness. In fact, in a big prison, astringent medicines are served out regularly by the warders as a matter of course. A child is as a rule incapable of eating the food at all. Anyone who knows anything about children knows how easily a child’s digestion is upset by a fit of crying, or trouble and mental distress of any kind. A child who has been crying all day long and perhaps half the night, in a lonely, dimly lit cell, and is preyed upon by terror, simply cannot eat food of this coarse, horrible kind. In the case of the little child to whom Warder Martin gave the biscuits, the child was crying with hunger on Tuesday morning, and utterly unable to eat the bread and water served to it for breakfast.

“Martin went out after the breakfast had been served, and bought the few sweet biscuits for the child rather than see it starving. It was a beautiful action on his part, and was so recognised by the child, who, utterly unconscious of the regulation of the Prison Board, told one of the senior warders how kind this junior warder had been to him. The result was, of course, a report and a dismissal.24

“I know Martin extremely well, and I was under his charge for the last seven weeks of my imprisonment. . . . I was struck by the singular kindness and humanity of the way in which he spoke to me and to the other prisoners. Kind words are much in prison, and a pleasant ‘good-morning’ or ‘good-evening’ will make one as happy as one can be in prison. He was always gentle and considerate. . . .

“A great deal has been talked and written lately about the contaminating influence of prison on young children. What is said is quite true. A child is utterly contaminated by prison life. But this contaminating influence is not that of the prisoners. It is that of the whole prison system — of the governor, the chaplain, the warders, the solitary cell, the isolation, the revolting food, the rules of the Prison Commissioners, the mode of discipline, as it is termed, of the life.

“Of course no child under fourteen years of age should be sent to prison at all. It is an absurdity, and, like many absurdities, of absolutely tragical results. . . . ”

This letter, I am informed, brought about some improvement in the treatment of young children in British prisons. But in regard to adults the British prison is still the torture chamber it was in Wilde’s time; prisoners are still treated more brutally there than anywhere else in the civilised world; the food is the worst in Europe, insufficient indeed to maintain health; in many cases men are only saved from death by starvation through being sent to the infirmary. Though these facts are well known, Punch, the pet organ of the British middle-class, was not ashamed a little while ago to make a mock of some suggested reform, by publishing a picture of a British convict, with the villainous face of a Bill Sykes, lying on a sofa in his cell smoking a cigar with champagne at hand. This is not altogether due to stupidity, as Oscar tried to believe, but to reasoned selfishness. Punch and the class for which it caters would like to believe that many convicts are unfit to live, whereas the truth is that a good many of them are superior in humanity to the people who punish and slander them.

While waiting for his wife to join him, Oscar rented a little house, the Châlet Bourgeat, about two hundred yards away from the hotel at Berneval, and furnished it. Here he spent the whole of the summer writing, bathing, and talking to the few devoted friends who visited him from time to time. Never had he been so happy: never in such perfect health. He was full of literary projects; indeed, no period of his whole life was so fruitful in good work. He was going to write some Biblical plays; one entitled “Pharaoh” first, and then one called “Ahab and Jezebel,” which he pronounced Isabelle. Deeper problems, too, were much in his mind: he was already at work on “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” but before coming to that let me first show how happy the song-bird was and how divinely he sang when the dreadful cage was opened and he was allowed to use his wings in the heavenly sunshine.

Here is a letter from him shortly after his release which is one of the most delightful things he ever wrote. Fitly enough it was addressed to his friend of friends, Robert Ross, and I can only say that I am extremely obliged to Ross for allowing me to publish it:

My dearest Robbie,

I have decided that the only way in which to get boots properly is to go to France to receive them. The Douane charged 3 francs. How could you frighten me as you did? The next time you order boots please come to Dieppe to get them sent to you. It is the only way and it will be an excuse for seeing you.

I am going tomorrow on a pilgrimage. I always wanted to be a pilgrim, and I have decided to start early tomorrow to the shrine of Notre Dame de Liesse. Do you know what Liesse is? It is an old word for joy. I suppose the same as Letizia, Lætitia. I just heard to-night of the shrine or chapel, by chance, as you would say, from the sweet woman of the auberge, who wants me to live always at Berneval. She says Notre Dame de Liesse is wonderful, and helps everyone to the secret of joy — I do not know how long it will take me to get to the shrine, as I must walk. But, from what she tells me, it will take at least six or seven minutes to get there, and as many to come back. In fact the chapel of Notre Dame de Liesse is just fifty yards from the Hotel. Isn’t it extraordinary? I intend to start after I have had my coffee, and then to bathe. Need I say that this is a miracle? I wanted to go on a pilgrimage, and I find the little grey stone chapel of Our Lady of Joy is brought to me. It has probably been waiting for me all these purple years of pleasure, and now it comes to meet me with Liesse as its message. I simply don’t know what to say. I wish you were not so hard to poor heretics,25 and would admit that even for the sheep who has no shepherd there is a Stella Maris to guide it home. But you and More, especially More, treat me as a Dissenter. It is very painful and quite unjust.

Yesterday I attended Mass at 10 o’clock and afterwards bathed. So I went into the water without being a pagan. The consequence was that I was not tempted by either sirens or mermaidens, or any of the green-haired following of Glaucus. I really think that this is a remarkable thing. In my Pagan days the sea was always full of Tritons blowing conchs, and other unpleasant things. Now it is quite different. And yet you treat me as the President of Mansfield College; and after I had canonised you too.

Dear boy, I wish you would tell me if your religion makes you happy. You conceal your religion from me in a monstrous way. You treat it like writing in the Saturday Review for Pollock, or dining in Wardour Street off the fascinating dish that is served with tomatoes and makes men mad.26 I know it is useless asking you, so don’t tell me.

I felt an outcast in Chapel yesterday — not really, but a little in exile. I met a dear farmer in a corn field and he gave me a seat on his banc in church: so I was quite comfortable. He now visits me twice a day, and as he has no children, and is rich, I have made him promise to adopt three — two boys and a girl. I told him that if he wanted them, he would find them. He said he was afraid that they would turn out badly. I told him everyone did that. He really has promised to adopt three orphans. He is now filled with enthusiasm at the idea. He is to go to the Curé and talk to him. He told me that his own father had fallen down in a fit one day as they were talking together, and that he had caught him in his arms, and put him to bed, where he died, and that he himself had often thought how dreadful it was that if he had a fit there was no one to catch him in his arms. It is quite clear that he must adopt orphans, is it not?

I feel that Berneval is to be my home. I really do. Notre Dame de Liesse will be sweet to me, if I go on my knees to her, and she will advise me. It is extraordinary being brought here by a white horse that was a native of the place, and knew the road, and wanted to see its parents, now of advanced years. It is also extraordinary that I knew Berneval existed and was arranged for me.

M. Bonnet27 wants to build me a Châlet, 1,000 metres of ground (I don’t know how much that is — but I suppose about 100 miles) and a Châlet with a studio, a balcony, a salle-à-manger, a huge kitchen, and three bedrooms — a view of the sea, and trees — all for 12,000 francs — £480. If I can write a play I am going to have it begun. Fancy one’s own lovely house and grounds in France for £480. No rent of any kind. Pray consider this, and approve, if you think well. Of course, not till I have done my play.

An old gentleman lives here in the hotel. He dines alone in his room, and then sits in the sun. He came here for two days and has stayed two years. His sole sorrow is that there is no theatre. Monsieur Bonnet is a little heartless about this, and says that as the old gentleman goes to bed at 8 o’clock a theatre would be of no use to him. The old gentleman says he only goes to bed at 8 o’clock because there is no theatre. They argued the point yesterday for an hour. I sided with the old gentleman, but Logic sides with Monsieur Bonnet, I believe.

I had a sweet letter from the Sphinx.28 She gives me a delightful account of Ernest29 subscribing to Romeike while his divorce suit was running, and not being pleased with some of the notices. Considering the growing appreciation of Ibsen I must say that I am surprised the notices were not better, but nowadays everybody is jealous of everyone else, except, of course, husband and wife. I think I shall keep this last remark of mine for my play.

Have you got my silver spoon30 from Reggie? You got my silver brushes out of Humphreys,31 who is bald, so you might easily get my spoon out of Reggie, who has so many, or used to have. You know my crest is on it. It is a bit of Irish silver, and I don’t want to lose it. There is an excellent substitute called Britannia metal, very much liked at the Adelphi and elsewhere. Wilson Barrett writes, “I prefer it to silver.” It would suit dear Reggie admirably. Walter Besant writes, “I use none other.” Mr. Beerbohm Tree also writes, “Since I have tried it I am a different actor; my friends hardly recognise me.” So there is obviously a demand for it.

I am going to write a Political Economy in my heavier moments. The first law I lay down is, “Whenever there exists a demand, there is no supply.” This is the only law that explains the extraordinary contrast between the soul of man and man’s surroundings. Civilisations continue because people hate them. A modern city is the exact opposite of what everyone wants. Nineteenth-century dress is the result of our horror of the style. The tall hat will last as long as people dislike it.

Dear Robbie, I wish you would be a little more considerate, and not keep me up so late talking to you. It is very flattering to me and all that, but you should remember that I need rest. Good-night. You will find some cigarettes and some flowers by your bedside. Coffee is served below at 8 o’clock. Do you mind? If it is too early for you I don’t at all mind lying in bed an extra hour. I hope you will sleep well. You should as Lloyd is not on the Verandah.32

TUESDAY MORNING, 9.30.

The sea and sky are opal — no horrid drawing master’s line between them — just one fishing boat, going slowly, and drawing the wind after it. I am going to bathe.

6 O’CLOCK.

Bathed and have seen a Châlet here which I wish to take for the season — quite charming — a splendid view: a large writing room, a dining room, and three lovely bedrooms — besides servants’ rooms and also a huge balcony.

[In this blank space he had I don’t know the scale roughly drawn a ground plan of the drawing, but the of the imagined Châlet.] rooms are larger than the plan is.

1. Salle-à-manger. All on ground floor 2. Salon. with steps from balcony 3. Balcony. to ground.

The rent for the season or year is, what do you think? —£32.

Of course I must have it: I will take my meals here — separate and reserved table: it is within two minutes walk. Do tell me to take it. When you come again your room will be waiting for you. All I need is a domestique. The people here are most kind.

I made my pilgrimage — the interior of the Chapel is of course a modern horror — but there is a black image of Notre Dame de Liesse — the chapel is as tiny as an undergraduate’s room at Oxford. I hope to get the Curé to celebrate Mass in it soon; as a rule the service is only held there in July and August; but I want to see a Mass quite close.

There is also another thing I must write to you about.

I adore this place. The whole country is lovely, and full of forest and deep meadow. It is simple and healthy. If I live in Paris I may be doomed to things I don’t desire. I am afraid of big towns. Here I get up at 7.30. I am happy all day. I go to bed at 10. I am frightened of Paris. I want to live here.

I have seen the “terrain.” It is the best here, and the only one left. I must build a house. If I could build a châlet for 12,000 francs —£500 — and live in a home of my own, how happy I would be. I must raise the money somehow. It would give me a home, quiet, retired, healthy, and near England. If I live in Egypt I know what my life would be. If I live in the south of Italy I know I should be idle and worse. I want to live here. Do think over this and send me over the architect.33 M. Bonnet is excellent and is ready to carry out any idea. I want a little châlet of wood and plaster walls, the wooden beams showing and the white square of plaster diapering the framework — like, I regret to say — Shakespeare’s house — like old English sixteenth-century farmers’ houses. So your architect has me waiting for him, as he is waiting for me.

Do you think the idea absurd?

I got the Chronicle, many thanks. I see the writer on Prince — A.2.11. — does not mention my name — foolish of her — it is a woman.

I, as you, the poem of my days, are away, am forced to write. I have begun something that I think will be very good.

I breakfast tomorrow with the Stannards: what a great passionate, splendid writer John Strange Winter is! How little people understand her work! Bootle’s Baby is an “oeuvre symboliste”— it is really only the style and the subject that are wrong. Pray never speak lightly of Bootle’s Baby — Indeed pray never speak of it at all — I never do.

Yours,

OSCAR.

Please send a Chronicle to my wife.

MRS. C.M. HOLLAND,
Maison Benguerel,
Bevaix,
Pres de Neuchatel,

just marking it — and if my second letter appears, mark that.

Also cut out the letter34 and enclose it in an envelope to:

MR. ARTHUR CRUTHENDEN,
Poste Restante, G.P.O., Reading,

with just these lines:

Dear friend,

The enclosed will interest you. There is also another letter
waiting in the post office for you from me with a little money.
Ask for it if you have not got it.

Yours sincerely,

C.3.3.

I have no one but you, dear Robbie, to do anything. Of course the letter to Reading must go at once, as my friends come out on Wednesday morning early.

This letter displays almost every quality of Oscar Wilde’s genius in perfect efflorescence — his gaiety, joyous merriment and exquisite sensibility. Who can read of the little Chapel to Notre Dame de Liesse without emotion quickly to be changed to mirth by the sunny humour of those delicious specimens of self-advertisement: “Mr. Beerbohm Tree also writes: ‘Since I have tried it, I am a different actor, my friends hardly recognise me.’”

This letter is the most characteristic thing Oscar Wilde ever wrote, a thing produced in perfect health at the topmost height of happy hours, more characteristic even than “The Importance of Being Earnest,” for it has not only the humour of that delightful farce-comedy, but also more than a hint of the deeper feeling which was even then forming itself into a master-work that will form part of the inheritance of men forever.

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” belongs to this summer of 1897. A fortunate conjuncture of circumstances — the prison discipline excluding all sense-indulgence, the kindness shown him towards the end of his imprisonment and of course the delight of freedom — gave him perfect physical health and hope and joy in work, and so Oscar was enabled for a few brief months to do better than his best. He assured me and I believe that the conception of “The Ballad” came to him in prison and was due to the alleviation of his punishment and the permission accorded to him to write and read freely — a divine fruit born directly of his pity for others and the pity others felt for him.

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol”35 was published in January, 1898, over the signature of C.3.3., Oscar’s number in prison. In a few weeks it ran through dozens of editions in England and America and translations appeared in almost every European language, which is proof not so much of the excellence of the poem as the great place the author held in the curiosity of men. The enthusiasm with which it was accepted in England was astounding. One reviewer compared it with the best of Sophocles; another said that “nothing like it has appeared in our time.” No word of criticism was heard: the most cautious called it a “simple poignant ballad, . . . one of the greatest in the English language.” This praise is assuredly not too generous. Yet even this was due to a revulsion of feeling in regard to Oscar himself rather than to any understanding of the greatness of his work. The best public felt that he had been dreadfully over-punished, and made a scapegoat for worse offenders and was glad to have the opportunity of repairing its own fault by over-emphasising Oscar’s repentance and over-praising, as it imagined, the first fruits of the converted sinner.

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is far and away the best poem Oscar Wilde ever wrote; we should try to appreciate it as the future will appreciate it. We need not be afraid to trace it to its source and note what is borrowed in it and what is original. After all necessary qualifications are made, it will stand as a great and splendid achievement.

Shortly before “The Ballad” was written, a little book of poetry called “A Shropshire Lad” was published by A.E. Housman, now I believe professor of Latin at Cambridge. There are only a hundred odd pages in the booklet; but it is full of high poetry — sincere and passionate feeling set to varied music. His friend, Reginald Turner, sent Oscar a copy of the book and one poem in particular made a deep impression on him. It is said that “his actual model for ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ was ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram’ with ‘The Ancient Mariner’ thrown in on technical grounds”; but I believe that Wilde owed most of his inspiration to “A Shropshire Lad.”

Here are some verses from Housman’s poem and some verses from “The Ballad”:

On moonlit heath and lonesome bank

The sheep beside me graze;

And yon the gallows used to clank

Fast by the four cross ways.

A careless shepherd once would keep

The flocks by moonlight there,36

And high amongst the glimmering sheep

The dead men stood on air.

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:

The whistles blow forlorn,

And trains all night groan on the rail

To men that die at morn.

There sleeps in Shrewsbury jail to-night,

Or wakes, as may betide,

A better lad, if things went right,

Than most that sleep outside.

And naked to the hangman’s noose

The morning clocks will ring

A neck God made for other use

Than strangling in a string.

And sharp the link of life will snap,

And dead on air will stand

Heels that held up as straight a chap

As treads upon the land.

So here I’ll watch the night and wait

To see the morning shine

When he will hear the stroke of eight

And not the stroke of nine;

And wish my friend as sound a sleep

As lads I did not know,

That shepherded the moonlit sheep

A hundred years ago.

THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL

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!

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 lives more lives than one

More deaths than one must die.

There are better things in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” than those inspired by Housman. In the last of the three verses I quote there is a distinction of thought which Housman hardly reached.

“For he who lives more lives than one

More deaths than one must die.”

There are verses, too, wrung from the heart which have a diviner influence than any product of the intellect:

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.

* * * * *

This too I know — and wise were it

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.

* * * * *

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 Ballad of Reading Gaol” is beyond all comparison the greatest ballad in English: one of the noblest poems in the language. This is what prison did for Oscar Wilde.

When speaking to him later about this poem I remember assuming that his prison experiences must have helped him to realise the suffering of the condemned soldier and certainly lent passion to his verse. But he would not hear of it.

“Oh, no, Frank,” he cried, “never; my experiences in prison were too horrible, too painful to be used. I simply blotted them out altogether and refused to recall them.”

“What about the verse?” I asked:

“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:

And in the heart of every man

Terror was lying still.”

“Characteristic details, Frank, merely the décor of prison life, not its reality; that no one could paint, not even Dante, who had to turn away his eyes from lesser suffering.”

It may be worth while to notice here, as an example of the hatred with which Oscar Wilde’s name and work were regarded, that even after he had paid the penalty for his crime the publisher and editor, alike in England and America, put anything but a high price on his best work. They would have bought a play readily enough because they would have known that it would make them money, but a ballad from his pen nobody seemed to want. The highest price offered in America for “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was one hundred dollars. Oscar found difficulty in getting even £20 for the English rights from the friend who published it; yet it has sold since by hundreds of thousands and is certain always to sell.

I must insert here part of another letter from Oscar Wilde which appeared in The Daily Chronicle, 24th March, 1898, on the cruelties of the English prison system; it was headed, “Don’t read this if you want to be happy today,” and was signed by “The Author of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol.’” It was manifestly a direct outcome of his prison experiences. The letter was simple and affecting; but it had little or no influence on the English conscience. The Home Secretary was about to reform (!) the prison system by appointing more inspectors. Oscar Wilde pointed out that inspectors could do nothing but see that the regulations were carried out. He took up the position that it was the regulations which needed reform. His plea was irrefutable in its moderation and simplicity: but it was beyond the comprehension of an English Home Secretary apparently, for all the abuses pointed out by Oscar Wilde still flourish. I can’t help giving some extracts from this memorable indictment: memorable for its reserve and sanity and complete absence of any bitterness:

“ . . . The prisoner who has been allowed the smallest privilege dreads the arrival of the inspectors. And on the day of any prison inspection the prison officials are more than usually brutal to the prisoners. Their object is, of course, to show the splendid discipline they maintain.

“The necessary reforms are very simple. They concern the needs of the body and the needs of the mind of each unfortunate prisoner.

“With regard to the first, there are three permanent punishments authorised by law in English prisons:

“1. Hunger.

“2. Insomnia.

“3. Disease.

“The food supplied to prisoners is entirely inadequate. Most of it is revolting in character. All of it is insufficient. Every prisoner suffers day and night from hunger. . . .

“The result of the food — which in most cases consists of weak gruel, badly baked bread, suet and water — is disease in the form of incessant diarrhoea. This malady, which ultimately with most prisoners becomes a permanent disease, is a recognised institution in every prison. At Wandsworth Prison, for instance — where I was confined for two months, till I had to be carried into hospital, where I remained for another two months — the warders go round twice or three times a day with astringent medicine, which they serve out to the prisoners as a matter of course. After about a week of such treatment it is unnecessary to say that the medicine produces no effect at all.

“The wretched prisoner is thus left a prey to the most weakening, depressing and humiliating malady that can be conceived, and if, as often happens, he fails from physical weakness to complete his required evolutions at the crank, or the mill, he is reported for idleness and punished with the greatest severity and brutality. Nor is this all.

“Nothing can be worse than the sanitary arrangements of English prisons. . . . The foul air of the prison cells, increased by a system of ventilation that is utterly ineffective, is so sickening and unwholesome that it is not uncommon for warders, when they come into the room out of the fresh air, and open and inspect each cell, to be violently sick. . . .

“With regard to the punishment of insomnia, it only exists in Chinese and English prisons. In China it is inflicted by placing the prisoner in a small bamboo cage; in England by means of the plank bed. The object of the plank bed is to produce insomnia. There is no other object in it, and it invariably succeeds. And even when one is subsequently allowed a hard mattress, as happens in the course of imprisonment, one still suffers from insomnia. It is a revolting and ignorant punishment.

“With regard to the needs of the mind, I beg that you will allow me to say something.

“The present prison system seems almost to have for its aim the wrecking and the destruction of the mental faculties. The production of insanity is, if not its object, certainly its result. That is a well-ascertained fact. Its causes are obvious. Deprived of books, of all human intercourse, isolated from every humane and humanising influence, condemned to eternal silence, robbed of all intercourse with the external world, treated like an unintelligent animal, brutalised below the level of any of the brute-creation, the wretched man who is confined in an English prison can hardly escape becoming insane.”

This letter ended by saying that if all the reforms suggested were carried out much would still remain to be done. It would still be advisable to “humanise the governors of prisons, to civilise the warders, and to Christianise the Chaplains.”

This letter was the last effort of the new Oscar, the Oscar who had manfully tried to put the prison under his feet and to learn the significance of sorrow and the lesson of love which Christ brought into the world.

In the beautiful pages about Jesus which form the greater part of De Profundis, also written in those last hopeful months in Reading Gaol, Oscar shows, I think, that he might have done much higher work than Tolstoi or Renan had he set himself resolutely to transmute his new insight into some form of art. Now and then he divined the very secret of Jesus:

“When he says ‘Forgive your enemies’ it is not for the sake of the enemy, but for one’s own sake that he says so, and because love is more beautiful than hate. In his own entreaty to the young man, ‘Sell all that thou hast and give to the poor,’ it is not of the state of the poor that he is thinking but of the soul of the young man, the soul that wealth was marring.”

In many of these pages Oscar Wilde really came close to the divine Master; “the image of the Man of Sorrows,” he says, “has fascinated and dominated art as no Greek god succeeded in doing.” . . . And again:

“Out of the carpenter’s shop at Nazareth had come a personality infinitely greater than any made by myth and legend, and one, strangely enough, destined to reveal to the world the mystical meaning of wine and the real beauties of the lilies of the field as none, either on Cithæron or Enna, has ever done. The song of Isaiah, ‘He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him,’ had seemed to him to prefigure himself, and in him the prophecy was fulfilled.”

In this spirit Oscar made up his mind that he would write about “Christ as the precursor of the romantic movement in life” and about “The artistic life considered in its relation to conduct.”

By bitter suffering he had been brought to see that the moment of repentance is the moment of absolution and self-realisation, that tears can wash out even blood. In “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” he wrote:

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.

This is the highest height Oscar Wilde ever reached, and alas! he only trod the summit for a moment. But as he says himself: “One has perhaps to go to prison to understand that. And, if so, it may be worth while going to prison.” He was by nature a pagan who for a few months became a Christian, but to live as a lover of Jesus was impossible to this “Greek born out of due time,” and he never even dreamed of a reconciling synthesis. . . .

The arrest of his development makes him a better representative of his time: he was an artistic expression of the best English mind: a Pagan and Epicurean, his rule of conduct was a selfish Individualism:—“Am I my brother’s keeper?” This attitude must entail a dreadful Nemesis, for it condemns one Briton in every four to a pauper’s grave. The result will convince the most hardened that such selfishness is not a creed by which human beings can live in society.

* * * * *

This summer of 1897 was the harvest time in Oscar Wilde’s Life; and his golden Indian summer. We owe it “De Profundis,” the best pages of prose he ever wrote, and “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” his only original poem; yet one that will live as long as the language: we owe it also that sweet and charming letter to Bobbie Ross which shows him in his habit as he lived. I must still say a word or two about him in this summer in order to show the ordinary working of his mind.

On his release, and, indeed, for a year or two later, he called himself Sebastian Melmoth. But one had hardly spoken a half a dozen words to him, when he used to beg to be called Oscar Wilde. I remember how he pulled up someone who had just been introduced to him, who persisted in addressing him as Mr. Melmoth.

“Call me Oscar Wilde,” he pleaded, “Mr. Melmoth is unknown, you see.”

“I thought you preferred it,” said the stranger excusing himself.

“Oh, dear, no,” interrupted Oscar smiling, “I only use the name Melmoth to spare the blushes of the postman, to preserve his modesty,” and he laughed in the old delightful way.

It was always significant to me the eager delight with which he shuffled off the new name and took up the old one which he had made famous.

An anecdote from his life in the Châlet at this time showed that the old witty pagan in Oscar was not yet extinct.

An English lady who had written a great many novels and happened to be staying in Dieppe heard of him, and out of kindness or curiosity, or perhaps a mixture of both motives, wrote and invited him to luncheon. He accepted the invitation. The good lady did not know how to talk to Mr. Sebastian Melmoth, and time went heavily. At length she began to expatiate on the cheapness of things in France; did Mr. Melmoth know how wonderfully cheap and good the living was?

“Only fancy,” she went on, “you would not believe what that claret you are drinking costs.”

“Really?” questioned Oscar, with a polite smile.

“Of course I get it wholesale,” she explained, “but it only costs me sixpence a quart.”

“Oh, my dear lady, I’m afraid you have been cheated,” he exclaimed, “ladies should never buy wine. I’m afraid you have been sadly overcharged.”

The humour may excuse the discourtesy, but Oscar was so uniformly polite to everyone that the incident simply shows how ineffably he had been bored.

This summer of 1897 was the decisive period and final turning-point in Oscar Wilde’s career. So long as the sunny weather lasted and friends came to visit him from time to time Oscar was content to live in the Châlet Bourgeat; but when the days began to draw in and the weather became unsettled, the dreariness of a life passed in solitude, indoors, and without a library became insupportable. He was being drawn in two opposite directions. I did not know it at the time; indeed he only told me about it months later when the matter had been decided irrevocably; but this was the moment when his soul was at stake between good and evil. The question was whether his wife would come to him again or whether he would yield to the solicitations of Lord Alfred Douglas and go to live with him.

Mr. Sherard has told in his book how he brought about the first reconciliation between Oscar and his wife; and how immediately afterwards he received a letter from Lord Alfred Douglas threatening to shoot him like a dog, if, by any words of his, Wilde’s friendship was lost to him, Douglas.

Unluckily Mrs. Wilde’s family were against her going back to her husband; they begged her not to go; talked to her of her duty to her children and herself, and the poor woman hesitated. Finally her advisers decided for her, and Mrs. Wilde wrote this decision to Oscar’s solicitors shortly before his release: Oscar’s probation was to last at least a year. I do not know enough about Mrs. Wilde and her relations with her family and with her husband even to discuss her inaction: I dare not criticise her: but she did not go to her husband when if she had gone boldly she might have saved him. She knew Lord Alfred Douglas’ influence over him; knew that it had already brought him to grief. Gide says, and Oscar himself told me afterwards, that he had come out of prison determined not to go back to Alfred Douglas and the old life. It seems a pity that his wife did not act promptly; she allowed herself to believe that a time of probation was necessary. The delay wounded Oscar, and all the while, as he told me a little later, he was resisting an influence which had dominated his life in the past.

“I got a letter almost every day, Frank, begging me to come to Posilippo, to the villa which Lord Alfred Douglas had rented. Every day I heard his voice calling, ‘Come, come, to sunshine and to me. Come to Naples with its wonderful museum of bronzes and Pompeii and Pæstum, the city of Poseidon: I am waiting to welcome you. Come.’

“Who could resist it, Frank? love calling, calling with outstretched arms; who could stay in bleak Berneval and watch the sheets of rain falling, falling — and the grey mist shrouding the grey sea, and think of Naples and love and sunshine; who could resist it all? I could not, Frank, I was so lonely and I hated solitude. I resisted as long as I could, but when chill October came and Bosie came to Rouen for me, I gave up the struggle and yielded.”

Could Oscar Wilde have won and made for himself a new and greater life? The majority of men are content to think that such a victory was impossible to him. Everyone knows that he lost; but I at least believe that he might have won. His wife was on the point of yielding, I have since been told; on the point of complete reconciliation when she heard that he had gone to Naples and returned to his old habit of living; a few days made all the difference.

It was at the instigation of Lord Alfred Douglas that Oscar began the insane action against Lord Queensberry, in which he put to hazard his success, his position, his good name and liberty, and lost them all. Two years later at the same tempting, he committed soul-suicide.

He was not only better in health than he had ever been; but he was talking and writing better than ever before and full of literary projects which would certainly have given him money and position and a measure of happiness besides increasing his reputation. From the moment he went to Naples he was lost, and he knew it himself; he never afterwards wrote anything: as he used to say, he could never afterwards face his own soul.

He could never have won up again, the world says, and shrugs careless shoulders. It is a cheap, unworthy conclusion. Some of us still persist in believing that Oscar Wilde might easily have won and never again been caught in that dreadful wind which whips the victims of sensual desire about unceasingly, driving them hither and thither without rest in that awful place where: “Nulla speranza gli conforta mai.” (No hope ever comforts!)

22 Reproduced in the Appendix.

23 Fac-simile copies of some of the notes Oscar wrote to Warder Martin about these children are reproduced in the Appendix. The notes were written on scraps of paper and pushed under his cell-door; they are among the most convincing evidences of Oscar’s essential humanity and kindness of heart.

24 The Home Secretary, Sir Matthew White Ridley, when questioned by Mr. Michael Davitt in the House of Commons, May 25, 1897, declared that this dismissal of a warder for feeding a little hungry child at his own expense was “fully justified” and a “proper step.” This same Home Secretary appointed his utterly incompetent brother to be a judge of the High Court.

25 The correspondent to whom Wilde writes and the other friend referred to are Roman Catholics.

26 This refers to a story which Wilde was much interested in at the time.

27 The proprietor of the hotel.

28 The Sphinx is a nickname for Mrs. Leverson, author of “The Eleventh Hour,” and other witty novels.

29 Ernest was her husband.

30 The silver spoon is a proposed line for a play given by Ross to Turner (Reggie).

31 Wilde’s solicitor in Regina v. Wilde.

32 A reference to the “Vailima Letters” of Stevenson which Wilde read when he was in prison.

33 An architect who sent Wilde books on his release from prison.

34 His letter to The Daily Chronicle about Warder Martin and the little children.

35 The Ballad was finished in Naples and Alfred Douglas has since declared that he helped Oscar Wilde to write it. I have no wish to dispute this: Alfred Douglas’ poetic gift was extraordinary, far greater than Oscar Wilde’s. The poem was conceived in prison and a good deal of it was printed before Oscar went near Alfred Douglas and some of the best stanzas in it are to be found in this earlier portion: no part of the credit of it, in my opinion, belongs to Alfred Douglas. See Appendix for Ross’s opinion.

36 Hanging in chains was called keeping sheep by moonlight.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/w/wilde/oscar/harris/chapter19.html

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 12:30