29 Nov 2011
(updated 30 Nov 2011 at 15:03 UTC) »
finished book 'Oscar Wilde' by Frank Harris.
Chapter 19: His St. Martin's Summer: His best work.
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.
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.
When speaking of 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 decor of prison life, not its reality; that no one could paint, not even Dante, who had to turn away his eyes from lesser sufferings."
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...He was by nature as 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...