Oscar Wilde – On His Release From Prison

Today, May 19, is when Oscar Wilde was released from prison in Reading England. That was in 1897.

Once the darling of literary London and high society, Wilde’s brilliant career had been destroyed by a scandal involving young male prostitutes and a prosecution he largely brought on himself. Wilde had served two years of hard labor for “gross indecency”; he would live two more years, exiled in France, broken and broke, dying there in November of 1900.

Usually I remember Wilde by his seemingly endless bon mots and glittering, cynical quips, which like the fantasy of Dorian Gray, never get old. But today I remember him for The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the extended poem he wrote after his imprisonment, about the toll it took on his spirit as well as his body.

Somehow it seems to be a better fit for the mood of these days. And if we get through them, the sparkling epigrams and jokes will still be there, waiting for us, if we are able recognize and enjoy them.

From The Ballad of Reading Gaol, his last published work, written in France.

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

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.

Sun painting, May 2022

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. . . .

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 raveled fleeces by. . . .

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. . . .

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 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!

. . . 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 too 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. . . . .


5 thoughts on “Oscar Wilde – On His Release From Prison”

  1. Thanks for this. I realized that, although the title was do farmilar I thought I had. Powerful and sad at the same time. again thanks. Judy Pocock, Toronto

  2. A beautiful reminder, Chuck, of our inhumanity to each other, reflected in our national incarceration rate, the highest of any other country, as of 2020: https://onlinedegrees.kent.edu/sociology/criminal-justice/community/what-percent-of-the-us-is-incarcerated)

    And the painting works perfectly.

    A country with an ethos of division, us vs them, is always ready to punish others for “being bad.”

    Are not Friends led to work at healing the harmful division of us and them?

  3. Thankyou Chuck, and all the commentators. I have never read it in full before. What a huge heart he had! And what a powerful poet he was….
    It has contributed over the years to a much improved social attitude towards gayness in men and in women. And I thank God for that and imagine him in God’s arms in a heavenly cloud, lit by the sun, and surrounded by playful and happy young cupids.

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