The Ballad of
Reading Gaol

Oscar Wilde
(Two Rivers Press)
I always pronounced it "reeding" and "gowl" until Mr. Hardy, my twelfth grade English teacher, patiently pointed out that Reading was a city on the Thames, "redding" --- and that "gaol" was the strange British version of the word "jail" and that a "gaol" was what we vulgarly termed "the pokey." He also pointed out that there were other oddities in English in the British Empire; that, for instance, he said, not smiling, when you woke up someone in the morning that you were said to have "knocked them up."

Be that as it may, Oscar Wilde was sent off to the slammer in 1895 for two singular violent acts: he involved himself in love for an idiot man of an idiot father without apology or regret, and he openly mocked the morals of the Church of England --- the Christian Fundamentalists of the day. Thus he was condemned to two years at hard labor in Reading Gaol. In those days it was deemed that the best way to punish those who violated or mocked the law was to lock them up with bad food, moldy walls, sullen guards, and no hope.

This was to change the individual, make him more sensible, although all it did for Wilde was make him aware that he could never survive in his country of birth. The day he was released, he went straight to Paris and never returned.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol was written several months after he got out of the Greybar Hotel and rather than being a complaint about his treatment there, it became a more generalized work with two messages. The first is something well known to those who work with prisoners: that when one of the prisoners is put to death, the whole prison suffers from a collective agony and death. Fellow prisoners have nightmares, generalized terror, and, in one or two cases, commit sympathetic suicide.

    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.

Then there is Wilde's sense of the general opprobrium of a society that fosters prisons "built with bricks of shame" --- one that will cage a child of ten or twelve years of age, punish him by misery, even firing a guard (as Wilde reported in a letter to a friend) who dares to give bread to the child.

Punishment is accomplished by withholding all warmth, not to speak "a gentle word." The eye that peers through the door's hole "is pitiless and hard,"

    And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
             With soul and body marred.

§     §     §

It's a sad story, made even sadder by the fact that Wilde brought it on himself, not just by his love for the creeepy Alfred Douglas, but, too, when it all blew up his lawyer told him to get the hell out of the country. Sweet arrogance: he decided to brazen it out, not even conceiving, for a moment, the astonishing power of the Puritans in Anglo-Saxon society that, like a enraged beast, come and do in the wistful as well as the blatant.

This edition, but 64 pages long, is gorgeous. There are dozens of cuts, made, we are told, from blocks of rubber erasers, by Peter Hay, the founder of Two Rivers Press. They enrich a text that for its melancholy (and its surprising and constant references to the Christian divine) might just be too much without them.

--- Carlos Amantea
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