HAPPY 120th ANNIVERSARY TO “THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL” BY OSCAR WILDE

It seems a paradox, perhaps, that one would choose to erase and alter a book as an homage to its greatness.   But it certainly was true for me when I chose to work with Oscar Wilde’s great poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” when I found an early copy with a tattered binding in a thrift shop.

The poem was published in 1898, not long after Wilde was released from prison after serving a two-year sentence for “gross indecency,” as homosexuality was then categorized under British criminal law.  Just last year, in 2017, Wilde, along with some 50,000 other men, were pardoned (most posthumously) by the British government for what is no longer viewed as a crime there. And this year, 2018, the government of Wilde’s native land, Ireland, enacted a formal apology to all those who had in the past been prosecuted for consensual same-sex sexual acts.  It would be fitting for the United States to do the same, but that day, as we all know, is not yet, though we must never give up hope.

Wilde’s poem is focused not on his sexual identity but on his identification with the suffering of a man who was hanged in Reading Gaol (while Wilde was incarcerated there) for killing his wife, whom he believed guilty of infidelity.   Wilde does not seek to exonerate the man or anyone else. What he does portray in his poem is the human weakness of all who are wracked by psychological anguish (“Yet each man kills the thing he loves”) and the spiritual degradation of prison life both for those who impose it and those who are its victims.   When the book was first published, Wilde identified the author as simply “C 33”—the number of his cell.

The powerful text of the poem offered me an opportunity to explore and illustrate my own pain and hope for awakening—and to feel less alone.  Thank you, Oscar Wilde. Here are four sample pages.

Lawrence Sutin