Oscar Wilde (1856 – 1900)

“The Happy Prince” (1888)

“The House of Pomegranates” (1891)

“Lord Arthur Savile's Crime” (1891)

“The picture of Dorian Gray” (1891)

“Lady Windermere’s Fan” (1893)

“A Woman of No Importance” (1894)

“An Ideal Husband” (1895)

“The Importance of Being Earnest” (1898)

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898)

“Books are well-written or badly-written, and that’s all”

“All art is quite useless”

(“The Picture of Dorian Gray”)

Oscar Wilde was a literary aesthete who found the doctrine of art for art’s sake. It’s paradoxical. He has a desire to change the minds of men. He took the drama (most objective form known to art) and made it as personal mode of expression as he could. For him drama was as personal as lyric & sonnets. Drama, novel, poem, and prose – whatever he touched, he made beautiful in a new form of Beauty. Unfortunately he believed that art should only be beautiful, but being a genius he could not but fulfilled another task first.

He was born in Dublin in a family of a distinguished surgeon. He was educated at Dublin – Oxford universities. His mother was a writer of poetry & prose. When he was a student he joined an aesthetic movement & soon became its leader. He made himself an apostle of doctrine of art for art’s sake & all of the culture & Beauty. In 1882 he made a triumphant tour to the USA, reading lectures on the aesthetic movement. The next ten years saw the appearance of all his major works. He became famous as a literary critic. He wrote several literary essays, various occasionally pieces of history. He really believed that his influence is great, soon he became an ambitious writer.

“I altered the minds of men and the colours of things: there was nothing I said or did that did not make people wonder: I took the drama, the most objective form known to art, and made it as personal a mode of expression as the lyric or the sonnet, at the same time that I widened its range and enriched its characterisation: drama, novel, poem in rhyme, poem in prose, subtle or fantastic dialogue, whatever I touched I made beautiful in a new mode of beauty: to truth itself I gave what is false no less than what is true as its rightful province, and showed that the false and the true are merely forms of intellectual existence. I treated Art as the supreme reality, and life as a mere mode of fiction: I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me: I summed up all systems in a phrase, and all existence in an epigram.” (Oscar Wilde “De Profundis”).

The art is a great attempt to teach nature where its place was. We can see certain contradictions that are numerous in his works, because the art of writing is different from that of criticism.

Irony is very much a characteristic of Wilde, of his manner of writing, not of his ideal. Beauty becomes callous & selfish; it presupposes some qualities that do not depend upon finery. No matter how sophisticated his “Picture of Dorian Gray” is, no matter how hard Wilde tried to make the novel an example of his theory of pleasure hunting, of art for art’s sake, real life introduces its own changes & shifts the accent. The boarder line between beautiful & ugly becomes very thin & then disappears in a series of daily transformations. Suddenly he felt what he really did not want to show. All of a sudden he became a poet of compassion, tolerance & forgiveness. Being absolutely forlorn Wilde came to the best of his woks “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”.

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

It wasn’t meant to tell the story only as many ballads do. Ballads tell a story sometimes at great length. The genre of a ballad became very popular since ancient times. The fact that Wilde wrote a ballad makes us believe that at last he compelled the work to be enjoyed & understood by all classes of people. His ballad was not meant to be enjoyed only. It was meant to perplex, to disturb. It’s addressed to human kind at large. It’s not about a particular case or religion, though Christianity is the main background for it. It’s about abstract things & notions – justice & brotherhood, real love & compassion. Sometimes it’s considered to be a cry in wilderness, because not so many people are sensitive to the grief of others. Not so many people know & want to know for whom the bell tolls. It’s a tragedy not of a character only, but of certain notions by which the people live. It’s a story of death & disaster. It’s told with great economy. Here Wilde is clever enough to avoid terrible descriptions, unpleasant scenes. It’s different from other ballads, because the emphasis is not on the action; it’s on the attitude.

It begins with the introduction that presupposes the appearance of several melodies that are simultaneous according to the medieval theory of the counterpoint.

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. The melody of blood & crime

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.

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. Th melody of justice & brotherhood

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,

By each 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!

Some kill their love when they are young,

And some when they are old;

Some strangle with the hands of Lust,

Some with the hands of Gold:

The kindest use a knife, because

The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,

Some sell, and others buy;

Some do the deed with many tears,

And some without a sigh:

For each man kills the thing he loves,

Yet each man does not die.

All people commit crimes every day. Here is the melody of penitentiary institution. Every episode shows that the period before the execution is much worse than execution itself.

The Governor was strong upon

The Regulations Act:

The Doctor said that Death was but

A scientific fact:

And twice a day the Chaplain called,

And left a little tract.

The execution is wrong both morally & physically. This is a very strange & terrible stanza.

The warders strutted up and down,

And watched their herd of brutes,

Their uniforms were spick and span,

And they wore their Sunday suits,

But we knew the work they had been at,

By the quicklime on their boots.

Christ was kinder than the men. The Wilde speaks to a bush that grew there. It’s practically the end of the ballad & Wilde’s life of his doctrines.

As in every ballad some parts are repeated being slightly transformed. To make it sound like a tragedy Wilde expanded some stanzas (form 4 to 6 lines) & it had a different rhyming system, which is more effective. There is a final conclusion, but this conclusion presupposes reaction of the reader or listener, which is really predetermined. Wilde is clever enough not to represent himself as an ordinary convict. In fact he does not give us any slang or dialect that will show us the status of the prisoners. They are all ennobled by the recognition of their common & individual guilt. It’s a ballad of feeling of a two-year torment, which broke the spirit of Wilde & his health. It has also broken his protective shell. And still in the repetitions that every ballad abandons we see the poignant attitude of an author who managed to comprise the feelings of humanity.