Oscar Wilde (1854 -1900) was famous for snarky commentary and wry drama. He was not, however, famous for his faith. In 1895 he was caught out as a homosexual (illegal in England at that time) and was sentenced to two years hard labor in Reading Gaol. His "Ballad of Reading Gaol" (1898) is deeply religious, and, when I read it again this Advent after many years, I found it to be profound and heartbreaking. That his sentence greatly contributed to his death a few years after his release made this work even more gut-wrenching.
I'm sure you'll recognize all the biblical references in the quoted stanzas. :-)
An early stanza claims....
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.
There, and in the title to this post, is the most famous line from the poem. Is it true? Do we have a way of destroying what we love? In Reading Gaol, there was, according to the poem, a man condemned to hang for murdering his wife while in a fit of rage at her infidelity. The narrative tracks, in deadly rhythms, the last days of the man's life and the effect on the other inmates.
Many stanzas later....
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.
The Warders with their shoes of felt
Crept by each padlocked door,
And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,
Gray figures on the floor.
And wondered why men knelt to pray
Who never prayed before.
We might feel awe as well. Hardened criminals weeping and praying for one in their midst who had, committed a much greater crime than theirs? Whence this shared guilt?
For me, Wilde had struck upon the notion of cosmic sin, shared evil, human failing. Can we look at another and see in their wrong doing, our own wrong, even if their crimes out weigh ours? As a mild mannered suburban housewife, am I able to look at a killer, a trafficker, a ponzy schemer and feel some of that guilt simply because I share his or her human nature?
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.
After the man is hanged his grave is left untended, even as he was untended in prison.
The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonored 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...
Of course, there is One tenderer than the "Chaplain."
And thus we rust Life's iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan,
But God's eternal laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.
And every human heart that breaks,
In prison cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house
with the scent of costliest nard.
And lastly of the hanged man...
And he of the swollen purple throat,
and 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.
Upon his release from Reading Gaol, Wilde moved to France. He never returned to England, never wavered from his faith in God, and, his faith sure and true, never disavowed his homosexuality. Wilde died penniless two years later.
Rest in peace and rise in glory, Oscar.
More about the poet:
Monday, November 28, 2016
I look up the meaning of "riven" every time I read this poem. "Wrenched apart; split with force or violence, broken into pieces."
Monday, November 21, 2016
Beginning next week, I am going to do something a bit different here on my blog.
Last year, I entered into the season of Advent with a resolve to be more thoughtful, more quiet. I managed to get all my Christmas shopping done before Advent, and I anticipated a different experience from my usual busy, crazy, whirlwind preparations for the great day of the Nativity of our Lord.
Now we all know God is not in the whirlwind. Neither is God in the mall, nor at the Post Office, nor even on the Internet. As an avid reader, I wondered how I could staunch my desires for deep theology, clever murder mysteries, profound guides to prayer. Then, as I was quickly reading through John Donne's "Batter My Heart Three-Personed God," it hit me...or it battered me.
I would take the entire four weeks and read nothing but poetry. Of course, I would read emails, recipes, instruction manuals as needed, but, recreationally, I would read only poetry. And that I would read slowly, repeatedly and with no goal. That's right. No goal. No end sight of completing all of Emily Dickinson or Walt Whitman. No goal of even finishing one of the Four Quartets.
I love goals. I love lists and checking off items and making new lists, but I put that love away for the hope of a different love.
So...this Advent, I am hoping, goallessly, of course, to share on my blog, some of the poetry I read. No promises. There might be just a line or two. There might be more. I will,. however, conscientiously include the reference and, when possible, a link to the original. I may or may not write a few words of commentary about the poem, or how the poem gave me a new thought. We'll see.
I am doing this, brothers and sisters, because I want to share what was for me a beautiful experience. No preaching. No recommendations. Just an open hand.