10 October, 2010

The Wilde Side

Everyone has come across Oscar Wilde's witticisms in some way or the other. His effortless wordplay, startling and thought-provoking ideas and of course that candid humour. But then I go beyond simple appreciation and barge into full-bodied love with him. A love affair that started perhaps in a class where "The Selfish Giant" was being read out and got stronger last month when I found myself delightfully confronted by "The Complete Works of Wilde". The complete works? Of this literary genius himself? Oh dear my soul is satiated for a terribly long time to come!

The perfect thing about becoming passionate about something is getting to run up new leads about it, just when you thought you knew everything. So yesterday I visited this hugely enticing library and got myself "Oscar Wilde" by Frank Harris. Wait there's more... "With a Preface by Bernard Shaw". Shaw on Wilde. Can you imagine the stimulation to one's literary taste buds? And there is more...its a 1938 edition! Which means its beautifully bound, yellow pages with that lovely musty smell which instructs you to curl up on a couch and just read.

With a long empty day ahead I decided to hit the Oscar Wilde Memorial Walk in Reading, something I'd been looking forward to ever since I read The Ballad of Reading Gaol. A long day with a walk in it abd a book. I am sure having my cake and eating it too! Background? Arrested on charges of "gross indecency" (homosexuality would be a plainer way of saying that) and alleged sodomy, Wilde was sentenced with two years of harsh punishment in the Reading Gaol (or prison for simpler mortals) where he wrote the deeply introspective and emotive letter De Profundis to his long-time lover Lord Alfred Doughlas. I must take a detour here and quote what Wilde said in court when questioned about his "loves" (with other men, often minors):

Charles Gill (prosecuting): What is "  the love that dare not speak its name"  ?
Wilde: "The love that dare not speak its name"  in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art, like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as "the love that dare not speak its name," and on that account of it I am placed where I am now. It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man, when the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it, and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it."

Do you think 19th century Victorian England was ready to understand  and acknowledge a man of such detestable (supposedly obvious) perversions and actually be romantic enough to enjoy the poetry of what he said, even as he faced the worst trial of his life? No. Which is why he ended up in the Reading Gaol, a dreary place for criminals of the worst kind, which broke his spirit and health and which, on his release, made him write the soulful "Ballad of Reading Gaol", often quoted as the most powerful ballad in English literature. In those days, Wilde was so terrible a word in British society, that he wrote perhaps his most moving work, under the pseudonym of C. 33 (his prisoner number during his term in jail).

 "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

So I started on the walk. In spite of my best intentions to let it be solitary, a motley bunch barged into my plans. [Important advice to self: Walks are best taken alone. Or with someone you love walking with. Do not walk with girls who complain of aching feet every two steps, people who want a picture with every bush and stone they see (gaah) and definitely not with those who have lost their sense of awe. The need to explore.]

"Oh beautiful world" The words on the railing were the first thing Wilde said when he came out of prison.

The beginning of the walk (which is actually just a 100 m long strip along the river Kennet). The man and the maiden. Ha ha.

The Abbey ruins dating back to 800 BC. Since they were crumbling, visitors were not allowed inside. 

The Maiwand Lion at Forbury Gardens. Supposedly the largest statue of a standing lion made of 16 tons of cast iron! It is a memorial to men who lost their lives in Afghanistan in 1879-1880.
Walking along stretches of landscaped gardens, the similarity once again hit me. Kiddies throwing stones into the fountain. Worried mothers (and fathers..reverse gender bias in these politically correct days!) running about with bottles and diapers, prams (that well look like mini machines here) and toys. Yes the wind blew a little colder and was much more spirited but it still ruffled up one's hair. The gravel was grey and leaves an indecent red. As I explored the town centre, people still rushed into the shops with sales on. And for a very clean country, the teenagers were still throwing cigarette butts all over. 

After my afternoon with Wilde (and a bit of uninspiring company), I settled down to pleasant exhaustion. Everything already a memory. 

[PS: Thanks to Marvin for introducing me to audio books!] 


  1. Nice! I like the important note to self! Its for the kinds who love traveling and really really don't want those moments to be spoilt by a nagging group :)
    Those six lines of his that you posted - really nice. Liked them!

  2. Those are the most quoted lines of the poem. But you MUST read the whole thing. I feel like going around reading it out to random people just as a public service. It can change lives, that ballad :)

  3. "Walks are best taken alone.Or with someone you love walking with."

    So who took your pic(Refer to: The beginning of the walk)?

  4. Oh oh oh. You MUST tread cautiously when you are quoting the author TO the author. Ans: "In spite of my best intentions to let it be solitary, a motley bunch barged into my plans."

  5. point noted :)

  6. Sometimes I get so green, I turn into deathly shade of white. It is only then that I seek the peculiar comforts of solitude.



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