“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.” – Oscar Wilde
Because it’s Irish Horror Month, I’ve been scouring websites and books to find just the right poems and stories to share. In this quest I ran headlong into a decidedly frightful trepidation offered up by the late Oscar Wilde. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” his 190 verse poem on the cruelties of prison life in the Victorian age, raises several alarming themes, but the one which scares me the most concerns a prisoner condemned to die.
For many humans there is no more frightening thought than the realization that we might die, but for the prisoner sentenced to a looming appointment with the gallows the terror must be stifling.
Wilde loved paradox, and he portrayed this well in this poem in a chilling portrait of a fellow prisoner on his way to the gallows for killing his wife. He expresses confusion at the manner in which the condemned man comports himself as the day grows near. Paradoxically he conveys a certain admiration of the man’s handling of certain doom.
“So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray…
…I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved
And so he had to die…
…He did not wring his hands, as do
Those witless men who dare
To try to rear the changeling Hope
In the cave of black Despair:
He only looked upon the sun,
And drank the morning air…”
Is the man facing his fear? Is he insane? Or is he operating out of pure shock? Take a look at the entire poem and decide for yourself.