Sentenced to two years’ hard labour for so-called “gross indecency, Oscar Wilde spent his first month in prison bound to a treadmill. Six hours day, he laboured up the same short, steep incline, with five minutes’ rest every twenty-five minutes − activity lacking all purpose other than degradation. His next punishment, carried out all day alone in his cell, was picking apart tarred rope to extract the fibre known as oakum. This work split open the flesh of his hands.
He suffered regular bouts of dysentery and diarrhoea as a result of the wretched prison diet and unsanitary living conditions. An ear infection, which prison authorities refused to treat, left him partially deaf. The glittering, self-created dandy who delighted in outraging convention was no more. Gaunt, with shaven head and coarse prison garb, he had come to resemble the statue in his children’s story, The Happy Prince, rendered repulsively drab once his jewels and gold leaf covering were stripped away.
Wilde wrote The Happy Prince and other fairy tales to read aloud to his young sons at a time long before his trial, when he still had a home life with his children and his wife Constance. The story is a retelling of Buddha’s awakening. The Prince grows up in the walled Palace of Sans-Souci, insulated from the world’s woes. It is not until his death, when he is made into a statue atop a high column, that he is able to see all the suffering in his kingdom: the seamstress with her ailing child, who must work all night to embroider passion flowers on the gown of a heartless client; the writer, faint with hunger in his freezing garret, who lacks the strength to finish the play due at the theatre the next morning; the barefoot match girl who has dropped her wares in the gutter and whose father will beat her if she comes home empty-handed.
The Prince’s agent in bringing aid to those in need is a swallow, who one night seeks shelter between his feet. The little bird’s companions have already departed for Egypt. He was late in joining them because he had fallen in love with a beautiful reed and was reluctant to leave her. But with winter coming, he must fly immediately to the land of the Nile. The Prince’s impassioned plea for help persuades the swallow to stay one more night, and then another and another….
On the first, the Prince asks the swallow to pluck the great ruby out of his sword hilt and take it to the slumbering seamstress. But on the nights following, the little bird initially refuses the Prince’s order that he prise out his sapphire eyes, one for the starving dramatist in his garret, and the other for the little match girl. I cannot, the bird insists, for you will be quite blind then.
Swallow, little swallow, do as I command you.
Then I will stay with you always, the bird replies. It is a decision tantamount to suicide for already the cold is depleting his strength. With what energy he has left, the swallow obeys the Prince’s command and removes leaf after leaf of the fine gold embellishment to distribute to the poor of the city. He has then only strength enough left to fly to the Prince’s shoulder to say good-bye. The Prince is overjoyed the swallow is leaving for Egypt at last. It is not to Egypt I am going, the bird replies. But to the House of Death. Death is the brother of Sleep is he not? These are lines that moved me to tears as a five-year-old, and can do so still.
When God commands his angels to bring him the two most precious things in the city, they bring him the statue’s leaden heart and the dead bird. It is an ending that celebrates compassion and self-sacrifice − themes Oscar Wilde would not explore again in depth until after his own prison ordeal. He began his poetic masterpiece, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, two years after his release. In every line, it might be the Happy Prince we hear describing for the little swallow the misery he sees and yearns to alleviate. The Ballad’s narrator is a prisoner whose experience mirrors Wilde’s own:
We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
We turned the dusty drill;
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
And sweated on the mill;
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.
His compassionate eye focuses in particular, on a fellow prisoner condemned to be hung for the murder of his wife. Striving to wrench from within himself an understanding of the man’s crime, he comes to the insight that “each man kills the thing he loves,” some “with a bitter look, some with a flattering word and some with a sword.” In his refusal to judge and revile the murderer, the narrator wholly embodies the way of the Buddha.
Throughout the Ballad, Wilde’s narrator feels the agony of all his fellow prisoners: We were as men who through a fen/ of filthy darkness grope. The voice here belongs to a man, who like his Happy Prince avatar, has been stripped of everything but his essence. His is an urgent lamentation that something be done to ameliorate penitentiaries’ dehumanizing conditions.
After his release from Reading Gaol, Wilde wrote to the Editor of The Daily Chronicle documenting the many cruelties of prison life and advocating reform. He censured the treatment of children in particular: The terror of the child in prison is quite limitless…A child is utterly contaminated by prison life. But the contaminating influence is not that of the prisoners. It is of the whole prison system – the governor, the chaplain, the warders, the lonely cell, the isolation, the revolting food. The way children are treated at present is really an outrage on humanity and common sense.
It is telling that Wilde does not focus on his own misery during his two years’ hard labour, but rather on the most vulnerable of the prisons’ population. Broken, impoverished, infamous, separated from his own children whom he would never see again, he repudiates self-pity and embraces empathy. Through his experience of Reading Gaol, he became, for a time, as selfless as the Happy Prince and the swallow whose story he offered his sons.