Thursday, 13 April 2017

Oscar Wilde's “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

Oscar Wilde: Irish-born poet, playwright & author ~ (1854-1900)
(Photographed in New York by Napoleon Sarony ~ 1882)
Image courtesy of: Arsène & Laurent

After his release from Reading Gaol (now known as Reading Prison, a compound originally built in 1844), in Berkshire, England, on May 19th, 1897, where Oscar Wilde—the Irish-born playwright, author, wit, society figure and celebrated aesthete—had spent two years of hard labour for “committing acts of gross indecency with certain male persons” (he was imprisoned on May 25th, 1895), the by-then disgraced playwright decided to leave the United Kingdom and live on the Continent where he spent his remaining three years, dying of acute meningitis in 1900 (some biographers have maintained that Wilde's meningitis was due to and the end result of tertiary syphilis, caught—from a female Oxford prostitute—when he was a student about 1878), at the age of forty-six in Paris, a broken man. (Quote: Latson, J., Time Magazine, May 25, 2015)

(Wilde's notorious court trials—three in all—which led to his imprisonment was due to his homosexual relationships with young men; foremost among whom was his intimate relationship with Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas, son of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry. It was the influential but quarrelsome Marquess of Queensberry who, having unsuccessfully attempted to break the relationship, hounded Wilde with allegations of indecency with his son, Alfred. It must be mentioned that Queensberry's older son and heir, Francis Archibald Douglas, Viscount Drumlanrig, was also homosexual and was alleged to have been involved with Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery; in 1894—while 'Bosie' was involved with Oscar during the same period of time—Francis killed himself at the age of twenty-six. Homosexuality—or sodomy, as it was referred to—in England in the 19th century—and right up to the 1960s, in fact—was more than scandalous; it was criminal and punishable by law. When Wilde referred to the 'love that dared not speak its name,' he was likely referring to the Latin maxim of law which appertained not only to homosexuality but to bestiality as well: peccatum illud horribile, inter Christianos non nominandum—which translates into something akin to: that horrible crime not to be named among Christians.)

With his two years at Reading Gaol behind him—but hardly forgotten—it was during those three last years of his life that Wilde, reflecting on the inhumane Victorian prison system as well as on his experiences within that system, penned his final literary work—the year following his release, in 1898, to be precise, and published under his prisoner identification number, C.3-3—The Ballad of Reading Gaol. (Wilde's only novel, published in 1891, was The Picture of Dorian Gray; his first play, The Duchess of Padua, also written in 1891, was followed by five more plays before his arrest in 1895. The Importance of Being Earnest and Lady Windermere’s Fan—probably his most successful works—are still performed on stage, television and film.)

Photograph of Oscar Wilde by Napoleon Sarony ~ New York, 1882
Image courtesy of: The Victorianachronists

In her discerning review of The Ballad of Reading Gaol for Poem of the Week, her weekly installment for The Guardian (23rd March, 2009), Carol Rumens astutely observes: “The poem is dedicated to the memory of the 'sometime' Royal Horse Guards trooper, Charles Thomas Wooldridge, and the central incident is Wooldridge's execution for the murder of his wife. Around this narrative core, whose genre might be described as gothic realism, Wilde builds a meditation on the paradoxes of morality. The Ballad is an indictment of the death penalty and the whole penal system, but it is much more than a protest poem. It is a revelation, and its structure is part of that revelation. ... Wilde loved paradox, and he found some essential symbol of it in the man who murdered his wife. Perhaps he found another in the hypocrisy of the prison system itself, destroying the souls and bodies of those it would reform. The ballad form, as he adapts it, encases paradox and story in a tight, encircling ring. It is both a Dante-esque circle of hell and the deadly routine of prison life. It represents the whole cycle of crime and punishment. It is inescapable, like the 'iron gin' mentioned in line 173, a symbol of confinement and possibly also an actual machine.”

In the plodding iambic tetrameter and the extensive use of refrain and parallelism, we can feel at a physical level the grinding relentlessness of prison work. The tasks Victorian prisoners were set were part of their punishment. They would pedal a treadmill with their feet, for example, and though some prison treadmills were geared to grind corn or raise water, others had no use but to enslave. Then there was the nasty business of oakum picking, a task of unravelling the twine of old tarred ropes salvaged from ships. Wilde had worked at this until his fingers bled. ... Sympathy,” intelligently and succinctly concludes Rumens, “enables Wilde to remember vivid details and evoke collective feelings. The poem's hellish truthfulness raises it beyond its occasional rhetorical flaws, its purple passages. Suffering is not guaranteed to produce great art, or great humanity. However, there is no doubt that Wilde, the self-dubbed 'lord of language,' turns his awful humiliation to triumph in the Ballad, and attains a new poetic and moral stature.” (Quotes: Rumens, C., The Guardian, March 23, 2009)

(Sources: Latson, J., When Oscar Wilde's Wit Couldn't Save Him, Time Magazine, May 25, 2015; History, 1897: Oscar Wilde is released from jail, This Day In History: May 19; LawMag, Oscar Wilde, Sodomite, January 26, 2014; Lewis, R., Nutcases, nuns and the family that ruined Oscar Wilde, The Daily Mail, published April 25, 2013, updated May 1, 2013; Rumens, C., Poem of the Week: The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Guardian, March 23, 2009; Elliott, C., What Killed Oscar Wilde? The New York Times, March 20, 1988)

Above left: Oscar Wilde ~ ca. 1890 | Above right: chalk & pastel drawing of Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas by Sir William Rothenstein ~ Oxford, 1893
Above left image, courtesy of: The Guardian | Above right image, courtesy of: Alfred Douglas

The Ballad of Reading Gaol


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.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
  In a suit of shabby gray;
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.

I walked, with other souls in pain,
  Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
  A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
  "That fellow's got to swing."

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
  Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
  Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
  My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what haunted 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.

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.

He does not die a death of shame
  On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
  Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
  Into an empty space.

He does not sit with silent men
  Who watch him night and day;
Who watch him when he tries to weep,
  And when he tries to pray;
Who watch him lest himself should rob
  The prison of its prey.

He does not wake at dawn to see
  Dread figures throng his room,
The shivering Chaplain robed in white,
  The Sheriff stern with gloom,
And the Governor all in shiny black,
  With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste
  To put on convict-clothes,
While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes
  Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
Fingering a watch whose little ticks
  Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not feel that sickening thirst
  That sands one's throat, before
The hangman with his gardener's gloves
  Comes through the padded door,
And binds one with three leathern thongs,
That the throat may thirst no more.

He does not bend his head to hear
  The Burial Office read,
Nor, while the anguish of his soul
  Tells him he is not dead,
Cross his own coffin, as he moves
  Into the hideous shed.

He does not stare upon the air
  Through a little roof of glass:
He does not pray with lips of clay
  For his agony to pass;
Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek
  The kiss of Caiaphas.

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas ~ May, 1893
(National Portrait Gallery)
Image courtesy of: Solitary Dog Sculptor I

Six weeks the guardsman walked the yard,
  In the suit of shabby gray:
His cricket cap was on his head,
  And his step was 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 wandering cloud that trailed
  Its ravelled fleeces by.

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.

He did not wring his hands nor weep,
  Nor did he peek or pine,
But he drank the air as though it held
  Some healthful anodyne;
With open mouth he drank the sun
  As though it had been wine!

And I and all the souls in pain,
  Who tramped the other ring,
Forgot if we ourselves had done
  A great or little thing,
And watched with gaze of dull amaze
  The man who had to swing.

For strange it was to see him pass
  With a step so light and gay,
And strange it was to see him look
  So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
  Had such a debt to pay.

The oak and elm have pleasant leaves
  That in the spring-time shoot:
But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
  With its alder-bitten root,
And, green or dry, a man must die
  Before it bears its fruit!

The loftiest place is the seat of grace
  For which all worldlings try:
But who would stand in hempen band
  Upon a scaffold high,
And through a murderer's collar take
  His last look at the sky?

It is sweet to dance to violins
  When Love and Life are fair:
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
  Is delicate and rare:
But it is not sweet with nimble feet
  To dance upon the air!

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.

At last the dead man walked no more
  Amongst the Trial Men,
And I knew that he was standing up
  In the black dock's dreadful pen,
And that never would I see his face
  For weal or woe again.

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
  We had crossed each other's way:
But we made no sign, we said no word,
  We had no word to say;
For we did not meet in the holy night,
  But in the shameful day.

A prison wall was round us both,
  Two outcast men we were:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
  And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
  Had caught us in its snare.

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas
Image courtesy of: Nők Lapja

In Debtors' Yard the stones are hard,
  And the dripping wall is high,
So it was there he took the air
  Beneath the leaden sky,
And by each side a warder walked,
  For fear the man might die.

Or else he sat with those who watched
  His anguish night and day;
Who watched him when he rose to weep,
  And when he crouched to pray;
Who watched him lest himself should rob
  Their scaffold of its prey.

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.

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
  And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
  No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
  The hangman's day was near.

But why he said so strange a thing
  No warder dared to ask:
For he to whom a watcher's doom
  Is given as his task,
Must set a lock upon his lips,
  And make his face a mask.

Or else he might be moved, and try
  To comfort or console:
And what should Human Pity do
  Pent up in Murderers' Hole?
What word of grace in such a place
  Could help a brother's soul?

With slouch and swing around the ring
  We trod the Fools' Parade!
We did not care: we knew we were
  The Devils' Own Brigade:
And shaven head and feet of lead
  Make a merry masquerade.

We tore the tarry rope to shreds
  With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
  And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
  And clattered with the pails.

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.

So still it lay that every day
  Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
And we forgot the bitter lot
  That waits for fool and knave,
Till once, as we tramped in from work,
  We passed an open grave.

With yawning mouth the horrid hole
  Gaped for a living thing;
The very mud cried out for blood
  To the thirsty asphalte ring:
And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
  The fellow had to swing.

Right in we went, with soul intent
  On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
  Went shuffling through the gloom:
And I trembled as I groped my way
  Into my numbered tomb.

That night the empty corridors
  Were full of forms of Fear,
And up and down the iron town
  Stole feet we could not hear,
And through the bars that hide the stars
  White faces seemed to peer.

He lay as one who lies and dreams
  In a pleasant meadow-land,
The watchers watched him as he slept,
  And could not understand
How one could sleep so sweet a sleep
  With a hangman close at hand.

But there is no sleep when men must weep
  Who never yet have wept:
So we- the fool, the fraud, the knave-
  That endless vigil kept,
And through each brain on hands of pain
  Another's terror crept.

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.

All through the night we knelt and prayed,
  Mad mourners of a corse!
The troubled plumes of midnight shook
  Like the plumes upon a hearse:
And as bitter wine upon a sponge
  Was the savour of Remorse.

The gray cock crew, the red cock crew,
  But never came the day:
And crooked shapes of Terror crouched,
  In the corners where we lay:
And each evil sprite that walks by night
  Before us seemed to play.

They glided past, the glided fast,
  Like travellers through a mist:
They mocked the moon in a rigadoon
  Of delicate turn and twist,
And with formal pace and loathsome grace
  The phantoms kept their tryst.

With mop and mow, we saw them go,
  Slim shadows hand in hand:
About, about, in ghostly rout
  They trod a saraband:
And the damned grotesques made arabesques,
  Like the wind upon the sand!

With the pirouettes of marionettes,
  They tripped on pointed tread:
But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,
  As their grisly masque they led,
And loud they sang, and long they sang,
  For they sang to wake the dead.

"Oho!" they cried, "the world is wide,
  But fettered limbs go lame!
And once, or twice, to throw the dice
  Is a gentlemanly game,
But he does not win who plays with Sin
  In the secret House of Shame."

No things of air these antics were,
  That frolicked with such glee:
To men whose lives were held in gyves,
  And whose feet might not go free,
Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,
  Most terrible to see.

Around, around, they waltzed and wound;
  Some wheeled in smirking pairs;
With the mincing step of a demirep
  Some sidled up the stairs:
And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,
  Each helped us at our prayers.

The morning wind began to moan,
  But still the night went on:
Through its giant loom the web of gloom
  Crept till each thread was spun:
And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
  Of the Justice of the Sun.

The moaning wind went wandering round
  The weeping prison wall:
Till like a wheel of turning steel
  We felt the minutes crawl:
O moaning wind! what had we done
  To have such a seneschal?

At last I saw the shadowed bars,
  Like a lattice wrought in lead,
Move right across the whitewashed wall
  That faced my three-plank bed,
And I knew that somewhere in the world
  God's dreadful dawn was red.

At six o'clock we cleaned our cells,
  At seven all was still,
But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
  The prison seemed to fill,
For the Lord of Death with icy breath
  Had entered in to kill.

He did not pass in purple pomp,
  Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
  Are all the gallows' need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
  To do the secret deed.

We were as men who through a fen
  Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
  Or to give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
  And what was dead was Hope.

For Man's grim Justice goes its way
  And will not swerve aside:
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
  It has a deadly stride:
With iron heel it slays the strong
  The monstrous parricide!

We waited for the stroke of eight:
  Each tongue was thick with thirst:
For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate
  That makes a man accursed,
And Fate will use a running noose
  For the best man and the worst.

We had no other thing to do,
  Save to wait for the sign to come:
So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
  Quiet we sat and dumb:
But each man's heart beat thick and quick,
  Like a madman on a drum!

With sudden shock the prison-clock
  Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
  Of impotent despair,
Like the sound the frightened marshes hear
  From some leper in his lair.

And as one sees most fearful things
  In the crystal of a dream,
We saw the greasy hempen rope
  Hooked to the blackened beam,
And heard the prayer the hangman's snare
  Strangled into a scream.
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:
For he who lives more lives than one
  More deaths that one must die.

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas
Image courtesy of: Art Heals Wounds

There is no chapel on the day
  On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain's heart is far too sick,
  Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
  Which none should look upon.

So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
  And then they rang the bell,
And the warders with their jingling keys
  Opened each listening cell,
And down the iron stair we tramped,
  Each from his separate Hell.

Out into God's sweet air we went,
  But not in wonted way,
For this man's face was white with fear,
  And that man's face was gray,
And I never saw sad men who looked
  So wistfully at the day.

I never saw sad men who looked
  With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
  We prisoners called the sky,
And at every happy cloud that passed
  In such strange freedom by.

But there were those amongst us all
  Who walked with downcast head,
And knew that, had each got his due,
  They should have died instead:
He had but killed a thing that lived,
  Whilst they had killed the dead.

For he who sins a second time
  Wakes a dead soul to pain,
And draws it from its spotted shroud
  And makes it bleed again,
And makes it bleed great gouts of blood,
  And makes it bleed in vain!

Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb
  With crooked arrows starred,
Silently we went round and round
  The slippery asphalte yard;
Silently we went round and round,
  And no man spoke a word.

Silently we went round and round,
  And through each hollow mind
The Memory of dreadful things
  Rushed like a dreadful wind,
And Horror stalked before each man,
  And Terror crept behind.

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.

For where a grave had opened wide,
  There was no grave at all:
Only a stretch of mud and sand
  By the hideous prison-wall,
And a little heap of burning lime,
  That the man should have his pall.

For he has a pall, this wretched man,
  Such as few men can claim:
Deep down below a prison-yard,
  Naked, for greater shame,
He lies, with fetters on each foot,
  Wrapt in a sheet of flame!

And all the while the burning lime
  Eats flesh and bone away,
It eats the brittle bones by night,
  And the soft flesh by day,
It eats the flesh and bone by turns,
  But it eats the heart alway.

For three long years they will not sow
  Or root or seedling there:
For three long years the unblessed spot
  Will sterile be and bare,
And look upon the wondering sky
  With unreproachful stare.

They think a murderer's heart would taint
  Each simple seed they sow.
It is not true! God's kindly earth
  Is kindlier than men know,
And the red rose would but glow more red,
  The white rose whiter blow.

Out of his mouth a red, red rose!
  Out of his heart a white!
For who can say by what strange way,
  Christ brings His will to light,
Since the barren staff the pilgrim bore
  Bloomed in the great Pope's sight?

But neither milk-white rose nor red
  May bloom in prison air;
The shard, the pebble, and the flint,
  Are what they give us there:
For flowers have been known to heal
  A common man's despair.

So never will wine-red rose or white,
  Petal by petal, fall
On that stretch of mud and sand that lies
  By the hideous prison-wall,
To tell the men who tramp the yard
  That God's Son died for all.

Yet though the hideous prison-wall
  Still hems him round and round,
And a spirit may not walk by night
  That is with fetters bound,
And a spirit may but weep that lies
  In such unholy ground,

He is at peace- this wretched man-
  At peace, or will be soon:
There is no thing to make him mad,
  Nor does Terror walk at noon,
For the lampless Earth in which he lies
  Has neither Sun nor Moon.

They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
  They did not even toll
A requiem that might have brought
  Rest to his startled soul,
But hurriedly they took him out,
  And hid him in a hole.

The warders stripped him of his clothes,
  And gave him to the flies:
They mocked the swollen purple throat,
  And the stark and staring eyes:
And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud
  In which the convict lies.

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
  By his dishonoured 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.

Yet all is well; he has but passed
  To  Life's appointed bourne:
And alien tears will fill for him
  Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners be outcast men,
  And outcasts always mourn.

Oscar Wilde photographed by Napoleon Sarony in New York ~ January, 1882
(Library of Congress)
Above left image, courtesy of: Oscar Wilde In America | Above right image, courtesy of: NewNowNext

I know not whether Laws be right,
  Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
  Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
  A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law
  That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took His brother's life,
  And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
  With a most evil fan.

This too I know- and wise it were
  If each could know the same-
That every prison that men build
  Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
  How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
  And blind the goodly sun:
And the do well to hide their Hell,
  For in it things are done
That Son of things nor son of Man
  Ever should look upon!

The vilest deeds like poison weeds
  Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
  That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
  And the warder is Despair.

For they starve the little frightened child
  Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
  And gibe the old and gray,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
  And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
  Is a foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
  Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
  In Humanity's machine.

The brackish water that we drink
  Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
  Is full of chalk and lime,
And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
  Wild-eyed, and cries to Time.

But though lean Hunger and green Thirst
  Like asp with adder fight,
We have little care of prison fare,
  For what chills and kills outright
Is that every stone one lifts by day
  Becomes one's heart by night.

With midnight always in one's heart,
  And twilight in one's cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
  Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far
  Than the sound of a brazen bell.

And never a human voice comes near
  To speak a gentle word:
And the eye that watches through the door
  Is pitiless and hard:
And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
  With soul and body marred.

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.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
  And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
  And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
  May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat,
  And the 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.

The man in red who reads the Law
  Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
  His soul of his soul's strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
  The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
  The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
  And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
  Became Christ's snow-white seal.

Oscar Wilde & Lord Alfred Douglas photographed in Rome ~1897
(The British Library)
Image courtesy of: The Guardian


In Reading gaol by Reading town
  There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
  Eaten by teeth of flame,
In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
  And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
  In silence let him lie:
No need to waste the foolish tear,
  Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
  And so he had to die.

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!
C. 3-3 ~ (Oscar Wilde)

Tomb of Oscar Wilde ~ Cimetière du Père Lachaise, Paris
(Commissioned by Robbie Ross | Designed & sculpted by Jacob Epstein)
(Photo by Daniel Bosler)
Image courtesy of: Saatchi Art

Suggested readings:

The Wit of Oscar Wilde (1969), by Oscar Wilde: Barnes & Noble Publishing

Oscar Wilde (1988), by Richard Ellmann: Vintage Books

The Wisdom of Oscar Wilde (2002), by Oscar Wilde: Kensington Publishing Corporation

Epigrams of Oscar Wilde (2007), by Oscar Wilde: Wordsworth Editions

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (2014): HarperCollins

Monday, 23 January 2017

Dumala | The Turban

Avtar Singh Mauni
Image courtesy of: The News Lens
(Photo by Ajay Verma)

Whenever he ventures out of his home, Avtar Singh Mauni—a Sikh warrior (and member of a prestigious order known as Nihang, a term which literally means 'crocodile'; a particular sect within Sikhism and dedicated to the defense of their faith, Nihang Sikhs refer to themselves as “Akaali,” which means undying or immortal army) in his early sixties living in Patiala, Northern India—makes for an astonishing sight, inevitably drawing a crowd of spectators all around him, phone cameras held aloft and clicking away. Those crowds are drawn to Mr. Mauni's traditional, albeit enormous and colourful, turban, one of the largest in the Punjab region—an area bordered by the Indian states of Jammu and Kashmir to the north, Himachal Pradesh to the east, and Rajasthan to the south—estimated to weigh 100 pounds (with an additional 100 pounds of weapons and decorative ornaments, including a sword and heavy bangles, which add another 87 pounds to the full regalia) and measuring, according to some sources, from 2,115 to 2,460 feet of various lengths of fabrics; a devout Sikh, it takes Mr. Mauni as much as six hours to wrap his famous turban before visiting his local temple each day—not an easy task but one which he takes in stride.

Video courtesy of: Vogue
(Directed by Mark Hartman | Edited by Gaia Squarci)

Above left image, courtesy of: Punjab Kesari | Above right image, courtesy of: Pinterest
(Photos by Ajay Verma)

Image courtesy of: Face Paparazzi

Due to its enormous size, Mr. Mauni is unable to travel using traditional methods of transportations (cars) relying, instead, on his motorcycle as his mode of commute. Having worn turbans from the age of ten, for the past eighteen years Mr. Mauni has continued to gradually add layers of cloth to his turban: “I just keep putting on cloth from top to bottom, one layer at a time, just like you would lay the storeys of a building.” While most Sikh turbans measure five to seven meters in length, amazingly, Mr. Mauni has no problem carrying the weight of his oversized  turban on his head—he feels neither over-heated nor burdened; it is, he has admitted, as though a lotus flower were on his head. On those very rare occasions when Mr. Mauni is without his turban, he has acknowledged feeling “...incomplete, that some part of me is missing. I get afraid that I may fall and I keep wondering, 'Have I lost something? Where is my turban?'”
(Quotes & sources: Thornhill, T., The Turbanator, The Daily Mail, August 28, 2014; How to Tie a 200-Pound Turban—Sikh Style!, Vogue, undated; Nihang Sikhs: The modern-day warriors-pacifists, SikhNet, March 18, 2015)

Image courtesy of: Amazing India Blog

Until the time I have no more strength in my limbs,
I will carry this turban on my head with the blessings of the Guru.”

Saturday, 31 December 2016


Image courtesy of: AEHK

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Nata Lux de Lumine

Madonna of the Rose Bower ~ ca. 1435 – 1440/1442
(Painting by Stefan Lochner [ca. 1400/1410 – 1451])
(Wallraf-Richartz-Museum | Cologne, Germany)
Image courtesy of: The Red List

O nata lux de lumine,
Jesu redemptor saeculi,
dignare clemens supplicum
laudes preces que sumere.

Qui carne quondam contegi
dignatus es pro perditis.
Nos membra confer effici,
tui beati corporis.


O Light from Light, resplendent birth,
Jesus redeemer of the earth,
in mercy grant us this reprieve:
our prayers and praises to receive.

Thou who in flesh didst once appear
to set souls free from sin and fear:
gather us all, O Lord we plea,
in thy blest Body, one with thee.

Madonna of Humility ~ ca. 1430
(Painting by Fra Angelico [Florentine, ca. 1395 – 1455])
(National Gallery of Art | Washington, D.C.)
Image courtesy of: The Living Church

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Put Some Grace In Your Face | Grace Jones: A One Man Show

Blue-Black in Black on Brown
Grace Jones photographed by Jean-Paul Goude for the cover of the Nightclubbing album - New York, 1981
Image courtesy of: The Red List

“...he [Jean-Paul Goude] wanted me to be perfect. He could make me perfect by turning me into an illustration, a sculpture, a video, a special effect, a record sleeve, a stage show, a car commercial. He could create, and constantly modify, an illusion, plant me in a flawless phase of glamour midway between machine-ness and she-ness. He wanted me to be perfect. He wanted me to represent An Ideal.” ~ Grace Jones

Melissa Anderson of The Village Voice, in her February 2016 preview of the Grace Jones video vehicle, A One Man Showthe 1982 Jean-Paul Goude-directed film—which was then about to be screened, on February 8th, 2016, at The Kitchen in Chelsea (one of New York City’s oldest non-profit spaces for the performing arts as well as lecture series, founded in 1971 by Woody and Steina Vasulka as an artist collective), aptly described the forty-five-minute-long video/film as “Maximally spellbinding”. (Quote: Anderson, A., The Village Voice, February 2016)

Produced by Eddie Babbage with (New York) footage by Michael Shamberg, A One Man Show is an amalgamation—part-live concert footage, part-extended music video, part-experimental art performance film excerpted from some of Jones's performances in London and New York City—comprised of various songs (ten, to be exact: beginning with Warm Leatherette, Walking In The Rain, Feel Up, La Vie En Rose, Demolition Man, Pull Up To The Bumper, Private Life, My Jamaican Guy, Living My Life and ending with Libertango/I've Seen That Face Before) gleaned from three of Grace Jones's early 1980s albums: Warm Leatherette (1980), Nightclubbing (1981), and Living My Life (1982), all three of which were produced by Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records. After a flash introduction of a series of seemingly biographical images of Grace Jones (from Jamaican girlhood in Spanish Town, standing on the porch of what appears to be a small ramshackle house, immodestly lifting her skirt, to international fashion icon and  pop-music superstar on the cover of record albums and magazines), shot—or illustrated—by Jean-Paul Goude (the photographer, graphic designer, illustrator, and film director of note; the two had met in August of 1977 and were romantically as well as professionally involved, even if their relationship was, at times, a volatile and temperamental one), Jones makes her appearance garbed in a gorilla costume (an introduction—and image reference—very much reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich's similarly seductive unveiling fifty years earlier in the 1932 film, Blonde Venus, also costumed as a hirsute gorilla, albeit a devastatingly glamorous one), standing atop of an oversized staircase, back-lit and rhythmically beating a drum. After finally revealing her true, Armani-suited identity to the sound of a cheering audience, the few, distinct opening notes of Nightclubbing are shortly—and abruptly—superseded by Warm Leatherette, properly launching the film. Save for a multitude of Grace Jones clones in Feel Up—in which the ‘Jones clones’ steadily multiply into a set of seven band-mates—and a marching phalanx of glossy-lipped clones in Demolition Man, no other musician or figure appears in A One Man Show (which was also the title of Grace Jones's first world tour and from which some of the live concert footage is culled; during her early-1980s tours as well as in A One Man Show, Jones eschewed with the use of a band, relying solely on playback instead).

Grace let me make her over completely, use any effect I could find to turn her into what I want her to be.~ Jean-Paul Goude 

At the 26th annual Grammy Awards held in Los Angeles, on February the 28th, 1984, A One Man Show was nominated in the Best Video Album category, the first year that début category was presented. Jean-Paul Goude and Grace Jones did not win, however (having missed his Concorde flight from Paris, Goude was unable to attend the ceremony and Jones, after several possible escorts had been proposed for her by the Grammy publicists, who settled on O. J. Simpson as their choice but, in the end, she was finally accompanied by her friend, the actress Sarah Douglas, one of the villains from the 1980 movie Superman II); the award went to Duran Duran (for Duran Duran Lyrics). (Other nominees in that category included Alice Cooper for Alice Cooper The Nightmare, Olivia Newton-John for Olivia in Concert, Rolling Stones for Rolling Stones: Let's Spend the Night Together, and Toni Basil for Word of Mouth Lyrics. Grace Jones, on stage with Alice Cooper, was also a presenter that night, for the category of Best Rock Performance By A Duo Or Group With Vocal; The Police won that category with their 1983 album, Synchronicity.) In her book (as told to Paul Morley), I'll Never Write My Memoirs (2015), Grace Jones recalled the aftermath of a disappointing evening in which, adding insult to injury, she had been refused admission into the Grammys after-party due to the fact that she did not have the right pass to enter: “I sat [in a taxi, greatly upset and frustrated by the events of the evening] with my Lagerfeld hat on my knee, miserable because it had all gone wrong. A One Man Show lost to Duran Duran, enough to make me scream and scream.” But Grammy award winner or not, time, ultimately, is the incontestable judge of merit: thirty-four years after its release (and especially when viewed within the context and confines of its time period), A One Man Show remains a brilliantly executed piece of (music) film—a tribute to the creative energy and artistic partnership between Grace Jones and Jean-Paul Goude.
(Quote: Jones, G. & Morley, P., I'll Never Write My Memoirs, 2015:268)

(Sources: Anderson, M., Grace and Love: ‘A One Woman Show’ Brings Back '82, and Wendy Clarke Asks the Big Questions, The Village Voice, February 2, 2016; The Kitchen, undated; Grace Jones In One Man Show: Music and Culture, a thesis by Maria J. Guzman for the School of Art and the College of Fine Arts, August 2007; Awards & Shows, Grammy Awards 1984, undated; Jones, G., & Morley, P., I'll Never Write My Memoirs, Gallery Books, 2015)

Cubist Grace with Delia Doherty
Grace Jones photographed by Jean-Paul Goude ~ New York, 1981
Image courtesy of: The Red List

Constructivist Maternity Dress
(Designed by the fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez)
Grace Jones photographed by Jean-Paul Goude ~ New York, 1979
Above left image, courtesy of: Now. Here. This. | Above right image, courtesy of: The Curious Eye

Video courtesy of: Stef Pipoca ~ YouTube

Grace Jones photographed by Jean-Paul Goude ~ New York, 1981
Top image, courtesy of: Paper Magazine | Bottom image, courtesy of: The Red List

Of course, I had seen Grace Jones before, because she was the diva and disco queen of the whole Paradise Garage scene. But I really, really want to paint her body, because she's the embodiment of everything that's both primitive and pop. ~ Keith Haring 

Acknowledged and celebrated as the ‘Queen of Gay Discos,’ Grace Jones began her musical career—after relinquishing, it must be added, a very successful modelling career in Europe, and Paris in particular—with the launch of her first album, Portfolio, in 1977; it was successively followed by Fame (1978) and Muse (1979), all first three albums having been produced by Tom Moulton. In 1980, Jones, working with the Jamaican production duo Sly and Robbie, further broadened her appeal by the release of her rendition of Warm Leatherette, a 1978 single originally by the electro-punk band The Normal (the pseudonym of Daniel Miller, the British music producer). The dawn of the 1980s thus marked the transformational phase of Grace Jones—or the persona and image of Grace Jones: gone was the disco-diva chanteuse of the decadent Studio 54 or Roseland Ballroom days, replaced by the more enigmatically aloof and magnetically-charged, flat-topped androgyne, inscrutable (and intimidatingly unapproachable) in dark, reflective sunglasses. (In Walking In The Rain, Jones pointedly alludes to her newly formed persona with the lyrics, “Feeling like a woman / Looking like a man”.) This new composite identity, this new personality situated somewhere between the archetypal male and female, between masculine and feminine, had a huge gay following; while some heterosexual men (not all) may have found Jones's (blurred) visual image-identity difficult to fathom or even unattractive and perhaps a bit threatening (an empowered, dominant Black woman adamantly refusing to abide by conventional racial stereotypes, cultural norms and gender roles and identities may not quite be the average man's ideal), gay men adored—and still adore—Grace Jones. (In a 1979 interview with People Magazine's Lee Wohlfert, Goude succinctly phrased Grace Jones's appeal to a broad spectrum of people: Men think she's sexy. Women think she's a little masculine, so they're not jealous. Gays think she's a drag queen [Quote: Wohlfert, L., People Magazine, April 23, 1979, Vol. 11, No. 16]. And in The Frog And The Princess—a track on the 1985 Slave To The Rhythm album—British actor Ian McShane reads an excerpt from Jean-Paul Goude's account of his initial encounter with Grace Jones in his 1982 book, Jungle Fever, which adverts to the vagueness and irony of her appearance and gay men's adoration, reading in part: “The first night watching her in Les Mouches, I had already decided to work with her. That night, she was singing her hit song ‘I Need A Man’ to a room full of shrieking, gay bobby-soxers. The ambiguity of her act was that she herself looked like a man: a man singing ‘I Need A Man’ to a bunch of men. I could see how the average guy could get a little scared by her physical appearance. It was so powerful.... I thought she was great.”)

Grace is modern because she is new and yet reflective of what she has been all along. But now even more so. The androgyny of her body, combined with the darkness of her skin and the power of her morphology (the sum of which would be considered by most bizarre if not unattractive), has been stylized and turned around to her advantage.
~ Jean-Paul Goude 

The propagated ‘Grace Jones myth’ has been discussed and analysed ad nauseam. Hand-in-glove with the mythologization of Grace Jones are the motivational factors and (proposed and supposed) racial undertones of Goude's compelling images of Jones (as well as the imagery of much of his photographic body of work with other African-American muses and models, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s). (In the same 1979 interview with People's Lee Wohlfert, Goude readily admitted to his long-standing fascination—since watching the 1961 movie West Side Story as well as the Alvin Ailey dance troupe perform—with ethnic women and Black women in particular: “I had jungle fever... Blacks are the premise of my work.” [Quote: Wohlfert, L., People Magazine, April 23, 1979, Vol. 11, No. 16]) But one thing is clear: willingly or unwillingly, co-operatively or coercively, the ‘Grace Jones myth’ could not have been realised without the influence, direction and aesthetic sensibilities of Jean-Paul Goude—or at least it (most likely) would not have achieved the spectacular impact or been as effective as it was.

Grace Jones photographed by Jean-Paul Goude ~ New York, 1979
Image courtesy of: The Red List

As influential and persuasive as Goude's demanding aesthetic vision may have been, every director, every Professor Higgins needs a malleable, willing and trusting Eliza Doolittle; or, more realistically, every Von Sternberg needs and relies on a Dietrich to realize that which his mind envisions, and Jones was and did that: she was, it could be rightly said, a vehicle for Jean-Paul Goude's ideas. The evolution of what eventually came to be the quintessential ‘Grace Jones image,’ therefore, was the result of a creative collaboration involving partnership, contribution and discussion from both parties—the creation, after all, is only as great as its creator; vice versa is also true. Grace Jones intimates as much in I'll Never Write My Memoirs: “He transformed the story of my life into a series of visions and fantasies. Talk would lead to him thinking, ‘I will do you like this.’ There was a lot of talking, and then the idea. It was collaborative, never only him doing me. I was not a model. I was a partner in design. An idea is worth so much. It's beyond money. Jean-Paul has a store of ideas that could last a thousand years. ... This combination of his memory [of seeing the Nazis passing through Goude's village as a child] and mine [a reference to Jones's memory of her mandatory school uniform and the rigid adherence to the importance of its appearance] led to me goose-stepping in a video [Demolition Man (1981)].” (Quote: Jones, G., & Morley, P., I'll Never Write My Memoirs, 2015:247)

As a true and rare original, it can also be similarly asserted that there is nothing stereotypical about Grace Jones. After nearly forty years in the music industry and eleven studio albums, Grace Jones has earned her rightful status as one of popular culture's most inimitable icons. Her great luck was to have met and worked with a creative genius in the shape of Jean-Paul Goude; his great luck was to find the perfect instrument through which to express his creativity in the fearless (and fearsome) form of Grace Jones. For anyone in doubt and in need of proof, peruse any of the collaborative Goude-Jones photographic images, album covers, and videos; or, better yet, look no further than A One Man Show.

(Sources: Grace Jones In One Man Show: Music and Culture, a thesis by Maria J. Guzman for the School of Art and the College of Fine Arts, August 2007; Wohlfert, L, When Disco Queen Grace Jones Lamented ‘I Need A Man,’ Artist Jean-Paul Goude Prowled Too Ner Her CagePeople Magazine, April 23, 1979, Vol. 11, No. 16; Jones, G., & Morley, P., I'll Never Write My Memoirs, Gallery Books, 2015)

Cry Now, Laugh Later
Grace Jones photographed by Jean-Paul Goude ~ New York, 1982
Image courtesy of: GUSMEN Lifestyle Magazine

Suggested readings:

I'll Never Write My Memoirs (2015), by Grace Jones & Paul Morley: Gallery Books

Jean-Paul Goude (2012), by Jean-Paul Goude: Thames & Hudson

The Goude Touch: A Ten-Year Campaign for Galeries Lafayette (2010), by Jean-Paul Goude: Thames & Hudson

So Far, So Goude (2005), by Jean-Paul Goude: Assouline Publishing

Jungle Fever (1982), by Jean-Paul Goude: Xavier Moreau Incorporated