A Poem by Oscar Wilde

by Jorge Luis Borges

 Translated by Suzanne Jill Levine

The declining days of Spring tend to be very sweet, and no less amazing and treasured by us than those first luxuriant days of the season, rich with so many memories. Those last days recapture the plenitude of a season. There are also writers, in the declining months of literary eras, who embody and illuminate all the grace of their century, as did Heine, reigning over shrill nightingales, ponderous roses and numerous moons –  the insignia of his times. In Oscar Wilde's work two strong currents converge, the Pre-Raphaelites and Symbolism, sprung from a source more dependable than his own and sung in a more intimate voice. I need only cite, among the English, the magisterial names of Swinburne, Rossetti, and especially Tennyson. These three easily surpassed Wilde in intensity and the first of them, besides, in the invention of proud metaphors, the second in technical fireworks, and the last in musicality. I do not recall these evident truths in order to contradict the particular charm of Wilde's writing, but rather to situate him justly in his times. Wilde was not a great poet nor a consummate prose writer. He was a very astute Irishman who encompassed in epigrams an esthetic credo which others before him scattered in the space of long pages. He was an enfant terrible. His activity was comparable to the provocations exercised by Cocteau, even if his gestures were more casual and mischievous than the little Frenchman's. His was a work of utter mischief, always provoking shock without ever falling into the solemnity or the grandiose vagueries so common in artists whose only purpose is to Epater les bourgeois, of which there are abundant examples in Almafuerte and Victor Hugo.

Wilde's theatricality was never self-deceptive nor did it ever degenerate into preaching; it was very plausible, even more so if we recall his petulant vanity. It is well known that Wilde could have eluded the sentence inflicted upon him by the Queensberry case and that he did not do so in the belief that his fame would be enough to protect him from the execution of that erroneous verdict. Once he was condemned, Justice was satisfied and there was no interest whatsoever in carrying out the sentence. They left him free a whole night, then, in order for him to escape to France, but Wilde did not care to take advantage of that night's long passage, and allowed them to arrest him the following morning. Many motives can explain his attitude: narcissism, fatalism, or perhaps a curiosity to drain life in all its forms or even an urgency to create a legend for his future fame....
Everything is possible in the Wildean realm, but there is an explanation for that gesture which could resolve another outstanding psychological enigma in his life, his religious conversion. There are those who doubt the authenticity of that conversion, but I decidedly do not. The one fact that convinces me is the total transformation of his style, that is, his abandonment of ornamental phrases, his simple, almost familial and vernacular diction. Realistic details abound in the heartrending Ballad of Reading Gaol, and there is a willful roughness of expression. “We banged the tins and bawled the hymns”, says the third canto, a phrase that would have seemed as impossible for the author of Salome as a joke would have been in the rhetorical lessons of Calixto Oyuela.

It would be an error, however, to assume that an autobiographical tone and whatever we infer about Wilde from the famous ballad are its only interest. Nothing is further from my thoughts: The Ballad is true poetry, a judgment which every reader's emotion confesses and repeats. Its austerity is striking; we know almost nothing about the main character and almost the first thing we know is that he is going to be executed, that is, his non-existence. Nevertheless, his death moves us. It is a great feat to make a character, whom one has barely made exist, not exist. Wilde accomplished that feat.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol