As I read The Ballad of Reading Gaol, it’s dark and hopeless tone struck me. It still has Wilde’s trademark playfulness when it comes to language, but it takes on darker and more somber undertones. It actually reminded me of And Still you Expect Greatness, which is a volume of poetry produced by Michigan prisoners who participate in the Prison Creative Arts Project sponsored by the University of Michigan. I first read this volume of poems when I was thirteen or so, and I have come back to it several times since. I was struck by how similar the tone of the poems in the volume had to Wilde’s work, even though they were separated by over a century. I was even surprised to find a poem that sampled from The Ballad of Reading Gaol that I had forgotten about.
However, one poem really stood out to me in terms of matching Wilde’s style, Buried Alive by Calvin Westerfield:
O’ wicked blocks of cement so pale,
Defiantly make four walls a cell,
Affix dense bars diverse hands will try,
Lasting steel mold tombs where hope will die.
Conscious corpse to ponder days gone pass,
The smell of summer’s fresh cut grass,
That passion once felt of her embrace,
Abandonment has not took its place.
Heartbreak pained to scale a bob-wired cage,
Pure desperation replaced by rage!
Come view the body while it’s still warm,
Lonely heart in the eye of the storm.
Souls stolen by lost degenerate thoughts,
Liberty denied but just-us bought.
Few will survive in their names alone,
Etched in the bricks of immortal stone.
O’ wicked blocks, my captors – so pale,
Great minds will die in these evil cells,
Where two men share a hell and pure hate thrives,
To coexist while buried alive.
Both poems describe the physical bleakness of prison, and address themes of death in prison as well as relationships with other prisoners. Particularly, “To coexist while buried alive” reminds me of Wilde’s “open grave” which “gaped for living thing” and meant that “Some prisoner had to swing” (888-9). It is saddening to see how similar these two poems are, as it speaks to how little things have changed.