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Douglas Anchor

THE “ballad of READING GAOL”

If Wilde is to last as a poet it will be on the strength of the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol”. The "Sphinx'' may also endure, though its chances—for reasons which I shall explain in the chapter on Wilde's poetry, are not comparable with those of the "Ballad." Criticism of the work itself is not entirely my present purpose. It is a work which stands out head and shoulders above any other of Wilde's performances by virtue of its human appeal and its relative freedom from defects which render the bulk of Wilde's poetry practically unreadable. It is singular, too, as being the only work of importance which Wilde completed after his imprisonment.

There is a story, and I believe a true one, to the effect that before Wilde left prison a certain American journalist offered him a thousand pounds for a two hours' interview on the subject of his prison experience. The offer is said to have been communicated to Wilde, and Wilde is understood to have replied, with some hauteur, that he was astonished that such a proposal ''should be placed before a gentleman”.

This was very fine talk, and it has been widely applauded by Wilde's admirers. I happen to know, however, that within three months of his release Wilde regretted bitterly that he had not closed with the American gentleman's proposition. At the time the offer was made Wilde knew that he had eight hundred pounds behind him, and he had been given to understand that large sums of money would be subscribed for him by his troop of admiring friends outside.

The eight hundred pounds were there, right enough, but the mammoth subscription, or whip round, resulted in the collection of little more than a hundred pounds, the major portion of which was contributed by Frank Harris. Wilde believed, also, that on his release he would find plenty of editors and publishers waiting for him, with hope in their eyes and fat cheques in their hands, and that he would be able to pick and choose among them in the matter of placing anything he might choose to say or write. Here again, however, he was mistaken; nobody deemed it worth while to make a bid for a Wilde book or a Wilde play, and he went to France commission-less. As the beautiful Berneval weeks slipped away with the beautiful Berneval money, he began to have twinges of anxiety.

He knew his world well and he knew that his world could do nothing for him. He had discovered, likewise, to his amazement, that Oscar Wilde, even with two years' hard labour to his credit, was not in any large sense marketable whether from a journalistic or a literary point of view. It was the general feeling of being “out of it" which spurred him on to build up the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol.'' I know for a fact that he made offers to be interviewed for much less than a thousand pounds to the editors of various newspapers in England and America, but no one came near him. All he could manage to do for himself was to get certain letters printed in the Daily Chronicle, and for these, of course, he received nothing in the way of remuneration; so that the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol" became important to him in a double sense.

He had taken the line that he was still an artist and too securely placed in his art to condescend to "low interviewing." He also felt that his one chance of getting back into something approximating to public favour was to produce some sort of a work of sustained and supreme power. This is why the "Ballad of Reading Gaol" is so long and so good. Wilde put all he knew and all he could into it. He even went to what was for him the fearful and unthinkable length of truckling somewhat to the more ordinary human sentiments in the tone of the poem, and avoided, as far as he could, those idiosyncrasies of Wilde the verse-maker which had always provoked the expostulation of the critics and the contempt or laughter of the general public.

As we have seen, the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol" was completed at Naples. I believe that Wilde was satisfied with every word of it. He had written to certain of his friends in England pooh-poohing it and pretending that it was in the manner of Sims ; but he knew perfectly well that fifty Sims rolled into one would not have produced such a poem, and his self-deprecations were intended to soften his abandonment of the superior point of view rather than to express what he really felt. Having finished the poem, the next thing was to sell it. His thoughts turned to America, the land of hope and glory, and the land which had evolved that never-to-be-forgotten live journalist with his thousand pounds for an interview.

Wilde solemnly forwarded the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol" to a New York paper, the name of which wild horses shall not drag out of me, and proffered it for dollars, and the New York paper proceeded solemnly to erect an everlasting monument to its own stupidity by promptly returning the MS. So that for the two or three months the ''Ballad of Reading Gaol” was kicking about in the world, with nobody to publish it.

In the meantime Wilde had gone to Paris, and he was there sought out by the late Leonard Smithers, a publisher who had done a great deal for Beardsley, Dowson, and a number of quaint ''geniuses" whose names are now forgotten, and who had also published an unexpurgated edition of "Burton's Arabian Nights”. Smithers took Wilde out to dinner, produced an immediate handful of louis, and told him that he was prepared to publish anything that he cared to write.

The "Ballad of Reading Gaol” was raked out of a drawer and handed to Smithers, and Smithers published it in England in February, 1898. The first edition consisted of eight hundred copies at two-and-sixpence, with thirty copies on Japanese vellum. Six further editions were called for in twelve or fourteen months, and Smithers sent from time to time various useful cheques for royalties. I believe that he also purchased the book rights of Wilde's plays, but that was the end of his great publishing schemes for Oscar Wilde, for Wilde produced nothing out of which a book could be made after the "Ballad." I may note that two or three years after Wilde's death Smithers, who by this time had fallen upon somewhat evil days, called on me and told me that he had drawings and if I remember rightly, plates for producing the “Harlot's House'' in a very sumptuous and decorative form.

The drawings were by Miss Althea Giles, and seemed to me to be very fine. With a view of giving both Miss Giles and Smithers a lift, I and a friend of mine put up the money Smithers required to go on with the publication. The ''Harlot's House" had never been published in a book, though it had appeared in some obscure periodical. It did not occur to me that there could be any objection to Smithers publishing the book, which is a trifle in itself, and no more than thirty-six lines long. However, the next I heard about it was that Ross had stepped in, in his capacity of ''literary executor," and stopped the publication. Ross did this without so much as referring to me in the matter, though, as far as I knew, we were on terms of friendship at the time. I suppose this is an instance of what Mr. Sherard calls "keeping a level commercial head in looking after Wilde's estate!"