Oscar Wilde hails from the Victorian generation, a set of writers known for its dogmas and oppression. In many of his works, he negates these austere ideas with his own particular brand of humour; however, Helas! and The Ballad of Reading Gaol are different. Unlike much Oscar Wilde’s irreverent output as a playwright or a composer of witticisms, poems like Helas! and The Ballad of Reading Gaol take a moralistic turn, challenging conventional notions of morality. Most of his works are lighthearted and satirical in nature, but these two poems confront the morality of human actions. Sometimes they do so in very paradoxical ways. It is perhaps for this reason that one may find it much easier to put these two poems in the Victorian canon, for they are much more representative of that time.
Helas! is a poem by Oscar Wilde that deals with the idea of discontentment and decadence. It questions the basis of human actions and concludes that for very little pleasures, we lose our hold on the greater truth of life. He says that he has succumbed to passion so often that his soul has become like a “stringed lute”. This line marks the beginning of a contemplative narrative that questions human nature as well as the human tendency to sacrifice morality for small passions. In this poem, there is a clear binary between morality and passions, and both these ideas are projected as being antithetical to each other. In the following lines, the poet echoes a distinct sentiment that is not very often echoed in his works.
To drift with every passion till my soulIs a stringed lute on which all winds can play,Is it for this that I have given awayMine ancient wisdom, and austere control?Methinks my life is a twice-written scrollScrawled over on some boyish holiday
The poet intends to show remorse, but the only crime he has seem to have committed is having indulged in “small passions”. It is interesting to note that he seems to project himself as a foolish criminal in this poem, while the narrative clearly suggests quite the opposite, because in The Ballad of The Reading Gaol he depicts a contrasting idea of morality. In this poem, morality is as it is conventionally seen by society; in The Ballad of Reading Gaol, the poet seems to contest this same restricted idea of morality.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol is another important work by Oscar Wilde that is elegiac in nature. This poem mourns the death of an inmate of Wilde’s during his time in prison and condemns the humiliation the inmate was forced to suffer. One very recurrent sentiment in this poem manifests in the following lines.
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!
The poet wants the reader to understand that the inmate isn’t really that much of a criminal, if one is to see things differently. He points out the morality of putting an “innocent” man in prison, but in the context of this poem, morality seems to be an entirely different thing. In fact, it is rather antithetical to the idea of morality that is depicted in Helas! Here, the poet dismisses the conventional idea of morality and adopts a new morality, implying that the inmate was innocent because “each man kills the thing he loves”. He condemns the hypocrisy of society that condemns such a man to death. Here, morality would be forgiving the man because his crime does not stand in isolation. Here, morality and passion go hand in hand.
Hence, both the poems project contrasting ideas of morality. One reasserts the traditional idea of morality while the other contests it. If each of these poems is seen in the context of the other and then deconstructed, multiplicity of meaning arises. The speaker of The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a prisoner, and it may be argued that idealistic notions of morality cease to exist in such a space. Meanwhile, the speaker of Helas! has the freedom to preach about a rigid kind of morality, a morality that cannot even forgive indulgence in passion, and would hardly be sympathetic to a crime of passion. Hence, an element of moralism arises in both these poems, where the poet questions the folly of human nature as well as the fallacy of a system that refuses to forgive this folly. In one, passion and morality oppose each other, while in the other, morality exists where passion does.