The most flamboyant Irishman who ever lived, Oscar Wilde died in a Paris hotel room on November 30, 1900. “If another century began and I was still alive, it would really be more than the English could stand”
Ostracized by society and deeply in debt, he lay in bed and sipped champagne neither his wallet nor his health could afford. Lifting his flute toward the ceiling, he smiled, “Alas, I die beyond my means.” A moment later, he scowled, “Either that wallpaper goes, or I do.” And then he died.
I'm convinced Wilde was familiar with the Bible. His most famous line in his most famous poem proves it. You won’t likely find a commentator who agrees with my interpretation, but I am confident in it nonetheless.
Oscar Wilde wrote his famous Reading Gaol (pronounced Redding Jail) after his release from that place in 1897, while he was grieving his public betrayal of his wife. Although she was deeply humiliated by her husband’s flagrant affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, she never divorced him. Oscar and Constance were in love. He just took a walk on the wild side and it led him to a dark and lonely place.
Writing about the execution of a fellow Reading Gaol inmate, Wilde penned his most famous, cryptic 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!
Am I reaching too far when I suggest Wilde was comparing his betrayal of his wife “with a kiss” to the betrayal of Jesus “with a kiss” by the coward, Judas Iscariot? I think not. Read closely the account of that betrayal in John chapter 18 and you’ll also find “the brave man” and “the sword.”
Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons. Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?”
“Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.
“I am he,” Jesus said. And Judas the traitor was standing there with them. When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground.
Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?”
And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.”
“I told you that I am he,” Jesus answered. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”
Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest's servant, cutting off his right ear. The servant's name was Malchus.
Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”
Yes, our boy Oscar was a Bible scholar. He was contrasting Judas to Peter and commenting that each had betrayed Jesus, though in different ways.
Oscar saw himself as Judas, “the coward who betrayed with a kiss.”
Lest there be any doubt Wilde was pondering the redemption of Christ when he wrote Reading Gaol, skip 76 stanzas down from the “betrayal” stanza and you’ll find:
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.
Was Wilde the only “non-religious” poet to ponder the wonder of God?
Roy H. Williams