Even those of us who have never read The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray, or anything else Oscar Wilde wrote can still recite a thing or two he said. “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal,” for example, or that jewel of so many Facebook profiles, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” I personally prefer “I can resist everything except temptation,” but none of these quite hold the power of Wilde’s immortal (if seemingly unconfirmed) dying line: “Either those drapes go or I do.” Now you can hear the poet, playwright, one-time novelist, and dedicated raconteur speak his own words in this recording of two verses from his 1897 poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, embedded above.
Wilde got his material for this work straight from the source: convicted in 1895 of “gross indecency,” he did the following two years of “hard bed, hard fare, hard labour” at HM’s Prison, Reading. There he witnessed a Royal Horse Guard trooper hang for cutting his wife’s throat. Sensing a theme of the human condition, Wilde would later write: “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 earlier verses you hear Wilde read — for whatever definition of “hear” the limitations of eighteenth-century recording devices allowed — end in a summation of just what struck him so deeply about all this business: “The man had killed the thing he loved / And so he had to die.”