Oscar Wilde






Wanderers All

By Will Baker


In pondering my own mortality some words written by Oscar Wilde, the Nineteenth Century Irish poet and dramatist recently came to mind. In his famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol he wrote, "For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die." Now this poem was written in the short interval of time between his release from Reading Prison and his death as a result of meningitis. And although his is perhaps an extreme example, as regards the dying of more deaths than one it seems to me that we all share this fate.

In addition to being a prominent poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was one of the leading personalities of his day. Wilde argued for the key importance of art in life. His ideas greatly influenced the Aesthetic Movement and he was in great demand on the lecture circuit. At the height of his popularity he had it all. He had married into a wealthy family and had two fine sons. His plays were well received, as was his poetry. He was a sought after speaker and he moved in the best social circles. Then came scandal and ruin.

In 1895, as a result of a sensational and highly public scandal involving charges of homosexual behavior, he was tried and convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to serve two years hard labor at Reading Prison. His wife changed the names of the children and took them abroad, abandoning him to his fate--she visited him once while he was in prison, to inform him of the death of his mother.

Prison was not kind to him, and his health (and financial situation) deteriorated. After his release he removed himself from society and assumed the name "Sebastian Melmoth" --a literary reference to the gothic fictional character, "Melmoth the Wanderer." It was at this time that he penned the words above, "For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die," and within a short time after which he found himself penniless and on his deathbed. Witty to the end, his last words were said to have been: "Either that wallpaper goes or I do."

But what on earth can we possibly all have in common with the story above--we are not all great public figures and secret homosexuals, so why do we share his fate? It seems to me that the answer lies in our humanity. I would argue that to varying degrees we certainly all live more lives than one.

It seems to me that in the quiet watches of the night when we are alone to ponder our hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations we are able to reflect upon ourselves brutally, and can never share that which is distilled. This is the life of our most private self, the one which we could not fully disclose were it our sincere desire to do so. And for those of us who are parents, husbands, wives or daughters, sisters or brothers, colleagues, co-workers, friends well met, conspirators or strangers on the street, well I would argue that these represent separate and distinct Public lives. So you see we all have at least two types of lives we lead: Private and Public.

"For he who lives more lives than one, more deaths than one must die…"

Are you the same woman to your sister that you are to your husband? Are you the same man to your daughter as you are to your father, or for that matter to yourself? And if not is it a question of dishonesty or necessity, form or function? And how will all of them remark upon your passing, as if you were separate beings. And in the end, does it mean a thing?

She should have died hereafter.
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
-- Shakespeare





 (Essay Collection)






Life's meaning