The Books: The Redress of Poetry ‘Dylan the Durable? On Dylan Thomas,’ by Seamus Heaney

On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry.

Dylan Thomas was a major figure in Heaney’s childhood. His poetry readings, captured on radio broadcasts, released on vinyl, Thomas reading his own poetry, reading other people’s poetry, etc., were in everyone’s collections. (I love that Ethan Hawke’s character references having one of those records in Before Sunrise, Dylan Thomas reading Auden.) In this lecture, Heaney speaks movingly about what Thomas meant to him as a young man, striving towards something, he didn’t know what, looking for voices that could launch him into some other dimension, a dimension of more connectedness, more clarity and authenticity. Heaney, as a grown man, can now perceive Thomas’ flaws in a way he couldn’t back then, swept away by Thomas’ sheer bravura love of words, his drowning in the sounds of things, etc. Heaney talks about the flaws a lot in this lecture, and it’s interesting stuff, especially if you’re on the outside of that particular obsession. For example, I love Dylan Thomas, and he’s one of those quotable poets that I can recite by heart without even remembering memorizing him, and I read Christmas in Wales and Under Milkwood before I knew I was supposed to be impressed or whatever, I read them as a kid, and LOVED them. Digging deeper into them than that, into critical appraisal, was just not part of my experience of him. We learned “Do Not Go Gentle” in class, it’s part of the canon (and rightly so), but beyond that I did not go. So it’s fascinating to hear Heaney’s extremely personal and yet really well-thought-out take on Thomas: how Thomas seemed to him when he was young and impressionable, and how Thomas seems to him now. Heaney makes an interesting observation about negative criticism of Thomas:

Indeed, I have the impression that negative criticism of Dylan Thomas’s work is more righteous and more imbued with this kind of punitive impulse than is usual. Even a nickname like ‘The Ugly Suckling’ has an unusual animus behind it. It often seems less a matter of the poet’s being criticized than of his being got back at, and my guess is that in these occasions the reader’s older self is punishing the younger one who hearkened to Thomas’s oceanic music and credited its promise to bring the world and the self into cosmic harmony.

An interesting perspective on criticism, basically blaming Thomas for not living up to what the CRITIC wanted from him as a young reader.

But, luckily, Heaney does not throw out the baby with the bathwater (Heaney seems categorically opposed to throwing babies out with any kind of water. His whole thing was attempts at not integration, so much, but intersection, an allowing of the possibility that a couple of things can be equally true at the same time.)

Dylan Thomas was famous in his own lifetime, not just for his verse but for his lifestyle and drunken shenanigans. He was a big drunken brat, and his behavior was legendary, and if you go to the White Horse Tavern in New York you can see a plaque commemorating him. The tavern was a big writer’s hangout (it still is), and Thomas spent an evening drinking there, went back to the Chelsea Hotel, and died a couple of days later. If you believe the myth, when he returned to the Chelsea, he declared, “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies. I think that’s the record!” That was the kind of braggadocio he specialized in, and it did him in. Nobody could survive at that speed. Well, Keith Richards did. But very few others can handle it. Thomas encouraged his own bad-boy myth, he was in a state of permanent adolescent rebellion, one of the reason that adolescent boys thrilled to his poems.

Michael Schmidt, in his Lives of the Poets, writes:

Thomas weaves spells. He engages language, rather than expresience. When the spell releases us, nothing is clarified. There is a kind of authority to the word magic of the early poems; in the famous and popular late poems, the magic is all show. If they have a secret, it is the one we all share, partly erotic, partly elegiac. The later poems arise out of personality. There are exceptions. “Poem in October”, with its brilliant details, works like “Refusal to Mourn” and “Do Not Go Gentle” against the tragic grain. In “A Winter’s Tale” Thomas’s rhythmic achievement is at its most subtle. The later work is rhetoric of a high order.

Heaney’s lecture is extremely in-depth and takes a look at much of Thomas’ work, the early stuff, the later stuff, and discusses his own reaction to these poems (first as a young man in the 50s, hearing them on the radio or on vinyl, and now, in the 1990s, with more experience).

I’ll excerpt part of the section that has to do with Thomas’ most famous work, the unforgettable villanelle “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Excerpt from The Redress of Poetry, ‘Dylan the Durable? On Dylan Thomas’ by Seamus Heaney

‘Do Not Go Gentle’ is obviously a threshold poem about death, concerned with the reverse of the process which occupied Thomas in ‘Before I Knocked.’ In that earlier poem, the body was about to begin what Thomas calls elsewhere its ‘sensual strut,’ here the return journey out of mortality into ghost hood is about to be made, so in fact the recurrent rhymes of the villanelle could as well have been ‘breath’ and ‘death’ or ‘womb’ and ‘tomb’ – but what we have instead are ‘night’ and ‘light.’ And the night is a ‘good night.’ But, for once, a characteristic verbal tic has become an imaginative strength and not just an irritating cleverness. ‘Good night’ is a pun which risks breaking decorum of the utterance but which turns out in the end to embody its very complexity and force. The mixture of salutation and farewell in the phrase is a perfect equivalent for the balance between natural grief and the recognition of necessity which pervades the poem as a whole.

This is a son comforting a father; yet it is also, conceivably, the child poet in Thomas himself comforting the old ham he had become; the neophyte in him addressing the legend; the green fuse addressing the burnt-out case. The reflexiveness of the form is the right correlative for the reflexiveness of the feeling. As the poem proceeds, exhortation becomes self-lamentation; the son’s instruction to the disappointed father to curse and bless him collapses the distance between the sad height of age and physical decay in the parent and the equally sad eminence of poetic reputation and failing powers in the child. ‘Do Not Go Gentle’ is a lament for the maker in Thomas himself as well as an adieu to his proud and distant schoolteacher father. The shade of the young man who once expressed a fear that he was not a poet, just a freak user of words, pleads for help and reassurance from the older, sadder, literary lion he has become, the one who apparently has the world at his feet.

Not that Thomas intended this meaning, of course. One of the poem’s strengths is its outwardly directed address, its escape from emotional claustrophobia through an engagement with the specifically technical challenges of the villanelle. Yet that form is so much a matter of crossing and substitutions, of back-tracks and double-takes, turns and returns, that it is a vivid figure for the union of opposites, for the father in the son, the son in the father, for life in death and death in life. The villanelle, in fact both participates in the flux of natural existence and scans and abstracts existence in order to register its pattern. It is a living cross-section, a simultaneously open and closed form, one in which the cycles of youth and age, of rise and fall, growth and decay find their analogues in the fixed cycle of rhymes and repetitions.

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Happy Birthday, Patricia Highsmith


It’s Patricia Highsmith’s birthday today. I wrote a gigantic piece about her here.

He wouldn’t have killed someone just to save Derwatt Ltd. or even Bernard, Tom supposed. Tom had killed Murchison because Murchison had realized, in the cellar, that he had impersonated Derwatt. Tom had killed Murchison to save himself. And yet, Tom tried to ask himself, had he intended to kill Murchison anyway when they went down to the cellar together? Had he not intended to kill him? Tom simply could not answer that. And did it matter much?

– from Ripley Under Ground, by Patricia Highsmith

“I don’t think my books should be in prison libraries.” — Patricia Highsmith, 1966

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Happy Birthday, Archie Leach


My favorite actor.

As my friend Mitchell observed (in our conversation about him, linked below):

I mean, to this day, people say, “Oh so-and-so’s the new Cary Grant.” Cary Grant was acting in 1930. We’re talking 70 years ago. Almost 80 years ago, and we’re still referring to people as the “new Cary Grant”. Well, guess what, there’s no such thing. If 80 years later, you’re still trying to find someone to be the next so-and-so, there is nobody. It’s only him.

Here are some of the things I have written about him over the years:

The Fat-Headed Guy Full of Pain: Cary Grant in Notorious

Mitchell Fain Presents: Part 1

For Bright Wall/Dark Room: You Are What You Do: His Girl Friday

The Wonderful Weird WTF-ness of Sylvia Scarlett

Anatomy of Two Pratfalls: Cary Grant and Elvis Presley

For Capital New York: On Bringing Up Baby

For House Next Door: 5 for the Day: Cary Grant

The rest of the stuff I’ve written on Cary Grant can be found here.

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Three Night Stand (2015)


My review of Three Night Stand, a French-farce-ish rom-com is now up at

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Appropriate Behavior (2015); from writer/director/star Desiree Akhavan


I had been looking forward to seeing this: written and directed by Desiree Akhavan, who also stars as the lead character, Shirin. The movie uses all the familiar cliches of a Brooklyn-area hipster lesbian love story, with an insistently deadpan tone, and yet with the added depth and complexity of the lead character being the daughter of immigrants from Iran, and not “out” to her parents. So it’s a love story. It’s also the story of being the child of immigrants, of having feet in two worlds, the American and the Persian.

I really liked it.

My review of Appropriate Behavior is now up at

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Jafar Panahi Will Not Be Silenced


Jafar Panahi was arrested in 2009 on the suspicion of making a film critical of the regime in Iran. He was not allowed to travel, to give interviews, to make films. He was in prison. He went on hunger strike. Finally, the sentence came down, and it was devastating: A 20-year ban on making films. People made impassioned speeches about him from the international stages of the Berlinale and the Cannes Film Festival. I hosted an Iranian Film Blog-a-thon on my site, just as a way to show solidarity and to (in my own small way) deny the Iranian regime the privacy with which they wished to operate. Jafar Panahi is official Iran’s worst nightmare: a local artist, critical of the conditions in Iran, especially the position of women (which he lampoons in Offside, a great film, and shows with a documentary-like realism and brutality in The Circle), who makes films that have a passionate international following, people in Evil America who sit around waiting for “the next Panahi.” The regime HATES that. It’s awesome. Keep hating, haters. You’re not the boss of me. Persecuted and hounded for years, they finally “got” Panahi, and it was a devastating time for those of us who love Panahi’s films.

But since then … we have had two extraordinary films from him (one smuggled out of Iran inside a pastry to make its premiere at Cannes). People who collaborate with him are also arrested, their passports revoked. And yet the stakes are so high, and Panahi is so beloved, that people are willing to take those risks. The mere FACT of the EXISTENCE of these films is an extraordinary testament to not only Panahi but any oppressed artist anywhere.

The films he has made since the official ban came down have been This Is Not a Film (my review here) and Closed Curtain (my review here, a film which was on my individual Top Ten for 2014.) After Closed Curtain, I found myself thinking, despairingly, “Where can he go from here? Is he saying goodbye?” The title alone seemed to suggest his state of mind.

He is not supposed to be doing ANY of this, remember. He is supposed to have vanished. He is supposed to accept silence (as his heartbreaking letter smuggled somehow to Isabella Rossellini, read from the stage of the Berlinale attests).

And yet: he has not accepted the ban on his career. Officially, in Iran, he has been silenced. Unofficially, and illegally, he has continued to make films. He is a hero. Not to just us “out here” but to his fellow Iranians. Because of the Internet and bootleg DVDs, his films are seen by everyone there. A total crackdown is impossible in this day and age, and it’s a beautiful and precarious thing.

Jafar Panahi has a new film coming out. !!

It is called Taxi and it will be premiering at the Berlinale, a film festival with which Panahi has a warm and affectionate relationship. He will not be allowed to travel there, of course.

But another film exists. Panahi has been making another movie.

Vaclav Havel, when asked how he had survived under Communism for so long (with constant arrests and persecution and imprisonment, when his plays were famous around the world but virtually unproduced in his own country, all of his works banned), would say that he lived “as if” he were free. Spoken like a man of the theatre, reminiscent of the concept of Stanislavsky’s “magic What If.” To an actor, the question “What if” is akin to a magic spell, like it is for a child. The “what if” becomes as real as the reality before you. And so Vaclav Havel, in the face of enormous oppression, made the choice to live AS IF he were free.

Jafar Panahi is doing the same thing. He is not free, but he is living AS IF he were.

My heart is so full of emotion right now.

I can’t wait to see it.

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Eartha, Arthur, Marilyn, 1957

Eartha Kitt Standing at Marilyn Monroe's Table

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When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism (2013); directed by Corneliu Porumboiu


Corneliu Porumboiu is my favorite Romanian director working today, although he’s got some stiff competition from Cristian Mungiu, Calin Peter Netzer, Cristi Puiu …. Porumboiu’s 12:08 East of Bucharest (I wrote about it here) is a slapstick re-enactment of a television program commemorating the Romanian revolution of 1989, and how it played out (or didn’t) in one particular small town. 12:08 East of Bucharest is hilarious, improvisational, so bitter it stings. The topic is serious, but it is treated with irony, cynicism, and humor. The film is also a perfect send-up of low-rent no-production-value cable access shows, with their anything-goes mentality, suffused with the pompous self-seriousness of having a platform.

When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is Porumboiu’s latest (and, at least in New York, it’s playing at Lincoln Center for a one-week run.)

The film is about a director making a film in Bucharest. He is sleeping with his lead actress, who is not from Bucharest, but from somewhere else, although she lived in Paris for a couple of years. Director and actress try to hammer out an important scene in the film they are making, the blocking, the justification for said blocking, and whether or not her nudity in the scene is justified. (It sounds like it’s not. My two cents.) There’s other stuff going on: a competition with another director in Romania, who is also interested in the lead actress, long conversations about film and Chinese food and geography and acting, digressions into Monica Vitti and the films of Antonioni (the actress has never heard of Antonioni, and the director says, “That would be like making a life in the theatre without ever having heard of Chekhov.” Actress replies, “I will see the films right away.”), digressions into bodily functions (did he or did he not have an ulcer in the past? Inquiring minds want to know), discussions about limits and how limits form us. We all work within limits, whether we know it or not, whether we care to acknowledge it or not. The limits should be embraced merely because they are the nature of reality. We are formed by the limits placed on us.

Just as 12:08 East of Bucharest prioritizes the HOW of the story (using the amateurish format of local television programming) over the WHAT of the story (the Romanian revolution, the fall of Communism and Ceaușescu) When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism tells its story of forms and limits through the medium of a limited form. The limits placed on the film itself reflect the subject matter, inform it, make jokes about it. Porumboiu filmed in black and white, stark and unsentimental. That’s one limit, removing the possibility of color from the palette. The other limit placed on the film is the daunting shot-lengths. The entire film is made up of only 17 shots, and while the camera does move (on occasion) it’s rare enough that it calls attention to itself. For the most part, we enter a new shot, with a new set-up and location (Chinese restaurant, moving car, apartment, diner) and we stay in that set-up, and watch the scene play out, until it’s time to move on. Everything, the language, the scene work, the possibilities, are hemmed in by the limits Porumboiu places on it. And, in the same way that 12:08 East of Bucharest commented on itself through the form of a cheap local talk-show, mocking the idea that anything can make sense, that anyone has anything relevant to say (about anything, never mind important topics), When Evening Falls on Bucharest or Metabolism is in a constant state of self-awareness and self-evaluation, commenting on itself, winking at the audience. There’s an inside-joke feeling to some of it, but that’s part of the insular nature of the film industry.

And so what we get in the first shot is writer/director Paul (Bogdan Dumitrache, who was so unforgettable in Child’s Pose last year – my review here – he played a bratty sulky man-boy), driving around Bucharest with his lead actress Alina (Diana Avramut), discussing the scene they will be shooting tomorrow. This then becomes a conversation about the nature of movies. He talks about the difference between shooting on film and shooting digitally. When you shoot on film, you must accept the limitations. A single take cannot run longer than 11 minutes, he says, because that is the length of a roll of film, and so in many ways it is the limits that helped form cinema as we know it. Shooting digitally could change all that, could open up new possibilities. But Paul can’t help it: he has been formed by the “rules” of the movies as shot on film, all directors have been. As the take continues to unfurl, the street-lamps of Bucharest shimmering past the windshield, the camera placed in the back seat of the car, you start to wonder if this particular take is going to be 11 minutes long. Will this take be an example of what Paul is talking about?

That first scene sets us up for the whole film, with its long one-shots, hemmed in by limitations and form. Form comes up in every scene, in different contexts. Paul and Alina sit in a Chinese restaurant, eating, and discussing the development of Chinese cuisine, as opposed to other ethnic cuisines. Did Chinese food develop in the way it did because they eat with chopsticks? “The Chinese don’t make T-bone steaks,” says Paul. Did the form dictate the content? This conversation goes on and on, with gentle disagreements, and push-back from Alina, as she follows his theory to its logical conclusion. Logic turns out to be relative. Even within a rigid format.

Paul and Alina are having an affair, and that extremely cliched relationship can be seen as an accepted form of behavior, a “form” set up long before these two got together, so that they are stepping into understood roles, complete with unequal power dynamic, and behaving accordingly. Personal agency doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything. Form is ALL.

Later, there is a grotesque long sequence showing an endoscopy, the undulating wincing interior of Paul’s body taking up the entire screen. The doctor explains to the two people in the room what matters in the image: “When filming you put what most interests you in the center, not on the margin.” At that very moment, and throughout the whole scene, Paul, the guy whose interior is wriggling around on the laptop screen, stands on the margin of the room, the margin of the screen. Ba-dum-ching. Content (endoscopy) completely separated from form (Paul the man). No relation.

When Evening Falls is full of visual jokes like that, commentaries on what it is doing, asking us to make connections, to think beyond the frame, to think about the HOW as opposed to the WHAT.

All of this might sound a bit … chilly, perhaps. It is, but it isn’t. It’s a rigorous intellectual exercise, a lampoon of the Romanian film industry, a rather realistic look (actually) at how a director and an actress stumble their way through a scripted scene, questioning every piece of blocking, questioning the emotional motivations behind every gesture (“But why do you go to the door? Why don’t you just go to your bedroom? Why would you take out a lint-brush right after you got out of the shower? Wouldn’t that come later, as you go to put on the dress? Do you overhear the voices in the other room, or do you just assume that you did because you heard them say the lines in rehearsal?” No detail too small, no question unimportant)… the film comments on the nature of film, which is the nature of a completely distorted version of reality in the first place. If a take can only last 11 minutes, and generations of directors have grown up absorbing that limit as The Only Way, then they have allowed their art to be warped TO that limit without even realizing it. And so isn’t the nature of reality itself hemmed-in by forms we might not be able to perceive? Perhaps reality isn’t “out there,” but in here, with us, our backs hunched-in, our heads cramped-down, like Alice in Wonderland growing too big for her own house, the walls pressing in on her. Forces work on us from the outside, and we are not even aware of it.

These issues are presented humorously and yet not lightly. The stakes are pretty high, but the film never loses its dry sense of absurdity and self-awareness.

The meaning of all of it, though, is up for grabs.

Have at it. Porumboiu wants you to.

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The Books: The Redress of Poetry; ‘Speranza in Reading: On “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”,’ by Seamus Heaney

On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)

NEXT BOOK: Seamus Heaney’s The Redress of Poetry.

“Speranza” was the pen name of Lady Wilde, Oscar’s fascinating activist/writer mother, a famous woman in her own right. And his father was no slacker either. He grew up in an incredibly accomplished household. His mother was a political firebrand, basically, speechifying and poeticizing the cause of Irish nationalism. She held meetings at their house, she passed out pamphlets, she wrote poetry, she was a major figure. In 1864, an edition of her poems came out, and she dedicated it to her two sons. The dedication really gives a feeling for who she was, and a great snapshot of the feeling in Irish nationalists at that time.

Dedicated to my sons Willie and Oscar Wilde

‘I made them indeed
Speak plain the word country. I taught them, no doubt,
That country’s a thing one should die for at need’

So. That was Oscar Wilde’s famous mum. (Heaney talks about that dedication in his essay.)

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is, of course, Wilde’s long ballad about his experiences in prison (full text here). In this essay, Seamus Heaney analyzes the ballad as a poetic form, placing it in its proper literary context. Since the poem is so autobiographical, and it came out of Oscar Wilde’s terrible experience of being imprisoned for sodomy, those facts tend to overshadow the poem itself. Heaney is interested in the poem, what it represents, for Wilde (it is a real break in style), and how it connects Wilde to the very Irish ground from which he sprung, the Irish ground made plain to him by “Speranza.” The “prison ballad” has a long history in Ireland. I suppose prison ballads will have currency in any oppressed people. Wilde wrote it with a clear political intent in mind: to shine a light on the demeaning and inhumane conditions in prison, to perhaps bring about some change in that area.

Wilde had been pretty much apolitical, or at least he had never been political in a specific “let’s bring about change for this particular group” kind of way. His subversive epigrams and his topsy-turvy plays can be seen as political in a way because they up-end the status quo, almost in every line. They lampoon the sacred cows. They make fun of everyone, setting such elaborate and perfect traps that those with pretensions, or silliness, or flaws, literally cannot escape. It’s a brutal kind of humor.

But “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is a very different Oscar Wilde. It is a broken Oscar Wilde. It is a devastated and crushed Oscar Wilde. (He didn’t survive long after his release from prison. His health had been compromised beyond repair, and of course his spirit had been broken too.)

Those only familiar with his plays will immediately recognize the radical alteration of style. Those familiar with Oscar Wilde’s other poems will also immediately see (just by looking at the thing) that he is up to something different. His poems were usually lush, intricate, with long lines on the page. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, on the other hand, looks on the page like Kipling. Little boxy identical verses marching along irrevocably.

In Heaney’s essay about it, Heaney makes a case that Wilde, by “coming back” to the ballad form (and its propagandistic purposes) was “coming back” to the example led by his mother, Speranza, who also had her trials and tribulations in the public court (although not as literal as Wilde’s.) She was in the center of a couple of major scandals, some involving her husband, and she behaved with fierce loyalty and grace. Grace under public fire. (And anyone who attended Wilde’s trial spoke about his magnificence in the dock, how articulate, how inspiring. Like mother, like son.)

Heaney uses Speranza as the jumping-off point to talk about the various versions of “Ballad of Reading Gaol” that had been published (with some rather illuminating edits, the subject still seen as so controversial).

Yeats included it in the 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which he edited, and he had done some very interesting edits on Wilde’s ballad. Yeats trying to protect Wilde, even after his death, from his own rhetorical excesses. Heaney goes into that as well, examining the edits and trying to figure out why Yeats decided they needed to go.

Here is an excerpt from the essay I find very interesting. (I love the point Heaney makes in the first paragraph. Yes!)

Excerpt from The Redress of Poetry, ‘Speranza in Reading: On “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”,’ by Seamus Heaney

‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ is Wilde’s poem of human solidarity, his attempt to produce, in Kafka’s great phrase, a book that would be an axe to break the frozen sea in each of us. Bu the literary fact of the matter is that the axe which is still capable of shattering the surfaces of convention is neither the realistic ballad which Yeats fashioned nor the original romantic plea from which he extracted it; it is rather the hard-edged, unpathetic prose that Wilde created in dialogues like ‘The Decay of Lying’ and dramas like The Importance of Being Earnest. His brilliant paradoxes, his over-the-topness at knocking the bottom out of things, the rightness of his wrong-footing, all that exhilarated high-wire word-play, all that freedom to affront and exult in his own uniqueness – that was Wilde’s true path towards solidarity. The lighter his touch, the more devastating his effect. When he walked on air, he was on solid ground. But when he stepped on earth to help the plight of lesser mortals, he became Oisin rather than Oscar. His strength dwindled and his distinction vanished. He became like other men. He became one of the chain-gang poets, a broken shadow of the brilliant litterateur who had once written that ‘Lying, the telling of beautiful untrue things, is the proper aim of Art.’ By the time he wrote the ballad, however, his aim had come to be the telling of the ugly true things:

The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair

For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and grey,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity’s machine.

All the same, if the propagandist ballad is not Oscar Wilde’s proper genre, it is still a kind of writing which was naturally available to him from the start. His mother, Jane Francesca Elgee, had begun her writing career in Dublin in the 1840s with a series of fiery patriotic poems published in the Dublin Magazine. Writing under the pseudonym of ‘Speranza’ and under the impression that her family name, Elgee, meant that she was descended from the Alighieri family – as in Dante Alighieri – the future Lady Wilde composed poems that proclaimed a heartfelt sympathy for the plight of the famine victims in Ireland and a firebrand’s enthusiasm for the cause of rebellion against British rule. Speranza herself, of course, was from a well-to-do Dublin Unionist background, so her association with Charles Gavan Duffy and other activists and intellectuals in the circle was already an act of rebellion, an embrace of the forbidden other which foreshadowed her son’s more extreme rejection of the conventional pieties. And Oscar in his turn was very much in favour of the company she had kept. In a lecture which he gave in San Francisco in 1882 during his famous American tour, he was emphatic about his admiration for those revolutionaries of 1848. His lecture notes survive and contain declarations like the following:

As regards those men of forty-eight, I look on their work with peculiar reverence and love, for I was indeed trained by my mother to love and reverence them, as a catholic child is the saints of the cathedral. The earliest hero of my childhood was Smith O’Brien, whom I remember well – tall and stately with a dignity of one who had fought for a noble idea and the sadness of one who had failed … John Mitchel, too, on his return to Ireland I saw, at my father’s table with his eagle eye and impassioned manner. Charles Gavan Duffy is one of my friends in London, and the poets among them were men who made lives noble poems also … The greatest of them all, and one of the best poets of this century in Europe was, I need not say, Thomas Davis. Born in the year 1814 at Mallow in County Cork, before he was thirty years of age, he and the other young men of the Nation newspaper had, to use Father Burke’s eloquent words, created ‘by sheer power of the Irish intellect, by sheer strength of Irish genius, a national poetry and a national literature which no other nation can equal.’

It would have been no surprise if, after this, Wilde had gone on to write a poem of his own called ‘To Ireland in the Coming Times,’ where he might have wanted himself to be accounted, like Yeats, ‘one / With Davis, Mangan, Ferguson’ and recognized as the ‘True brother of a company / That sang to sweeten Ireland’s wrong, / Ballad and story, rann and song.’ But it was surely the very deep-seatedness of Wilde’s familiarity with nineteenth-century Irish patriotic poetry that made him less susceptible to it as a mode of expression. Yeats was converted to Irish themes by the sudden glamour and admirable literary intelligence of John O’Leary, but for Wilde these themes were always a given, if passed-over, element in his heritage. And, of course, he was every bit aware as Yeats ever was of the artistic inadequacies of the work done by the Nation poets, an awareness he veiled very graciously in San Francisco when it came to reading poems by Speranza herself:

Of the quality of Speranza’s poems I, perhaps, should not speak, for criticism is disarmed before love, but I am content to abide by the verdict of the nation, which has so welcomed her genius and understood the song – noticeably for its strength and simplicity – that ballad of my mother’s on ‘The Trial of The Brothers Sheares’ in ’98.

This ballad about the trial of two brothers Wilde then proceeded to read and, in the light of all we know today, it was a most significant choice. Yet even at the time of the San Francisco reading, in 1883, long before Wilde’s own trials, it must already have had a special personal meaning for him. It had been placed first, after all, in Lady Wilde’s first collection of poems when it appeared in 1864. Oscar was then ten years of age and would have been deeply susceptible to the dedication page of the volume which read, ‘Dedicated to my sons Willie and Oscar Wilde'; the page also carried the following quotation:

I made them indeed
Speak plain the word country. I taught them no doubt
That a country’s a thing men should die for at need.

In a book dedicated to them with such patriotic fervour, Oscar and Willie could hardly have failed to take to heart a poem actually called ‘The Brothers’, positioned so unignorably at the front of the collection. In it, the two protagonists are awaiting sentence for their part in the rebellion.

They are pale, but it is not fear that whitens
On each proud, high brow,
For the triumph of the martyr’s glory brightens
Around them even now …


Before them, shrinking, cowering, scarcely human,
The base informer bends,
Who, Judas-like, could sell the blood of true men
While he clasped their hand as friends.

Clearly, it is not such a long poetic step from this story of the betrayal of noble youth by the handclasp of a friend to a realization that ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ [in The Ballad of Reading Gaol]; nor is it possible to ignore the correspondence between this fictional court with its sentenced brother and informer witness – between this and the actual court where the testimony of rent boys would be crucial in securing the conviction of one of the brothers to whom Speranza’s ballad was so pointedly addressed. I am suggesting, in other words, that Oscar’s bearing, years later, in the ‘black dock’s dreadful pen’ may well have been affected by the noble demeanour of the character in his mother’s poem.

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The Cast of Transparent Post Golden Globes

The first question comes, and Jeffrey Tambor passes it right to Alex. And look what happens. The fact that he would pass it to her, and give her that space (“tell them what you just told me”) says worlds, says everything, about who he is. Here, dear, here is a platform, let them see you and hear you. He is a star, he is the star of the show, he just won an individual Golden Globe, but in that moment, he passed the mike (so to speak) to Alex. Because what he is engaged in, ultimately, is telling her story, or, at least, the story of the transgender community. He could easily have spoken about his own feelings, and his own “I feel really good about what we’re doing” thoughts: instead, he handed over the platform, he conceded space, he moved back. It’s made me cry. Alex moves gracefully and beautifully into that space. That space is HERS. It’s a long way from the suicidal 16 year old staring at the television. But here she is now.

Major. It’s major.

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