Paul Muldoon poems commemorate death of Oscar Wilde

Nov. 17, 2000 4:43 p.m.

Two poems by Paul Muldoon, director of Princeton's Program in Creative Writing, will be officially unveiled in England next month by the Reading Borough Council to mark the centennial of Oscar Wilde's death.

Wilde, the renowned 19th century Irish playwright, poet and novelist, fell from grace when he was sent to jail for two years of hard labor for "the crime of homosexuality." He spent the sentence at several jails, the last at Reading. Three years after he was released, he died poor in a Paris hotel room on Nov. 30, 1900.

A century later, the Reading Borough Council commissioned Muldoon to write an epitaph to Wilde for a memorial.

Muldoon's two Wilde poems will be a permanent part of the memorial -- a walkway featuring a set of gates that open onto Chestnut Walk, which runs between the prison and the Kennet river. These gates will carry an inscription of Muldoon's poem, "The Gate":

        As I roved out between a gaol 	And a river in spate 	in June as like as January 	I happened on a gate 	which, though it lay wide open, 	would make me hesitate.

I was so long a prisoner that, though I now am free, the thought that I serve some sentence is so ingrained in me that I still wait for a warder to come and turn the key.

"The phenomenon I describe in the poem is one that is quite familiar apparently to a lot of prisoners," Muldoon said. "When they come out of prison, they say they cannot bear somehow to open a door for themselves. They are so used to the idea of somebody opening it for them, which is a very striking thought, and that's what I hoped to incorporate in that little image."

In addition to the gates, the walk features a laser-cut fence and three benches that line the river's edge. A wooden plank cast in metal -- the same size as the one on which Wilde slept while he was imprisoned -- is the only seat on the prison-side of the walk.

Engraved in the bench will be the second poem from Muldoon:

        A stone-breaker on his stone bed 	lay no less tightly curled 	than Opposite-leaved Saxifrage 	that even now, unfurled, 	has broken through, its wall of walls 	into this other world.

With "The Bed," Muldoon said he was trying to summon up images of hard labor and the sadness and longing of a prisoner.

Muldoon said the poems are somewhat based on the stanza pattern of "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," a somber poem written by Wilde about the execution of an inmate.

Muldoon plans to read the poems at Princeton as part of a local commemoration of Wilde's death at 4:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 1 in the Jimmy Stewart Theater at 185 Nassau St. In addition to Muldoon, Princeton professors Michael Cadden, Lawrence Danson, Jeff Nunkawa and Elaine Showalter will discuss Wilde's work.

"I'm delighted to be asked to do these things," Muldoon said, "because it's important that poetry be seen to have its place in the world."

Muldoon, who was born in County Armagh, Northern Ireland, has won the Irish Times Literature Prize, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature, and other honors.

Contact: Justin Harmon (609) 258-3601