I was still brooding about my morally bewildered young self when I got home, and that sent me to a poem I loved early on, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol," which in turn led me to James Wright's "At the Executed Murderer's Grave." I never think about one of those poems without thinking of the other. I've spent most of my Saturday night pondering sin and death with Wilde and Wright. Somehow that feels more sustaining than church ever did. The stanzas below are from Wright.
I pity myself, because a man is dead.
If Belmont County killed him, what of me?
His victims never loved him. Why should we?
And yet, nobody had to kill him either.
It does no good to woo the grass, to veil
The quicklime hole of a man’s defeat and shame.
Nature-lovers are gone. To hell with them.
I kick the clods away, and speak my name.
This grave’s gash festers. Maybe it will heal,
When all are caught with what they had to do
In fear of love, when every man stands still
By the last sea,
And the princes of the sea come down
To lay away their robes, to judge the earth
And its dead, and we dead stand undefended everywhere,
And my bodies—father and child and unskilled criminal—
Ridiculously kneel to bare my scars,
My sneaking crimes, to God’s unpitying stars.
*The girl in the photograph is 11-year-old Ellen Woodman, who was sentenced to seven days hard labor for stealing in Newcastle, England, c.1870-1873. Image from Wikimedia Commons