Some Troppodillians might have heard the essay I posted on Troppo a few months back on Oscar Wilde and Ned Kelly boiled down into a five minute talk.1 For those who are interested, the transcript is below the fold and you can even download an MP3 of the broadcast [4.8 Megs].
1 I updated the essay a little and it’s downloadable here.
Ned Kelly and Oscar Wilde
Having commemorated the 125th anniversary of Ned Kelly’s hanging on November 11, spare a thought for another November anniversary. After his imprisonment for gross indecency, Oscar Wilde fled England and died just a few years later in France on this day in the year 1900.
The contrasts between Oscar and Ned are obvious.
But their similarities are more profound.
Born a few months apart in 1854, both were Irish martyrs to a cause, though both were hardly saints.
Their generosity helped beget their downfall, Ned in his trust of the school teacher who (mercifully) flagged down the train at Glenrowan; Oscar in his gifts to rent boys that so incriminated him in court.
Both were feared as revolutionaries. Wilde propagandised the cause of ‘Greek love’ to electric effect. And despite our instinctive sympathy for the underdog, we can be grateful that Glenrowan was the fiasco it was, rather than a bloodbath setting off a rebellion that Ned seemed to have in mind.
But Oscar and Ned share something deeper again. Both moved with a dreamlike, mythical courage towards a doom they’d assiduously courted.
Picture Ned emerging from the dawn fog into a hail of bullets in his terrifying and ridiculous armour, and there you have Oscar.
Suing his lover’s violent and deranged father for criminal libel, Oscar’s armour was as makeshift as Ned’s. Cross-examined as to whether he’d kissed a boy, Oscar replied, disastrously, that the boy was “peculiarly plain”.
Before his arrest, Wilde seemed caught in indecision, before observing “The train has gone”. But four more trains departed for Paris that night. Ned too embraced the heroism of his last stand. Battling multiple bullet wounds, with best friend Joe Byrne dead and his brother and Steve Hart inside the inn, Kelly might still have won the day.
Were sympathisers waiting for Kelly’s prompt for an uprising? If so they could surely have picked off the police outside the inn by the light of the full moon. Kelly’s biographer Ian Jones claims Kelly decided the fight was the gang’s and bade them go home.
After weeks of humiliation and pain, Oscar and Ned were studies of courage and limpid eloquence in their trials. Oscar’s impromptu paean to ‘the love that dare not speak it’s name’ drew spontaneous applause in that stiff Victorian court.
Ned too was undaunted. “It’s not that I fear death.” He said. “I fear it as little as . . . a cup of tea.” Indeed. On hearing his death sentence Australia’s most notorious outlaw engaged his fellow Irishman, Supreme Court Justice, Sir Redmond Barry K.C.M.G in a lengthy dialogue on the meaning of his acts. (Wilde’s nemesis in court was likewise an Irishman he had previously known).
Barry concluded with a pompous lecture on social harmony, Kelly responding simply, clearly and ultimately with his famous defiance. “I will see you there, where I go”. Then Ned blew a kiss to his friend Kate Lloyd in the gallery, turned and left the dock apparently unconcerned.
But though, as with Wilde, it too reflected the great d©nouement of his life, Kelly’s most eloquent statement about his life’s betrayal of better hopes was not in words. As he prepared for the madness of Glenrowan, Kelly’s thoughts turned to that time in his short life when his courage and strength of character had been turned to better ends.
At just eleven, Ned saved a rich boy from drowning. Young Ned was presented with a green sash for his deed. Police removing Kelly’s armour at Glenrowan fourteen years later found the sash around his body, stained in his own blood.
The last word is Oscar’s though perhaps he could be speaking for Ned.
All trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death, and three times I have been tried. . . . Society . . . will have no place for me . . . ; but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on just and unjust alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me in great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole.
Oscar has my pity. And my awe. So too for all his flaws and his criminality does Ned.