Monday, April 21, 2008

Oh Who is That Young Sinner - a National Poetry Month post

You may remember past mentions on my blog of Oscar Wilde and his poems. Wilde's writing continues to resonate more than a century later. Wilde spent time in prison for "gross indecency" (a phrase used to indicate his homosexuality), and emerged a somewhat broken man. A.E. Housman wrote the following poem about Wilde's incarceration, but withheld publication of the poem until after his death. I'm not certain what Housman's precise views on homosexuality were (he certainly had fallen in love with his heterosexual roommate at school and been rebuffed), I like to think that Housman was ahead of his times in realizing that homosexuality is innate, and not a choice. Certainly his comparison to something as God-given as the color of one's hair seems to indicate that that may have been the case.

Oh Who Is That Young Sinner
by A.E. Housman

Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they're taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

'Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time 'twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn't bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Oh a deal of pains he's taken and a pretty price he's paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they've pulled the beggar's hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they're haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.

Now 'tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.


This poem is written in couplets using lines known as "fourteeners," (a line with seven iambic feet in them, also called heptameter). A quick bit of counting on your part will show that more of the lines in this poem have 15 syllables than 14, but all possess 7 iambic feet, and the first beat in the fifteen-beat lines is usually a pick-up of sorts, mostly of words that could be dropped without damaging the meaning of the lines (e.g., "and", "now", "oh," etc.).

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