Wednesday, January 4, 2017

TO R. R., a poem: On Rereading the "De Profundis" of Oscar Wilde

Frontispiece from De Profundis (1905)
by Oscar Wilde

TO R. R.

HE stood alone, despairing and forsaken:
     Alone he stood, in desolation bare;
From him avenging powers e'en hope had taken:
     He looked,—and thou wast there!

Why hadst thou come?  Not profit, no: nor pleasure,
     Nor any faint desire of selfish gain,
Had moved thee, giving of thy heart's pure treasure,
     To share a culprit's pain.

In that drear place, as thou hadst lonely waited
     To greet with noble friendship one who came
Handcuffed from prison, pointed at, and hated,
     Bowed low in mortal shame,

No thought hadst thou of any special merit,
     So simple, natural, seemed that action fine
Which kept alive, in a despairing spirit,
     The spark of the divine,
And taught a dying soul that love is deathless,
     Even as when its holiest accents fell
Upon a woman's heart who listened, breathless,
     By a Samarian well.
"To R. R." by Florence Earle Coates. Published in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine (January 1912) and The Unconquered Air (1912).

The following is the passage to which Mrs. Coates' poem refers:
"When I was brought down from my prison to the Court of Bankruptcy, between two policemen, [Robbie] waited in the long dreary corridor that, before the whole crowd, whom an action so sweet and simple hushed into silence, he might gravely raise his hat to me, as, handcuffed and with bowed head, I passed him by. Men have gone to heaven for smaller things than that. It was in this spirit, and with this mode of love, that the saints knelt down to wash the feet of the poor, or stooped to kiss the leper on the cheek. I have never said one single word to him about what he did. I do not know to the present moment whether he is aware that I was even conscious of his action. It is not a thing for which one can render formal thanks in formal words. I store it in the treasure-house of my heart. I keep it there as a secret debt that I am glad to think I can never possibly repay. It is embalmed and kept sweet by the myrrh and cassia of many tears. When wisdom has been profitless to me, philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who have sought to give me consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth, the memory of that little, lovely, silent act of love has unsealed for me all the wells of pity: made the desert blossom like a rose, and brought me out of the bitterness of lonely exile into harmony with the wounded, broken, and great heart of the world..."
The Lippincott's issue mistakenly titles the poem "To T. R." but corrects their mistake a month later by stating, "Through a regrettable typographical error, Mrs. Florence Earle Coates's charming poem in the January Lippincott's was wrongfully entitled 'To T. R.' It should have been 'To R. R.,' as those familiar with the incident doubtless recognized."

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