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 who made him for the colour of his hair”.
In the above poem A E Houseman criticises the imprisonment of Oscar Wilde in Reading Jail for being a practicing homosexual at a time when it was illegal to participate in homosexual acts between consenting adults.
“The colour of his hair” is a reference to Wilde’s homosexuality which is natural and, as a consequence should not be condemned (the poet refers to Wilde cursing “the god who made him for the colour of his hair” which demonstrates that he felt that Wilde was created gay by god/nature).
As I pointed out in my post on Houseman’s “The Laws of God” the poet was himself gay and maintained an unrecipricated love for his university contemporary Moses Jackson, a love which, eventually led to the end of their friendship. Throughout his life Houseman avoided the fate of his contemporary, Wilde, however the sympathy for a fellow soul in pain shines through in the above poem.
Houseman died in 1936 so did not live to see the passage of legislation, in the 1960’s which decriminalised homosexual acts between consenting adults, a change which was long overdue.
(for a wonderful description of Wilde’s time in Reading Jail see Wilde’s “The Balad of Reading Jail”).