Sunday, 9 November 2014


2014-45 Oscar Wilde: The Happy Prince

Oscar Wilde [1854-1900]
Oscar Wilde  was an Irish playwright and poet. His rich and dramatic portrayals of the human condition came at the height of the prosperity that swept through London in the late 19th century. 

Wilde wrote many short stories, plays and poems that continue to inspire millions around the world. We shall see two of his best fairy tales: "The Happy Prince" in this post and "The Selfish Giant" in the next.


High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two bright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt. One night there flew over the city a little Swallow. His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind.
All day long he flew, and at night-time he arrived at the city. "Where shall I put up?" he said; "I hope the town has made preparations." Then he saw the statue on the tall column. "I will put up there," he cried; "it is a fine position, with plenty of fresh air." So he alighted just between the feet of the Happy Prince.
"I have a golden bedroom," he said softly to himself as he looked round, and he prepared to go to sleep; but just as he was putting his head under his wing a large drop of water fell on him. "What a curious thing!" he cried; "there is not a single cloud in the sky, the stars are quite clear and bright, and yet it is raining." Then he looked up, and saw - Ah! what did he see?
The eyes of the Happy Prince were filled with tears, and tears were running down his golden cheeks. His face was so beautiful in the moonlight that the little Swallow was filled with pity. "Who are you?" he said. "I am the Happy Prince." "Why are you weeping then?" asked the Swallow; "you have quite drenched me."
"When I was alive and had a human heart," answered the statue, "I did not know what tears were. My courtiers called me the Happy Prince, and happy indeed I was, if pleasure be happiness. So I lived, and so I died. And now that I am dead they have set me up here so high that I can see all the misery of my city, and I cannot chose but weep."
"Far away in a little street there is a poor house. I can see a woman seated at a table. In a bed her little boy is lying ill. He has a fever, and is crying. His mother has nothing to give him but river water. Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow, will you not bring her the ruby out of my sword-hilt? My feet are fastened to this pedestal and I cannot move."
"Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow," said the Prince, "will you not stay with me for one night, and be my messenger? The boy is so thirsty, and the mother so sad." The Happy Prince looked so sad that the little Swallow was sorry. So the Swallow picked out the great ruby from the Prince's sword, and flew away with it in his beak over the roofs of the town.
At last he came to the poor house. In he hopped, and laid the great ruby on the table. Then he flew gently round the bed, fanning the boy's forehead with his wings. Then the Swallow flew back to the Happy Prince, and told him what he had done. "It is curious," he remarked, "but I feel quite warm now, although it is so cold."  "That is because you have done a good action," said the Prince. 
When day broke he flew down to the river and had a bath. "To-night I go to Egypt," said the Swallow, and he was in high spirits at the prospect. Wherever he went the Sparrows chirruped, and said to each other, "What a distinguished stranger!" so he enjoyed himself very much. When the moon rose he flew back to the Happy Prince. "Have you any commissions for Egypt?" he cried; "I am just starting."
"Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow," said the Prince, "far away across the city I see a young man in a garret. His hair is brown and crisp, and he has large and dreamy eyes. He is trying to finish a play for the Director of the Theatre, but he is too cold to write any more. There is no fire in the grate, and hunger has made him faint."
"I will wait with you one night longer," said the Swallow, who really had a good heart. "Shall I take him another ruby?" "Alas! I have no ruby now," said the Prince; "my eyes are all that I have left. They are made of rare sapphires. Pluck out one of them and take it to him. He will sell it to the jeweller, and buy food and firewood, and finish his play."
So the Swallow plucked out the Prince's eye, and flew away to the student's garret. The young man did not hear the flutter of the bird's wings, and when he looked up he found the beautiful sapphire lying on the withered violets. "I am beginning to be appreciated," he cried; "this is from some great admirer. Now I can finish my play," and he looked quite happy.
The next day the Swallow flew down to the harbour. He sat on the mast of a large vessel. "I am going to Egypt"! cried the Swallow, but nobody minded, and when the moon rose he flew back to the Happy Prince. "I am come to bid you good-bye," he cried. "Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow," said the Prince, "will you not stay with me one night longer?"
"It is winter," answered the Swallow, "and the chill snow will soon be here. In Egypt the sun is warm on the green palm-trees. Dear Prince, I must leave you, and next spring I will bring you back two beautiful jewels in place of those you have given away. The ruby shall be redder than a red rose, and the sapphire shall be as blue as the great sea."
"In the square below," said the Happy Prince, "there stands a little match-girl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare. Pluck out my other eye, and give it to her, and her father will not beat her."
"I will stay with you one night longer," said the Swallow, "but I cannot pluck out your eye. You would be quite blind then." "Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow," said the Prince, "do as I command you."  So he plucked out the Prince's other eye, and darted down with it. He swooped past the match-girl, and slipped the jewel into the palm of her hand. 
Then the Swallow came back to the Prince. "You are blind now," he said, "so I will stay with you always." "No, little Swallow," said the poor Prince, "you must go away to Egypt." "I will stay with you always," said the Swallow, and he slept at the Prince's feet.
All the next day he sat on the Prince's shoulder, and told him stories of what he had seen in strange lands. He told him of the Sphinx, who is as old as the world itself, and lives in the desert, and knows everything; of the merchants, who walk slowly by the side of their camels, and of the King of the Mountains of the Moon.
"Dear little Swallow," said the Prince, "you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. There is no Mystery so great as Misery. Fly over my city, little Swallow, and tell me what you see there."
So the Swallow flew into dark lanes, and saw the white faces of starving children looking out listlessly at the black streets. Then he flew back and told the Prince what he had seen. "I am covered with fine gold," said the Prince, "you must take it off, leaf by leaf, and give it to my poor; the living always think that gold can make them happy."
Leaf after leaf of the fine gold the Swallow picked off, till the Happy Prince looked quite dull and grey. Leaf after leaf of the fine gold he brought to the poor, and the children's faces grew rosier, and they laughed and played games in the street. "We have bread now!" they cried.
Then the snow came, and after the snow came the frost. The streets looked as if they were made of silver, they were so bright and glistening; long icicles like crystal daggers hung down from the eaves of the houses, everybody went about in furs, and the little boys wore scarlet caps and skated on the ice.
The poor little Swallow grew colder and colder, but he would not leave the Prince, he loved him too well. He picked up crumbs outside the baker's door when the baker was not looking and tried to keep himself warm by flapping his wings.
But at last he knew that he was going to die. He had just strength to fly up to the Prince's shoulder once more. "Good-bye, dear Prince!" he murmured, "will you let me kiss your hand?" "I am glad that you are going to Egypt at last, little Swallow," said the Prince, "you have stayed too long here; but you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you." "It is not to Egypt that I am going," said the Swallow. "I am going to the House of Death. Death is the brother of Sleep, is he not?" And he kissed the Happy Prince on the lips, and fell down dead at his feet. 

"Bring me the two most precious things in the city," said God to one of His Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird. "You have rightly chosen," said God, "for in my garden of Paradise this little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me."

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