The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde

You never know what you’re going to get when you read an Oscar Wilde. His writing really was an expression of the emotions he was feeling at that particular point in time.

Sometimes he was the playful comedian, such as in The Canterville Ghost, or the tortured soul of De Profundis or the despondent scribe of The Happy Prince.

The Happy Prince and other Tales is a book of five short stories; The Happy Prince, The Nightingale and the Rose, The Selfish Giant, The Devoted Friend and The Remarkable Rocket. I picked The Happy Prince, because it plays on the strings of my heart.

It is an exercise in futility. In essence the reality of our society and the inability to rid ourselves of the bleakness. Aside from that it is also a story of loyalty, friendship and love. The tale of two unlikely friends, who learn the meaning of love above the boundaries of romance or a physical relationship.

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.

Although decorated with the finest leaves of gold and expensive gems, the Happy Prince is made of lead.

One night there flew over the city a little Swallow

The Swallow had spent the whole summer romancing a coquettish reed (yes, you read that right, not a fellow bird, but a reed in a river), and was filled with disappointment that his intended love refused to accompany him to Egypt, his friends and warmer weather. He flew away, disappointed by the outcome of his advances, until he grew tired and decided to take shelter 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.

As he looked up towards the clear skies he realised the water was coming from just above him. In fact the water seemed to be tears falling from the eyes of the statue.’Why are you weeping?’

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.”
When I was alive and had a human heart,” answered the statue, “I did not know what tears were, for I lived in the Palace of Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. 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 ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is made of lead yet I cannot chose but weep.”

The Happy Prince points to a poor house in a little street. He tells the Swallow about the tired seamstress with the coarse red hands, all pricked by the needles, and her son who lies ill in his bed nearby. The little boy cries out for oranges, but all the woman can give him is 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.”

The Swallow says he is expected in Egypt, where his friends await him and together they will slumber together in the tomb of the great King.

“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.”“I don’t think I like boys,” answered the Swallow. But the Happy Prince looked so sad that the little Swallow was sorry.  “It is very cold here,” he said; “but I will stay with you for one night, and be your messenger.”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.

The Swallow flew over the ghetto, over the fine houses and many people until he came to the dwelling of the poor seamstress and her young son. He dropped the ruby in the bed next to the poorly boy and returned to the Happy Prince. The Swallow commented on the fact that he felt good inside, as if he had done something worthy.

“That is because you have done a good action,” said the Prince.

Meanwhile the small bird was attracting attention in the city, because he hadn’t flown to the south like his fellow winged friends.

What a remarkable phenomenon,” said the Professor of Ornithology as he was passing over the bridge.  “A swallow in winter!”  And he wrote a long letter about it to the local newspaper.

Once again the Swallow makes ready for his departure to the great lands of Egypt, but is asked to do the Prince another favour.

“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the Prince, “will you not stay with me one night longer?”
“Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,” said the Prince, “far away across the city I see a young man in a garret.  He is leaning over a desk covered with papers. 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.”

The Swallow agrees to wait one night longer and asks whether he should take the young man a 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.”

The Swallow began to weep and told the Prince he could not take his eye, but the Prince insisted.
So the Swallow plucked out the Prince’s eye, and flew away to the student’s garret.

Once more the bird flew over the city and bid his goodbyes, but found himself returning to the statue once more.

“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.”

The Swallow realises his end is nye. The cold has become too fierce and the food very scarce.

“Dear Prince, I must leave you, but I will never forget 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.”

The Happy Prince asks him for one more favour before his departure.

“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.”

The Swallow agrees to stay one more night, but refuses to pluck out the remaining eye. Insisting he cannot leave the Prince completely blinded, but the Prince commands him to take it anyway.

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.

The Swallow feels there is no way he can leave his new friend. What will he do without his eyes?
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 the Swallow sat the Prince’s feet and beguiled him with tales of warmer countries. Spoke to him of adventures he had lived and things he had seen. He told him of pygmies who fought with butterflies, a great green snake that sleeps in a palm tree, whilst twenty priests feed it with honey cakes.

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 over the city and returned to tell the Prince of the starving children, the frozen beggars and the destitute people. Under the archway of a bridge there lay two small boys in each other’s arms trying to keep one another warm.

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.”

So bit by bit, leaf by gold leaf the Swallow picked off until the Prince looked quite dreary and dull.
Then the snow came, and after the snow came the frost.

The poor little Swallow grew colder and colder, but he would not leave the Prince, he loved him too well. 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.

At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if something had broken.The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two. The Happy Prince was broken, just like the Swallow. He couldn’t bear to be without his friend. Meanwhile his desolate state did not go unnoticed in the city.

“Dear me! how shabby the Happy Prince looks!” he said. “How shabby indeed!” cried the Town Councillors “The ruby has fallen out of his sword, his eyes are gone, and he is golden no longer,” said the Mayor in fact, “he is little better than a beggar!”“And here is actually a dead bird at his feet!” continued the Mayor. “We must really issue a proclamation that birds are not to be allowed to die here.” 

So the statue of the Happy Prince was pulled down and melted for the lead.The town councillors discussed what to make out of the old statue. A statue of the major perhaps? Whilst melting down the statue the workers found the broken lead heart would not melt, no matter what they did.

“What a strange thing”, the workers said.”It will not melt in the furnace. We must throw it away.” So they threw it on a dust heap where the dead Swallow was also lying.

So there they lay, the two friends, who were joined together in friendship, humanity and in their need to help others. No thought for themselves or their own plight. Just wanting to reach out and touch others, and expecting nothing in return. In death they are reunited, as they were united for their short time together in life.

“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.”

I think this is one of Wilde’s most beautiful pieces. It speaks of the selfless acts of a few and selfishness of society.Treat others, as you yourself wish to be treated. Do what you can, even if it’s only a small gesture or a sapphire eyeball.

Read The Happy Prince and other Tales, The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Canterville Ghost or The Nightingale and the Rose by Oscar Wilde at Feedbooks. Download The Selfish Giant, The Happy Prince and other Tales or Selected Poems by Oscar Wilde at the Internet Archive. Alternatively you can listen to A House of Pomegranates letters (nr 7), De Profundis, or The Happy Prince and other Tales by Oscar Wilde at Librivox.
You can also read or download The Awakening by Kate Chopin, The Forbidden Love of the Invisible Girl, Dracula’s Guest, Metropolis, The War Prayer, The Outsider or Ghosts without Experience right here on the blog.

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