It is ‘the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world … the spirit of a spiritless situation’. Karl Marx was writing about religion, but it could’ve been poetry.
Today’s poem is a protest, a small human gesture of defiance. It was written by the classical scholar A. E. Housman shortly after the trial and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde for ‘gross indecency’, a Victorian euphemism for homosexual behaviour. The thought, that you can no more decide your sexuality than you can the colour of your hair (and that it no more matters, in moral terms, either), is a remarkably modern one. Too modern for Housman to publish in his lifetime, sadly, for fear of being ‘outed’ himself.
Its lines are long and proud and want to be chanted. I hope you enjoy doing so! Do leave me a comment, too, whether you’re blond(e), black, brunet(te), bright red, burnt orange or beautifully bald.
The Colour of His Hair
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.
A. E. Housman (1859 – 1936)