Updated date:

Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Oscar Wilde

Introduction and Excerpt from "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" features a journey into an alleged prison critique and is made up of six movements. Each movement features sestets of differing numbers. Each sestet is composed in the same rime-scheme, traditionally considered the ballad form: ABCBDB. The rhythm also allows for an occasional internal rime.

The poem's theme features the speaker's personal knowledge of life in prison, that is, "Reading Gaol." The speaker begins by reporting on the hanging of a fellow prisoner. The speaker grabs the reader's attention by making the extraordinary assertion that, "each man kills the thing he loves." However, the speaker notes that even though all men do this deed, not all of them pay for it with their own lives.

This poem has often been promoted as a call for prison reform in Britain; however, because it supplies only the opinion of the speaker's own view of his own experience, it cannot be taken so seriously. The philosophical stance at which the speaker arrives can only be considered in its idiosyncratic quiddity.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

I
He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

To read the complete poem, please visit “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” at the Academy of American Poets.

Reading of "The Ballad of Reading Gaol"

Commentary

Oscar Wilde's poem, "The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” has often been interpreted and promoted as a call for prison reform in 19th century Britain. However, Wilde’s literary output must always be taken with a grain of salt; his colorful biography has always gained more attention than his literary accomplishments.

First Movement - Part I: Several Different Threads

In this first movement, the speaker hangs out several threads of the narrative that he will weave together throughout his tale: 1) prisoners putter around the prison with a wistful sag to the face; 2) the prisoners sense that the sky hovers over them like a head-dress made of lead; 3) and his ultimate, personal favorite, "each man kills the thing he loves."

The speaker begins the narration by reporting that a fellow prisoner, the one who is about to be hanged, "did not wear his scarlet coat / For blood and wine are red." The man had allegedly taken the life of his wife. Oddly, he also supposedly loved her. Yet he cut her throat, as she slept. The speaker reports that the man who killed his wife in such a gruesome manner was caught at the very location of his crime. He was covered in blood, a fact that accounts for his "scarlet coat."

Second Movement - Part II: T he Impression of Pain

The speaker describes his environment which includes a guard who wears "shabby grey" clothes. The guard apparently continues to walk the yard for a stretch of six weeks. The guard represents that wistful look that everyone on the inside seems to possess. The speaker is impressed with the inmates' pain, and he feels overcome knowing that so many of them would be facing death by hanging.

Third Movement- Part III: No Not Deprive the State

The speaker is obviously captivated by the fact that the guardsmen continue to make sure the inmates do not off themselves, thereby depriving the state of killing them. The speaker observes the details of the various officials who work to keep the inmates in line for execution. He dramatizes the eerie atmosphere that persists before each execution. That special night before a hanging he describes the corridors as "full of forms of Fear."

Fourth Movement - Part IV: Faulty Details Become Bleeding Heart Effusion

The speaker then offers some questionable details that earlier readers of this piece might have noted but later those keen on bleeding heart liberal effusion would have swallowed whole hog. For example, the speaker reports that after each hanging, the dead man's body was buried in a grave near the prison wall, and it was then covered with lime. Of course, the body would then decompose back into its earthly elements. However, the speaker colorfully inserts the dramatic nonfact that by day the lime would eat the flesh and by night it would eat the bones. Interestingly, lime seems to have the ability to distinguish day from night.

The speaker laments the fact that no flowers could adorn the dead hanged man's grave, while asserting that he was treated, that is, hanged as a beast would be. One would have to search one's recollection for an image of the state hanging some dog, cow, goat, etc. Despite the speaker's drifting off into pure fiction, he does turn quite to his spiritual nature through his hatred of his days of incarceration. Interestingly and blessedly, the speaker does choose the love of Christ over the unChristian brutality he has experienced in "gaol." He waxes quite humble as he offers:

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonoured grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save.

Fifth Movement - Part V: Equivocation About the Law

If the poet had set out to implicate the prison establishment for unlawful, inhumane acts, he surely would not have penned the following lines: "I know not whether Laws be right, / Or whether Laws be wrong." The speaker then goes on to report his own horrifying experience and to suggest that no one deserves to be treated in such an inhumane manner. The state has no right to inflict wounds on its citizen, especially on those who are already wounded. The speaker therefore fashions his lamentation thusly:

The vilest deeds like poison weeds
Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair.

Despite such observation and conclusion on the part of the speaker, his wailing can only be accepted as his own unique experience. It cannot be accepted as an indictment of an entire system. The speaker later on says, "But God's eternal Laws are kind / And break the heart of stone." This statement unveils the speaker's true comprehension of karma, that is, sowing and reaping. The speaker has, in fact, become educated by his experience of incarceration—and is that not the real purpose of placing individuals in jail? And he expresses his wisdom quite eloquently:

Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

In Paramahansa Yogananda's Autobiography of a Yogi, a wondering sadhu remarked: "Pain the prod to remembrance." Those who cannot bring themselves to accept the wisdom of Indian yogi might take the same wisdom from Oscar Wilde's speaker. Oscar Wilde is wildly popular with the same-sex community, whose relationship with Christ might often seem tentative.

Sixth Movement- Part VI: A Killing Look or Word

The speaker finally confronts the strange assertion that, "each man kills the thing he loves." He softens that assertion by stating that that killing might be with a "bitter look" or even some "flattering word." Thus his earlier assertion was metaphorical at the most and cannot be on any scale compared to the actual killing, that is, ending the life of another human being.

The poem can be considered a successful piece of drama. The speaker portrays his own life experience, building a plausible narrative. That activists wish to take it for more than it actually accomplishes is unfortunate, and it is unfortunate that too many activists rely on half-truths and pure fiction, when truth is the quality that sets on free.

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Related Articles