The Ballad of Reading Gaol

by Oscar Wilde

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The Ballad of Reading Gaol is the only major work that Wilde produced after his release from prison on May 19, 1897. By mid-October, he had finished this poem, consisting of 654 lines, 109 six-line verses. It was first published the following February. Wilde’s name did not appear on the title page. Rather, the number of his prison cell at Reading Gaol—C.3.3.—was the designation by which the book was identified. By writing in six-line stanzas rather than the four-line stanzas typically found in ballads, Wilde was able to add reflective statements to each verse. Using the term that Ezra Pound later made famous, Wilde divided his poem into six “cantos.”

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is unique among Wilde’s work because it deals with the harsh realities of prison and with the even harsher reality of an execution, the taking of a human life, through legal means, by fellow humans. The world depicted in this poem is light-years away from the affluent drawing rooms in which his social comedies are set. It is equally distant from the fantasy worlds of his other poetry and his fairy tales.

The poem’s first canto provides the introduction of the murderer into the prison community and the speculation of the other prisoners about him. The canto reflects a softening as it considers the crimes that all individuals commit, commenting on how all people at times kill with a “bitter look” or in some other covert but socially acceptable way. Finally, the prisoners realize that they all have a connection with the condemned man, that, in their own ways, they are all guilty with him. He becomes a sort of Christ figure expiating the universal sins of humankind.

The second canto relates the condemned man’s final moments, but it also emphasizes the identification that the other prisoners feel with him as he faces execution. Canto 3 reflects on the days before the execution and on how the prisoners develop a kinship with the unfortunate prisoner. The next canto presents the psychological impact of the execution on the other prisoners.

Structurally, the poem ends with the fourth canto. Wilde chose to continue it beyond that because he wanted to propagandize for prison reform, and it is in this forum that he can best do that. He castigates the legal and prison systems of his time, pointing out that all that is good in humans withers in prison. Despite his recent bitter experience with the legal and prison systems, Wilde remains remarkably detached and objective in his presentation.

This poem is not Victorian. It represents a new direction for Wilde, but one that he did not have the vitality to pursue further after the publication of this poem. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a poem more in the tradition of A. E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (1896), which Wilde had read, than of the Victorian poets, whose work is more like Wilde’s earlier poetry.

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