The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is not a typical ballad in that commentary ranges beyond the narrative. While Oscar Wilde is focusing on the story of the execution of Royal House Guards trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge for the brutal murder of his wife, he is also meditating on injustice, betrayal, and the need for prison reform. The poem is divided, rather unevenly, into six “cantos,” as Wilde labeled them; each division is further subdivided into groupings usually separated by asterisks.

The first canto (sixteen stanzas: six and ten) concentrates on the condemned man, whom the persona (the voice speaking in the poem) never meets but observes during exercise period, eyeing the sky wistfully. Wilde quickly shifts to presenting the impact on the persona, who reacts to the news that the convict is to be executed. He then meditates on the wider implications of guilt: “each man” is guilty of a crime—killing the thing he loves—but is not held accountable. The persona then resumes his account of the plight of the condemned man, execution (a fate withheld from all the guilty, bonded as they are to the condemned man). The description is remarkable in that while Wilde never actually witnessed an execution, he used his creative imagination to help his readers share the agony of the experience.

In the second canto, Wilde reiterates the convicted man’s pathos as he enjoys the last delights of the earth: the sun and the morning air. The speaker and his fellow convicts regard the condemned man with awe, and they regret the debt the prisoner must pay. At this point, Wilde unites himself and the condemned man in a strange bond: Both are outcasts caught in a trap of sin and punishment.

Canto 3 is the longest (at thirty-seven stanzas), describing the period of the pre-execution ritual. Cool, unfeeling administrators play their roles: the governor, the doctor, and the chaplain, who seem callously indifferent to the man’s plight. The condemned man wishes that the day of execution would come, perhaps to end the unbearable waiting. Guards may wonder about his motives in welcoming death but cannot express any sympathy, or their positions would be intolerable....

(The entire section is 897 words.)