The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 897

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.

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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. Wilde empathizes with the warders here, perhaps recalling his own kind treatment by guard Thomas Martin at Reading Gaol. The major emphasis in this section is on the shared feeling of the convicts, who serve almost as a Greek chorus and as fellow victims as the day of execution approaches. The men are shocked to see the open grave readied for the condemned man and spend the night tortured by terror and mad phantoms. Their identification with the condemned man is complete. They dread the dawn, and its arrival is described in a brilliant stanza as the shadows of the window bars move across the persona’s cell. Hope for a reprieve dies as the morning progresses. The men do not actually witness the execution, but their imaginations draw a more horrible view than the actual event. When the appointed hour strikes on the prison clock, the execution is signaled by a “wail/ Of impotent despair.” The speaker and his fellow convicts share the agony.

Wilde continues to describe the day of execution in canto 4, with the prisoners confined to their cells until noon, when they are released for exercise. Now the impact of the execution is evident as each man avoids the other’s eye. They suffer in their shared guilt, stalked by horror and fear. The watchful guards seem insensitive in this section as the speaker remarks on the discrepancy between their fresh uniforms and their quicklime-splattered boots. The executed man has been buried in quicklime to speed the decaying process; unfortunately, the sterile ground over his grave will never yield any growth. The persona wishes for a sign of redemption, roses blooming in the yard or...

(The entire section contains 1347 words.)

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