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.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The poem represents a break with Wilde’s previous poetic style, lush verse heavily indebted to Romantic poets such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Keats, and to Victorian poets Algernon Swinburne and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Wilde, instead, chooses a more direct, less flamboyant style and often concentrates on detail: “We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones/ We turned the dusty drill” (canto 3, line 9).

Some of the weaker passages depend upon cold abstractions (Death, Dread, Doom), but the strain in poetic technique is eased with vivid personifications: “Sleep walks wild-eyed and cries to Time” (canto 5, line 8); “crooked shapes of Terror crouched” (canto 3, line 19). The grim narrative is brightened by images such as “the little tent of blue” and “clouds with sails of silver.” These personifications are often supported by similes: “Like a casque of scorching steel” (canto 1, line 5).

It is not surprising, in a poem about sin and redemption, that Wilde alludes to biblical sources, as in the description of sacrificial victims, “The bitter wine upon a sponge”; in “the holy hands that took/ The thief to Paradise” (canto 5, line 15), suggesting Christ as redeemer; and in the description of the first murder (the story of Cain and Abel). Another powerful allusion is to the legend found in Wagner’s Tannhauser (canto 4, line 4) when a pilgrim’s staff blossoms to signify the redemption of a sinner....

(The entire section is 450 words.)