The Poem

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

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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. 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 a cross to mark the location. While the executed man may now be at peace, he was allowed no funeral rites; although Christ came to save sinners, the dead man is not allowed any indication of salvation. His only mourners are his fellow outcasts, the convicts. At this point, the poem might have concluded, if Wilde had not chosen to continue with two more cantos, deploring injustice and cruelty. The last four lines of the canto serve as Wilde’s epitaph.

Canto 5 is the controversial canto that is often excised by editors to “improve” the poem. Wilde is at his most emotional as he excoriates injustice and the inadequacies of the prison system. Prisons are built with “bricks of shame” (canto 5, line 3), kept from the sight of society. He adds his own indignation at the imprisonment of children (which shocked Wilde in Reading; he offered to pay the children’s fine). Food, water, and sanitary facilities are vile and scanty, degrading to the prisoners; the worst torture is isolation. These combine to break men’s spirits. Wilde contributes a brief sermon on repentance: “How else but through a broken heart/ May Lord Christ enter in?” (canto 5, line 14). These sorrowing souls have suffered enough punishment to merit salvation.

The shortest of the cantos is the sixth, with only three stanzas. It seems impersonal and objective after the passion of the previous stanzas. It offers a précis of the narrative, reiterating the message of killing the thing beloved, and restating Wilde’s theme of universal guilt.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 450

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. These allusions brighten the grim narrative and enhance Wilde’s message.

Although the poem is labeled a “ballad,” Wilde did not adhere to the traditional, four-line ballad stanza (with the second and fourth lines rhyming) but adopted the six-line stanza used occasionally in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) and in Thomas Hood’s “The Dream of Eugene Aram” to provide commentary. Wilde also borrowed iambic tetrameter (four repetitions of the iambic pattern of stress on the second syllable) rather than the five repetitions popular in English poetry. Frequently, this pattern has been used in humorous verse (by Lewis Carroll, for example), but Wilde managed it creditably. The metrical form and internal rhyme (a word in midline rhyming with a word at the end), as in “To dance to flutes to dance to lutes,” are effective in those passages describing the puppetlike jerking of the phantoms terrifying the convicts, but the general effect can be monotonous.

Indeed, Wilde borrowed more than the stanza form from Coleridge. Like Wilde’s phantoms, Coleridge’s “death fires” dance “About, about in reel and rout.” Early reviewers recognized Wilde’s debt to Coleridge and to Hood. They rated Wilde as more realistic in the trenchant narrative of the execution and burial of the convicted murderer, but more mannered and self-conscious in the total presentation.

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