Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Writing the poem within months of his release from prison proved cathartic to Wilde and restored his confidence in his creative powers. Wilde had been imprisoned for two years at hard labor after his conviction in May, 1895, for homosexual offenses. The legal proceedings and imprisonment were humiliating; he remarked that he was inspired to write the poem while “in the dock.” The poem was originally published with the author’s name given simply as “C.3.3,” his prison number at Reading, providing the poem with a grim souvenir of his prison life.

He found the opportunity to attack the penal system in the case of trooper Charles Wooldridge, who had slit his wife’s throat with a razor and was hanged at Reading. The incident appealed to Wilde on several levels: his pity for the condemned man, his identification with the trooper, and his conviction that humanity shares in guilt. While Wooldridge’s crime was vicious, his execution was inhumane. In recognizing that his own punishment exceeded his crime, Wilde accepted a bond with the condemned man, trapped in the same snare (canto 2, line 13).

He extends this identification to the reader; following Charles Baudelaire’s taunt “hypocrite lecteur [reader],” Wilde embroils the reader in his accusation of guilt: “For each man kills the thing he loves/ Yet each man does not die” (canto 1, line 9). Convicts were punished by the brutal prison system, by insensitive guards, and...

(The entire section is 560 words.)