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 often by fellow convicts—all unpunished crimes. Furthermore, Wilde boldly convicts humanity of sins of commission and omission, particularly through indifference or betrayal. If his poetic technique changed in this poem, Wilde’s themes did not: Betrayal as a theme can be detected in most of his works, including the comedies. Appropriately, his last celebrated work emphasized this same theme.
The betrayed protagonist thus becomes a sacrificial hero, a penitent martyr (illustrated in the poem by the reference to the redeemed Parsifal’s staff blooming after his death). Had he been content to restrict himself to this theme, Wilde’s poem might have been his masterpiece. Wilde was passionate about the need to expose the brutality of the prison system, however, and wrote to his friend Robert Ross (who had suggested the poem’s title) that while he agreed that the poem should end at the lines “outcasts always mourn” (end of canto 5), he insisted that the rest of the poem be included as “propaganda.” The reference was to Wilde’s exposure of the harsh prison conditions he experienced. He suffered from the poor food, isolation, and inadequate sanitary provision and medical treatment, and used the poem to reveal these deprivations to the public in the hope of initiating reform. He risked ruining the poem, realizing that it suffered from a division in intention, but while he regretted the loss of art, he chose altruism. Ironically, although he consistently used betrayal as a theme, he betrayed his own artistic instincts for propaganda and won a small victory when his poem brought prison conditions to the attention of legislators.
The propagandizing sections, especially canto 5, received the harshest criticism. Most critics agree that exclusion of these sections strengthens the poem; William Butler Yeats printed an abbreviated version in his Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936). In whatever form it is encountered, most readers would agree with Wilde’s biographer Richard Ellman: “[O]nce read, it is never forgotten.”