The Ballad of Reading Gaol

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The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1904)

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a poem by Oscar Wilde, written in exile either in Berneval-le-Grand or in Dieppe, France, after his release from Reading Gaol on or about 19 May 1897. Wilde had been incarcerated in Reading, after being convicted of homosexual offences in 1895 and sentenced to two years' hard labour in prison.

During his imprisonment, on Saturday 7 July 1896, a hanging took place. Charles Thomas Wooldridge had been a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards. He was convicted of cutting the throat of his wife, Laura Ellen,[1] earlier that year at Clewer, near Windsor. He was aged only 30 when executed.[2][3]

Wilde spent mid-1897 with Robert Ross in Berneval-le-Grand, where he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The poem narrates the execution of Wooldridge; it moves from an objective story-telling to symbolic identification with the prisoners as a whole.[4] No attempt is made to assess the justice of the laws which convicted them, but rather the poem highlights the brutalisation of the punishment that all convicts share. Wilde juxtaposes the executed man and himself with the line "Yet each man kills the thing he loves".[5] Wilde too was separated from his wife and sons. He adopted the proletarian ballad form, and suggested it be published in Reynold's Magazine, "because it circulates widely among the criminal classes – to which I now belong – for once I will be read by my peers – a new experience for me".[6]

The finished poem was published by Leonard Smithers in 1898 under the name C.3.3., which stood for cell block C, landing 3, cell 3. This ensured that Wilde's name – by then notorious – did not appear on the poem's front cover. It was not commonly known, until the 7th printing in June 1899, that C.3.3. was actually Wilde. It was a commercial success, going through seven editions in less than two years, only after which "[Oscar Wilde]" was added to the title page, though many in literary circles had known Wilde to be the author.[7][8] It brought him a little money in his remaining lifetime, which ended with his death on 30 November 1900.

The poem consists of 109 stanzas of 6 lines, of 8-6-8-6-8-6 syllables, and rhyming a-b-c-b-d-b. Some stanzs incorporate rhymes within some of all of the 8-syllable lines. The whole poem is grouped into 6 untitled sections of 16, 13, 37, 23, 17 & 3 stanzas. A version with only 63 of the stanzas, divided into 4 sections of 15, 7, 22 & 19 stanzas, and based on the original draft, was included in the posthumous editions of Wilde's poetry edited by Robert Ross, "for the benefit of reciters and their audiences who have found the entire poem to long for declamation".[9]

Notable excerpts[edit]

Several passages from the poem have become famous:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard.
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

The line is a nod to Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, when Bassanio asks "Do all men kill the things they do not love?"[10]

A passage from the poem was chosen as the epitaph on Wilde's tomb;

And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

References in other media[edit]

  • During the climax of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, as The Boy is being led toward the gallows, one of the title-cards quotes the following excerpt:

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.

  • In a 1962 episode of The Virginian entitled "The Brazen Bell", a timid schoolteacher (George C. Scott) recites "The Ballad Of Reading Gaol" in order to distract a convicted wife-killer who is holding him and a group of schoolchildren hostage.
  • In Vladimir Mayakovsky's long poem About This (Russian: Про это), there is a section entitled "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (Баллада Редингской тюрьмы).
  • In A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, while discussing the experimental aversion therapy administered to the narrator Alex, Dr Branom says, "Each man kills the thing he loves, as the poet-prisoner said".

"The Ballad of Reading Gaol" is also referenced and quoted in Eugene O'Neil's, Ah, Wilderness!

See also[edit]


  1. ^ GRO Register of Deaths: JUN qtr 1896 Wooldridge, Laura Ellen aged 23 Windsor 2c 241
  2. ^ "And I, May I Say Nothing?". the OSScholars. Archived from the original on June 15, 2006. Retrieved May 22, 2006. 
  3. ^ GRO Register of Deaths: SEP qtr 1896 Wooldridge, Charles Thomas aged 30 Reading 2c 210
  4. ^ Sandulescu, C. George, ed. (1994). Rediscovering Oscar Wilde. Gerrards Cross [England]: C. Smythe. ISBN 0-86140-376-2 (1994) pg. 308
  5. ^ Sandulescu, pg. 310
  6. ^ Kiberd, D. (2000) Irish Classics Granata ISBN 1-86207-459-3 (2000) pg. 336
  7. ^ Mason, Stuart (1914; new ed. 1972) Bibliography of Oscar Wilde. Rota pub; Haskell House Pub ISBN 0-8383-1378-7 pgs. 408–10
  8. ^ Ellmann, Richard (1988). Oscar Wilde. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-394-75984-5 pg 526
  9. ^ Ross, Robert (ed.), 'Selected Poems of Oscar wilde including the Ballad of Reading Gaol', Methuen, London, 5th ed., 1912.
  10. ^ Safire, William (June 7, 1987). "Going Gentle On My Mind". The New York Times.