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 (pronounced "redding jail") on 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 Tuesday, 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 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 on February 13, 1898 [7] 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. The first edition, of 800 copies, sold out within a week, and Smithers announced that a second edition would be ready within another week; that was printed on February 24th, in 1000 copies, which also sold well. A third edition, of 99 numbered copies "signed by the author" was printed on March 4th, on the same day a fourth edition of 1200 ordinary copies was printed. A fifth edition of a 1000 copies was printed on March 17th, and a sixth edition was printed in 1000 copies on May 21st, 1898. So far the book's title page had identified the author only as C.3.3., although many reviewers, and of course those who bought the numbered and autographed third edition copies, knew that Wilde was the author, but the seventh edition, printed on June 23, 1899 actually revealed the author's identity, putting the name Oscar Wilde, in square brackets, below the C.3.3..[8][9] It brought him a small income in his remaining lifetime.

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 stanzas 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 allegedly 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 too long for declamation".[10]

History of the poem[edit]

Wilde entered prison on 25 March 1895, sentenced to two years' hard labor - a punishment that was considered more severe than mere penal servitude. He was first sent, briefly, to Newgate Prison for initial processing, the next week moved to Petonville prison, where "hard labor" consisted of many hours of pointless effort in walking a treadmill or picking oakum (separating the fibers in scraps of old navy ropes), and allowed to read only the Bible and Pilgrim's Progress. Prisoners were not allowed to speak to each other, and, out of their solitary cells, were required to wear a cap with a sort of thick veil so they would not be recognized by other prisoners. A few months later he was moved to Wandsworth Prison, which had a similar regimen. While he was there, he was required to declare bankruptcy, by which he lost virtually all his possessions including his books and manuscripts. On November 23, 1895 he was again moved, to the prison at Reading, which also had similar rules, where he spent the remainder of his sentence, and was assigned the third cell on the third floor of C ward - and thereafter addressed and identified only as "C.3.3" and not by name. Prisoners were identified only by their cell numbers and not by name.[11] About five months after Wilde arrived at Reading Gaol, Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards, was brought to Reading to await his trial for murdering his common-law wife (and promptly presenting himself and confessing to a policeman) on March 29, 1896; on June 17th, Wooldridge was sentenced to death and returned to Reading for his execution, which took place on Tuesday, July 7th, 1896 - the first hanging at Reading in 18 years. Wilde was released from prison on May 18th, 1897 and he promptly went to France, never returning to Britain. He died in Paris, at the age of 46, on 30 November 1900.[12]

While in France, surviving on an allowance from his wife of a mere three pounds a week - deliberately meagre to discourage the sort of high living that had led to his downfall - Wilde endeavored to find additional money. In August 1897, he sent the publisher Leonard Smithers an initial draft of the Ballad, which made such an impression that Smithers was enthusiatic about publishing it and even approached Aubrey Beardsley to do an illustration for it (which was not done). Thereafter there was a very active correspondence between the two of them, as Wilde was repeatedly revising and expanding the text, and supervising from afar the choice and size of typeface and the layout of the work. However, even the printing house hired to do the book demanded a change - for fear that the prison doctor would sue over the line which originally read "While the coarse-mouthed doctor gloats," - and this was changed to "While some coarse-mouthed doctor gloats." As one biographer (Ingleby) said, "Never, perhaps, since Gray's "Elegy" had a poem been so revised, pruned, and polished over and over again as this cry from a prison cell." Originally the first edition - with no assurance of a second edition - was planned for only 400 copies, but when Wilde calculated the printing expenses, he realized that even selling all 400 would not cover costs, and at his instigation Smithers instructed the printing house to double the number of copies and keep the printing plates in hopes of a reprinting. As publication day approached, Wilde was occasionally seized by a sort of panic over his finances and the risks of the poem failing to sell well, and made some half-hearted efforts to sell the poem's copyright for immediate cash; there were only a few disappointing nibbles and no such sale was made. Fortunately, the poem sold very well and very quickly, and obtained such a stir that subsequent printings also sold well for more than a year, assuring Wilde of a steady income which he did not outlive, as he died less than four years after the Ballad first appeared.[13]

It has been suggested [14] that Wilde was, to some degree, inspired by poem IX in A.E. Housman's A Shropshire Lad (1896), which alludes to the hanging of condemned prisoners:

They hang us now in Shrewsbury jail:
    The whistles blow forlorn,
And trains all night groan on the rail
    To men that die at dawn.

Although there is no specific documentation to show Wilde's active revising after the appearance of the first edition, there were some slight changes made in the second edition, which was printed only two weeks after the first edition went on sale. For example, in the first edition a line read "And his step was light" and in the second edition it becomes "And his step seemed light". These tiny alterations persisted through the seventh edition, the last edition handled by Smithers, and thereafter to most of the reprints.[15] Since Smithers had the printers retain the plates from the first edition, it seems plausible that these were deliberate revisions done at Wilde's request.

Wilde did acknowledge (evidently to several people, since numerous separate sources recalled this) a glaring error in the very first line of the poem, "He did not wear his scarlet coat" - because Wooldridge, as a member of the Royal Horse Guards, had a blue uniform - but justified this poetic license because the second line would make no sense if it said "For blood and wine are blue." [16]

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?"[17]

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 (the series was set in approximately the same year as the first publication of the poem).
  • 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!, and referenced in Act IV of "Long Day's Journey Into Night"

See also[edit]

External references[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. 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, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (1914, London) page 408. 'Stuart Mason' was the pen-name of rare book dealer Christopher Sclater Millard (1872-1927), who had been Robert Ross's secretary. His Bibliography of the Poems of Oscar Wilde (1907, London) has some details about the Ballad that do not appear in his larger 1914 book. Although the announced date of publication was February 13th, that was a Sunday so the book was not actually available for purchase until the next day, ibid pages 408-409. The first edition consisted of 800 copies on Van Gelder Dutch handmade paper, selling for 2 shillings 6 pence, and 30 copies printed on Japanese vellum for 21 shillings (one guinea).
  8. ^ Mason, Stuart (1914; new ed. 1972) Bibliography of Oscar Wilde. Rota pub; Haskell House Pub ISBN 0-8383-1378-7 pgs. 408–423
  9. ^ Ellmann, Richard (1988). Oscar Wilde. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 978-0-394-75984-5 pg 526
  10. ^ Ross, Robert (ed.), 'Selected Poems of Oscar wilde including the Ballad of Reading Gaol', Methuen, London, 5th ed., 1912.
  11. ^ Stokes, Anthony, Pit of Shame: The Real Ballad of Reading Gaol (2007, Winchesterm UK, Wateerside Press) pages 38 & 83.
  12. ^ from various biographies of Oscar Wilde, most notably H. Montgoemery Hyde (1976), Richard Ellman (1987), Frank Harris (1916), Stuart Mason's Bibliographies (1907 & 1914), and the notes in Isobel Murray, ed., Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man and Prison Writings (1990, Oxford Univ. Press) pages 219-224.
  13. ^ Nelson, James G., Publisher to the Decadents: Leonard Smithers in the careers of Beardsley, Wilde, Dowson (2000, Pennsylvania State Univ.) chapt. 6, pages 173-224; Harris, Frank, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions (1916, NY) vol. 2, pages 387-400; Ingleby, Leonard Cresswell, Oscar Wilde (1907, London) pages 283-298 (the line quoted is on page 286); Mason, Stuart, Bibliography of the Poems of Oscar Wilde (1907, London) pages 76-84; Mason, Stuart, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (1914, London) pages 407-423.
  14. ^ Maston, Stuart, Bibliography of the Poems of Oscar Wilde (1907, London) pages 80-81; Harris, Frank, Oscar Wilde: His Life and Confessions (1916, NY) vol.2, page 389-390.
  15. ^ Mason, Stuart, Bibliography of the Poems of Oscar Wilde (1907, London) pages 82-84; Mason, Stuart, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (1914, London) pages 417-419.
  16. ^ e.g., Hart-Davis, Rupert, The Letters of Oscar Wilde (1962, NY, Harcourt) page 730.
  17. ^ Safire, William (June 7, 1987). "Going Gentle On My Mind". The New York Times.