The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a poem by Oscar Wilde, written in exile either in Bernevas-Le-Grand or in Dieppe, France, after his release from Reading Gaol. 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, earlier that year at Clewer, near Windsor. He was aged only 30 when executed.
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. 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”. 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”.
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. It brought him a little money.
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?”
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.
Photo: Statue of Oscar Wilde, Sculptor: Danny Osborne, Merrion Square, Dublin