'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' by Oscar Wilde


In 1895, Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) was found guilty of 'acts of gross indecency with other male persons' and sentenced to two years' hard labour. He was sent first to Pentonville, then to Wandsworth and finally to Reading Gaol.

Upon his release in May 1897, Wilde departed for France where he settled near Dieppe. He was never agan to see his wife, Constance, nor to return to either England or Ireland. While at Dieppe, Wilde wrote two lettters to the Daily Chronicle protesting about the brutalities of prison life, including the inhumane treatment of children in gaol.

A month before his second letter appeared in 1898, Wilde published the Ballad of Reading Gaol, a grimly realistic poem which describes the hanging of Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards, for the murder of his wife. Its publication gave the author's name as C.3.3 (Wilde's number in Reading Gaol, his cell being the third on the third floor of Block C).

The British Library holds a significant collection of his manuscripts, including drafts of The Importance of Being Earnest and extensive correspondence including letters to Gladstone, William Morris and Robert Ross. Also in the collection are documents relating to Wilde's trial and imprisonment.

These images are of the publisher's proofs annoted, it is assumed, by Wilde before the publication of the poem.

The poem: 'The Ballard of Reading Gaol'

Although public executions had been abolished in 1868, private executions still took place. In this poem Wilde's aim was to capture the reality of capital punishment and contribute to the debate on penal reform.

The poem was praised for its social realism, but, as Wilde had feared, many critics felt the poem's propagandist aims undermined its aesthetic achievements. Written in the form of a folk ballad – which enjoyed a popular revival in the 1890s – the voice in the poem is not that of a traditional street balladeer but of a fellow prisoner of the condemned man.

The final stanzas of the poem, including the famous line 'And all men kill the thing they love', raise the ballad beyond social protest to the recognition of a universal human paradox. The poem's final lines, which look forward to Christ's Second Coming, point beyond social reform to the judgement of another world.

Wilde died in 1900 at the age of 46, a mere 12 years after publishing his first work of fiction. He was initially buried in a pauper's grave at Bagneaux cemetery on the outskirts of Paris. In 1909 his remains were moved to Père Lachaise Cemetery, with a tomb designed by Jacob Epstein.

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'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' by Oscar Wilde
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Oscar Wilde
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