Author: Oscar Wilde
My rating of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’: 5 out of 5
Ordinarily, on a Sunday, I review a short piece of fiction. Today I am breaking away from the usual sort of short read I review and opting for a poem. I know, I know, poetry isn’t for everyone, but I truly feel that this poem (whether you love poetry or detest it) truly could be for everyone. Please note that the book/ebook does contain many other poems by Wilde. This is a review of the singular poem by the title ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’ not the other works that appear in the book of the same name. The whole book, if downloaded as an ebook, is free, though. So no excuse not to give it a go and ignore the rest if you feel the need 🙂 A small piece of backstory on the poem itself:
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde, was written in 1897 after Wilde’s release from Reading Gaol, where he had been incarcerated for two years (sentenced to two years hard labour) after being convicted of homosexual offences. During his time in Reading Gaol, the hanging of a trooper from the Royal Horse Guards took place. A man named Charles Thomas Wooldridge had been convicted of cutting the throat of his wife and had been sentenced to hang for his crime. He also suggested that the poem 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 poem is a long one, but this is no bad thing. I would have happily carried on reading if it were fifty times the length, such is the beauty and skill behind the crafting of this poem. Wilde had a talent for turning the English language into a thing of ornate beauty that was to be marvelled at. A skill that will not be rivalled in my opinion. As you have probably guessed; I love this piece with a passion and it is one that I read at least twice monthly.
Throughout the poem, Wilde does not side with the prisoner and condemn the law for being wrong. He accepts that the crime this man has committed is a heinous one. No, he gets into the mind of a prisoner and conveys their fears and emotions upon witnessing the hanging, upon walking past the empty grave that lay waiting hungrily for the body of the condemned man. Indeed, it gives the reader insights into the mind-sets of the lawmen of the day and how certain beliefs were upheld in the running of the prisons.
For three long years they will not sow
Or root or seedling there:
For three long years the unblessed spot
Will sterile be and bare,
And look upon the wondering sky
With unreproachful stare.
They think a murderer’s heart would taint
Each simple seed they sow.
It is not true! God’s kindly earth
Is kindlier than men know,
And the red rose would but blow more red,
And the white rose whiter blow.
But what it does better than all else is help you feel the despair of the men within the cells. They have all committed some crime or another, but, as Wilde often says ‘who is to say if they have done some great or little thing’ so the reader does not have to feel too bad empathising with such men. I certainly couldn’t help it. I felt as though I was there with them at times, breaking the rocks or ripping the tallow ropes with my bare hands until they bled.
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
Or to give our anguish scope;
Something was dead in each of us,
And what was dead was hope.
Yet another quote:
Or else he might be moved, and try
To comfort or console;
And what should Human Pity do
Pent up in Murderers’ Hole?
What word of grace in such a place
Could help a brother’s soul?
I apologise for all the quotes (you only have two more to sit through) but they really help to illustrate how wondrous Wilde’s inner look at the misery and despair of prison life. Not that it was all doom and gloom. He does take time out in the poem to be thankful for the beautiful things in the world such as the sky, the weather etc … The following quote is one that always stuck with me, more for the last two lines (as it is one I have often used myself when describing the tedium of some task or another).
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.
To end the poem, Wilde reverts back to the opening subject matter and the overall reason for the poem itself; the hanging of the trooper. Although he never uses the man’s name (he does make reference of the initials at the start as an acknowledgement of sorts), the theme of how badly the execution affected Wilde is clear to see. He leaves the judging of right or wrong to the reader and never says whether he believes the man should have been hung or not. He never once questions the right or wrongfulness of the law of the time, again, all of this is left to the reader to decide.
In Reading Gaol by Reading Town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.
And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
In silence let him lie;
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.