The Ballad of Reading Gaol

1 January 2017

The Ballad of Reading Gaol was written after his release and in France, in 1897, though it was published in 1898. His works during this exile were published under the name Sebastian Melmouth. The poem is written in memory of “C. T. W. who died in Reading prison in July 1896 and it traces the feelings of an imprisoned man towards a fellow inmate who is to be hanged. They are “like two doomed ships that pass in storm”, and Wilde creates a solemn tone in his rhyme made sad and familiar by certain repeated phrases “each man kills the thing he loves”, “the little tent of blue/ Which prisoners call the sky. ” The narrator’s emotions are filtered through an uncertainty about the law that has condemned them although he is certain that they are joined together in sin.

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There is a longing for the outside, innocence and crucially beauty, the last of which is undermined in the latrine-like cells. The poem seems to offer some limited comfort in the possibility of the thief’s entrance to Paradise. It is a work of startling contrasts between light and shade, drawn together with a keen eye and a sense of the beauty in sadness itself. The poem begins with the aftermath of a murder. A man has just killed the woman he loved in bed. While never stated whether he and the woman were married, it later becomes clear, that it doesn’t matter.

The reader is whisked through his trial, and then reads of his travails while in the Reading Gaol (English word for jail). Following is the repetitious verse which is, in the end, the final theme of the poem: “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! ” Most would view this theme that every man kills the things he loves, as being a cynical view held by Wilde.

However, Wilde states this as a more general occurrence, and even states outright, that the killing may be slow, and over a life time, rather than, what most of us would call, murder. He’s making a more universal statement; that we can’t help but kill the ones we love, if for no other reason, than just by loving them. I think Wilde meant to bring attention to the simple fact that we change everything we come into contact with. That includes the people in our lives. We change them, and so while we do not literally kill them, we arguably end up killing what we originally loved about them.

That, after all, is why so many relationships (and friendships) eventually come to an end. If we cannot keep finding new things to love about people, or love the changes in them, love dies. It flashes the incidents, so many of them, where people have actually, physically and not metaphorically, killed the objects of their love. Man’s nature to possess and cling to the objects of love turns him so selfish that he turn can turn barbaric and brutal. Oscar Wilde’s ballad consists of 109 stanzas grouped into six parts, indicated by numbers.

The poem starts off with Part I, consisting of 16 stanzas, which tells of a prisoner who murdered the woman he loved and was sentenced to death for that crime. There is a subdivison after the first six stanzas in which Part Ia only focuses on the prisoner concerned; while Part Ib, on the other hand, takes a far wider perspective, reflecting about men in general, who all kill “the thing they love” but who do not all have to die. A description about the horrible conditions of prison rounds off that part. Part II consists of 13 verses and is built up similarly to Part I.

The first six stanzas, Part IIa, come back to the condemned man; the remaining seven verses, Part IIb, are focusing on a larger group, in this case the whole of the prisoners and their life-and-death fears. The fate hanging over the condemned man seems to be a threat to all of them. Additionally, the life “outside”, where free persons live, love and dance, is contrasted to the life “inside” the prison walls where prisoners sit out their sentence indifferently and pass each other without signing or speaking. Part III is the longest one with 37 stanzas.

Part IIIa, the first twelve verses, describes how the prisoners see the condemned man for the last time noting the “yellow hole” (Wilde, 9), the grave which is already waiting for the corpse of the man. Part IIIb, consisting of only six stanzas, focuses on the evening and gradual fall of the night. The whole section climaxes in the 19 verses of Part IIIc with the fellow prisoners’ complete identification with Wooldridge during the night preceding his execution. In this “night of erotic horrors” (Wilde, 12) the inmates have terrible dreams as if they themselves had been condemned to death.

Here, for the first time, the reader can feel some of the common humanity, of the solidarity of the inmates, which Wilde experienced in prison. Part IIIc closes with a vision of the execution. Part IV, with 23 verses, shows in detail how the dead man’s punishment is extended even after death. Part IVa, consisting of six stanzas, features the man’s fellow prisoners on the next morning who are united by now looking themselves “so wistfully” (Wilde, 34 ), a feature by which in Part Ia only Wooldridge was characterized.

Part IVb, two verses, is a short reference to the last night in Part IIIc and is opposed by Part IVc which focuses on the warders and the grave of burning lime. In the last 12 stanzas making up Part IVd, the corpse is buried in a great hurry without a final prayer or a cross to mark the place. The destruction of the prisoner, continuing even after his death, clearly shows the inhumanity of man to man.

Part V is concerned with the abstract problem of collective human and social guilt and starts off with a critic remark concerning incarceration. In the first four stanzas, Part Va, the image of the ideal and united community of prisoners is counter posed with the recognition that real life can only happen outside and that the “social goal of rehabilitation with respect to the inmates is a joke” (Wilde, 37). Prison only intensifies the inmates’ isolation and aggression, as Part Vb, and Part Vc, each consisting of four verses, show.

Part Vd, with its two stanzas, and Part Ve, with its three stanzas, introduce the religious dimension of execution and criticize the power some “m[e]n in red” (Wilde, 43) have over the life and death of people. Part VI, finally, concludes the ballad in its three verses by once more taking up the theme that “each man kills the thing he loves” (Wilde, 54), repeating almost word for word the relevant verse in Part Ib. It combines the narrative base of the poem, the execution of the prisoner, and its philosophical center, the problem of guilt and the responsibility.

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