A Summary and Analysis of Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol

By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)

Here’s a question for you: which great work did Oscar Wilde write while imprisoned in Reading Gaol? Not The Ballad of Reading Gaol – that was written while he was in exile in France following his release from prison – but De Profundis, his long letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) sees Wilde reflecting on the nature of sin, crime, love, and hatred in a long poem that has given us a number of famous lines, ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’ being the most memorable. You can read The Ballad of Reading Gaol here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the poem below.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol: summary

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a long poem of 109 six-line stanzas: 654 lines in all. Wilde dedicated the poem to a fellow prisoner, Charles Thomas Woolridge (‘C. T. W.’), a soldier who had been convicted for murdering his wife and who was hanged in Reading Gaol in July 1896 – the first execution that had taken place at the prison for eighteen years.

Woolridge is the ‘He’ of the poem’s opening stanzas, and also the inspiration for the recurring refrain: ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’ Although Wilde never met Woolridge, he had observed him in the prison yard on several occasions.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol was published in February 1898 not under Wilde’s name but rather his prison number, ‘C.3.3.’ His identity was only established the following July. Although Reading was the most famous prison Wilde was sent to, he was not imprisoned there immediately: first of all, in March 1895, he was at Newgate, then at Pentonville, before being moved to Wandsworth, and then finally, in November 1895, to Reading.

And the poem is, in summary, a meditation on his experience of the British penal system, and the very idea of capital punishment (embodied, in the poem, by the hanging of Woolridge). The poem begins by describing Woolridge:

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

There are several factual errors in this stanza pertaining to Woolridge: as a member of the Royal Horse Guards, he did not wear the usual scarlet coat worn by British soldiers, but a blue coat; and he didn’t murder his wife in her bed but in the street.

But Wilde is clearly adapting the real-life events of Woolridge’s downfall for artistic purposes, and the idea of a man killing his wife in a bed which they had formerly shared for lovemaking neatly summarises the deadly relationship between destructive hate and romantic love which the poem explores.

News of Woolridge’s fate – that he has ‘got to swing’, i.e. be hanged – spread throughout the gaol, leading Wilde to reflect upon what the man must be feeling:

I only knew what hunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

Wilde then contrasts the condemned man’s fate with that of the other prisoners, including himself: they, too, have ‘killed the thing they love’, in one way or another, but they have not been sentenced to die:

He does not wake at dawn to see
Dread figures throng his room,
The shivering Chaplain robed in white,
The Sheriff stern with gloom,
And the Governor all in shiny black,
With the yellow face of Doom.

In the second part of the poem, Wilde homes in on Woolridge again, noting the condemned guardsman’s behaviour:

He did not wring his hands nor weep,
Nor did he peek or pine,
But he drank the air as though it held
Some healthful anodyne;
With open mouth he drank the sun
As though it had been wine!

Indeed, Woolridge has a step which is ‘light and gay’: behaviour which seems at odds with the man’s imminent fate.

As with so many aspects of The Ballad of Reading Gaol – the idea of killing what you love being the most obvious – we are presented with a paradox, that intellectual puzzle which Wilde had made one of the hallmarks of his wit when he was the toast of British society. Now, the paradoxes have become darker and more sombre, but they still encase an apparent contradiction.

For strange it was to see him pass
With a step so light and gay,
And strange it was to see him look
So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
Had such a debt to pay.

It was reported that Woolridge had turned himself in immediately after he had murdered his estranged wife in the street; he announced that he would have turned the weapon (a razor) on himself if it had not fallen from his hand. So he seemed resigned to his own death. This explains his apparent acceptance of the sentence.

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.

This is ambiguous: ‘end[ing] the self-same way’, does Wilde mean untimely death (e.g. by one’s own hand) or execution for murder? The phrase ‘red Hell’, suggesting the red mist of murderous anger, implies the latter: even the mildest and most placid man may be driven to murder, Wilde seems to imply, by his passions. There is a sense of sympathy and kinship with the condemned guardsman here, a sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I’.

The murderer is not othered by Wilde: instead, the poet recognises that such impulses lurk within every man, and it is wrong for us to condemn all killers as mere psychopaths or deviants. Woolridge was not mad, paranoid, or evil, Wilde seems to feel: he was a jealous husband who did a terrible thing in the heat of his passions.

This doesn’t let him off his horrible crime, of course, but is not the same as dismissing him as an inhuman monster: a fine but important distinction.

In Debtors’ Yard the stones are hard,
And the dripping wall is high,
So it was there he took the air
Beneath the leaden sky,
And by each side a Warder walked,
For fear the man might die.

Another paradox, and one whose grim irony Wilde must have appreciated: warders walk alongside the condemned man at all times, ‘for fear the man might die’ before he is executed. Not because they want him to live, but because they want to make sure he his executed in the proper way, by the State. If the prisoner fell or contrived to take his own life, the State would be robbed of its retribution and punishment:

Who watched him lest himself should rob
Their scaffold of its prey.

Wilde then goes on to detail some of the harsh tasks he and his fellow prisoners were told to carry out:

We tore the tarry rope to shreds
With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.

Death is never far behind: each prisoner’s cell is ‘his numbered tomb’ (Wilde’s was C.3.3., of course). They are dead men walking, corpses that live and breathe: another paradox. And the night before Woolridge is to hang, things take a Gothic turn:

That night the empty corridors
Were full of forms of Fear,
And up and down the iron town
Stole feet we could not hear,
And through the bars that hide the stars
White faces seemed to peer.

The extent to which The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a Gothic poem is open to debate, but this section of the poem is preoccupied with night terrors, ‘phantoms’, and notions of haunting. There is also a religious element to it: a sort of dark night of the soul, where once again, each prisoner who is not to hang in the morning, including Wilde, imagines how it must feel to be the man who is to die the next morning.

The rest of the poem outlines the execution of Woolridge and its aftermath, and expands on the poem’s key themes mentioned above.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol: analysis

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is Wilde’s most famous poem. He had begun his career as a poet, winning the prestigious Newdigate Prize while he was an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1870s for his poem ‘Ravenna’. His earliest published works were poems and poetry collections. (We have selected some of his finest poems here.)

But as his career took off and Wilde became, in a sense, the first modern celebrity – known as much for who he was as for what he wrote – he devoted his time to fiction and plays and to … well, to being Oscar Wilde. It was only after his conviction for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895 and his being sentenced to two years’ hard labour in prison, and then his subsequent release in 1897, that Wilde returned to poetry, considering this the ideal form to reflect his prison experience.

The oft-quoted refrain from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, ‘each man kills the thing he loves’, is not just about Charles Thomas Woolridge, of course.

It is also a reflection of Wilde’s own downfall and his tempestuous relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’) and his even more disastrous run-in with Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, whose accusation of Wilde as a ‘somdomite’ (sic) led Wilde to take the Marquis to court. Subsequently, Wilde himself was charged with ‘gross indecency’ for his relations with other men, and it was this that led to the well-known court case in 1895.

Indeed, the idea that Wilde was reflecting upon his own life as he was portraying Woolridge’s seems clear from one of the most famous stanzas in The Ballad of Reading Gaol:

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 coward kills the thing he loves with a kiss (recalling Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, who identified Jesus to the Roman authorities by kissing him), much as Wilde’s own relationship with Bosie had been the kiss of death.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is written in six-line stanzas: strictly speaking, it is not a conventional ballad (we have collected some of the finest traditional ballads in a separate post), but an adaptation of the four-line ballad form, which is rhymed abcb (Wilde adds an extra couple of lines to his stanza, rhymed db). The metre of the poem is alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter, as we find in a traditional ballad:

I NEV- / er SAW / a MAN / who LOOKED
With SUCH / a WIST- / ful EYE
Up-ON / that LIT- / tle TENT / of BLUE
Which PRIS- / ’ners CALL / the SKY,
And ’t EV- / ’ry DRIFT- / ing CLOUD / that WENT
With SAILS / of SIL- / ver BY.

The apostrophes in lines four and five show where a syllable has been elided – so, for instance, ‘prisoners’ is pronounced as two syllables (‘pris’ners’) rather than three (‘pris-o-ners’).

About Oscar Wilde

The life of the Irish novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is as famous as – perhaps even more famous than – his work. But in a career spanning some twenty years, Wilde created a body of work which continues to be read an enjoyed by people around the world: a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray; short stories and fairy tales such as ‘The Happy Prince’ and ‘The Selfish Giant’; poems including The Ballad of Reading Gaol; and essay-dialogues which were witty revivals of the Platonic philosophical dialogue.

But above all, it is Wilde’s plays that he continues to be known for, and these include witty drawing-room comedies such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as a Biblical drama, Salome (which was banned from performance in the UK and had to be staged abroad).

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