The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a narrative poem by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde. The poem is divided into six sections which are simply numbered I to VI. It was written in 1897, shortly after Wilde had been released from prison and while he was living in exile in France. It was first published, in the form of a book which contained no other poems, on February 13, 1898. Oscar Wilde's name does not appear in the first edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. The poet is only identified by the pseudonym C.3.3. It was not until the seventh edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol was published on June 23, 1899 that Wilde was acknowledged as the work's true author.
The poem centers around a prisoner who has been condemned to death for the murder of the woman he loved and deals with the effect that his execution has on other prisoners.
Wilde was a prisoner at Reading Gaol (now HM Prison Reading) when Charles Thomas Wooldridge was executed there on July 7, 1896 for the murder of Laura Ellen Glendell. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is dedicated to "C.T.W."
On May 25, 1895, Oscar Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency (meaning homosexual acts) and sentenced to two years hard labor. After having already served time at three different prisons, on November 23, 1895 Wilde was sent to Reading Gaol where he served the rest of his sentence. Wilde was assigned to cell block C, landing 3, cell 3. Throughout his time at Reading Gaol, Wilde, in common with all other prisoners there, was never referred to by his name and was only ever called C.3.3. Oscar Wilde was released on May 18, 1897 and went to live in France. He never returned to Britain or Ireland and died in Paris on November 30, 1900.
On March 29, 1896, a British soldier named Charles Thomas Wooldridge killed his common-law wife Laura Ellen Glendell and confessed his crime to a police officer soon afterwards. Wooldridge was sent to Reading Gaol to await trial for murder. He was found guilty and sentenced to death on June 17, 1896. He was sent back to Reading Gaol to await execution. Charles Thomas Wooldridge was hanged on July 7, 1896. His execution was the first one to take place at Reading Gaol for eighteen years.
The first part of the poem opens with a drunken soldier being found with the dead body of a woman. Although the soldier loved the woman, he murdered her. He imprisoned in Reading Gaol. While he is in prison, he tries to appear happy. The poem's narrator, however, notices that, while exercising in the prison yard, the soldier looks up at the sky more sadly than anyone else. The narrator wonders what the soldier has done. Another prisoner whispers to the narrator that the soldier has been condemned to death. The narrator forgets his own pain and can only think about the condemned man.
The narrator concludes that, "each man kills the thing he loves", although very few are executed for doing so. He says that brave men kill the one they love with a sword and that cowards do it with a kiss. This could refer to how Oscar Wilde's conviction and imprisonment for homosexuality caused him to become permanently separated from his wife and children.
The second part of the poem opens six weeks after the soldier's arrival in prison. The narrator continues to notice how sadly the condemned man looks up at the sky. All of the other prisoners can only think about him.
As the day of his execution draws nearer, the condemned man is separated from the other prisoners and no longer exercises with them. The narrator realizes that he will never see the condemned man again and that he did not say goodbye to him. He also acknowledges that they had no reason to say goodbye to each other because they did not have much in common apart from both of them being prisoners, outcasts and sinners.
The beginning of the third part of the poem deals with the condemned man's life in isolation from the other prisoners. Guards constantly watch him to make sure that he does not commit suicide before the date of his execution. The condemned man tries to continue a normal life, smoking his pipe and drinking beer twice a day. He says that he is not afraid and even happy that he is about to die. The guards find it strange that the condemned man says that. They are, however, not allowed to ask why he speaks that way out of fear that they may come to pity him.
Other prisoners are kept busy with their punishments. They do not think about the condemned man, until they see an open grave in the prison yard.
On the night before the execution, to the guards' surprise, the condemned man sleeps soundly. The other prisoners, however, are deeply troubled that night. Guards see men praying who never prayed before. The night appears to be an incredibly long one for the narrator. When the morning finally comes, the prisoners feel, "Something was dead in each of us, And what was dead was Hope." The execution occurs at eight o'clock in the morning. None of the other prisoners witness the hanging but they cannot help imagining it.
The fourth part of the poem deals with the immediate aftermath of the execution. No chapel service is held on the day of the execution because the chaplain feels too sad to perform one. The other prisoners are not let out of their cells until noon. They all appear incredibly sad and exercise in complete silence. The guards try to carry on as normal. The prisoners, however, know that the guards have recently buried the condemned man because they have quicklime on their boots.
The open grave has been filled in. There is no marker on it and no funeral of any kind was held. The narrator, however, knows that the condemned man is lying in the grave, naked except for the shackles that are still on his feet. His body has been covered in quicklime so that it will be destroyed quickly. No seeds will be planted on the site of the grave for three years out of the superstitious belief that they would be contaminated by a murderer's heart.
The fifth part of the poem describes the daily suffering of prisoners. The narrator believes that the only function of prisons is to separate outcasts from the rest of society and keep them hidden. He believes that prisons nurture all that is bad and destroy all that is good. The narrator says that the only hope for prisoners is to turn to God. He says that God should have forgiven the condemned man because he was truly sorry for what he did and paid for his crime by giving his own life.
The sixth part of The Ballad of Reading Gaol is the shortest section of the poem, made up of only three verses. It describes the unmarked grave where the condemned man lies with nobody to mourn him. It is generally considered that the man's death was just because he murdered the woman he loved. The narrator concludes the poem by repeating his belief that all men kill the thing they love.