I must admit, I’m writing this post with a box of tissues to hand because I simply cannot read ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ without crying. Frankly, the story behind the poem is enough to make anyone weep, but then once the verses start I simply can’t help myself.
To begin with some humour then, before it becomes terribly inappropriate, I have to share my top ‘Ballad’ story and warning. For UK readers it may be obvious that the word ‘Reading’ in the title refers to the English town. It’s pronounced ‘Redding’ as in the colour, instead of everyone’s favourite hobby. I have to say this at the start, because a friend of mine told me about a time she attended a lecture on this poem in the States where the whole thing was read as a metaphor ‘reading gaol’. Now I’m all for the validity of reader response over authorial omniscience and ownership of a text, but there are certain facts that need to be understood. One, there is a place called Reading. Two, it contained a prison called Reading Gaol. Three, Oscar Wilde was incarcerated in said gaol from 1895-97. The poem does not narrate a theoretical experience, every word is hewn from hard-wrought soul-searching and trauma. To deny its genesis is to diminish what is meant to be a deeply personal and distraught literary experience.
One other, more troubling, point of context. The poem deals with guilt as opposed to innocence. The reason I find this troubling is that Wilde was convicted of ‘gross indecency’, basically, for being gay. His two years’ incarceration with hard labour were the result of being found guilty of ‘homosexual acts’. The fact that the poem never deals with the inhumanity of such legislation is just one more thing that makes me cry.
Instead of detailing Wilde’s own experiences, the ballad narrates those of a fellow prisoner. It begins:
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 is no question of the man’s guilt, instead the issue is how punishment can or should be delivered. The narrator hears a voice telling him of the man’s legal fate: ‘That fellows got to swing‘:
Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.
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.
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!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves
Yet each man does not die.
When I was younger, I always read this as a kind of anti-love poem, Wilde’s feeling of betrayal as his lovers walked free after (arguably) contributing to his disgrace and encouraging him to appear in court. Was he the love that had been killed by the unrepentant critics and homophobic mobs? Nowadays I read it differently, Wilde wrote the poem in exile abroad, a broken man. Along the anger of the poem there is also great humility. Unlike the superiour aesthetic of ‘The Importance of Being Ernest,’ the narrator of this poem does not distinguish himself from the common herd. He is as one with his fellow prisoners, whether they had done ‘a great or little thing‘. The lines above are a plea to humanity of the inability to punish, despite the inevitability of guilt.
The poem contains wonderful imagery and enough horror to rival Edgar Allen Poe. As well as powerfully repetitive descriptions of prison life and routines, there are outbursts of psychological torture. These reach their peak as the prisoners see evil spirits on the night of the execution:
They glided past, they glided fast,
Like travellers through a mist:
They mocked the moon in a rigadoon
Of delicate turn and twist,
And with formal pace and loathsome grace
The phantoms kept their tryst.
With mop and mow, we saw them go,
Slim shadows hand in hand:
About, about, in ghostly rout
They trod a saraband:
And the damned grotesques made arabesques,
Like the wind upon the sand.
With the pirouettes of marionettes,
They tripped on pointed tread:
But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,
As their grisly masque they led,
And loud they sang, and long they sang,
For they sang to wake the dead.
‘Oho!’ they cried, ‘The world is wide,
But fettered limbs go lame!
And once, or twice, to throw the dice
Is a gentlemanly game,
But he does not win who plays with Sin
In the secret House of Shame.’
Really, that’s the message of the poem. There are no winners, those who live and those who die are equally guilty and miserable. As the earlier Wilde may have laughed, there is but a thin line between gentlemanly and criminal behaviour. For the purposes of the ballad though, this is not a joke. There are consequences for actions, if not now, then later. No one can escape the ‘high walls’ of their fate. At best, they can learn to look truthfully at their fellow human beings, to see humanity in all rather than judging anyone who seems to be an outsider. There is no hierarchy of sin in the poem, instead there is an individual obligation of humility. The poem teaches us to sympathise rather than judge, to focus on our own faults rather than those of others. It is a plea for charity and mercy; for those of us reading it in context, it is also a powerful polemic against injustice and prejudice, whenever they might occur.