Thursday, 11 April 2013


The Ballad of Reading Gaol (English word for jail) is not the work that Oscar Wilde wrote while imprisoned for moral (in his case, homosexual) offences in 1895; that work was De Profundis, published five years after his death, in 1905. Read here a very interesting review.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol was written after his release and in France, in 1897;  it was first published in 1898, simply under his prisoner identification number, C.3-3.          
The poem was written in memory of Royal House Guards trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge 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 Oscar 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.  
While Oscar Wilde is focusing on the story of the execution of  the soldier for the brutal murder of his lover, he is also meditating on injustice, betrayal, and the need for prison reform  –  the  ballad is  a condemnation of  the death penalty and the whole penal system in Victorian England,  but it is much more than a protest poem. It is a powerful accusation of social hypocrisy which condemns some individuals,  but does not deal with the violence and despair that underlie many people’s  lives   -  only the weak are punished for their crimes.
To denounce the indifference of the law to man's anguish, the poet  chooses as his subject the outcast among the outcasts, the prisoner who has inexplicably  killed "the thing he loved"  - this human being is the symbol of  the universality of  guilt and moral weakness as well as of the criminal, the outcast, the artist.

Here  you can read the whole poem.

Now you can download a detailed analysis  of the ballad and a worksheet  about the first part of the poem.

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