The Ballad of Reading Gaol

The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1904)

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a poem by Oscar Wilde, written in exile either in Berneval or in Dieppe, France, after his release from Reading Gaol on or about 19 May 1897. Wilde had been incarcerated in Reading, after being convicted of homosexual offences in 1895 and sentenced to two years' hard labour in prison.

During his imprisonment, on Saturday 7 July 1896, a hanging took place. Charles Thomas Wooldridge (ca. 1866 – 7 July 1896) had been a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards. He was convicted of cutting the throat of his wife, Laura Ellen,[1] earlier that year at Clewer, near Windsor. He was only aged 30 when executed.[2][3] This had a profound effect on Wilde, inspiring the line "Yet each man kills the thing he loves."

The finished poem was published by Leonard Smithers in 1898 under the name C.3.3., which stood for cell block C, landing 3, cell 3. This ensured that Wilde's name – by then notorious – did not appear on the poem's front cover. It was not commonly known, until the 7th printing in June 1899, that C.3.3. was actually Wilde.


Notable excerpts

Several passages from the poem have become famous in their own right:

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 line is a nod to Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, when Bassanio asks "Do all men kill the things they do not love?"[4]

The following passage has been pointed to as evidence of Wilde's latent Christian sentiment even before his deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism.[5]

Ah! Happy they whose hearts can break
And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
May Lord Christ enter in?

A passage from the poem was chosen as the epitaph on Wilde's tomb;

And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity's long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.

References in other media

  • During the climax of D.W. Griffith's Intolerance, as The Boy is being led toward the gallows, one of the title-cards quotes the following excerpt:

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.

See also


  1. ^ GRO Register of Deaths: JUN qtr 1896 Wooldridge, Laura Ellen aged 23 Windsor 2c 241
  2. ^ "And I, May I Say Nothing?". the OSScholars. Archived from the original on June 15, 2006. Retrieved May 22, 2006. 
  3. ^ GRO Register of Deaths: SEP qtr 1896 Wooldridge, Charles Thomas aged 30 Reading 2c 210
  4. ^ Safire, William (June 7, 1987). "Going Gentle On My Mind". The New York Times. 
  5. ^ The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

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  • Ballad of Reading Gaol, The — /red ing/ a poem (1898) by Oscar Wilde …   Useful english dictionary

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  • reading — /ree ding/, n. 1. the action or practice of a person who reads. 2. Speech. the oral interpretation of written language. 3. the interpretation given in the performance of a dramatic part, musical composition, etc.: an interesting reading of… …   Universalium

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