Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2017

The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897), by Oscar Wilde

Wilde in the dock, from The Illustrated Police News, 4 May 1895 (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

As Australia trudges through the sordid process of conducting a government sponsored poll of popular opinion on gay marriage, I read a collection of Oscar Wilde’s poems in a collection titled after his most famous poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’.  The circumstances of Wilde’s imprisonment are well known, but they are a salutary reminder that homosexual law reform in Australia has been slow in coming and that living among us there are people who have been convicted and punished under archaic laws inherited from Britain.  (It is only recently that the Andrews government in Victoria has passed legislation to expunge these old convictions). Wilde’s poem also reminds us that there are still too many places around the world where it is perilous to have same-sex relationships.

The collection contains many gems showing us a different side of Wilde.  These are not the arch, witty, satirical words of the man who wrote The Importance of Being Earnest.  These poems show Wilde in a reflective mood, and often religious in tone: it’s a pity that none of them are dated in the freebie Kindle edition I read.  I can quote them here because they are well out of copyright.

Sonnet On Hearing The Dies Irae Sung In The Sistine Chapel

[The Dies Irae has been set to exquisite music by Verdi and Mozart, and having gazed awestruck at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while surrounded shoulder-to-shoulder by other tourists, I can only dream about listening to the Dies Irae or any other hymn in the chapel as it was intended to be used.  But Wilde in this poem is foreshadowing the doubt about the overemphasis on judgement, fear and despair at the expense of faith and hope in the Dies Irae which led to it being expunged from the Roman Catholic liturgy as part of the Vatican II reforms, more than half a century later.]

Sonnet On Hearing The Dies Irae Sung In The Sistine Chapel

Nay, Lord, not thus! white lilies in the spring,
Sad olive-groves, or silver-breasted dove,
Teach me more clearly of Thy life and love
Than terrors of red flame and thundering.
The hillside vines dear memories of Thee bring:
A bird at evening flying to its nest
Tells me of One who had no place of rest:
I think it is of Thee the sparrows sing.
Come rather on some autumn afternoon,
When red and brown are burnished on the leaves,
And the fields echo to the gleaner’s song,
Come when the splendid fulness of the moon
Looks down upon the rows of golden sheaves,
And reap Thy harvest: we have waited long.

Then there’s this ode to Milton, which is strangely prescient in a post Brexit world.

To Milton

Milton!  I think thy spirit hath passed away
From these white cliffs and high-embattled towers;
This gorgeous fiery-coloured world of ours
Seems fallen into ashes dull and grey,
And the age changed unto a mimic play
Wherein we waste our else too-crowded hours:
For all our pomp and pageantry and powers
We are but fit to delve the common clay,
Seeing this little isle on which we stand,
This England, this sea-lion of the sea,
By ignorant demagogues is held in fee,
Who love her not: Dear God! is this the land
Which bare a triple empire in her hand
When Cromwell spake the word Democracy!

And this, on the sordid business of collecting the private papers of others:

On The Sale By Auction Of Keats’ Love Letters

These are the letters which Endymion wrote
To one he loved in secret, and apart.
And now the brawlers of the auction mart
Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,
Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote
The merchant’s price.
I think they love not art
Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart
That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.
Is it not said that many years ago,
In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran
With torches through the midnight, and began
To wrangle for mean raiment, and to throw
Dice for the garments of a wretched man,
Not knowing the God’s wonder, or His woe?

Some of the poems now seem flowery to the modern eye, especially the last one in the collection.  It’s called ‘Ravenna’, and it was apparently a Newdigate prize poem recited in the Sheldonian Theatre Oxford June 26th, 1878.  But the masterpiece that is the Ballad of Reading Gaol retains its power and readers will recognise its most famous stanzas below, aching with compassion for a fellow prisoner who was hanged for the murder of his wife:

from: The Ballad Of Reading Gaol

(In memoriam C. T. W. Sometime trooper of the Royal Horse Guards obiit H.M. prison, Reading, Berkshire July 7, 1896)

I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.
I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain,
Within another ring,
And was wondering if the man had done
A great or little thing,
When a voice behind me whispered low,
‘That fellow’s 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.

This poem is not read as a justification for violence against women but as a condemnation of capital punishment:

There is no chapel on the day
On which they hang a man:
The Chaplain’s heart is far too sick,
Or his face is far too wan,
Or there is that written in his eyes
Which none should look upon.

That same chaplain is part of the dehumanising apparatus of judicial killing:

They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
They did not even toll
A requiem that might have brought
Rest to his startled soul,
But hurriedly they took him out,
And hid him in a hole.

They stripped him of his canvas clothes,
And gave him to the flies:
They mocked the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes:
And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud
In which their convict lies.

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonoured grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save.

Wilde also calls for prison reform, a plea that still falls on deaf ears today:

The vilest deeds like poison weeds,
Bloom well in prison-air;
It is only what is good in Man
That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
And the Warder is Despair.

With midnight always in one’s heart,
And twilight in one’s cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far
Than the sound of a brazen bell.

And never a human voice comes near
To speak a gentle word:
And the eye that watches through the door
Is pitiless and hard:
And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
With soul and body marred.

All quotations from the poems above come from The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde, Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition. It has no other publication details except that it was transcribed by David Price, email  I probably downloaded the copy from Project Gutenberg or as a freebie from Amazon, but I can’t tell at this distance from when I acquired it.

And just because I found it at Wikipedia when I was looking for an image of Wilde, here is an excerpt from De Profundis

When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was. It was ruinous advice. It is only by realising what I am that I have found comfort of any kind. Now I am advised by others to try on my release to forget that I have ever been in a prison at all. I know that would be equally fatal. It would mean that I would always be haunted by an intolerable sense of disgrace, and that those things that are meant for me as much as for anybody else – the beauty of the sun and moon, the pageant of the seasons, the music of daybreak and the silence of great nights, the rain falling through the leaves, or the dew creeping over the grass and making it silver – would all be tainted for me, and lose their healing power, and their power of communicating joy. To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.


From the depths indeed…

Wilde wrote that in 1897 as he languished in poverty, squalor and ill-health after his release from prison.  He lived in exile in France, living under the name of Sebastian Melmoth (after St Sebastian).  He died in 1900.




  1. Thanks for those reflections on prison and capital punishment. You still won’t get me to like poetry (and I skipped the religious ones) but Wilde expresses himself very well.


    • You don’t even like those dumty-dumty Aussie ballads we learned by heart at school – or is that what put you off?


      • I especially don’t like bush doggerel, but will admit to a grudging affection for the Man from Snowy River, and Mulga Bill’s Bicycle.


  2. […] The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde […]


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