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Reading Gaol was one of a few prisons where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated after he was convicted of gross indecency (or his homosexuality) with his lover Lord Alfred Douglas. For strange it was to see him pass In the second part of the poem, Wilde homes in on Woolridge again, noting the condemned guardsman’s behaviour: He did not wring his hands nor weep, Woolridge was not mad, paranoid, or evil, Wilde seems to feel: he was a jealous husband who did a terrible thing in the heat of his passions. It was built over the abbey hospital. And there, till Christ call forth the dead, In silence let him lie: No need to waste the foolish tear, Now, the paradoxes have become darker and more sombre, but they still encase an apparent contradiction. - Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol Wilde was not the prison’s only famous resident; the film star Stacy Keach also numbered among the illustrious inmates. Stole feet we could not hear, This meant they were often at the forefront of medical knowledge at the time, enabling them to look after sick or elderly monks. And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank, The coward kills the thing he loves with a kiss (recalling Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, who identified Jesus to the Roman authorities by kissing him), much as Wilde’s own relationship with Bosie had been the kiss of death. And clattered with the pails. Their scaffold of its prey. But in the heart of every man This included eating better so monks could re-gain strength. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is Wilde’s most famous poem. And murdered in her bed. (We have selected some of his finest poems here.) Not The Ballad of Reading Gaol – that was written while he was in exile in France following his release from prison – but De Profundis, his long letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. This is ambiguous: ‘end[ing] the self-same way’, does Wilde mean untimely death (e.g. By each let this be heard, And strange it was to see him look So with curious eyes and sick surmise As with so many aspects of The Ballad of Reading Gaol – the idea of killing what you love being the most obvious – we are presented with a paradox, that intellectual puzzle which Wilde had made one of the hallmarks of his wit when he was the toast of British society. And up and down the iron town This doesn’t let him off his horrible crime, of course, but is not the same as dismissing him as an inhuman monster: a fine but important distinction.

It is also a reflection of Wilde’s own downfall and his tempestuous relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’) and his even more disastrous run-in with Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensbury, whose accusation of Wilde as a ‘somdomite’ (sic) led Wilde to take the Marquis to court. He had begun his career as a poet, winning the prestigious Newdigate Prize while he was an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1870s for his poem ‘Ravenna’. And cleaned the shining rails: He served a two-year sentence in Reading from 1895-7 for having a relationship with a man which was illegal at this time.

There is also more on the Berkshire Record Office website, Reading Town Hall, T. W.’), a soldier who had been convicted for murdering his wife and who was hanged in Reading Gaol in July 1896 – the first execution that had taken place at the prison for eighteen years. With SUCH / a WIST- / ful EYE Leprosy was a common medieval disease that involved nasty rashes and wasting muscles. Another paradox, and one whose grim irony Wilde must have appreciated: warders walk alongside the condemned man at all times, ‘for fear the man might die’ before he is executed. This prevented the spread of illness around the abbey. Wilde dedicated the poem to a fellow prisoner, Charles Thomas Woolridge (‘C. For none can tell to what red Hell And the night before Woolridge is to hang, things take a Gothic turn: That night the empty corridors Some healthful anodyne; In total, he was imprisoned for two years--Reading Gaol for about 18 months. Sorry, your blog cannot share posts by email. If the prisoner fell or contrived to take his own life, the State would be robbed of its retribution and punishment: Who watched him lest himself should rob In addition to this psychological challenge, prisoners were subjected to hard labour which was made up of gruelling, pointless tasks. The oft-quoted refrain from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, ‘each man kills the thing he loves’, is not just about Charles Thomas Woolridge, of course. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a long poem of 109 six-line stanzas: 654 lines in all. Up-ON / that LIT- / tle TENT / of BLUE The Ballad of Reading Gaol was published in February 1898 not under Wilde’s name but rather his prison number, ‘C.3.3.’ His identity was only established the following July. Nor did he peek or pine, So it was there he took the air For fear the man might die. Wilde then goes on to detail some of the harsh tasks he and his fellow prisoners were told to carry out: We tore the tarry rope to shreds There is also a religious element to it: a sort of dark night of the soul, where once again, each prisoner who is not to hang in the morning, including Wilde, imagines how it must feel to be the man who is to die the next morning. The poem begins with a discussion of Charles Thomas Wooldridge who was condemned to die in 1896 for murdering his wife in a jealous rage. The Ballad of Reading Gaol: analysis The Ballad of Reading Gaol is Wilde’s most famous poem. White faces seemed to peer. Here’s a question for you: which great work did Oscar Wilde write while imprisoned in Reading Gaol? We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors, This explains his apparent acceptance of the sentence. Indeed, the idea that Wilde was reflecting upon his own life as he was portraying Woolridge’s seems clear from one of the most famous stanzas in The Ballad of Reading Gaol: Yet each man kills the thing he loves One skeleton has copper plating around the arm - this could have held an ivy-leaf dressing in place which was a treatment for leprosy. When they found him with the dead, Reading Gaol is a well-known part of the town, but not everyone realises that it was built over the abbey site. Monks devoted their lives to God and to learning. Source:,, UVU Victorian Literature and Politics for the Present (Fall 2020), Victorian Literature and Politics for the Present - Gallery. Woolridge is the ‘He’ of the poem’s opening stanzas, and also the inspiration for the recurring refrain: ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’ Although Wilde never met Woolridge, he had observed him in the prison yard on several occasions. Reading Gaol followed the 'separate system' which kept prisoners entirely separate from each other. ​Blagrave Street, Because of the harsh conditions of his imprisonment, Wilde later wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a tale which advocated for prison reform. The first prison here was built in 1785 over the former abbey infirmary. You can read The Ballad of Reading Gaol here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the poem below. With blunt and bleeding nails; Enter your email address to subscribe to this site and receive notifications of new posts by email. With open mouth he drank the sun So he seemed resigned to his own death. Created by William Green on Mon, 10/19/2020 - 13:16. We watched him day by day, by one’s own hand) or execution for murder? With the yellow face of Doom. He served a two-year sentence in Reading from 1895-7 for having a relationship with a man which was illegal at this time. This meant that the monks who lived had everything they needed within the abbey precinct - including healthcare. And strange it was to think that he RG1 1QH. You can find out more on our blog. Had such a debt to pay. Subsequently, Wilde himself was charged with ‘gross indecency’ for his relations with other men, and it was this that led to the well-known court case in 1895. Reading, The Ballad of Reading Gaol is written in six-line stanzas: strictly speaking, it is not a conventional ballad (we have collected some of the finest traditional ballads in a separate post), but an adaptation of the four-line ballad form, which is rhymed abcb (Wilde adds an extra couple of lines to his stanza, rhymed db). The poor dead woman whom he loved, And blood and wine were on his hands The apostrophes in lines four and five show where a syllable has been elided – so, for instance, ‘prisoners’ is pronounced as two syllables (‘pris’ners’) rather than three (‘pris-o-ners’). The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898) sees Wilde reflecting on the nature of sin, crime, love, and hatred in a long poem that has given us a number of famous lines, ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’ being the most memorable. Indeed, Woolridge has a step which is ‘light and gay’: behaviour which seems at odds with the man’s imminent fate. Would end the self-same way, His earliest published works were poems and poetry collections. He had begun his career as a poet, winning the prestigious Newdigate Prize while he was an undergraduate at Oxford in the 1870s for his poem ‘Ravenna’. Some with a flattering word, The coward does it with a kiss, The infirmary would have been completely self-contained with its own chapel and kitchens. The murderer is not othered by Wilde: instead, the poet recognises that such impulses lurk within every man, and it is wrong for us to condemn all killers as mere psychopaths or deviants. It was here that he wrote much of De Profundis, a long and religiously-charged letter meant for him as much as it was for Douglas.

The prison was re-built in 1844 and this is what still stands today. And ’t EV- / ’ry DRIFT- / ing CLOUD / that WENT And wondered if each one of us The Ballad of Reading Gaol - He did not wear his scarlet coat He did not wear his scarlet coat - The Academy of American Poets is the largest membership-based nonprofit organization fostering an appreciation for contemporary poetry and supporting American poets. His sightless soul may stray. The brave man with a sword! This hospital was built far from the town centre, on what is now called 'Cemetery Junction' in east Reading. The rest of the poem outlines the execution of Woolridge and its aftermath, and expands on the poem’s key themes mentioned above. Some do it with a bitter look,

As though it had been wine!

A key part of abbey life was seclusion from the outside world. Reading Gaol sits on the eastern end of the Abbey Quarter.

In Debtors’ Yard the stones are hard, We turned the dusty drill: The remains of the eastern end of the abbey church were also destroyed to make way for the new prison. But as his career took off and Wilde became, in a sense, the first modern celebrity – known as much for who he was as for what he wrote – he devoted his time to fiction and plays and to … well, to being Oscar Wilde.

With such a wistful eye; And the dripping wall is high, The poem begins by describing Woolridge: He did not wear his scarlet coat, The abbey also ran a leper hospital. Were full of forms of Fear, We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones, And so he had to die. The metre of the poem is alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter, as we find in a traditional ballad: I NEV- / er SAW / a MAN / who LOOKED Terror was lying still. We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns, Wilde then contrasts the condemned man’s fate with that of the other prisoners, including himself: they, too, have ‘killed the thing they love’, in one way or another, but they have not been sentenced to die: He does not wake at dawn to see

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