The ballad of Reading Gaol Oscar Wilde Brief Biography Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) first rose to prominence at Oxford University, where he founded the Aesthetic Movement which promoted art for arts sake and was notorious for his colourful style of dress. His major successes were on the London stage, with a number of highly accomplished, witty plays which undermined social conventions, culminating in The Importance of Being Earnest. His life ended bitterly. He was convicted for homosexual practices and sentenced to imprisonment. After his release, he lived his last years in Paris under a pseudonym. The Ballad of Reading Gaol was written at this time. The finished poem was published 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 June 1899, that C.3.3. was actually Wilde. The ballad of Reading Gaol 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. He walked amongst the Trial Men In a suit of shabby grey; A cricket cap was on his head, And his step seemed light and gay; But 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. 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 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." 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. He does not die a death of shame On a day of dark disgrace, Nor have a noose about his neck,
Nor a cloth upon his face, Nor drop feet foremost through the floor, Into an empty place Summary This excerpt comprises of the first ten stanzas of Wildes much longer poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol (gaol is pronounced jail). He was inspired to write the poem by the execution of a fellow inmate for the brutal murder of his wife. However, the poem also is an attack on the injustice and hypocrisy of Victorian Society. It also has a political undercurrent, appealing for prison reform. Summary contd
The excerpt concentrates on the condemned man (Charles Thomas Wooldridge), whom the persona (the voice speaking in the poem) never meets but observes during exercise period, eyeing the sky wistfully. Wilde quickly shifts to presenting the impact on the persona, who reacts to the news that the convict is to be executed. He then meditates on the wider implications of guilt: each man is guilty of a crimekilling the thing he lovesbut is not held accountable. The persona then resumes his account of the plight of the condemned man, execution. Questions on structure and language 1. 2.
What rhythm does Wilde use in this poem? Find examples of internal rhyme in the poem? What might these rhymes represent? 3. The rhythm, rhyme and simple vocabulary or stanza 8 create an almost nursery rhyme effect? Why does Wilde do this? 4. One stanza contains lots of different examples of alliteration. Which one is it and why does Wilde do this here? 5. Two consecutive stanzas contains a number of examples of imagery. Why are they used at this particular point? 6. What is the purpose of the exclamation in stanza 5? 7. Stanzas 7, 8 and 9 use a great deal of antitheses (opposites). Why does Wilde do this? 8. Where and why does Wilde use repetition in this extract? 9. There is a great deal of negative diction in stanza ten. What is the effect of this? 10. Why do you think Wilde describes the execution in such detail in stanza ten? Structure
Although the poem is labelled a ballad, Wilde did not adhere to the traditional, four-line ballad stanza (with the second and fourth lines rhyming) but adopted a six-line stanza instead. Wilde also used iambic tetrameter (four repetitions of the iambic pattern of stress on the second syllable) rather than the five repetitions popular in English poetry (iambic pentameter). Internal rhyme is also frequently used. Language The poem begins with a lot of emotive language, poor dead woman and murdered which sets a rather melodramatic tone and establishes the personas voice. The second stanza describes the dead man as he walks
around the trial yard at the prison. His step seemed light and gay, but the prisoner was described as looking wistfully at the day. This contrast shows the prisoners dilemma, he is under a death sentence. Language In the third stanza, the persona observes the condemned man looking at the sky A little tent of blue with and the clouds passing With sails of silver. This imagery sums up the beauty of the natural world and the condemned mans wish to remain alive. Which is contrasted by societys voice in stanza 4 proclaiming That fellow's got to swing. This is perhaps Wildes most poignant plea, for us to pause before we condemn others, as Wilde was condemned for his homosexuality. In stanza 5, Wilde uses a simile to show
his sympathy with the condemned man, The sky above my head became Like a casque of scorching steel Language He goes on to say that everyone in some way is responsible for destroying what they love Each man kills the thing he loves . He then lists the variety of ways men and women hurt each other Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word. Although we may not all be murderers, we have all hurt the people we love, just as the condemned prisoner does, so Wilde is asking why was there so little mercy for him in Victorian society? Language
The final stanzas of the excerpt use antithesis to show the myriad of ways that people hurt and abuse each other, Some love too little, some too long/Some sell, and others buy. Before using negative diction and semantics to show that the punishment we all deserve for our cruelty is given to the condemned man , Nor have a noose about his neck/Nor a cloth upon his face/ Nor drop feet foremost through the floor / Into an empty place. This end to the excerpt places us squarely in the shoes of the condemned we feel his terror as he hangs, an emotional end to this section of the poem. Crimes of humanity Look at the various crimes that Wilde lists in stanzas 79. These all detail ways that man kills the thing he loves.
In pairs select three of the ways Wilde gives and think of examples of how this might kill someone. Your examples can be traditional or modern e.g. some strangle with the hands of lust this could apply to men who rape women and so something dies inside or someone who kills another by giving them an STI. Jail Mime In groups of three you are going to produce a mime for one of the stanzas of the poem. You will need someone to be the condemned man and maybe another to be the persona of the poem. The third will read the stanza as the mime takes place. Try to include as many details as possible. You will be numbered 1-10 and must then find your other group members.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/mar/23/oscar-wilde-ballad-reading-gaol-poem Wilde wrote the poem in 1898. He was now free, but a broken man, and a broke one. Besides two letters, he produced nothing else of literary significance before his death. It was first published simply under his prisoner identification number, C.3-3. The poem is dedicated to the memory of the "sometime" Royal Horse Guards trooper, Charles Thomas Wooldridge, and the central incident is Wooldridge's execution for the murder of his wife. Around this narrative core, whose genre might be described as gothic realism, Wilde builds a meditation on the paradoxes of morality. The Ballad is an indictment of the death penalty and the whole penal system, but it is much more than a protest poem. It is a revelation, and its structure is part of that revelation. Everyone can quote the refrain: "For each man kills the thing he loves." Poetically, it's unquestionably powerful, and, intellectually, it's powerfully questionable. What does Wilde mean? Perhaps he is saying that love itself corrupts or alters its object. That would certainly seem to have been true of his relationship with "Bosie", Lord Alfred Douglas, seemingly a spoiled brat further spoiled by Wilde's adulation. Judas, of course, is on his mind: the poem
refers to the kiss of Caiaphas, the latter being the priest who participated in Christ's betrayal. Wilde loved paradox, and he found some essential symbol of it in the man who murdered his wife. Perhaps he found another in the hypocrisy of the prison system itself, destroying the souls and bodies of those it would reform. The ballad form, as he adapts it, encases paradox and story in a tight, encircling ring. It is both a Dante-esque circle of hell and the deadly routine of prison life. It represents the whole cycle of crime and punishment. It is inescapable, like the "iron gin" mentioned in line 173, a symbol of confinement and possibly also an actual machine. In the plodding iambic tetrameter and the extensive use of refrain and parallelism, we can feel at a physical level the grinding relentlessness of prison work. The tasks Victorian prisoners were set were part of their punishment. They would pedal a treadmill with their feet, for example, and though some prison treadmills were geared to grind corn or raise water, others had no use but to enslave. Then there was the nasty business of oakum picking, a task of unravelling the twine of old tarred ropes salvaged from ships. Wilde had worked at this until his fingers bled.
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