The Ballad of Reading Gaol - Oscar Wilde


Oscar Wilde:

,The Ballad of Reading Gaol'

1.    The British Literary Ballad

Oscar Wilde's 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' stands in the tradition of the British Literary Ballad. This section will show how this genre developed, points out its influence on British authors and takes a closer look on the topic of crime and criminals.

1.1 The word "ballad" and its most important traditions

Today, a ballad is a poem in which "the story is presented in a series of short, rhymed stanzas and, on the whole, in simple, straightforward language" (Laws, 1).

Etymologically, however, the word "ballad" means "dance song". In Romance countries the ballad was a short song with a stanzaic structure and a refrain. In the English tradition, the reference to dance is far more loose.

Here, it was more the folk-song, a form that was mostly orally transmitted and performed. Traditional ballads are folk-songs of a particular kind, namely short narrative ones. The commonest themes are "violent death, sex (expecially adultery) and the supernatural" (Barber, 153). From time to time folk-ballads have been written down so that we have a lot of written material today, some of it dating back up to the thirteenth century.

In the sixteenth century, the second major form of the ballad had already reached its zenith: the street-ballad, which can be compared to today's "yellow press", presented mainly moralising stories of murder, present-day events, gossip and the supernatural. This genuine urban form of literature featured mostly some political or religious subject and often had a satirical character. The street-ballad was either sung and recited or sold, printed on broadsheets, in the street, at the fair or in pubs. It was a quite profitable business.

In the course of time, there were a number of interrelations between the folk- and the street-ballad. Folk-ballads would be taken up by "ballad-mongers" (Müller, 12) and were adapted to fit the concept of the broadside; broadsides, on the other hand, would be turned into singable folk-ballads by ballad-singers. Soon the term "ballad" had become so ambiguous that one of the most important problems of the editors of folk-poetry at that time was the differentiation between song and ballad. The editor William Shenstone thought that a ballad "describes or implies some Action" whereas a song "contains only an Expression of Sentiment" (Both: Müller, 14). This idea was subsequently taken up by a number of contemporaries and was repeated again and again, just at the time when the literal public became interested in the ballad.

1.2 The influence of the ballad on British authors

In the later eighteenth century, literary people became interested in the popular ballad and a number of collections were published. Quite a few editors felt that they had to "polish up" and improve the ballads they published. One of the most influential books for the public and for British authors was without a doubt Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, which came out in 1765. It offered the early ballad writer examples of almost all the important ballad styles.

So literary balladists have been up to a certain degree dependent upon the taste of editors who selected certain examples from the vast amount of existing ballads and who also exercised considerably control over the style of their texts. But since the ballad was so popular from the early sixteenth century up to the late nineteenth, there was hardly any British poet who was unfamiliar with balladry. City poets would hear romantic or sensational broadsides sung or recited in the streets; poets from the countryside would get in touch with folk-ballads in inns, taverns and at fairs. Not all poets necessarily admired balladry; their attitude often depended on the type of balladry they got to know. But they "did everything but ignore the ballad" (Laws, 3).

The genre of oral literature, to which some types of the ballad belong, tends to use a diction with many stock phrases or formulae, just to make the piece of literature easier to remember. Many of the phrases in common folk-balldry can be found in other ballads, either in identical or in a very similar form. Many authors discovered that the simple ballad patterns contained a number of difficulties, they were highly afraid of the "pitfall of banality" (Laws, 4). But on the other hand the ballad form offered an excellent way of telling a short and dramatic story, it produced a direct emotional impact on the reader.

In general, poets did not have scholarly or folkloristic interests in the ballad; they just subordinated it to their artistic ideas and were free to select or reject whatever stylistic features they chose. The diversity of the different forms of ballad impacted on the poets' work and produced a number of different poems which showed in one way or another the influence of the ballad on "official literature" (Barber, 156). Poems based on folk-ballads show the typical "poetic and emotional intensity, elemental action, and conventionalized language" (Laws, 12); those based on broadside models frequently have adopted the "journalistic jargon of the age" (Laws, 13) and are realistic, contemporary, moralistic and subjective.

1.3 Ballads of Crime and Criminals

The most convenient way to classify literary balladry is to arrange it according to various types of story matter. G. M. Laws has combined and revised earlier classifications to produce a list of the main ballad types. Alongside "(a) Ballads of the Supernatural (b) of Tragedy (c) of Love [] (e) of Scottish Border Life (f) of War and Adventure (g) of Miscellaneous Subjects, and (h) of Humor" he mentions "(d) of Crime and Criminals" (Both: Laws, 24), a category to which also 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' belongs.

In Ballads of Crime and Criminals, both folk and broadside, the criminals are mostly treated sympathetically if they are not actually regarded as heroes. The oldest example of that kind is of course Robin Hood. Other ballads of that kind wanted to capitalise on the "bloody and sensational" (Laws, 46). They, however, have been quickly forgotten since the literary balladist looked for characters with who the readers could identify. Such identification could be achieved in the popular broadsheet-type "good-night" which consisted of the purpoted last words of a condemned man before his execution and was sold on the day of execution. The general tone is moral and sentimental. The criminal, who is presented rather pitiable than heroic, regrets his past and warns others against ending like him.

Oscar Wilde's poem 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' also falls into this category, even if it differs substentially from the "good-night"-tradition in certain points, which will become clearer in the course of this paper.

2.     The biographical background

'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' is strongly connected with Oscar Wilde's biography. This section tries to throw light on the most important turning point in his life, the time in prison, as well as on the effects this experience had on his thinking and writing.

2.1 Oscar Wilde - Playboy and Prophet?


When taking a closer look at the life of Oscar Wilde it is very likely that one discovers the striking duality in the personality of that author, the contrast between the fashionable "Dandy" and the thoughtful Prophet. These two apparently inconsistent personalities are, however, quite compatible and oppose each other not at all, as this section will show.

In fact, a certain "adolescent emotional attitude" (Woodcock, 193) runs through Wilde's life like a red thread. Writing, talking and even life itself was a "wonderful game" (Woodcock, 194) for the author, a game of virtuosity and inspiration. He virtually made a cult of joy and pleasure and built up a "new scheme of life" (Woodcock, 214), believing that through "Dandyism" he could improve the world. But he could not maintain the "simplicity of life" (Woodcock, 196) he had hoped to achieve since it was very difficult for him to cope with his sudden fame. He could not expect much help from his friends who very often just turned to him because of his wealth and his complete lack of the sense of property made things even worse.

Still, the game went on and Wilde continued to love talking, drinking, eating and sexual indulgence. Especially with regard to his sexuality Wilde lead a double-life. On the one hand he had two sons with his wife, on the other hand he went out to meet young men to "get the best of both worlds" (Gagnier, 163). He regarded "daring and even rashness" (Woodcock, 207) as absolutely necessary for a man of society. Yet, his downfall actually came from too little daring, as Woodcock puts it, since it emerged from his homosexuality, that "hidden part of his life where he [] played with a fire he was incapable of handling" (Woodcock, 208).

It is quite remarkable that Oscar Wilde always had the strong desire to avoid pain. He had a "really morbid over-sensitivity towards pain, uglyness, and misery" (Woodcock, 202). The game collapsed, his sexual preferences were revealed and Wilde was put on trial. After he had been sentenced to two years hard labour, suddenly "all those terrible factors of defeat, failure, [] shame, hatred, abuse" (Woodcock, 216) which he had feared so bitterly, came crowding in. Overnight the famous and successful author became "the figure and letter of a little cell in a long gallery, one of a thousand lifeless numbers" (Kohl, 275).

Prison was a terrible experience for Wilde but also an important turning point in his personal development. It was a time of desolation, dreariness and humiliation but after having fully identified with his fellow prisoners he found among them a common humanity, a certain sympathy and solidarity. He realised that "pleasure is [] only one side of the garden of life and cannot of itself make a man whole" (Woodcock, 218). Prison has not robbed him of his love for life but it has endowed him with another, a different perspective on life. His main concern seemed to "view the world with love and understanding" (Woodcock, 219) and not with the hostility and hatred which one would possibly expect from a man in his position.

After his release from prison Wilde was free to love as he wished but for that freedom he had "forfeited his social position and economic society as well as the personal affection of many former friends and his right to see his two young sons" (Gagnier, 145).

That is the prophetic dimension of Oscar Wilde which may have existed within him all his life long but which came out not before his time in prison, where he wrote his De Profundis, a long letter to his friend Alfred Douglas which constantly shifts between romance and realism and in which his "totalising plan to love and forgive [] is disrupted repeatedly by [] outbursts of 'real' hatred as he feels it" (Gagnier, 179).

2.2 The time in prison


On 25 May 1895, after two trials, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labour. He had spent several time in prison since he got arrested on 5 April but most of the time he could spend in freedom, released on bail. At first, Wilde was sent to Wandsworth gaol; on 20 November he was transferred to Reading, the jail where he would serve the rest of his sentence.

In these days the prison system was not as humane as today. The aim was not to make people fit for a re-integration in society but merely to lock them away. The men were locked in their cells twenty-three hours of the day and had only one hour exercise in which they were not allowed to talk at all. The food was inadequate, medical treatment was primitive and the small libraries, if there were some at all, were in the charge of narrow-minded chaplains. Monotony determined life in prison and hostile warders used every break of the rules as an excuse to punish the prisoners. Rules, so Thomas Martin, one of the few kind warders, wrote, which were "made with no other object than to be broken, so that an excuse may be found for inflicting additional punishment" (Martin, 333).

Martin came to Reading gaol some seven weeks before Wilde's release. He was always kind to Wilde and tried to make time in prison easier for him. Wilde, so Martin, was always dreadfully distressed because he could not polish his shoes or brush his hair. He suffered terribly from the fact that he was not allowed to write at first. Yet, Wilde faithfully obeyed the laws and got through it with ever new tenacity.

But there were also instances in which the poet would get cynical and bitter. In church, when the chaplain would tell the prisoners how wicked they all were and how thankful they should be that they lived in a "Christian country where a paternal Government was as anxious for the welfare of their souls as for the safe-keeping of their miserable bodies" (Martin, 333) Wilde would smile, a cynical and disbelieving smile, overshadowed by despair. To Martin he said: "I long to rise in my place, and cry out and tell the poor, disinheretched wretches around me that it is not so, [] that society has nothing to offer them but starvation in the streets, or starvation and cruelty in the prison" (Martin, 333).

3.    Analysis of 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'

In 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' Oscar Wilde digests his experiences in prison but it can also be understood as a tribute to "that original [homosexual] community of men [which] [] provide[s] the spectacle of their banishment from polite society" (Gagnier, 140).

The factual background is the execution of Charles Thomas Wooldridge who had murdered his wife. His execution took place in Reading Gaol during the time of Wilde's imprisonment. But for the ballad this background is of no great importance since Wilde does not concentrate on Wooldridge's last thoughts before the execution but rather on the way his fellow prisoners feel about it. Besides, there is a lot of criticism of the prison system at that time.

3.1 The creation of the poem


'The Ballad of Reading Gaol' is a poem that just had to be written, which derives from its precise biographical context, and was completed relatively quickly. It is, as Page notes, "the product of a specific moment: the first days of his freedom, embittered by the realisation that his family life [] had very possibly been destroyed for ever" (Page, 306).

On 19 May 1897 Oscar Wilde was released from Reading Jail and within less than two weeks, after he had moved to France, he was already at work on 'The Ballad'. The first draft was written quickly, but revision and expansion took longer. Changes introduced after the first draft for Page seem to have been designed to "strengthen the didactism rather than to heighten the narrative and dramatic effects" (Page, 307).

In late August he sent it to his publisher, saying it was still unrevised, and only in October he was able to claim that it was "finished at last" (Page, 306).

3.2 The structure of 'The Ballad'

Oscar Wilde's ballad consists of 109 stanzas which are grouped into six parts, which is indicated by numbers. Asterisks refer to a further subdivision within the parts. Let us try to characterise the different sections and to find out how they are connected in terms of writing techniques and references.

The poem starts off with Part I, consisting of 16 stanzas, which tells of a prisoner who murdered the woman he loved and was sentenced to death for that crime. There is a subdivison after the first six stanzas. Part Ia only focuses on the prisoner concerned; Part Ib, on the other hand, takes a far wider perspective, reflecting about men in general, who all kill "the thing they love" but who do not all have to die. A description about the horrible conditions of prison rounds off that part.

Part II consists of 13 verses and is built up similarly to Part I. The first six stanzas, Part IIa, come back to the condemned man; the remaining seven verses, Part IIb, are focusing on a larger group, in this case the whole of the prisoners and their life-and-death fears. The fate hanging over the condemned man seems to be a threat to all of them. Additionally, the life "outside", where free persons live, love and dance, is contrasted to the life "inside" the prison walls where prisoners sit out their sentence indifferently and pass each other without signing or speaking.

Part III is the longest one with 37 stanzas. Part IIIa, the first twelve verses, describes how the prisoners see the condemned man for the last time noting the "yellow hole" (III, 61), the grave which is already waiting for the corpse of the man. Part IIIb, consisting of only six stanzas, focuses on the evening and gradual fall of the night. The whole section climaxes in the 19 verses of Part IIIc with the fellow prisoners' complete identification with Wooldridge during the night preceding his execution. In this "night of erotic horrors" (Gagnier, 174) the inmates have terrible dreams as if they themselves had been condemned to death. Here, for the first time, the reader can feel some of the common humanity, of the solidarity of the inmates, which Wilde experienced in prison. Part IIIc closes with a vision of the execution.

Part IV, with ist 23 verses, shows in detail how the dead man's punishment is extended even after death. Part IVa, consisting of six stanzas, features the man's fellow prisoners on the next morning who are united by now looking themselves "so wistfully" (IV, 18), a feature by which in Part Ia only Wooldridge was characterised. Part IVb, two verses, is a short reference to the last night in Part IIIc and is opposed by Part IVc  which focuses on the warders and the grave of burning lime. In the last 12 stanzas making up Part IVd, the corpse is buried in a great hurry without a final prayer or a cross to mark the place. The destruction of the prisoner, continuing even after his death, clearly shows the inhumanity of man to man. Yet, Gagnier notes, the body of Wooldridge is now "protected by the bodies of the inmates surrounding it" (Gagnier, 175); such a terrible incident only strengthens their solidarity.

Part V is concerned with the abstract problem of collective human and social guilt and starts off with a critic remark concerning incarceration. In the first four stanzas, Part Va, the image of the ideal and united community of prisoners is counterposed with the recognition that real life can only happen outside and that the "social goal of rehabilitation with respect to the inmates is a joke" (Gagnier, 175). Prison only intensifies the inmates' isolation and aggression, as Part Vb, and Part Vc, each consisting of four verses, show. Part Vd, with its two stanzas, and Part Ve, with its three stanzas, introduce the religious dimension of execution and criticise the power some "m[e]n in red" (V, 91) have over the life and death of people.

Part VI, finally, concludes the ballad in its three verses by once more taking up the theme that "each man kills the thing he loves" (I, 37), repeating almost word for word the relevant verse in Part Ib. It combines the narrative base of the poem, the execution of the prisoner, and its philosophical centre, the problem of guilt and the responsibility of those who pass judgement.

4.    Conclusion

The bitter personal experiences with the inhumane prison system would very likely have tempted Oscar Wilde to "launch an unbridled attack on that system, subordinating poetry to propaganda" (Kohl, 303). But that would have come into conflict with the aesthetic creed he had preached his whole life long. So Wilde had to adapt his style to the simplicity and earnestness of the subject.

The power of the poem derives from the well-proportioned balance of a realistic presentation of the monotony of prison life and the unavoidable fate that awaits the condemned man and the bits of grotesque fantasy through which Wilde could capture the nightmare quality of the period before the execution. Very important in that context is also the sympathy of the speaker with Wooldridge. This human involvement "dramatises the situation of the outsider who is being destroyed by an unjust society" (Kohl, 304). Guilt is presented as lying with the laws that have condemned him and the society which has made and imposed these laws and not with the murderer. For Kohl the main problem raised in the poem is that of social justice. It is presented so effectively that, although not being a piece of propaganda literature, 'The Ballad' is a very impressive poem which has a strong emotional impact on the reader.

Nathan, on the other hand, does see 'The Ballad' as a piece of propaganda literature. Wilde himself, so Nathan notes, wrote that he desires to make propaganda, which, according to him, starts with the line "But this I know, that every Law" (V, 7). It addresses the law and its effects on its victims. The next few lines concern "the consequences of the law, the brutal degradation of prison life [and the] [] spiritual effects of inhuman punishment" (Nathan, 216). Man's inhumanity to man leads to the underlying main subject of 'The Ballad', namely universal guilt. Nathan criticises that to insist that "All men kill the thing they love" (VI, 13) suggests a kind of helplessness of all the parties to the crime, "a notion that could seem to trivialise murder, shifting it from the category of sin to that of folly" (Nathan, 217).

For Nathan, Wilde has failed in creating a "social poetry that could enter the public domain with every hope of having consequences in the real world" (Nathan, 217) since emotion and pathos, an aspect which Kohl has just praised above, are no adequate base for discursive argument. To little, Nathan notes, is added to its force so that all in all it is neither an excellent poem nor a powerful piece of propaganda literature.

5.    Bibliography

5.1 Books and Articles available

Wilde, Oscar, 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol', in Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow, 1994), 883-899.

Barber, Charles, Poetry in English. An Introduction (London, 1983).

Gagnier, Regenia, Idylls of the marketplace: Oscar Wilde and the Victorian public (Stanford, 1987).

Kohl, Norbert, Oscar Wilde. The works of a conformist rebel (Cambridge, 1989).

Laws, G. Malcolm, The British Literary Ballad (London, 1972).

Martin, Thomas, 'The Poet in Prison', in E. H. Mikhail, ed., Oscar Wilde. Interviews and Recollections. Volume 2 (London, 1979), 332-336.

Müller, Wolfgang G., Die englisch-schottische Volksballade (Bern, 1983).

Nathan, Leonard, 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol: At the Limits of the Lyric', in Regenia Gagnier, ed., Critical Essays on Oscar Wilde (New York, 1991), 213-222.

Page, Norman, 'Decoding the Ballad of Reading Gaol', in C. George Sandulescu, ed., Rediscovering Oscar Wilde (Buckinghamshire, 1994), 305-311.

Shewan Rodney, Oscar Wilde. Art and Egotism (London, 1977).

Woodcock, George, The Paradox of Oscar Wilde (London, 1949).

5.2 Books and Articles not available


Abbott, Jack Henry, In the Belly of the Beast: Letters from Prison (New York, 1981).

Bentley, Eric, The Playwright as Thinker (New York, 1955).

Brasol, Boris, Oscar Wilde. The Man - the artist (London, 1938).

Chamberlin, J. E. and S. L. Gilman (eds.), Degeneration: The dark side of Progress (New York, 1985).

Cohen, Philip K., The moral Vision of Oscar Wilde (New Jersey, 1979).

Croft-Cooke, Rupert, The unrecorded Life of Oscar Wilde (New York 1972).

Hyde, H. M., The Trials of Oscar Wilde (London, 1948).

Horodisch, Abraham, Oscar Wilde's 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol'. A bibliographical Study (New York, 1954).

Laver, James, Dandies (London, 1968).

Meyers, Jeffrey, Homosexuality and Literature (London, 1977).

Sedgewick, Eve K., Between Men: English Literature and male homosocial Desire (New York, 1985).

Sherard, Robert H., The real Oscar Wilde (London, 1914).

Showalter, Elaine, Sexual Anarchy: Gender and Culture at the Fin de Siecle (New York, 1990).

Southerton, Peter, The Story of a Prison (Reading, 1975).

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