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Five
Oscar Wilde
(b. Oct. 16, 1854 - d. Nov. 30, 1900)

See our tribute article at Oscar Wilde.

The Ballad of reading Gaol: Summary

Somewhat confusingly, The Ballad of Reading Gaol is not the work that Wilde wrote while imprisoned for moral (in his case, homosexual) offences in 1895. That work was De Profundis, published five years after his death, in 1905. The Ballad of Reading Gaol was written after his release and he had moved to France, in 1897, though it was published in 1898. His works during this exile were published under the name Sebastian Melmouth, and this is the most famous. He would die in 1900. The poem is written in memory of "C.T.W." who died in Reading prison in July 1896 and it traces the feelings of an imprisoned man towards a fellow inmate who is to be hanged. They are "like two doomed ships that pass in storm", and Wilde creates a solemn funereal tone in his rhyme made sad and familiar by certain repeated phrases ("each man kills the thing he loves", "the little tent of blue/ Which prisoners call the sky"). The narrator’s emotions are filtered through an uncertainty about the law that has condemned them although he is certain that they are joined together in sin. There is a longing for the outside, innocence and crucially beauty, the last of which is undermined in the latrine-like cells. The poem seems to offer some limited comfort in the possibility of the thief’s entrance to Paradise. It is a work of startling contrasts between light and shade, drawn together with a keen eye and a sense of the beauty in sadness itself.
Note: To our eyes, a very well done summary. This was taken from Bibliomania.com. We definitely recommend it.

Russ' note: This is a bone-chilling poem. So common in school in our early years, it is too often forgotten before it can be understood. To all of you who 'did that' in school, read it again when you are older - it cuts deeper then.


The Ballad of Reading Gaol
In Memoriam
C.T.W.
Sometime Trooper of
The Royal Horse Guards.
Obiit H.M. Prison, Reading, Berkshire,
July 7th, 1896
by Oscar Wilde

V

I know not whether Laws be right,
Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law
That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took His brother's life,
And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
With a most evil fan.

This too I know- and wise it were
If each could know the same-
That every prison that men build
Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
And blind the goodly sun:
And the do well to hide their Hell,
For in it things are done
That Son of things nor son of Man
Ever should look upon!

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.

For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
And gibe the old and gray,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
Is a foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
In Humanity's machine.

The brackish water that we drink
Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
Is full of chalk and lime,
And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
Wild-eyed, and cries to Time.

But though lean Hunger and green Thirst
Like asp with adder fight,
We have little care of prison fare,
For what chills and kills outright
Is that every stone one lifts by day
Becomes one's heart by night.

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.

And thus we rust Life's iron chain
Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,
In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house
With the scent of costliest nard.

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?

And he of the swollen purple throat,
And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
His soul of his soul's strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
Became Christ's snow-white seal.

Click for The Ballad of Reading Gaol Part Four
Click for The Ballad of Reading Gaol Part Six

Five
For more Poetry Click the Poetry Index.

 

Thu, Jul 9, 2015
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You may think you already have Oscar's Poetry - somewhere (I did). Take a look about, if you can't find it, here's the answer (a very inexpensive answer, as well).
Click here for Wilde Poems.


No matter who does the collecting, the works stand on their own but this is an excellent compilation and well worth adding to your library.
Click here for Yeats.


1000 Years of Irish Poetry: The Gaelic and Anglo Irish Poets from Pagan Times to the Present
by Kathleen Hoagland

Interested in Irish Poetry?Here's the easy way to collect them all (well, almost all, anyway).
Malachy McCourt says in his introduction, "With the republication of this book, the Irish recover under their roof of stars all the great poets and writers who have been falsely claimed by the saxon crown and its minions - even our reprobates."
Amazon states this is out of stock. They still have used copies for almost nothing (except shipping - chuckle). If you would like a new edition, it was available at Powell's. We can't promise it's still there. Click here for Powell's 1000 Years.
Click here for used at Amazon.


 

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