Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

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At first glance, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” (1898) seems to show that the stance that Wilde takes in the “Pen, Pencil, and Poison,” where the narrator emphasizes that “[T]here is no essential incongruity between crime and culture” cannot be completely applied to this poem, because the questions of Art and Beauty are not the main focus of this work. On the contrary, this poem might be viewed as an anti-capital punishment manifesto where the narrator is preoccupied with the issues of morality and religion and depicts them in a rather moralizing tone. Astringent criticism in the poem is directed towards the legal system where “—every Law/ That men hath made for Man,/ —/But straws the wheat and saves the chaff/ With a most evil fan.” (896) and prison system where “It is only what is good in Man/ That wastes and withers there./—/And all, but Lust, is turned to dust/ In Humanity’s machine.” (897) In addition, the reflection that the dehumanizing lack of humanity within the prison, where “—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,” (898) is not only the fault of the prison warden and the prison guards, but reveals much deeper issues of the cruelty and the hypocrisy of the whole society is expressed already in the first part of the poem through the lines that with slight variations are repeated throughout the poem: “The man had killed the thing he loved,/ And so he had to die./ Yet each man kills the thing he loves,/ —–Yet each man does not die.” (884) Only few of the prisoners are actually able to realize that “—had each got his due,/ They should have died instead:/ He had but killed a thing that lived,/ Whilst they had killed the dead.” (893) It might be an exaggeration to claim that the narrator of the poem completely justifies a murder of another man. In fact, the viewpoint that crime has to be punished is not only the general understanding but the one of the narrator of the poem seems to be indicated at the end of the poem through the lines: “No need to waste the foolish tear,/ Or heave the windy sigh:/ The man had killed the thing he loved,/ And so he had to die.” (899) However, the narrator’s stance that it is not only the physical murder that should be condemned and that actually each person commits some kind of crime, which, not punishable by law, might be considered even heavier than a physical murder, is clearly expressed and delivered to the reader in the beginning of the poem and repeated throughout it: 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./ —– The kindest use a knife, because/ The dead so soon grow cold.” (884) That everyone is at fault but those who are outside the prison are more cunning (and therefore, hypocritical) is delivered through the imagined speech of evil sprites that torture the prisoners at night: “’Oho!’ they cried, ‘The world is wide/ But fettered limbs go lame!/ And once, or twice, to throw the dice/ Is a gentlemanly game,/ But he does not win who plays with Sin/ In the secret House of Shame.’” (890) Moreover, the description of “unblessed spot” that the world would consider as tainted because of “a murderer’s heart” (895) once again shows the hypocrisy of the society and that of the religious institutions that do not act in accord with the idea that “God’s kindly earth/ Is kindlier than men know” (Ibid.) and “–a broken and a contrite heart/ The Lord will not despise.” (899) The religious hypocrisy is embodied in the figure of the prison chaplain who “would not kneel to pray/By his [murderer’s] dishonoured grave,” even though the punished man would be “one of those/ Whom Christ came down to save.” (896)

Thus, the executioners’ attitude towards the body of the man after the execution (“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.” (896)) as well as their overall behavior towards the prisoners embodies the way how the society has conveniently made the condemned men that “[t]he world had thrust” from its heart (887) into the objects of mockery who “[l]ike ape or clown, in monstrous garb” (894) go around and around in front of the eyes of their observers.

Nevertheless, contrary to the first impressions, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” cannot be viewed merely as a narrators (and the author’s) means to moralize. From the beginning, in addition to the depiction of the mental state of the prisoners, the disclosure the hypocrisy of the society, the religious institutions, as well as the religious contemplations, this poem clearly reveals Wilde’s preoccupation with the Art. The very first lines of the poem describe the murder in a rather artistic manner appealing to the visual senses of the reader and implying the possibility of the murder as some form of art. In addition, it clearly depicts the dehumanizing effect that the removal of beauty and any possibility of aesthetic experience has on the state of a human being: “The shard, the pebble, and the flint,/ Are what they give us there:/ For flowers have been known to heal/ A common man’s despair.” (895) The beauty would not only heal the despair of men who have to suffer within the prison walls. It has an ability to provide one with something akin to a religious revelation, with the salvation: “So never will wine-red rose or white,/ Petal by petal, fall/ On that stretch of mud and sand that lies/ By the hideous prison-wall,/ To tell the man who tramp the yard/ That God’s Son died for all.” (895)

Consequently, even though it seems that “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” indicates a drastic change in Wilde’s world view, where the beauty and the artistic have been replaced by the morality (and/or moralizing) and ethical sympathies, which as Wilde claims in “The Preface” of The Picture of Dorian Gray, are “an unpardonable mannerism of style,” such a conclusion would be a result of a rather simplified reading of this poem. Through creating the poem that can be experienced through the reading (experience factor while reading the poem as a piece of art from the viewpoint of the reader) and that depicts the artistic factor of experiencing something, be it a murder or suffering, Wilde still shows that he  is faithful to his belief that the artistic and aesthetic experience and the beauty is something to be valued above anything else .

– Wanda

Word count (including quotes): 1155

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