The Ballad of Reading Gaol
After Oscar Wilde was released from prison, where he penned his meditation, De Profundis, starting with the aphorism: “Suffering is one very long moment.”, he wrote the poem. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, in 1898. It was first published simply under his prisoner identification number, C.3-3. the third cell on the third floor of C ward
The poem is dedicated to the memory a Royal Horse Guards trooper, executed for the murder of his wife. The narration moves from an objective story-telling to symbolic identification with the prisoners as a whole. This meditation on the paradoxes of morality is an accusation of the death penalty and the whole penal system
As its title states, Wilde’s work is a ballad poem, or a verse work concerning typically tragic themes of love, war, adventure, and death. Here he deals with the death of that inmate, but the punishment for this crime seems cruelly ironic to the narrator, as emphasized with the line ‘each man kills the thing he loves,’ which acts as a refrain and underlines that each person has in some way irreparably damaged a loved one. Each man in that prison has done something worse than the man condemned to die, not only the convicts but also, their jailors who break the prisoners, minds, bodies, and spirits. In short, every man there – prison staff included – is guilty of some great fault against humanity.
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.
The first line recalls Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice”, where Bassanio asks “Do all men kill the things they do not love?”