Excursions Of A Bibliophile

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The Ballad of Reading Gaol – Oscar Wilde

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on September 20, 2009

It was Eliot who once made the profound observation that genuine poetry can communicate even before it is understood. Poetry touches and tugs deep slumbering feelings and emotions that we are not even conscious of. Through this touching and tugging, the reader is transported into a plane where the incomplete aspects of ones self awareness start to become complete. It is this inexplicable fulfilment and stirring that is so appealing in poetry. Poetry therefore to me is the precious medium through which the specificity of an incident, an observation, a scenery or landscape starts to acquire a transcendental dimension appreciated by people who are not even remotely connected to these subject matters. I also believe that no subject matter is undeserving of being treated in poetical terms – else how can a bleak subject like the experience of watching the hanging of a murderer prompt Oscar Wilde into writing that wonderful poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” ?

I have come across a snippet of this poem while reading William Woodruffe’s “Beyond Nab End” and ever since wanted to read the poem in its totality. It is only in the recent past that I managed to complete the reading. Having read it once, I could not restrain myself re-reading it. Trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge (CTW) had been found guilty of slitting his wife’s throat with a razor and was someone whom Wilde had seen many times during his imprisonment. It is his hanging that prompted Wilde to pen this ballad. Poetry is said to be an orphan of silence and that the words never quite equal the experience behind them. At least in the case of this poem it does not appear true

Wilde is a master of mixing the ordinary with the ethereal and in the process jolts us to reality and immediately after jolting us to reality he then again transports us into the ethereal. Consider the following stanzas where the reader falls from one end to the other:

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 fellows got to swing.”

There is an element of spookiness in the way the reader gets jolted out of the author’s reverie to face the harsh reality of a hanging. Similar to that is the stanza below where one moves away suddenly from life’s finery to the spectre of the gallows:

It is sweet to dance to violins
  When Love and Life are fair:
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
  Is delicate and rare:
But it is not sweet with nimble feet
  To dance upon the air!

Following this Wilde makes a profound observation when he writes:

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.

Wilde is a keen observer especially of CTW and his every action in the prison.This becomes evident in the following stanzas:

He did not wring his hands, as do
  Those witless men who dare
To try to rear the changeling Hope
  In the cave of black Despair:
He only looked upon the sun,
  And drank the morning air.

He did not wring his hands nor weep,
  Nor did he peek or pine,
But he drank the air as though it held
  Some healthful anodyne;
With open mouth he drank the sun
  As though it had been wine!

The evocation of  the condition of the prisoners is heartfelt, complete, horrifying and deeply accurate. There is an element of a military drill to the words that describe this:

We tore the tarry rope to shreds
  With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
  And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
  And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
  We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
  And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
  Terror was lying still.

…………………………..
…………………………….

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
  Is 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.

Wilde at on place personifies the impending death of CTW as an act in the hands of an “agent of death” and says the following which I think only a great poet can say

He did not pass in purple pomp,
  Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
  Are all the gallows’ need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
  To do the secret deed

Wilde at many places use his poem as a platform to condemn the behaviour of the prison system, the authorities and the overall justice system and one cannot but be pensive at the state of affairs.

For Man’s grim Justice goes its way,
  And will not swerve aside:
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
  It has a deadly stride:
With iron heel it slays the strong,
  The monstrous parricide!
……………………………………..
…………………………………….
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.

As I read these lines I kept thinking if anything has changed since then…..or

The Warders strutted up and down,
  And kept their herd of brutes,
Their uniforms were spick and span,
  And they wore their Sunday suits,
But we knew the work they had been at
  By the quicklime on their boots

The hanging of CTW is complete and he is now burried and Wilde makes this brilliantly moving observation on the barrenness of the grave

For three long years they will not sow
  Or root or seedling there:
For three long years the unblessed spot
  Will sterile be and bare,
And look upon the wondering sky
  With unreproachful stare.

(There is a very identical stanza in Hardy’s brilliant poem “Drummer Hodge”)

There are many places in this long poem that one gasps at the felicity of Wilde’s poetry. Yet in all this Wilde never forgets the critical function of poetry: that of casting a kind eye on the human predicament 

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

In many ways are we all not turning our own cranks, tearing our own ropes in our separate hells?

Actually it is the first four lines of this stanza that I encountered in my reading of Woodruffe’s “Beyond Nab End” and I am delighted that I have now managed to read this gem of a poem in its completeness. Robert Frost once said that to be a poet is a condition, not a profession – taking liberties, I think this is applicable equally well to any respectful reader of poetry

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One Response to “The Ballad of Reading Gaol – Oscar Wilde”

  1. JimmyBean said

    I don’t know If I said it already but …This blog rocks! I gotta say, that I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but, I just wanted to make a quick comment to say I’m glad I found your blog. Thanks, 🙂

    A definite great read..Jim Bean

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