The Ballad of Reading Gaol  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a famous poem by Oscar Wilde, written after his release from Reading prison on 19 May 1897. Its main theme is the death penalty. Wilde was found guilty of homosexual offences in 1895 and was sentenced to two years hard labour in prison, being transferred to Reading, Berkshire in November 1895. During his imprisonment, a rare thing occurred: a hanging.

Trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge was someone that Wilde had seen many times during his imprisonment. He had been found guilty of slitting his wife’s throat with a razor. It inspired in Wilde’s mind an illustration of the way we are all malefactors, all in need of forgiveness. According to Wilde the greater the crime, the more necessary charity. His final vision of the world is not frivolity, but one of suffering.

Although Wilde never hid his authorship of the poem, it was published under the name 'C.3.3.', which stood for building C, floor 3, cell 3, at Reading. This ensured that Wilde's name (by then notorious) did not appear on the front cover.

Wilde knew the town of Reading from happier times when boating on the Thames and also from visits to the Palmer family, including a tour of the famous Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory quite close to the prison.


Several quotes from the poem have become famous in their own right:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves


For he has a pall, this wretched man

The stanza closes the final chapter of W.E.B. Du Bois' epic revisionist history of the African-American's pivotal role in the Civil War and Reconstruction published in 1935.

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