The Ballad of Reading Gaol – Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s tomb is located in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.


The very name Oscar Wilde is synonymous with wit and intelligence, and of course the best that the Victorian literature has to offer. But this is not the whole story, as most of us know, Wilde was convicted of homosexual ‘offences’ in 1895 and sentenced to two years’ hard labour in prison. For a man of his fame, intelligence and standing, this was a death sentence.
After his release, Wilde spent most of his life in France and it is there that he wrote this poem. He suggested that it be published in Reynold’s Magazine, “because it circulates widely among the criminal classes – to which I now belong – for once I will be read by my peers – a new experience for me.”

In this 109 stanza long poem, He decries the modern prison system and the dehumanizing effect it has on the inmates. He saw the devastating psychological effect it has not only on the condemned, but also on those who condemn them in the name of justice. Eventually, it was the hanging of an inmate accused of killing his wife that affected him the most and lead to the creation of this masterpiece. Wilde identified with him, and in him he saw his own fate, bleak and irredeemable. But what surprised me the most were the religious connotations that kept on appearing within the stanzas that were quite unlike his usual style.

The futility of life and love that dawned on him during his prison years are clearly reflected in the ballad, he repeatedly pictures himself and the inmates as the cast outs who are thrown out by the society, condemned and damned. It is heartbreaking to see a man as lively and intelligent as Wilde ending up the way he did.
There is so much pain in these lines, that to feel indifferent to his suffering is beyond ones control.

“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!”

Wilde lived only 2 more years after his release and that too, in exile as an unknown no-body.

A passage from the poem was chosen as the epitaph on Wilde’s tomb;

“And alien tears will fill for him,
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.”


Ministry of Justice in UK has, on Thursday, announced an initiative to wipe criminal records of gay and bisexual men convicted of sexual offences that are no longer illegal. A positive development, but is it enough ? Men who are still a source of pride for not only Britain, but all humanity, were condemned for their sexual orientation. Their prosecution positively destroyed their careers, and their lives. Geniuses like Alan turing and Oscar Wilde, who did so much for their nations, were brutally alienated by their own people. LGBT community has faced great atrocities committed against them by none other than the ‘civilised world’ itself. Its time that the reparations, if any are to be offered, be made substantially and in a manner that provides them with greater safety and security.


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