The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Original Text: 
Oscar Wilde, Poems, intro. by Temple Scott (New York: Brentano's, 1910): 255-85. PR 5814 1910 Robarts Library.
1.1He did not wear his scarlet coat,
1.2    For blood and wine are red,
1.3And blood and wine were on his hands
1.4    When they found him with the dead,
1.5The poor dead woman whom he loved,
1.6    And murdered in her bed.
1.7He walked amongst the Trial Men
1.8    In a suit of shabby gray;
1.9A cricket cap was on his head,
1.10    And his step seemed light and gay;
1.11But I never saw a man who looked
1.12    So wistfully at the day.
1.13I never saw a man who looked
1.14    With such a wistful eye
1.15Upon that little tent of blue
1.16    Which prisoners call the sky,
1.17And at every drifting cloud that went
1.18    With sails of silver by.
1.19I walked, with other souls in pain,
1.20    Within another ring,
1.21And was wondering if the man had done
1.22    A great or little thing,
1.23When a voice behind me whispered low,
1.24    "That fellow's got to swing."
1.25Dear Christ! the very prison walls
1.26    Suddenly seemed to reel,
1.27And the sky above my head became
1.28    Like a casque of scorching steel;
1.29And, though I was a soul in pain,
1.30    My pain I could not feel.
1.31I only knew what hunted thought
1.32    Quickened his step, and why
1.33He looked upon the garish day
1.34    With such a wistful eye;
1.35The man had killed the thing he loved,
1.36    And so he had to die.
1.37Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
1.38    By each let this be heard,
1.39Some do it with a bitter look,
1.40    Some with a flattering word,
1.41The coward does it with a kiss,
1.42    The brave man with a sword!
1.43Some kill their love when they are young,
1.44    And some when they are old;
1.45Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
1.46    Some with the hands of Gold:
1.47The kindest use a knife, because
1.48    The dead so soon grow cold.
1.49Some love too little, some too long,
1.50    Some sell, and others buy;
1.51Some do the deed with many tears,
1.52    And some without a sigh:
1.53For each man kills the thing he loves,
1.54    Yet each man does not die.
1.55He does not die a death of shame
1.56    On a day of dark disgrace,
1.57Nor have a noose about his neck,
1.58    Nor a cloth upon his face,
1.59Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
1.60    Into an empty space.
1.61He does not sit with silent men
1.62    Who watch him night and day;
1.63Who watch him when he tries to weep,
1.64    And when he tries to pray;
1.65Who watch him lest himself should rob
1.66    The prison of its prey.
1.67He does not wake at dawn to see
1.68    Dread figures throng his room,
1.69The shivering Chaplain robed in white,
1.70    The Sheriff stern with gloom,
1.71And the Governor all in shiny black,
1.72    With the yellow face of Doom.
1.73He does not rise in piteous haste
1.74    To put on convict-clothes,
1.75While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes
1.76    Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
1.77Fingering a watch whose little ticks
1.78    Are like horrible hammer-blows.
1.79He does not know that sickening thirst
1.80    That sands one's throat, before
1.81The hangman with his gardener's gloves
1.82    Slips through the padded door,
1.83And binds one with three leathern thongs,
1.84That the throat may thirst no more.
1.85He does not bend his head to hear
1.86    The Burial Office read,
1.87Nor while the terror of his soul
1.88    Tells him he is not dead,
1.89Cross his own coffin, as he moves
1.90    Into the hideous shed.
1.91He does not stare upon the air
1.92    Through a little roof of glass:
1.93He does not pray with lips of clay
1.94    For his agony to pass;
1.95Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek
1.96    The kiss of Caiaphas.
2.1Six weeks the guardsman walked the yard,
2.2    In the suit of shabby gray:
2.3His cricket cap was on his head,
2.4    And his step seemed light and gay,
2.5But I never saw a man who looked
2.6    So wistfully at the day.
2.7I never saw a man who looked
2.8    With such a wistful eye
2.9Upon that little tent of blue
2.10    Which prisoners call the sky,
2.11And at every wandering cloud that trailed
2.12    Its ravelled fleeces by.
2.13He did not wring his hands, as do
2.14    Those witless men who dare
2.15To try to rear the changeling Hope
2.16    In the cave of black Despair:
2.17He only looked upon the sun,
2.18    And drank the morning air.
2.19He did not wring his hands nor weep,
2.20    Nor did he peek or pine,
2.21But he drank the air as though it held
2.22    Some healthful anodyne;
2.23With open mouth he drank the sun
2.24    As though it had been wine!
2.25And I and all the souls in pain,
2.26    Who tramped the other ring,
2.27Forgot if we ourselves had done
2.28    A great or little thing,
2.29And watched with gaze of dull amaze
2.30    The man who had to swing.
2.31For strange it was to see him pass
2.32    With a step so light and gay,
2.33And strange it was to see him look
2.34    So wistfully at the day,
2.35And strange it was to think that he
2.36    Had such a debt to pay.
2.37For oak and elm have pleasant leaves
2.38    That in the spring-time shoot:
2.39But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
2.40    With its alder-bitten root,
2.41And, green or dry, a man must die
2.42    Before it bears its fruit!
2.43The loftiest place is that seat of grace
2.44    For which all worldlings try:
2.45But who would stand in hempen band
2.46    Upon a scaffold high,
2.47And through a murderer's collar take
2.48    His last look at the sky?
2.49It is sweet to dance to violins
2.50    When Love and Life are fair:
2.51To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
2.52    Is delicate and rare:
2.53But it is not sweet with nimble feet
2.54    To dance upon the air!
2.55So with curious eyes and sick surmise
2.56    We watched him day by day,
2.57And wondered if each one of us
2.58    Would end the self-same way,
2.59For none can tell to what red Hell
2.60    His sightless soul may stray.
2.61At last the dead man walked no more
2.62    Amongst the Trial Men,
2.63And I knew that he was standing up
2.64    In the black dock's dreadful pen,
2.65And that never would I see his face
2.66    In God's sweet world again.
2.67Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
2.68    We had crossed each other's way:
2.69But we made no sign, we said no word,
2.70    We had no word to say;
2.71For we did not meet in the holy night,
2.72    But in the shameful day.
2.73A prison wall was round us both,
2.74    Two outcast men we were:
2.75The world had thrust us from its heart,
2.76    And God from out His care:
2.77And the iron gin that waits for Sin
2.78    Had caught us in its snare.
3.1In Debtors' Yard the stones are hard,
3.2    And the dripping wall is high,
3.3So it was there he took the air
3.4    Beneath the leaden sky,
3.5And by each side a Warder walked,
3.6    For fear the man might die.
3.7Or else he sat with those who watched
3.8    His anguish night and day;
3.9Who watched him when he rose to weep,
3.10    And when he crouched to pray;
3.11Who watched him lest himself should rob
3.12    Their scaffold of its prey.
3.13The Governor was strong upon
3.14    The Regulations Act:
3.15The Doctor said that Death was but
3.16    A scientific fact:
3.17And twice a day the Chaplain called,
3.18    And left a little tract.
3.19And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
3.20    And drank his quart of beer:
3.21His soul was resolute, and held
3.22    No hiding-place for fear;
3.23He often said that he was glad
3.24    The hangman's hands were near.
3.25But why he said so strange a thing
3.26    No Warder dared to ask:
3.27For he to whom a watcher's doom
3.28    Is given as his task,
3.29Must set a lock upon his lips,
3.30    And make his face a mask.
3.31Or else he might be moved, and try
3.32    To comfort or console:
3.33And what should Human Pity do
3.34    Pent up in Murderer's Hole?
3.35What word of grace in such a place
3.36    Could help a brother's soul?
3.37With slouch and swing around the ring
3.38    We trod the Fools' Parade!
3.39We did not care: we knew we were
3.40    The Devil's Own Brigade:
3.41And shaven head and feet of lead
3.42    Make a merry masquerade.
3.43We tore the tarry rope to shreds
3.44    With blunt and bleeding nails;
3.45We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
3.46    And cleaned the shining rails:
3.47And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
3.48    And clattered with the pails.
3.49We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
3.50    We turned the dusty drill:
3.51We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
3.52    And sweated on the mill:
3.53But in the heart of every man
3.54    Terror was lying still.
3.55So still it lay that every day
3.56    Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
3.57And we forgot the bitter lot
3.58    That waits for fool and knave,
3.59Till once, as we tramped in from work,
3.60    We passed an open grave.
3.61With yawning mouth the yellow hole
3.62    Gaped for a living thing;
3.63The very mud cried out for blood
3.64    To the thirsty asphalte ring:
3.65And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
3.66    Some prisoner had to swing.
3.67Right in we went, with soul intent
3.68    On Death and Dread and Doom:
3.69The hangman, with his little bag,
3.70    Went shuffling through the gloom:
3.71And each man trembled as he crept
3.72    Into his numbered tomb.
3.73That night the empty corridors
3.74    Were full of forms of Fear,
3.75And up and down the iron town
3.76    Stole feet we could not hear,
3.77And through the bars that hide the stars
3.78    White faces seemed to peer.
3.79He lay as one who lies and dreams
3.80    In a pleasant meadow-land,
3.81The watchers watched him as he slept,
3.82    And could not understand
3.83How one could sleep so sweet a sleep
3.84    With a hangman close at hand.
3.85But there is no sleep when men must weep
3.86    Who never yet have wept:
3.87So we--the fool, the fraud, the knave--
3.88    That endless vigil kept,
3.89And through each brain on hands of pain
3.90    Another's terror crept.
3.91Alas! it is a fearful thing
3.92    To feel another's guilt!
3.93For, right within, the sword of Sin
3.94    Pierced to its poisoned hilt,
3.95And as molten lead were the tears we shed
3.96    For the blood we had not spilt.
3.97The Warders with their shoes of felt
3.98    Crept by each padlocked door,
3.99And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,
3.100    Gray figures on the floor,
3.101And wondered why men knelt to pray
3.102    Who never prayed before.
3.103All through the night we knelt and prayed,
3.104    Mad mourners of a corse!
3.105The troubled plumes of midnight were
3.106    The plumes upon a hearse:
3.107And bitter wine upon a sponge
3.108    Was the savour of Remorse.
3.109The gray cock crew, the red cock crew,
3.110    But never came the day:
3.111And crooked shapes of Terror crouched,
3.112    In the corners where we lay:
3.113And each evil sprite that walks by night
3.114    Before us seemed to play.
3.115They glided past, they glided fast,
3.116    Like travellers through a mist:
3.117They mocked the moon in a rigadoon
3.118    Of delicate turn and twist,
3.119And with formal pace and loathsome grace
3.120    The phantoms kept their tryst.
3.121With mop and mow, we saw them go,
3.122    Slim shadows hand in hand:
3.123About, about, in ghostly rout
3.124    They trod a saraband:
3.125And damned grotesques made arabesques,
3.126    Like the wind upon the sand!
3.127With the pirouettes of marionettes,
3.128    They tripped on pointed tread:
3.129But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,
3.130    As their grisly masque they led,
3.131And loud they sang, and long they sang,
3.132    For they sang to wake the dead.
3.133"Oho!" they cried, "the world is wide,
3.134    But fettered limbs go lame!
3.135And once, or twice, to throw the dice
3.136    Is a gentlemanly game,
3.137But he does not win who plays with Sin
3.138    In the Secret House of Shame."
3.139No things of air these antics were,
3.140    That frolicked with such glee:
3.141To men whose lives were held in gyves,
3.142    And whose feet might not go free,
3.143Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,
3.144    Most terrible to see.
3.145Around, around, they waltzed and wound;
3.146    Some wheeled in smirking pairs;
3.147With the mincing step of a demirep
3.148    Some sidled up the stairs:
3.149And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,
3.150    Each helped us at our prayers.
3.151The morning wind began to moan,
3.152    But still the night went on:
3.153Through its giant loom the web of gloom
3.154    Crept till each thread was spun:
3.155And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
3.156    Of the Justice of the Sun.
3.157The moaning wind went wandering round
3.158    The weeping prison-wall:
3.159Till like a wheel of turning steel
3.160    We felt the minutes crawl:
3.161O moaning wind! what had we done
3.162    To have such a seneschal?
3.163At last I saw the shadowed bars,
3.164    Like a lattice wrought in lead,
3.165Move right across the whitewashed wall
3.166    That faced my three-plank bed,
3.167And I knew that somewhere in the world
3.168    God's dreadful dawn was red.
3.169At six o'clock we cleaned our cells,
3.170    At seven all was still,
3.171But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
3.172    The prison seemed to fill,
3.173For the Lord of Death with icy breath
3.174    Had entered in to kill.
3.175He did not pass in purple pomp,
3.176    Nor ride a moon-white steed.
3.177Three yards of cord and a sliding board
3.178    Are all the gallows' need:
3.179So with rope of shame the Herald came
3.180    To do the secret deed.
3.181We were as men who through a fen
3.182    Of filthy darkness grope:
3.183We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
3.184    Or to give our anguish scope:
3.185Something was dead in each of us,
3.186    And what was dead was Hope.
3.187For Man's grim Justice goes its way
3.188    And will not swerve aside:
3.189It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
3.190    It has a deadly stride:
3.191With iron heel it slays the strong,
3.192    The monstrous parricide!
3.193We waited for the stroke of eight:
3.194    Each tongue was thick with thirst:
3.195For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate
3.196    That makes a man accursed,
3.197And Fate will use a running noose
3.198    For the best man and the worst.
3.199We had no other thing to do,
3.200    Save to wait for the sign to come:
3.201So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
3.202    Quiet we sat and dumb:
3.203But each man's heart beat thick and quick,
3.204    Like a madman on a drum!
3.205With sudden shock the prison-clock
3.206    Smote on the shivering air,
3.207And from all the gaol rose up a wail
3.208    Of impotent despair,
3.209Like the sound the frightened marshes hear
3.210    From some leper in his lair.
3.211And as one sees most fearful things
3.212    In the crystal of a dream,
3.213We saw the greasy hempen rope
3.214    Hooked to the blackened beam,
3.215And heard the prayer the hangman's snare
3.216    Strangled into a scream.
3.217And all the woe that moved him so
3.218    That he gave that bitter cry,
3.219And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
3.220    None knew so well as I:
3.221For he who lives more lives than one
3.222    More deaths than one must die.
4.1There is no chapel on the day
4.2    On which they hang a man:
4.3The Chaplain's heart is far too sick,
4.4    Or his face is far too wan,
4.5Or there is that written in his eyes
4.6    Which none should look upon.
4.7So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
4.8    And then they rang the bell,
4.9And the Warders with their jingling keys
4.10    Opened each listening cell,
4.11And down the iron stair we tramped,
4.12    Each from his separate Hell.
4.13Out into God's sweet air we went,
4.14    But not in wonted way,
4.15For this man's face was white with fear,
4.16    And that man's face was gray,
4.17And I never saw sad men who looked
4.18    So wistfully at the day.
4.19I never saw sad men who looked
4.20    With such a wistful eye
4.21Upon that little tent of blue
4.22    We prisoners called the sky,
4.23And at every careless cloud that passed
4.24    In happy freedom by.
4.25But there were those amongst us all
4.26    Who walked with downcast head,
4.27And knew that, had each got his due,
4.28    They should have died instead:
4.29He had but killed a thing that lived,
4.30    Whilst they had killed the dead.
4.31For he who sins a second time
4.32    Wakes a dead soul to pain,
4.33And draws it from its spotted shroud,
4.34    And makes it bleed again,
4.35And makes it bleed great gouts of blood,
4.36    And makes it bleed in vain!
4.37Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb
4.38    With crooked arrows starred,
4.39Silently we went round and round
4.40    The slippery asphalte yard;
4.41Silently we went round and round,
4.42    And no man spoke a word.
4.43Silently we went round and round,
4.44    And through each hollow mind
4.45The Memory of dreadful things
4.46    Rushed like a dreadful wind,
4.47And Horror stalked before each man,
4.48    And Terror crept behind.
4.49The Warders strutted up and down,
4.50    And kept their herd of brutes,
4.51Their uniforms were spick and span,
4.52    And they wore their Sunday suits,
4.53But we knew the work they had been at,
4.54    By the quicklime on their boots.
4.55For where a grave had opened wide,
4.56    There was no grave at all:
4.57Only a stretch of mud and sand
4.58    By the hideous prison-wall,
4.59And a little heap of burning lime,
4.60    That the man should have his pall.
4.61For he has a pall, this wretched man,
4.62    Such as few men can claim:
4.63Deep down below a prison-yard,
4.64    Naked for greater shame,
4.65He lies, with fetters on each foot,
4.66    Wrapt in a sheet of flame!
4.67And all the while the burning lime
4.68    Eats flesh and bone away,
4.69It eats the brittle bone by night,
4.70    And the soft flesh by day,
4.71It eats the flesh and bone by turns,
4.72    But it eats the heart alway.
4.73For three long years they will not sow
4.74    Or root or seedling there:
4.75For three long years the unblessed spot
4.76    Will sterile be and bare,
4.77And look upon the wondering sky
4.78    With unreproachful stare.
4.79They think a murderer's heart would taint
4.80    Each simple seed they sow.
4.81It is not true! God's kindly earth
4.82    Is kindlier than men know,
4.83And the red rose would but glow more red,
4.84    The white rose whiter blow.
4.85Out of his mouth a red, red rose!
4.86    Out of his heart a white!
4.87For who can say by what strange way,
4.88    Christ brings His will to light,
4.89Since the barren staff the pilgrim bore
4.90    Bloomed in the great Pope's sight?
4.91But neither milk-white rose nor red
4.92    May bloom in prison air;
4.93The shard, the pebble, and the flint,
4.94    Are what they give us there:
4.95For flowers have been known to heal
4.96    A common man's despair.
4.97So never will wine-red rose or white,
4.98    Petal by petal, fall
4.99On that stretch of mud and sand that lies
4.100    By the hideous prison-wall,
4.101To tell the men who tramp the yard
4.102    That God's Son died for all.
4.103Yet though the hideous prison-wall
4.104    Still hems him round and round,
4.105And a spirit may not walk by night
4.106    That is with fetters bound,
4.107And a spirit may but weep that lies
4.108    In such unholy ground,
4.109He is at peace--this wretched man--
4.110    At peace, or will be soon:
4.111There is no thing to make him mad,
4.112    Nor does Terror walk at noon,
4.113For the lampless Earth in which he lies
4.114    Has neither Sun nor Moon.
4.115They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
4.116    They did not even toll
4.117A requiem that might have brought
4.118    Rest to his startled soul,
4.119But hurriedly they took him out,
4.120    And hid him in a hole.
4.121They stripped him of his canvas clothes,
4.122    And gave him to the flies:
4.123They mocked the swollen purple throat,
4.124    And the stark and staring eyes:
4.125And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud
4.126    In which their convict lies.
4.127The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
4.128    By his dishonoured grave:
4.129Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
4.130    That Christ for sinners gave,
4.131Because the man was one of those
4.132    Whom Christ came down to save.
4.133Yet all is well; he has but passed
4.134    To Life's appointed bourne:
4.135And alien tears will fill for him
4.136    Pity's long-broken urn,
4.137For his mourners will be outcast men,
4.138    And outcasts always mourn.
5.1I know not whether Laws be right,
5.2    Or whether Laws be wrong;
5.3All that we know who lie in gaol
5.4    Is that the wall is strong;
5.5And that each day is like a year,
5.6    A year whose days are long.
5.7But this I know, that every Law
5.8    That men have made for Man,
5.9Since first Man took his brother's life,
5.10    And the sad world began,
5.11But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
5.12    With a most evil fan.
5.13This too I know--and wise it were
5.14    If each could know the same--
5.15That every prison that men build
5.16    Is built with bricks of shame,
5.17And bound with bars lest Christ should see
5.18    How men their brothers maim.
5.19With bars they blur the gracious moon,
5.20    And blind the goodly sun:
5.21And they do well to hide their Hell,
5.22    For in it things are done
5.23That Son of God nor son of Man
5.24    Ever should look upon!
5.25The vilest deeds like poison weeds
5.26    Bloom well in prison-air:
5.27It is only what is good in Man
5.28    That wastes and withers there:
5.29Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
5.30    And the Warder is Despair.
5.31For they starve the little frightened child
5.32    Till it weeps both night and day:
5.33And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
5.34    And gibe the old and gray,
5.35And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
5.36    And none a word may say.
5.37Each narrow cell in which we dwell
5.38    Is a foul and dark latrine,
5.39And the fetid breath of living Death
5.40    Chokes up each grated screen,
5.41And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
5.42    In Humanity's machine.
5.43The brackish water that we drink
5.44    Creeps with a loathsome slime,
5.45And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
5.46    Is full of chalk and lime,
5.47And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
5.48    Wild-eyed, and cries to Time.
5.49But though lean Hunger and green Thirst
5.50    Like asp with adder fight,
5.51We have little care of prison fare,
5.52    For what chills and kills outright
5.53Is that every stone one lifts by day
5.54    Becomes one's heart by night.
5.55With midnight always in one's heart,
5.56    And twilight in one's cell,
5.57We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
5.58    Each in his separate Hell,
5.59And the silence is more awful far
5.60    Than the sound of a brazen bell.
5.61And never a human voice comes near
5.62    To speak a gentle word:
5.63And the eye that watches through the door
5.64    Is pitiless and hard:
5.65And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
5.66    With soul and body marred.
5.67And thus we rust Life's iron chain
5.68    Degraded and alone:
5.69And some men curse, and some men weep,
5.70    And some men make no moan:
5.71But God's eternal Laws are kind
5.72    And break the heart of stone.
5.73And every human heart that breaks,
5.74    In prison-cell or yard,
5.75Is as that broken box that gave
5.76    Its treasure to the Lord,
5.77And filled the unclean leper's house
5.78    With the scent of costliest nard.
5.79Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
5.80    And peace of pardon win!
5.81How else may man make straight his plan
5.82    And cleanse his soul from Sin?
5.83How else but through a broken heart
5.84    May Lord Christ enter in?
5.85And he of the swollen purple throat,
5.86    And the stark and staring eyes,
5.87Waits for the holy hands that took
5.88    The Thief to Paradise;
5.89And a broken and a contrite heart
5.90    The Lord will not despise.
5.91The man in red who reads the Law
5.92    Gave him three weeks of life,
5.93Three little weeks in which to heal
5.94    His soul of his soul's strife,
5.95And cleanse from every blot of blood
5.96    The hand that held the knife.
5.97And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
5.98    The hand that held the steel:
5.99For only blood can wipe out blood,
5.100    And only tears can heal:
5.101And the crimson stain that was of Cain
5.102    Became Christ's snow-white seal.
6.1In Reading gaol by Reading town
6.2    There is a pit of shame,
6.3And in it lies a wretched man
6.4    Eaten by teeth of flame,
6.5In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
6.6    And his grave has got no name.
6.7And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
6.8    In silence let him lie:
6.9No need to waste the foolish tear,
6.10    Or heave the windy sigh:
6.11The man had killed the thing he loved,
6.12    And so he had to die.
6.13And all men kill the thing they love,
6.14    By all let this be heard,
6.15Some do it with a bitter look,
6.16    Some with a flattering word,
6.17The coward does it with a kiss,
6.18    The brave man with a sword.
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1996-2000.