Oscar Wilde




The Ballad of Reading Gaol

In memoriam C. T. W.
sometime trooper of the Royal Horse Guards.
obiit H. M. Prison, Reading, Berkshire, July 7th, 1896

I
He did not wear his scarlet coat,
      For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
      When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
      And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men
      In a suit of shabby gray;
A cricket cap was on his head,
      And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
      So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked
      With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
      Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
      With sails of silver by.

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 fellow's got to swing."

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
      Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
      Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
      My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what hunted thought
      Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
      With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
      And so he had to die.

                                 *

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.

He does not die a death of shame
      On a day of dark disgrace,
Nor have a noose about his neck,
      Nor a cloth upon his face,
Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
      Into an empty space.

He does not sit with silent men
      Who watch him night and day;
Who watch him when he tries to weep,
      And when he tries to pray;
Who watch him lest himself should rob
      The prison of its prey.

He does not wake at dawn to see
      Dread figures throng his room,
The shivering Chaplain robed in white,
      The Sheriff stern with gloom,
And the Governor all in shiny black,
      With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste
      To put on convict-clothes,
While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes
      Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
Fingering a watch whose little ticks
      Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not know that sickening thirst
      That sands one's throat, before
The hangman with his gardener's gloves
      Slips through the padded door,
And binds one with three leathern thongs,
That the throat may thirst no more.

He does not bend his head to hear
      The Burial Office read,
Nor while the terror of his soul
      Tells him he is not dead,
Cross his own coffin, as he moves
      Into the hideous shed.

He does not stare upon the air
      Through a little roof of glass:
He does not pray with lips of clay
      For his agony to pass;
Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek
      The kiss of Caiaphas.