Oscar Wilde

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Six weeks the guardsman walked the yard,
      In the suit of shabby gray:
His 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 wandering cloud that trailed
      Its ravelled fleeces by.

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!

And I and all the souls in pain,
      Who tramped the other ring,
Forgot if we ourselves had done
      A great or little thing,
And watched with gaze of dull amaze
      The man who had to swing.

And strange it was to see him pass
      With a step so light and gay,
And strange it was to see him look
      So wistfully at the day,
And strange it was to think that he
      Had such a debt to pay.


For oak and elm have pleasant leaves
      That in the spring-time shoot:
But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
      With its alder-bitten root,
And, green or dry, a man must die
      Before it bears its fruit!

The loftiest place is that seat of grace
      For which all worldlings try:
But who would stand in hempen band
      Upon a scaffold high,
And through a murderer's collar take
      His last look at the sky?

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!

So with curious eyes and sick surmise
      We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
      Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
      His sightless soul may stray.

At last the dead man walked no more
      Amongst the Trial Men,
And I knew that he was standing up
      In the black dock's dreadful pen,
And that never would I see his face
      In God's sweet world again.

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
      We had crossed each other's way:
But we made no sign, we said no word,
      We had no word to say;
For we did not meet in the holy night,
      But in the shameful day.

A prison wall was round us both,
      Two outcast men we were:
The world had thrust us from its heart,
      And God from out His care:
And the iron gin that waits for Sin
      Had caught us in its snare.