Oscar Wilde

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

In Debtors' Yard the stones are hard,
      And the dripping wall is high,
So it was there he took the air
      Beneath the leaden sky,
And by each side a Warder walked,
      For fear the man might die.

Or else he sat with those who watched
      His anguish night and day;
Who watched him when he rose to weep,
      And when he crouched to pray;
Who watched him lest himself should rob
      Their scaffold of its prey.

The Governor was strong upon
      The Regulations Act:
The Doctor said that Death was but
      A scientific fact:
And twice a day the Chaplain called,
      And left a little tract.

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
      And drank his quart of beer:
His soul was resolute, and held
      No hiding-place for fear;
He often said that he was glad
      The hangman's hands were near.

But why he said so strange a thing
      No Warder dared to ask:
For he to whom a watcher's doom
      Is given as his task,
Must set a lock upon his lips,
      And make his face a mask.

Or else he might be moved, and try
      To comfort or console:
And what should Human Pity do
      Pent up in Murderer's Hole?
What word of grace in such a place
      Could help a brother's soul?


With slouch and swing around the ring
      We trod the Fools' Parade!
We did not care: we knew we were
      The Devil's Own Brigade:
And shaven head and feet of lead
      Make a merry masquerade.

We tore the tarry rope to shreds
      With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
      And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
      And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
      We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
      And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
      Terror was lying still.

So still it lay that every day
      Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
And we forgot the bitter lot
      That waits for fool and knave,
Till once, as we tramped in from work,
      We passed an open grave.

With yawning mouth the yellow hole
      Gaped for a living thing;
The very mud cried out for blood
      To the thirsty asphalte ring:
And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
      Some prisoner had to swing.

Right in we went, with soul intent
      On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
      Went shuffling through the gloom:
And each man trembled as he crept
      Into his numbered tomb.

That night the empty corridors
      Were full of forms of Fear,
And up and down the iron town
      Stole feet we could not hear,
And through the bars that hide the stars
      White faces seemed to peer.

He lay as one who lies and dreams
      In a pleasant meadow-land,
The watchers watched him as he slept,
      And could not understand
How one could sleep so sweet a sleep
      With a hangman close at hand.

But there is no sleep when men must weep
      Who never yet have wept:
So we—the fool, the fraud, the knave—
      That endless vigil kept,
And through each brain on hands of pain
      Another's terror crept.

Alas! it is a fearful thing
      To feel another's guilt!
For, right within, the sword of Sin
      Pierced to its poisoned hilt,
And as molten lead were the tears we shed
      For the blood we had not spilt.

The Warders with their shoes of felt
      Crept by each padlocked door,
And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,
      Gray figures on the floor,
And wondered why men knelt to pray
      Who never prayed before.

All through the night we knelt and prayed,
      Mad mourners of a corse!
The troubled plumes of midnight were
      The plumes upon a hearse:
And bitter wine upon a sponge
      Was the savour of Remorse.


The gray cock crew, the red cock crew,
      But never came the day:
And crooked shapes of Terror crouched,
      In the corners where we lay:
And each evil sprite that walks by night
      Before us seemed to play.

They glided past, they glided fast,
      Like travellers through a mist:
They mocked the moon in a rigadoon
      Of delicate turn and twist,
And with formal pace and loathsome grace
      The phantoms kept their tryst.

With mop and mow, we saw them go,
      Slim shadows hand in hand:
About, about, in ghostly rout
      They trod a saraband:
And damned grotesques made arabesques,
      Like the wind upon the sand!

With the pirouettes of marionettes,
      They tripped on pointed tread:
But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,
      As their grisly masque they led,
And loud they sang, and long they sang,
      For they sang to wake the dead.

Oho! they cried, the world is wide,
      But fettered limbs go lame!
And once, or twice, to throw the dice
      Is a gentlemanly game,
But he does not win who plays with Sin
      In the Secret House of Shame.

No things of air these antics were,
      That frolicked with such glee:
To men whose lives were held in gyves,
      And whose feet might not go free,
Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,
      Most terrible to see.

Around, around, they waltzed and wound;
      Some wheeled in smirking pairs;
With the mincing step of a demirep
      Some sidled up the stairs:
And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,
      Each helped us at our prayers.

The morning wind began to moan,
      But still the night went on:
Through its giant loom the web of gloom
      Crept till each thread was spun:
And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
      Of the Justice of the Sun.

The moaning wind went wandering round
      The weeping prison-wall:
Till like a wheel of turning steel
      We felt the minutes crawl:
O moaning wind! what had we done
      To have such a seneschal?

At last I saw the shadowed bars,
      Like a lattice wrought in lead,
Move right across the whitewashed wall
      That faced my three-plank bed,
And I knew that somewhere in the world
      God's dreadful dawn was red.

At six o'clock we cleaned our cells,
      At seven all was still,
But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
      The prison seemed to fill,
For the Lord of Death with icy breath
      Had entered in to kill.

He did not pass in purple pomp,
      Nor ride a moon-white steed.
Three yards of cord and a sliding board
      Are all the gallows' need:
So with rope of shame the Herald came
      To do the secret deed.

We were as men who through a fen
      Of filthy darkness grope:
We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
      Or to give our anguish scope:
Something was dead in each of us,
      And what was dead was Hope.

For Man's grim Justice goes its way
      And will not swerve aside:
It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
      It has a deadly stride:
With iron heel it slays the strong,
      The monstrous parricide!

We waited for the stroke of eight:
      Each tongue was thick with thirst:
For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate
      That makes a man accursed,
And Fate will use a running noose
      For the best man and the worst.

We had no other thing to do,
      Save to wait for the sign to come:
So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
      Quiet we sat and dumb:
But each man's heart beat thick and quick,
      Like a madman on a drum!

With sudden shock the prison-clock
      Smote on the shivering air,
And from all the gaol rose up a wail
      Of impotent despair,
Like the sound the frightened marshes hear
      From some leper in his lair.

And as one sees most fearful things
      In the crystal of a dream,
We saw the greasy hempen rope
      Hooked to the blackened beam,
And heard the prayer the hangman's snare
      Strangled into a scream.

And all the woe that moved him so
      That he gave that bitter cry,
And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
      None knew so well as I:
For he who lives more lives than one
      More deaths than one must die.