Oscar Wilde

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

I know not whether Laws be right,
      Or whether Laws be wrong;
All that we know who lie in gaol
      Is that the wall is strong;
And that each day is like a year,
      A year whose days are long.

But this I know, that every Law
      That men have made for Man,
Since first Man took his brother's life,
      And the sad world began,
But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
      With a most evil fan.

This too I know—and wise it were
      If each could know the same—
That every prison that men build
      Is built with bricks of shame,
And bound with bars lest Christ should see
      How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,
      And blind the goodly sun:
And they do well to hide their Hell,
      For in it things are done
That Son of God nor son of Man
      Ever should look upon!


The vilest deeds like poison weeds
      Bloom well in prison-air:
It is only what is good in Man
      That wastes and withers there:
Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
      And the Warder is Despair.

For they starve the little frightened child
      Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
      And gibe the old and gray,
And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
      And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell
      Is a foul and dark latrine,
And the fetid breath of living Death
      Chokes up each grated screen,
And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
      In Humanity's machine.

The brackish water that we drink
      Creeps with a loathsome slime,
And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
      Is full of chalk and lime,
And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
      Wild-eyed, and cries to Time.


But though lean Hunger and green Thirst
      Like asp with adder fight,
We have little care of prison fare,
      For what chills and kills outright
Is that every stone one lifts by day
      Becomes one's heart by night.

With midnight always in one's heart,
      And twilight in one's cell,
We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
      Each in his separate Hell,
And the silence is more awful far
      Than the sound of a brazen bell.

And never a human voice comes near
      To speak a gentle word:
And the eye that watches through the door
      Is pitiless and hard:
And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
      With soul and body marred.

And thus we rust Life's iron chain
      Degraded and alone:
And some men curse, and some men weep,
      And some men make no moan:
But God's eternal Laws are kind
      And break the heart of stone.


And every human heart that breaks,
      In prison-cell or yard,
Is as that broken box that gave
      Its treasure to the Lord,
And filled the unclean leper's house
      With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break
      And peace of pardon win!
How else may man make straight his plan
      And cleanse his soul from Sin?
How else but through a broken heart
      May Lord Christ enter in?


And he of the swollen purple throat,
      And the stark and staring eyes,
Waits for the holy hands that took
      The Thief to Paradise;
And a broken and a contrite heart
      The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law
      Gave him three weeks of life,
Three little weeks in which to heal
      His soul of his soul's strife,
And cleanse from every blot of blood
      The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
      The hand that held the steel:
For only blood can wipe out blood,
      And only tears can heal:
And the crimson stain that was of Cain
      Became Christ's snow-white seal.