“And all men kill the thing they love,
By all 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.”
The Ballad of Reading Gaol is Oscar Wilde`s great indictment of the retributive Victorian penal system. It allows us an uninterrupted journey through a mind which had been intentionally humiliated, scarred and divested of it`s humanity, by a viciously institutionalized system of brutality and degradation. It`s a bleak experience of despair and pain; but also a transforming one of psychological repair to a shattered mind. The hurt can be seen in every line from a man who is now free, but broken in spirit, and just plain broke. From this work, produced in 1898 until his death in 1900, he wrote nothing of literary significance.
The poem is dedicated to Guards trooper, Charles Thomas Wooldridge who was hung for the murder of his wife: his execution is woven into the fabric of a poem which is used as a meditation on the paradoxes of morality, and an indictment of the death penalty, and an entire penal code which sees it`s sole purpose as one to inflict punishment and retribution rather than offer restorative healing of prisoners.
Wilde always loved paradox, and used it`s symbolism in a man who killed his wife, and in a prison system which deliberately destroyed the spirit and bodies of those it claimed it was reforming. He depicts Christ as a poet, with ” an intense and flame-like imagination”. Christian morality to Wilde offers sympathy; and the central moral core of the poem is sympathy, sympathy with the dead, with the weak and with the inmates.
Here we have a great writer turning his ritualized , and awful public humiliation to good use, by firing up the last, fragile embers of an imagination which had once glittered like a golden orb, but would so soon slide into the moribund chill of a lonely death in exile.