The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde

‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ by Oscar Wilde is a 109 stanza poem separated into six sections. The sections all maintain the same rhyme scheme of ABCBDB. “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is Wilde’s most successful poem and was his last great work written before his death in 1900. 

The poem begins with a discussion of Charles Thomas Wooldridge who was condemned to die in 1896 for murdering his wife in a jealous rage. During an argument they tumbled onto the street, and he slit her throat with a knife. After the murder he begged the officers to arrest him and mourned his action until his death. 

This poem has been split into a Part One and Two. To read the Part Two analysis of this poem, please scroll to the bottom of the page and click ‘Next’ or ‘Page 2’.

Summary of The Ballad of Reading Gaol

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” by Oscar Wilde tells of Wilde’s experiences in prison and his observations of another prisoner condemned to die. 

The poem begins with the story of Charles Thomas Wooldridge who murdered his wife. The man has been sentenced to hang and goes about his life in prison wistfully. Wilde, and the other men, are jealous of his attitude as he has accepted his fate and is the better for it. In the second section Wooldridge is hanged. He meets his death bravely while the other men cower from even the idea. Wilde spends time describing how the monotony of jail is only broken by the terror of it. 

In the third section Wilde describes the daily activities of the prisoners and the way they spend their nights. They are haunted by phantoms that seem to be very much alive.  The rest of the poem describes the funeral of Wooldridge and how his body was covered in lime. It also speaks on Wilde’s general ideas about the justice system and that one must come to God to find happiness. 

The poem concludes with Wilde restating his original refrain regarding the fact that all men “kill the thing they love,” in one way or another. 

 

Analysis of The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Section I

Stanza One 

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.

Before beginning this poem it is important to consider the place from which the poet is writing. Wilde is the speaker in this piece but the actions described in the poem are not his own. They belong to Charles Thomas Wooldridge. For more information about his crime, see “Introduction to…” and read more here.

The first lines of the piece take the reader directly to the scene of the murder. Wilde describes the moment directly after Wooldridge was found with his wife. The man did not “wear his scarlet coat,” at that time because “blood and wine are red.” Wilde is describing the fact that Wooldridge took off his Royal Horse Guards uniform before committing this crime. 

In this first line there is a simple mistake that Wilde was well aware of. In an effort to maintain the rhyme scheme of the piece he was forced to refer to the coat as red, rather than it’s actual color, blue. 

When they found Wooldridge with his wife there was “blood and wine” on his hands. The man and his wife were found in the street outside their home, but once more Wilde changes a detail to suit the poem. He places Laura in her “bed.” It is clear that Wilde pities this woman but also feels some degree of empathy for the murderer himself, likely due to all that will follow.

 

Stanza Two 

He walked amongst the Trial Men

  In a suit of shabby grey;

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.

Although Wilde was in Reading Gaol at the same time as Wooldridge he was not there to witness the trial. He imagines the setting in which the deliberations took place, and casts Wooldridge there in his “suit of shabby grey.” He describes the man as appearing  “wistful,” and walking with a “light and gay” step. Although he has been sentenced to die, Wooldridge is not bothered by it. It is known from historical records that Wooldridge deeply regretted his attack on his wife and was satisfied to spent his remaining days, until his execution, in prison. 

 

Stanza Three 

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.

Once more, and not for the last time, Wilde emphasizes the “wistful” way in which Wooldridge carries himself. It is likely that Wilde was jealous of the man’s inner peace and acceptance of his dire situation. 

From his own place in the prison Wilde is able to see Wooldridge as he moves through his daily routine. He observes him looking up at the “little tent of blue / Which prisoners call the sky.” These lines are relevant to both Wilde and Wooldridge. Wilde is able to describe these moments so poignantly because he was there to experience them too.  He knows the importance of a simple fleeting beauty of a cloud. 

 

Stanza Four 

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.”

For the first time Wilde refers to himself as “I.” Here he is, “with the other souls” as they walk in a “ring” around a prison courtyard. This is the manner of exercise that they are allowed to take. While walking the men whisper to one another and Wilde meditates on what Wooldridge, and the other inmates, have done. 

He does not know whether “the man,” presumably Wooldridge had done a “great or little thing.” He gets a clue from an inmate behind him who says in a low whisper, “‘That fellow’s got to swing’.” He knows now that the man in question is on death row, waiting to be executed. 

 

Stanza Five 

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.

This revelation, about the pain Wooldridge must be in, causes the narrator to “reel.” It sends his head spinning and it is as if the “walls” are moving. The sky that hangs above Wilde’s head became “Like a casque of scorching steel.” Casque, refers to at the metal helmet of a knight’s costume. It is as if the world has compressed itself around the speaker and he is trapped in an even greater nightmare. 

All he can feel is the pain that Wooldridge must be experiencing, his own problems and future slip to the side. 

 

Stanza Six 

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.

The only thoughts he knows are those of Wooldridge. Wilde is able to, through their shared experiences in Reading Gaol, understand a good portion of what he is going through. Wilde comprehends the fact that this man is “wistful” because he knows he deserves to die. He had “killed the thing he loved / And so he had to die.” Wooldridge has accepted his fate and finds peace there. 

 

Stanza Seven

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!

In what is going to be a refrain, Wilde expands his comprehension of Wooldridge’s situation, and relates it to all men. All men, “each man,” destroys what he loves most in one way or another. Some of these men ruin relationships and possibilities “with a bitter look,” others, through a misplaced “flattering word.” There is a portion of the male population that, in their fear, betray the ones they love and never own up to it, others, like Wooldridge are “brave” in their choices. 

While Wilde is not condoning what Wooldridge did, he sees it as being “braver” than slinking away, taking no responsibility. 

 

Stanza Eight 

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.

Wilde expands this thought in the next two stanzas making a number of different categories for the ways in which men ruin their lives or drive off the ones they love. Some do it when they are “young,” some when they are “old.” There are the men who are driven by “Lust,” and others by “the hands of Gold.” 

 

Stanza Nine 

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.

There are men in the world who find folly in other ways. Some are liable to “love too little, some too long.” There are the men that “sell” out their love, and others who can only “buy” it. There are men who “do the deed,” (killing the thing they love), with tears in their eyes and others who are able to do it “without a sigh.” 

He concludes this stanza by stating that while all men are going to kill “the thing [they] love,” not all will die for it as Wooldridge will. 

 

Stanza Ten

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 place

In the final half of this first section the poet turns to speak about a metaphorical man that does not own up to the “killing” of the thing he loves. This man is one of the cowards. He does not experience the things that Wilde and Wooldridge are forced to. 

This man will never have to die a “death of shame” with a “noose about his neck.” His life will not end “Into an empty place” as Wooldridge’s will. This, in many ways, places Wooldridge, a murderer, above other men. 

 

Stanza Eleven 

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.

Additionally, this unnamed man who did not admit to “killing” the thing he loved does “not sit with silent men / Who watch him night and day.” As Wilde and Wooldridge are constantly, this man is not being observed at all times. Men in prison have no privacy. There are people there to watch while one “tries to weep [or] pray.” They are there to make sure that one does not kill himself before his day of execution. The prison officials do not, as Wilde says, want to “rob / The prison of its prey.” 

 

Stanza Twelve 

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.

This man does not wake up in a cold sell at “dawn” to see the “Dread figures” of the prison around his room. He does not have to see the Chaplain, or the “Governor all in shiny black” on the day of his execution. 

 

Stanza Thirteen 

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.

On this morning of his execution, the man in the story is forced to rise in “piteous haste” and redress in his “convict-clothes.” There is a doctor outside the sell who is there to note everything the man does, even on his way to death. Each “new and nerve-twitched pose” is written down. The man who “does not die” will never see or feel these things. In this way he is blessed, but he is also among the group of men that Wilde considers cowardly. 

 

Stanza Fourteen 

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.

In this short story that Wilde has weaved into the ballad, the man who does not own up to his deeds will never know the “sickening thirst” in one’s throat as the “Hangman” enters into the room. This man will not ever experience the binding of his hands with “three leathern thongs.”  Soon, the man who is being executed will “thirst no more.”

Stanza Fifteen 

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.

Bound and listening to the men around him, the prisoner, who will never be the cowardly man, hears the “Burial Office read” his edict of death. He will never be condemned as this man is, or have to be reminded by the “terror of his soul” that he is not dead, but is about to be. The man will never be forced to pass by “his own coffin” as he makes his way to the “shed” where he will be executed. 

Stanza Sixteen 

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.

Finally, Wilde concludes this short narrative very chillingly. The man who is there to die will have to pass by his own coffin, and enter into the “hideous shed” where he will be executed. This is a sight the cowardly man will never see. His lips will never feel as if they are made “of clay” as he prays and begs “For his agony to pass.”  The last thing this man will not have to feel are the lips of “Caiaphas,” the priest in the Bible who organized the execution of Jesus Christ, pressed against his “shuddering cheek.”

 Death will not come to this cowardly man in this manner, but it will come to Wooldridge this way. 

 

Section II

Stanza One 

Six weeks our guardsman walked the yard,

In a suit of shabby grey:

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.

In the six weeks that Wilde observed Wooldridge, the “guardsman” walking in “the yard,” or the outdoor portion of the prison, he was always dressed in the “suit of shabby grey” worn by all prisoners. During this time the man always walked with a “step [that] seemed light and gay.” He looked, as he always does, “wistfully at the day.” 

The consistent and unwavering rhyme scheme of this poem is one of it’s greatest and most powerful assets. It unifies this long ballad in a way that many poems reach for, but cannot achieve.  

Stanza Two 

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 raveled fleeces by.

Wilde repeats the same lines concerning Wooldridge’s wistfulness and his gaze upon the sky. He says that he watched the “clouds” that moved through the sky like “raveled fleeces.” 

 

Stanza Three 

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.

Wooldridge is different from the other men in a number of notable ways. His wistfulness keeps him from wringing “his hands” like all the other men do. The other men still have some measure of hope in their hearts, but Wooldridge does not. He “only looked upon the sun” and drank in the “morning air.” 

 

Stanza Four 

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!

Additionally, Wooldridge does not “weep…or pine” as others do. He takes in the air like “Some healthful anodyne.” It is like medicine or wine to him, driving him forward, peacefully to his death. The sun rejuvenates and soothes him. 

 

Stanza Five 

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.

Wilde once more turns the narration on himself. He, and “all the souls in pain” that are walking in the circle of the prison, forget themselves when they see Wooldridge. All they can think of is their own amazement over Wooldridge’s peace of mind. They are envious of his wistful nature. 

 

Stanza Six 

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.

The man stood out to the other prisoners. His “light” step and the way he looked at the day were “strange.” This was especially the case when one considers the “debt” that he had to “pay.” 

 

Stanza Seven

For oak and elm have pleasant leaves

  That in the spring-time shoot:

But grim to see is the gallows-tree,

  With its adder-bitten root,

And, green or dry, a man must die

  Before it bears its fruit!

In this stanza Wilde compares two different types of trees. Those that are allowed to grow and flourish, and those like the “gallows-tree” for which there is one purpose only. It’s participation in death ruins it’s beauty. Men “must die” on it’s branches. 

 

Stanza Eight 

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?

Wilde understands that all men long for “that seat of grace” in heaven, but none would choose to swap places with Wooldridge. They are not so anxious to meet God that they want to take their last look at the world “through a murderer’s collar.” 

 

Stanza Nine 

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!

In a conclusion to this thought, the speaker makes another comparison. This time between dancing to “violins” and the dancing that one’s feet to “upon the air” after they are hanged. These are two very different things that appear the same. 

 

Stanza Ten 

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.

The men are very “curious” about Wooldridge and wonder if when it is their turn to die they will “end the self-same way.” They also question Wooldridge’s interior life. They do not know if there are times that his mind strays to a “red Hell.” Perhaps he is not as peaceful as they think. 

 

Stanza Eleven 

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.

Finally comes the day that the men go outside and Wooldridge is no longer among them. Wilde knows that that day “he was standing up,” ready to be hanged. They knew that they would never “see his face  / In God’s sweet world again.” 

 

Stanza Twelve 

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.

Wilde compares their almost meeting during their time in prison to the passing of “two doomed ships” in a storm. They had not spoken to one another or actually met in any time but the “shameful day.”

 

Stanza Thirteen 

A prison wall was round us both,

  Two outcast men were we:

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.

They were stuck in the same prison, with the same walls surrounding them. They were both “outcast men” that the world had thrust from “its heart.” Wilde feels an intimate connection to this doomed man and although Wilde’s fate would be different, he knew his path to be dark. They were both caught up in “Sin.” 

 

Section III

Stanza One 

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.

While Wooldridge may have reached his end in the previous section, Wilde’s narration of prison life is not complete. It is important to note that many of things he will mention can relate to both Wooldridge and himself. 

Wilde takes the time to describe the “Debtors’ Yard” in which there a wall that is consistently “dripping” with water. It was “there” that the man, Wooldridge, or even Wilde himself, “took the air” underneath the dark sky. All the time, no matter where he went, Wooldridge has a “Warder” by his side. Just in case some accident befell him, or he was able to commit suicide. 

 

Stanza Two 

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.

At other times of the day he “sat with those who watched” him day in and day out. These people, the warders of the prison, and the other prisoners, saw him “when he rose to weep / And when he crouched to pray.” They were determined to keep him from killing himself.

 

Stanza Three

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.

Wilde describes those that watch “The man” They are the “governor” of the prison who strictly enforced the “Regulations Act.” A law that was meant to limit the amount of religious expression in public. There is also the “Doctor” who felt no emotion about death and only regarded it as a “scientific fact.” The Chaplain was there also who “called” on Wooldridge “twice a day.” 

 

Stanza Four 

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.

During the two meals that the men had a day, Wooldridge drank his “beer” and “smoked his pipe.” He was “resolute” in his peace and it seemed as if there was no “fear” left in him. He claimed to be glad that his death was “near.”

 

Stanza Five 

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.

No one felt like they could ask why he was anxious for his death to come. The “Warders” did not “dare” to ask him. Especially because they are not meant to speak to the prisoners. 

 

Stanza Six 

Or else he might be moved, and try

  To comfort or console:

And what should Human Pity do

  Pent up in Murderers’ Hole?

What word of grace in such a place

  Could help a brother’s soul?

It might tempt the warders to do something kind and comfort the murderers. Wilde is taken aback by this and ask what they could really say that would comfort the prisoners? 

 

Stanza Seven

With slouch and swing around the ring

We trod the Fool’s 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.

Wilde returns to the exterior of the prison where the main action seems to take place. There, the men “trod the Fool’s Parade” around the yard. They knew that their procession around the yard was foolish and that they resembled “The Devil’s Own Brigade.” 

 

Stanza Eight 

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.

Wilde moves on to describe the labor that the men were forced to undertake. Wilde was imprisoned with the requirement of “hard labor.” They cleaned the doors and floors until their “nails” were bleeding and each “plank” of the floor was clean and the only sound was the clattering of the “pails” of water. 

 

Stanza Nine 

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.

They “sewed” up sacks and broke stones outside. They also sang and banged “tins” together as they “sweated on the mill.” 

All this action served as a brief distraction but “terror” was still at the “heart of every man.”

 

Stanza Ten 

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.

The terror within them often laid so still that it could only crawl along like a “clogged wave.” They often forgot the terror was there until after their work was done. The men would be reminded as they “passed an open grave.” 

 

Stanza Eleven 

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.

The “yawning mouth” of the hole seemed to “Gape” for any “living thing.” The earth was crying “out for blood.” They all knew, whenever they saw that, that some prisoner was going to be hanged. 

 

Stanza Twelve 

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.

As the men walked back into the prison they would be filled with “Death and Dread and Doom.” This would only intensify when they passed the hangman and then entered into their own cells for a lonely night. 

 

Stanza Thirteen 

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.

In the long nights their dreams and thoughts were “full of forms of Fear.” They would lay away and try to listen to some sound in the corridor or hope for a glance of the stars through “the bars” of their cells.” 

 

Stanza Fourteen 

He lay as one who lies and dreams

In a pleasant meadow-land,

The watcher watched him as he slept,

And could not understand

How one could sleep so sweet a sleep

With a hangman close at hand?

Wooldridge though, was different. He slept like someone who is in a “pleasant meadow-land.” This was baffling to the warders who were made to watch him. They could not understand how he slept so well with death near. 

 

Stanza Fifteen 

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.

On the other side of the spectrum are the men who are facing despair for the first time, like Wilde himself. They are unable to sleep and stay up all night keeping the “endless vigil.” Their minds are filled with “pain” and the terror spreads through the prison. 

 

Stanza Sixteen 

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.

They are able, through the walls of the prison, and the glances they see of one another, to take on the guilt of others. It is as if one has been stuck with the “sword of Sin.” Which has then allowed “molten lead” to spill from their eyes, all because deeds they had not committed.

 

Stanza Seventeen 

The Warders with their shoes of felt

Crept by each padlocked door,

And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,

Grey figures on the floor,

And wondered why men knelt to pray

Who never prayed before.

The “warders” wear “felt” shoes so that when they walk down the halls their footsteps are not audible. They are like ghosts in the night that check each door and “peep” in on the men who are often praying. Those who pray are more than likely among the group that have “never prayed before.” 

 

Stanza Eighteen 

All through the night we knelt and prayed,

  Mad mourners of a corpse!

The troubled plumes of midnight were

  The plumes upon a hearse:

And bitter wine upon a sponge

  Was the savior of Remorse.

It is not a small group that spends the night praying, but many men. They are like the “mourners of a corpse” who are unable to pull themselves away. The night brings out their prays as if midnight were the trailing end of a “hearse.” It urges them forward towards death.

 

Stanza Nineteen 

The cock crew, the red cock crew,

  But never came the day:

And crooked shape of Terror crouched,

  In the corners where we lay:

And each evil sprite that walks by night

  Before us seemed to play.

It seems like the day is never going to come and relieve the prisoners of their pain. Terror is always crouching waiting for them “where [they] lay.” It is as if all the evil is manifested itself in spirits and is dancing right in front of them. 

 

Stanza Twenty 

They glided past, they glided fast,

  Like travelers 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.

These spirits of evil glide past their cells and “mock” the moon as a source of light. They seem to be without end and have a “loathsome grace” that the men are unable to avoid. 

 

Stanza Twenty-One 

With mop and mow, we saw them go,

  Slim shadows hand in hand:

About, about, in ghostly rout

  They trod a saraband:

And the damned grotesques made arabesques,

  Like the wind upon the sand!

The phantoms eventually start to “mop” away, “hand in hand.” They do not vanish as the prisoners would hope, but spin and flip in the air, taunting and terrifying the men.

 

Stanza Twenty-Two 

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 loud they sang,

  For they sang to wake the dead.

The phantoms also sing out loud for the torment of the prisoners. They are holding a “grisly masque” and singing as if they want to “wake the dead.” This is truly a gruesome sight, contained within the prisoner’s heads, which they have no choice but to witness every night. 

 

About Oscar Wilde 

Oscar Wilde was born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde in Dublin, Ireland in October of 1854. As a young child Wilde attended Portora Royal School where he was first introduced to Greek and Roman studies, a passion which would stay with him his entire life. He was a bright child and often won awards. After graduating, Wilde attended Trinity College in Dublin and while there received the Foundation Scholarship, the highest award given to undergraduate students. He would continue to receive awards during his schooling and upon his graduation. One of which, the Demyship Scholarship, allowed him to study at Magdalen College in Oxford. 

After graduating from Magdalen, Wilde moved permanently to London. In 1881 he published his first collection, Poems.  The next year Wilde toured America giving a total of 140 lectures in nine months. He met with a number of notable literary figures while traveling, including, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman. After returning home he continued to lecture, traveling through England and Ireland until 1884. It was during this time that Wilde established himself as a leader of the “aesthetic movement,” or the idea that one should live by a set of beliefs advocating beauty as having it’s own worth, rather than as a tool of promotion for other viewpoints. 

That same year Wilde married Constance Lloyd with whom he would have two sons. 

In 1888 Wilde entered his most creative and productive years. He published The Happy Prince and Other Tales, as well as his only novel The Picture of Dorian Grey. At the time of it’s publication critics and readers were outraged by it’s content and apparent homosexual undertones. While his novel was not received well, he was enjoying success from several plays, such as An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.

 During this same time period Wilde was deeply involved in an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, more commonly known as Bosie. Bosie’s father, outraged by the affair, wrote a note to Wilde addressed, “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite” (an accidental misspelling of “sodomite”). Wilde’s choice to sue Bosie’s father for libel ruined his life. 

In 1895, after a trial and conviction for “gross indecency,” Wilde spent two years in prison under forced labor conditions. This sentence took a great toll on the writer and in 1897, after being released, Wilde moved to London. His last great work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was completed in 1898. Oscar Wilde died in 1900 of an ear infection that had been contracted, and untreated, in prison.

Click ‘Page 2’ or ‘Next’ below to read the Part 2 analysis of this poem.

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