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Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Written in 1897 after leaving the eponymous prison, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (TBRG) describes the final days of Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a trooper in the royal guards sentenced to death in July 1896 for the murder of his wife. Wooldridge and Wilde likely met while the two served their respective sentences in Reading Gaol. Wilde did not witness the hanging but must have seen the hangman. In his poem, Wilde describes the conditions of the jail in which he was imprisoned and the man to be executed.

Ellman points out that TBRG follows a similar theme developed in Wilde's 1881 poem Humanitad, which contains the following lines referring to Christ:

And we were vain and ignorant nor knew
That when we stabbed thy heart it was our own real hearts we slew.

"Humanitad" like TBRG is made up of six-line stanzas, though the rhyme scheme is different. Seamus Heaney has said that Wilde abandoned his aesthetic principles in the poem, but another writer describes him as embracing the aesthetic in writing about murder. It proved to be Wilde's last work of significance.

Works to be quoted: Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellman
The Thing He Loves: Murder as Aesthetic Experience in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" by Karen Alkalay-Gut
The Redress of Poetry: Oxford Lectures by Seamus Heaney

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