In my hands, on stack 9 of the New York Society Library, I hold an early printing of Oscar Wilde’s poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” C.3.3 was his cell number when a prisoner at Reading. On the title page the author is identified by cell number, not by name.
On May 25, 1895, then age 39, a jury found Wilde guilty of committing indecent acts. Within minutes of the verdict, the trial judge sentenced him to two years at hard labor. From the courthouse, he was taken to Newgate prison in London where a warrant authorizing his detention was issued, and then taken by prison van to Holloway where, “An officer noted down a minute description of his appearance, distinctive marks, color of his eyes, hair, complexion, any scars,” writes Richard Ellmann in his magisterial biography, “Oscar Wilde” (1988, Alfred A. Knopf). Wilde changed from his own clothes to prison clothes, the prison rules were read to him, and he was led to a cell.
Days later he was removed to Pentonville, a prison for convicted felons, where he received a medical examination. He slept on a plank bed with no mattress. “He would exercise in the open air daily for an hour, walking with the rest of his ward in Indian file, no talking being allowed.”
On July 4, Wilde was transferred to Wandsworth in southwestern London. A visitor, writes Ellmann, “noted that his hands, which clasped the bars, were disfigured, their nails broken and bleeding.” His face was so thin that the visitor could scarcely recognize him. Dysentery and injuries from a fall landed him in the prison infirmary for two months.
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.
—”The Ballad of Reading Gaol”
Things were not going well for Wilde at Wandsworth, so the authorities decided to transfer him outside London to Reading Gaol in the city of Reading. Here he complained of the “thickly-muffled glass” in his cell window which allowed him no view of the sky.
I never saw sad men who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
We prisoners called the sky,
And at every happy cloud that passed
In such strange freedom by.
Breaking the rule of silence when walking single file during exercise hour, prisoner C.4.8 said to him, “Oscar Wilde, I pity you because you must be suffering more than we are.” Wilde almost fainted at the human sound. Without turning, he said “No, my friend, we are all suffering equally.” That day, he was to tell André Gide years later, “I no longer wished to kill myself.”
Ellmann writes, “It was insanity, he said, of which he was particularly terrified; the insufficiency of books, the closing-off of the world of ideas in ‘this tomb for those who are not yet dead.’”
Wilde reported to a friend, “If you resist, they drive you crazy,” perhaps, Ellmann writes, “in reference to the dark cell where he had probably more than once been placed and given bread and water.”
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!
He benefitted from the appointment of Major J.O. Nelson as governor at Reading Gaol. One of Nelson’s first acts was to go up to Wilde and say, “The Home Office has allowed you some books. Perhaps you would like to read this one; I have just been reading it myself.” Ellmann writes, “Wilde melted into tears.” He was provided writing materials.
Wilde’s final days in prison were harrowing. He believed prisoner A.2.11 to be demented. Regarded by the doctors as a malingerer, A.2.11 was sentenced to 24 lashes. Wilde heard from the basement of the prison “revolting shrieks, or rather howls.”
Three children arrived at the prison, having been convicted of snaring some rabbits. Ellmann writes: “Wilde saw them as they were waiting to be assigned to cells. He knew only too well the terror they were feeling, and the hunger they would feel.” He asked a guard, “Please find out for me the…names of the children who are in for rabbits, and the amount of the fine.” Wilde paid the fine, securing the release of the children.
For they starve the little frightened child
Till it weeps both night and day:
And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool….
I recommend to colleagues, when we go on visits pursuant to the Correctional Association’s statutory authority to visit and report on conditions in New York State prisons, that they read Wilde’s poem, for “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” conveys many present realities of prison life. Claustrophobia; depression (“Something was dead in each of us,/ And what was dead was Hope.”); harshness (“And never a human voice comes near/ To speak a gentle word.”); isolation (why visits from family members are so important); mistreatment of mentally ill prisoners; the achingly slow passage of time.
But Wilde, during his time in prison, also encountered administrators and guards concerned with the welfare of prisoners, as we do on our visits to New York State prisons.
On the day of his release from prison, May 19, 1897, Wilde left for France. He began “The Leftover Years,” Ellmann’s moving term for the remaining 3½ years of his life when he lived abroad in exile, separated from his wife and two sons, shunned by many and impecunious.
He began “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” two months after his release. A prison reformer had urged Wilde to use his literary skills to make this “great subject” his own. This was to be his last literary work.
Wilde wrote of the poem, “…it is my chant de cygne, and I am sorry to leave with a cry of pain—a song of Marsyas, not a song of Apollo….”
At one time he criticized Dickens for being too preoccupied with social issues in his writing. Two years in prison had changed Wilde’s priorities.
The first six printings of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” identified the author as C.3.3. With the seventh printing, his name was placed on the title page in brackets beside C.3.3.
He inscribed a copy of the poem to Major Nelson at Reading Gaol “from the author in recognition of many acts of kindness and gentleness.”
On Nov. 30, 1900, at age 46, Oscar Wilde died in Paris. He is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery. His monument bears an inscription from “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”:
And alien tears will fill for him
Pity’s long-broken urn,
For his mourners will be outcast men,
And outcasts always mourn.
William J. Dean is a lawyer in New York City and board member of The Correctional Association of New York.