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READING GAOL--a rework of a poem by Oscar Wilde

Set in 1897, its is a rewrite of Oscar Wilde's poem of the same name, based on his prison experience



 He walks between his warders

in a suit of prison gray,

with knit cap 'pon his head,

his steps are light and gay;

but, I've never seen a man who looks

so wistful at the day.



I live with other souls in pain

within another rung;

I stare at him below

and wonder what hed done;

when a voice behind me whispers,

"That fellow Is being hung."


Dear Christ! the very prison walls

suddenly flex and reel,

the sky above my head becomes

a cask of cement and steel,

and though I am a soul in pain,

his pain is what I feel.


Oh, so tis the guy that kilt his wife;

my stomach churns... as he goes by.

He looks, upon the sunny day

with such a wistful eye

to see the birds that soar above;

yet, this man soon must die.


Death, it takes but just a snap,

I think of what this man must see:

their tender nights entwined,

her youth, her breasts, her energy,

his foolish pride and its angry tide;

he must for death be ready.


They say he wears those prison gloves

for blood and wine are red,

and blood and wine were on his hands

that day he made her dead--

them years they fought and loved,

then murdered in their bed.


How can this meek-looking bloke

endure the silence of his cell?

To murder lover, to kill his wife,

must damn his soul to hell.

What's left of mind must scream:

"Doom! Doom! Doom!" in his skull.


Each man kills the one he loves...

as though he never heard

her hopes or saw her tender looks:

some slay with angry words,

others with wayward lust,

and some by running with the common herd.


This retched man who looks at sky,

as though she's there in clouds

to watch his last travail

and say to him aloud,

"I've long ago forgiven you, Jack.

We'll be up here in a much different crowd."


My empathy. . . its misplaced!

Theres no despair in his skyward glance:

still looking at the sky,

he blithely walks as to a dance

Could it be they're hang a man who's cracked?

He's in a far and distant trance.



The thought of what he's done;

no nod...Jack 'll get from me;

he violated the most basic rule;

for his crime is beyond pity;

let him hang for ridicule,

his death will come too easy.


He steps with innocence!

His mind can change this thing:

he's dreaming of another world;

I ought to yell, "Your dying,"

Because of your bloodied hands;

its too quick, a hanging.


Its sweet to dance to violins,

when love and life are fair:

to dance to flutes, to dance to lutes,

when life's without a care,

but it's not sweet with nimble feet

to dance upon the air!


And still he skyward looks

with such a wistful eye,

intent upon the blue,

the birds there soaring high,

and every drifting cloud,

that silvery sails on by.


Through Debtor's Yard with asphalt ground,

to the cement Felons Yard where hell die.

Too quick the broken neck;

I'll stop his gazing at the sky.

So by his side six warders walk

to assure that noth'n goes awry.


We stopped from our appointed tasks

to gaze on death. . . quiet is our pails

The screws a11 think we learn by watching death,

but any break is welcomed in this gaol.

Here curious we stand to see his end

to see if he'd turn pale.


What peevish imp of boredom

makes me stare at him

and curse his bloody hands,

and make me feel so prim,

as Jack strolls blithely by

towards the gallows grim?


Past the yawning mouth of just-dug hole,

gapping for a fresh killed thing.

The very mud cries out for him:

Vengeance! Vengeance! it rings. 

A civil end to he who kills,

this slight-built balding man has got to swing.


Why can't he see his hole,

nor hear its vengeance cry?

But still he's looking upward

as if hell death defy,

or is it death he wants,

and in ground he'll purify?


But why he looks so calm and glad,

no warder cares to ask

the wretch who killed his wife;

but they be bout their task

(theres no gain in sympathy),

thus their callous mask.


He does not see the chaplain

in his church-black costume,

nor hear Christ's words of glory

and those of sinners doom,

or see his sullen mother,

laden with heart-felt gloom.


I wonder if his mind has cracked

at being condemned to die

or from the blood upon his hands?

Or does he stare at sky

because he's made his peace?

Or is he just to vile to ply?


He will not feel the thirst

from fear that dries the throat before.

the final minute as the hangman joins Jack.

They climb unto the gallowss floor.

I see him bind his hand with thongs--

this too, Jack does ignore!


Still he looks skyward

as though theres not a care:

that wistful look avoiding

the abyss of despair.

The noose is placed, he drops 3 feet;

his neck is broke; he's swinging in the air.


Its back to work, our pails cling.

as we good work habits learn.

The warders back to watch us brutes

(how little they discern),

while they just sit and watch--

the clock is their concern.


They warders laugh as they wheel his body;

theres mud upon their boots.

I see his broken neck and no tears upon their face.

Disrobed they toss him down their with the roots,

and a heap of white quick lime

where he lies there is no need for that suit.


I wonder if ... his hands.., still tied

is to keep his soul earth bound:

hes laid without a shroud--

some resting place hes found.

So soon the corrosive lime

will turn his bones to ground.


The chaplain will not kneel to pray

by his dishonoured grave,

nor mark it with that blessed cross,

that Christ for sinners gave,

though Jack be one of those

whom Christ came down to save.


For three long years they will not sow

or root a seedling there;

for three long years he'll lay and rot

The warders keep the surface bare;

for three long years the spot is his,

thats all that they will spare.


There, till Christ calls forth the dead,

cast out from men he'll lie.

No need for foolish tears,

for him there was no alibi:

he stabbed the one he loved,

and so he had to die.


This hanging makes me think,

how prisons produce a blinding hate

and disperses it among mankind;

evil breading evil is the fate,

conditions that defile our godly minds.

I am--and see--what it creates.


Again, again, this day in thought I live. 

I see him in the crystal of a dream:

I see the new hemp rope

hooked to the blackened beam

and hear the priest who offers prayer.

Is this the way a debt, redeem?


Though vile is some crimes,

this I know that everyone's to blame

for this drubbing of our minds.

within the walls of cement shame.

Were bound in walls, lest Christ should see

how men, their brothers maim.


To treat us with boredom

Here we rust in your chains,

They deny them any fun     

degraded and alone, we bare in silence pain.

They make us cruel within.

This solution to crime is insane.


Some men curse, some men weep,

and some men make no moan;

In prison things are done

that no Son of God, nor son of man condones.

But God dispenses justice too;

and so the tormented and tormentors...known.


The vilest deeds like prison weeds

grow well in prison air;

it is only what is good in man

that wastes and withers there.

Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate;

despair is what we bear.


Across the floor of each narrow cell

lies the cement ditch for our latrine;

its stench of rot and crap we breath

turns the sanguine humor mean;

these vapors from the darkest side

have turned black our spleens.


There's brackish water that we drink,

walls green and slick with slime;

there's bread and gruel shoved through the slot

thats full of bugs and grime;

but worst of all's the constant noise

and boring waste of time.


Weekdays when work is done

at three were locked in our cells.

No paper, pen, nor candle flame,

with nothing but a bible,

a plank and rags to lie upon,

we listen to our neighbors' prattle.


Excuses theres not, for every dunce doth know

that if you chain a man or dog

in time he'll vicious turn;

yet, behind steel bars you flog

hope, kindness, and love

with boredom in this man made bog.


You feigns who sit and judge us;

the politicians who this gaol maintain

know that well that this is no way to train a man,

but rather decent conditions and kindness will restrain

the wild, violent, amoral ways

which have grown upon our pain.



A rewrite of Wilde's poem, which was

terrible inconsistent in quality &



Settings 1890s: inspiration:  the two year

sojourn in Reading Jail by Oscar Wilde  He

ill-advisedly sued a member of the peerage

for slander.  His affair with the noble's

son came out in the trial, and he was

separately tried for unnatural sexual

acts.  Wilde was bisexual.  Upon release

from jail in 1897, his connections gone, he

moved to France and there produced only The

Ballad of Reading Gaol.  He died in

1900 from spinal meningitis.      




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