BALLAD OF READING GAOL
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
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
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
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.