When Oscar Wilde’s poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol was published in February, 1898, the author’s name appeared only as “C.3.3.,” which had been the number of Wilde’s tiny room in the prison: block C, landing 3, cell 3. It was not until a seventh edition was printed in June 1899 that Wilde’s name appeared on the cover.
The story is well-known: In 1891, Wide had become infatuated with the handsome Lord Alfred Douglas and the two began a lavish, decadent, and indiscreet affair. Lord Alfred’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, enraged by the relationship, accused Wilde of the crime of sodomy. Wilde responded by accusing Queensberry of libel, a charge Queensberry could escape only by demonstrating that his accusation had been truthful. In the ensuing trial, Wilde’s private life was exposed and Queensberry was found innocent. Wilde was then arrested, tried, and imprisoned for “gross indecency.”
While in prison, Wilde wrote another text, De Profundis, a long open letter to Douglas that meditates on their relationship, art, and spiritual growth:
I don’t regret for a single moment having lived for pleasure. I did it to the full, as one should do everything that one does. There was no pleasure I did not experience. I threw the pearl of my soul into a cup of wine. I went down the primrose path to the sound of flutes. I lived on honeycomb. But to have continued the same life would have been wrong because it would have been limiting. I had to pass on. The other half of the garden had its secrets for me also.
In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde takes as his subject the brutal punishment and inhumane conditions of the prison:
With slouch and swing around the ring We trod the Fools' 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. 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. 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.
Image: Wilde’s cell door