The Ballad of Reading Gaol

Between 1895 and 1897 Oscar Wilde served a prison sentence for offences “of gross indecency”. Most of this time was spent at Reading Gaol, where Wilde encountered another prisoner, Harles Thomas Wooldridge, a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards, who had been sentenced to death for the murder of his wife. Wooldrige was hanged at the gaol on 7th July, 1896. Wilde wrote the poem in France in 1897 after his release from prison. The first published version identified the author only as C.3.3, the name allocated to Wilde as a prisoner. The poem is a long reflection on the inequity and ineffectiveness of statutory punishment and the redeeming power of the Christian message of forgiveness. In his foreword, Frank Harris wrote: I venture to repeat here what I have said in various ways for nearly twenty years now, that Oscar Wilde’s condemnation of prisons and punishment must lead directly to their abolition. The old bad past will die and Oscar Wilde’s ballad helped to kill it.

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