Collected Poems, by Oscar Wilde

The Ballad of Reading Gaol

[1898]
I

He did not wear his scarlet coat,

 For blood and wine are red,

And blood and wine were on his hands

 When they found him with the dead,

The poor dead woman whom he loved,

 And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men

 In a suit of shabby gray;

A cricket cap was on his head,

 And his step seemed light and gay;

But I never saw a man who looked

 So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked

 With such a wistful eye

Upon that little tent of blue

 Which prisoners call the sky,

And at every drifting cloud that went

 With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain,

 Within another ring,

And was wondering if the man had done

 A great or little thing,

When a voice behind me whispered low,

 “That fellow’s got to swing.”

Dear Christ! the very prison walls

 Suddenly seemed to reel,

And the sky above my head became

 Like a casque of scorching steel;

And, though I was a soul in pain,

 My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what haunted thought

 Quickened his step, and why

He looked upon the garish day

 With such a wistful eye;

The man had killed the thing he loved,

 And so he had to die.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,

 By each let this be heard,

Some do it with a bitter look,

 Some with a flattering word,

The coward does it with a kiss,

 The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,

 And some when they are old;

Some strangle with the hands of Lust,

 Some with the hands of Gold:

The kindest use a knife, because

 The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long,

 Some sell, and others buy;

Some do the deed with many tears,

 And some without a sigh:

For each man kills the thing he loves,

 Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame

 On a day of dark disgrace,

Nor have a noose about his neck,

 Nor a cloth upon his face,

Nor drop feet foremost through the floor

 Into an empty space.

He does not sit with silent men

 Who watch him night and day;

Who watch him when he tries to weep,

 And when he tries to pray;

Who watch him lest himself should rob

 The prison of its prey.

He does not wake at dawn to see

 Dread figures throng his room,

The shivering Chaplain robed in white,

 The Sheriff stern with gloom,

And the Governor all in shiny black,

 With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste

 To put on convict-clothes,

While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes

 Each new and nerve-twitched pose,

Fingering a watch whose little ticks

 Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not feel that sickening thirst

 That sands one’s throat, before

The hangman with his gardener’s gloves

 Comes through the padded door,

And binds one with three leathern thongs,

That the throat may thirst no more.

He does not bend his head to hear

 The Burial Office read,

Nor, while the anguish of his soul

 Tells him he is not dead,

Cross his own coffin, as he moves

 Into the hideous shed.

He does not stare upon the air

 Through a little roof of glass:

He does not pray with lips of clay

 For his agony to pass;

Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek

 The kiss of Caiaphas.

II

Six weeks the guardsman walked the yard,

 In the suit of shabby gray:

His cricket cap was on his head,

 And his step was light and gay,

But I never saw a man who looked

 So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked

 With such a wistful eye

Upon that little tent of blue

 Which prisoners call the sky,

And at every wandering cloud that trailed

 Its ravelled fleeces by.

He did not wring his hands, as do

 Those witless men who dare

To try to rear the changeling Hope

 In the cave of black Despair:

He only looked upon the sun,

 And drank the morning air.

He did not wring his hands nor weep,

 Nor did he peek or pine,

But he drank the air as though it held

 Some healthful anodyne;

With open mouth he drank the sun

 As though it had been wine!

And I and all the souls in pain,

 Who tramped the other ring,

Forgot if we ourselves had done

 A great or little thing,

And watched with gaze of dull amaze

 The man who had to swing.

For strange it was to see him pass

 With a step so light and gay,

And strange it was to see him look

 So wistfully at the day,

And strange it was to think that he

 Had such a debt to pay.

The oak and elm have pleasant leaves

 That in the spring-time shoot:

But grim to see is the gallows-tree,

 With its alder-bitten root,

And, green or dry, a man must die

 Before it bears its fruit!

The loftiest place is the seat of grace

 For which all worldlings try:

But who would stand in hempen band

 Upon a scaffold high,

And through a murderer’s collar take

 His last look at the sky?

It is sweet to dance to violins

 When Love and Life are fair:

To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes

 Is delicate and rare:

But it is not sweet with nimble feet

 To dance upon the air!

So with curious eyes and sick surmise

 We watched him day by day,

And wondered if each one of us

 Would end the self-same way,

For none can tell to what red Hell

 His sightless soul may stray.

At last the dead man walked no more

 Amongst the Trial Men,

And I knew that he was standing up

 In the black dock’s dreadful pen,

And that never would I see his face

 For weal or woe again.

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm

 We had crossed each other’s way:

But we made no sign, we said no word,

 We had no word to say;

For we did not meet in the holy night,

 But in the shameful day.

A prison wall was round us both,

 Two outcast men we were:

The world had thrust us from its heart,

 And God from out His care:

And the iron gin that waits for Sin

 Had caught us in its snare.

III

In Debtors’ Yard the stones are hard,

 And the dripping wall is high,

So it was there he took the air

 Beneath the leaden sky,

And by each side a warder walked,

 For fear the man might die.

Or else he sat with those who watched

 His anguish night and day;

Who watched him when he rose to weep,

 And when he crouched to pray;

Who watched him lest himself should rob

 Their scaffold of its prey.

The Governor was strong upon

 The Regulations Act:

The Doctor said that Death was but

 A scientific fact:

And twice a day the Chaplain called,

 And left a little tract.

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,

 And drank his quart of beer:

His soul was resolute, and held

 No hiding-place for fear;

He often said that he was glad

 The hangman’s day was near.

But why he said so strange a thing

 No warder dared to ask:

For he to whom a watcher’s doom

 Is given as his task,

Must set a lock upon his lips,

 And make his face a mask.

Or else he might be moved, and try

 To comfort or console:

And what should Human Pity do

 Pent up in Murderers’ Hole?

What word of grace in such a place

 Could help a brother’s soul?

With slouch and swing around the ring

 We trod the Fools’ Parade!

We did not care: we knew we were

 The Devils’ 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.

So still it lay that every day

 Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:

And we forgot the bitter lot

 That waits for fool and knave,

Till once, as we tramped in from work,

 We passed an open grave.

With yawning mouth the horrid hole

 Gaped for a living thing;

The very mud cried out for blood

 To the thirsty asphalte ring:

And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair

 The fellow had to swing.

Right in we went, with soul intent

 On Death and Dread and Doom:

The hangman, with his little bag,

 Went shuffling through the gloom:

And I trembled as I groped my way

 Into my numbered tomb.

That night the empty corridors

 Were full of forms of Fear,

And up and down the iron town

 Stole feet we could not hear,

And through the bars that hide the stars

 White faces seemed to peer.

He lay as one who lies and dreams

 In a pleasant meadow-land,

The watchers watched him as he slept,

 And could not understand

How one could sleep so sweet a sleep

 With a hangman close at hand.

But there is no sleep when men must weep

 Who never yet have wept:

So we — the fool, the fraud, the knave —

 That endless vigil kept,

And through each brain on hands of pain

 Another’s terror crept.

Alas! it is a fearful thing

 To feel another’s guilt!

For, right within, the sword of Sin

 Pierced to its poisoned hilt,

And as molten lead were the tears we shed

 For the blood we had not spilt.

The warders with their shoes of felt

 Crept by each padlocked door,

And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,

 Gray figures on the floor,

And wondered why men knelt to pray

 Who never prayed before.

All through the night we knelt and prayed,

 Mad mourners of a corse!

The troubled plumes of midnight shook

 Like the plumes upon a hearse:

And as bitter wine upon a sponge

 Was the savour of Remorse.

The gray cock crew, the red cock crew,

 But never came the day:

And crooked shapes of Terror crouched,

 In the corners where we lay:

And each evil sprite that walks by night

 Before us seemed to play.

They glided past, the glided fast,

 Like travellers through a mist:

They mocked the moon in a rigadoon

 Of delicate turn and twist,

And with formal pace and loathsome grace

 The phantoms kept their tryst.

With mop and mow, we saw them go,

 Slim shadows hand in hand:

About, about, in ghostly rout

 They trod a saraband:

And the damned grotesques made arabesques,

 Like the wind upon the sand!

With the pirouettes of marionettes,

 They tripped on pointed tread:

But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,

 As their grisly masque they led,

And loud they sang, and long they sang,

 For they sang to wake the dead.

“Oho!” they cried, “the world is wide,

 But fettered limbs go lame!

And once, or twice, to throw the dice

 Is a gentlemanly game,

But he does not win who plays with Sin

 In the secret House of Shame.”

No things of air these antics were,

 That frolicked with such glee:

To men whose lives were held in gyves,

 And whose feet might not go free,

Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,

 Most terrible to see.

Around, around, they waltzed and wound;

 Some wheeled in smirking pairs;

With the mincing step of a demirep

 Some sidled up the stairs:

And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,

 Each helped us at our prayers.

The morning wind began to moan,

 But still the night went on:

Through its giant loom the web of gloom

 Crept till each thread was spun:

And, as we prayed, we grew afraid

 Of the Justice of the Sun.

The moaning wind went wandering round

 The weeping prison wall:

Till like a wheel of turning steel

 We felt the minutes crawl:

O moaning wind! what had we done

 To have such a seneschal?

At last I saw the shadowed bars,

 Like a lattice wrought in lead,

Move right across the whitewashed wall

 That faced my three-plank bed,

And I knew that somewhere in the world

 God’s dreadful dawn was red.

At six o’clock we cleaned our cells,

 At seven all was still,

But the sough and swing of a mighty wing

 The prison seemed to fill,

For the Lord of Death with icy breath

 Had entered in to kill.

He did not pass in purple pomp,

 Nor ride a moon-white steed.

Three yards of cord and a sliding board

 Are all the gallows’ need:

So with rope of shame the Herald came

 To do the secret deed.

We were as men who through a fen

 Of filthy darkness grope:

We did not dare to breathe a prayer,

 Or to give our anguish scope:

Something was dead in each of us,

 And what was dead was Hope.

For Man’s grim Justice goes its way

 And will not swerve aside:

It slays the weak, it slays the strong,

 It has a deadly stride:

With iron heel it slays the strong

 The monstrous parricide!

We waited for the stroke of eight:

 Each tongue was thick with thirst:

For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate

 That makes a man accursed,

And Fate will use a running noose

 For the best man and the worst.

We had no other thing to do,

 Save to wait for the sign to come:

So, like things of stone in a valley lone,

 Quiet we sat and dumb:

But each man’s heart beat thick and quick,

 Like a madman on a drum!

With sudden shock the prison-clock

 Smote on the shivering air,

And from all the gaol rose up a wail

 Of impotent despair,

Like the sound the frightened marshes hear

 From some leper in his lair.

And as one sees most fearful things

 In the crystal of a dream,

We saw the greasy hempen rope

 Hooked to the blackened beam,

And heard the prayer the hangman’s snare

 Strangled into a scream.

And all the woe that moved him so

 That he gave that bitter cry,

And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,

 None knew so well as I:

For he who lives more lives than one

 More deaths that one must die.

IV

There is no chapel on the day

 On which they hang a man:

The Chaplain’s heart is far too sick,

 Or his face is far too wan,

Or there is that written in his eyes

 Which none should look upon.

So they kept us close till nigh on noon,

 And then they rang the bell,

And the warders with their jingling keys

 Opened each listening cell,

And down the iron stair we tramped,

 Each from his separate Hell.

Out into God’s sweet air we went,

 But not in wonted way,

For this man’s face was white with fear,

 And that man’s face was gray,

And I never saw sad men who looked

 So wistfully at the day.

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.

But there were those amongst us all

 Who walked with downcast head,

And knew that, had each got his due,

 They should have died instead:

He had but killed a thing that lived,

 Whilst they had killed the dead.

For he who sins a second time

 Wakes a dead soul to pain,

And draws it from its spotted shroud

 And makes it bleed again,

And makes it bleed great gouts of blood,

 And makes it bleed in vain!

Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb

 With crooked arrows starred,

Silently we went round and round

 The slippery asphalte yard;

Silently we went round and round,

 And no man spoke a word.

Silently we went round and round,

 And through each hollow mind

The Memory of dreadful things

 Rushed like a dreadful wind,

And Horror stalked before each man,

 And Terror crept behind.

The warders strutted up and down,

 And watched their herd of brutes,

Their uniforms were spick and span,

 And they wore their Sunday suits,

But we knew the work they had been at,

 By the quicklime on their boots.

For where a grave had opened wide,

 There was no grave at all:

Only a stretch of mud and sand

 By the hideous prison-wall,

And a little heap of burning lime,

 That the man should have his pall.

For he has a pall, this wretched man,

 Such as few men can claim:

Deep down below a prison-yard,

 Naked, for greater shame,

He lies, with fetters on each foot,

 Wrapt in a sheet of flame!

And all the while the burning lime

 Eats flesh and bone away,

It eats the brittle bones by night,

 And the soft flesh by day,

It eats the flesh and bone by turns,

 But it eats the heart alway.

For three long years they will not sow

 Or root or seedling there:

For three long years the unblessed spot

 Will sterile be and bare,

And look upon the wondering sky

 With unreproachful stare.

They think a murderer’s heart would taint

 Each simple seed they sow.

It is not true! God’s kindly earth

 Is kindlier than men know,

And the red rose would but glow more red,

 The white rose whiter blow.

Out of his mouth a red, red rose!

 Out of his heart a white!

For who can say by what strange way,

 Christ brings His will to light,

Since the barren staff the pilgrim bore

 Bloomed in the great Pope’s sight?

But neither milk-white rose nor red

 May bloom in prison air;

The shard, the pebble, and the flint,

 Are what they give us there:

For flowers have been known to heal

 A common man’s despair.

So never will wine-red rose or white,

 Petal by petal, fall

On that stretch of mud and sand that lies

 By the hideous prison-wall,

To tell the men who tramp the yard

 That God’s Son died for all.

Yet though the hideous prison-wall

 Still hems him round and round,

And a spirit may not walk by night

 That is with fetters bound,

And a spirit may but weep that lies

 In such unholy ground,

He is at peace — this wretched man —

 At peace, or will be soon:

There is no thing to make him mad,

 Nor does Terror walk at noon,

For the lampless Earth in which he lies

 Has neither Sun nor Moon.

They hanged him as a beast is hanged:

 They did not even toll

A requiem that might have brought

 Rest to his startled soul,

But hurriedly they took him out,

 And hid him in a hole.

The warders stripped him of his clothes,

 And gave him to the flies:

They mocked the swollen purple throat,

 And the stark and staring eyes:

And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud

 In which the convict lies.

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray

 By his dishonoured grave:

Nor mark it with that blessed Cross

 That Christ for sinners gave,

Because the man was one of those

 Whom Christ came down to save.

Yet all is well; he has but passed

 To Life’s appointed bourne:

And alien tears will fill for him

 Pity’s long-broken urn,

For his mourners be outcast men,

 And outcasts always mourn.

V

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.

But this I know, that every Law

 That men have made for Man,

Since first Man took His brother’s life,

 And the sad world began,

But straws the wheat and saves the chaff

 With a most evil fan.

This too I know — and wise it were

 If each could know the same —

That every prison that men build

 Is built with bricks of shame,

And bound with bars lest Christ should see

 How men their brothers maim.

With bars they blur the gracious moon,

 And blind the goodly sun:

And the do well to hide their Hell,

 For in it things are done

That Son of things nor son of Man

 Ever should look upon!

The vilest deeds like poison weeds

 Bloom well in prison-air:

It is only what is good in Man

 That wastes and withers there:

Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,

 And the warder is Despair.

For they starve the little frightened child

 Till it weeps both night and day:

And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,

 And gibe the old and gray,

And some grow mad, and all grow bad,

 And none a word may say.

Each narrow cell in which we dwell

 Is a foul and dark latrine,

And the fetid breath of living Death

 Chokes up each grated screen,

And all, but Lust, is turned to dust

 In Humanity’s machine.

The brackish water that we drink

 Creeps with a loathsome slime,

And the bitter bread they weigh in scales

 Is full of chalk and lime,

And Sleep will not lie down, but walks

 Wild-eyed, and cries to Time.

But though lean Hunger and green Thirst

 Like asp with adder fight,

We have little care of prison fare,

 For what chills and kills outright

Is that every stone one lifts by day

 Becomes one’s heart by night.

With midnight always in one’s heart,

 And twilight in one’s cell,

We turn the crank, or tear the rope,

 Each in his separate Hell,

And the silence is more awful far

 Than the sound of a brazen bell.

And never a human voice comes near

 To speak a gentle word:

And the eye that watches through the door

 Is pitiless and hard:

And by all forgot, we rot and rot,

 With soul and body marred.

And thus we rust Life’s iron chain

 Degraded and alone:

And some men curse, and some men weep,

 And some men make no moan:

But God’s eternal Laws are kind

 And break the heart of stone.

And every human heart that breaks,

 In prison-cell or yard,

Is as that broken box that gave

 Its treasure to the Lord,

And filled the unclean leper’s house

 With the scent of costliest nard.

Ah! happy they whose hearts can break

 And peace of pardon win!

How else may man make straight his plan

 And cleanse his soul from Sin?

How else but through a broken heart

 May Lord Christ enter in?

And he of the swollen purple throat,

 And the stark and staring eyes,

Waits for the holy hands that took

 The Thief to Paradise;

And a broken and a contrite heart

 The Lord will not despise.

The man in red who reads the Law

 Gave him three weeks of life,

Three little weeks in which to heal

 His soul of his soul’s strife,

And cleanse from every blot of blood

 The hand that held the knife.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,

 The hand that held the steel:

For only blood can wipe out blood,

 And only tears can heal:

And the crimson stain that was of Cain

 Became Christ’s snow-white seal.

VI

In Reading gaol by Reading town

 There is a pit of shame,

And in it lies a wretched man

 Eaten by teeth of flame,

In a burning winding-sheet he lies,

 And his grave has got no name.

And there, till Christ call forth the dead,

 In silence let him lie:

No need to waste the foolish tear,

 Or heave the windy sigh:

The man had killed the thing he loved,

 And so he had to die.

And all men kill the thing they love,

 By all let this be heard,

Some do it with a bitter look,

 Some with a flattering word,

The coward does it with a kiss,

 The brave man with a sword!

C. 3. 3.

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