Corpus of Electronic Texts Edition
The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Author: Oscar Wilde)
- 1] He did not wear his scarlet coat,
2] For blood and wine are red,
3] And blood and wine were on his hands
4] When they found him with the dead,
5] The poor dead woman whom he loved,
6] And murdered in her bed.
- 7] He walked amongst the Trial Men
8] In a suit of shabby gray;
9] A cricket cap was on his head,
10] And his step seemed light and gay;
11] But I never saw a man who looked
12] So wistfully at the day.
- 13] I never saw a man who looked
14] With such a wistful eye
15] Upon that little tent of blue
16] Which prisoners call the sky,
17] And at every drifting cloud that went
18] With sails of silver by.
- 19] I walked, with other souls in pain,
20] Within another ring,
21] And was wondering if the man had done
22] A great or little thing,
23] When a voice behind me whispered low,
24] That fellow's got to swing.
- 25] Dear Christ! the very prison walls
26] Suddenly seemed to reel,
27] And the sky above my head became
28] Like a casque of scorching steel;
29] And, though I was a soul in pain,
30] My pain I could not feel.
- 31] I only knew what hunted thought
32] Quickened his step, and why
33] He looked upon the garish day
34] With such a wistful eye;
35] The man had killed the thing he loved
36] And so he had to die.
- 37] Yet each man kills the thing he loves
38] By each let this be heard,
39] Some do it with a bitter look,
40] Some with a flattering word,
41] The coward does it with a kiss,
42] The brave man with a sword!
- 43] Some kill their love when they are young,
44] And some when they are old;
45] Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
46] Some with the hands of Gold:
47] The kindest use a knife, because
48] The dead so soon grow cold.
- 49] Some love too little, some too long,
50] Some sell, and others buy;
51] Some do the deed with many tears,
52] And some without a sigh:
53] For each man kills the thing he loves,
54] Yet each man does not die.
- 55] He does not die a death of shame
56] On a day of dark disgrace,
57] Nor have a noose about his neck,
58] Nor a cloth upon his face,
59] Nor drop feet foremost through the floor
60] Into an empty place.
- 61] He does not sit with silent men
62] Who watch him night and day;
63] Who watch him when he tries to weep,
64] And when he tries to pray;
65] Who watch him lest himself should rob
66] The prison of its prey.
- 67] He does not wake at dawn to see
68] Dread figures throng his room,
69] The shivering Chaplain robed in white,
70] The Sheriff stern with gloom,
71] And the Governor all in shiny black,
72] With the yellow face of Doom.
- 73] He does not rise in piteous haste
74] To put on convict-clothes,
75] While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes
76] Each new and nerve-twitched pose,
77] Fingering a watch whose little ticks
78] Are like horrible hammer-blows.
- 79] He does not know that sickening thirst
80] That sands one's throat, before
81] The hangman with his gardener's gloves
82] Slips through the padded door,
83] And binds one with three leathern thongs,
84] That the throat may thirst no more.
- 85] He does not bend his head to hear
86] The Burial Office read,
87] Nor, while the terror of his soul
88] Tells him he is not dead,
89] Cross his own coffin, as he moves
90] Into the hideous shed.
- 91] He does not stare upon the air
92] Through a little roof of glass:
93] He does not pray with lips of clay
94] For his agony to pass;
95] Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek
96] The kiss of Caiaphas.
- 97] Six weeks our guardsman walked the yard,
98] In a suit of shabby gray:
99] His cricket cap was on his head,
100] And his step seemed light and gay,
101] But I never saw a man who looked
102] So wistfully at the day.
- 103] I never saw a man who looked
104] With such a wistful eye
105] Upon that little tent of blue
106] Which prisoners call the sky,
107] And at every wandering cloud that trailed
108] Its ravelled fleeces by.
- 109] He did not wring his hands, as do
110] Those witless men who dare
111] To try to rear the changeling Hope
112] In the cave of black Despair:
113] He only looked upon the sun,
114] And drank the morning air.
- 115] He did not wring his hands nor weep,
116] Nor did he peek or pine,
117] But he drank the air as though it held
118] Some healthful anodyne;
119] With open mouth he drank the sun
120] As though it had been wine!
- 121] And I and all the souls in pain,
122] Who tramped the other ring,
123] Forgot if we ourselves had done
124] A great or little thing,
125] And watched with gaze of dull amaze
126] The man who had to swing.
- 127] And strange it was to see him pass
128] With a step so light and gay,
129] And strange it was to see him look
130] So wistfully at the day,
131] And strange it was to think that he
132] Had such a debt to pay.
- 133] For oak and elm have pleasant leaves
134] That in the spring-time shoot:
135] But grim to see is the gallows-tree,
136] With its adder-bitten root,
137] And, green or dry, a man must die
138] Before it bears its fruit!
- 139] The loftiest place is that seat of grace
140] For which all worldlings try:
141] But who would stand in hempen band
142] Upon a scaffold high,
143] And through a murderer's collar take
144] His last look at the sky?
- 145] It is sweet to dance to violins
146] When Love and Life are fair:
147] To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
148] Is delicate and rare:
149] But it is not sweet with nimble feet
150] To dance upon the air!
- 151] So with curious eyes and sick surmise
152] We watched him day by day,
153] And wondered if each one of us
154] Would end the self-same way,
155] For none can tell to what red Hell
156] His sightless soul may stray.
- 157] At last the dead man walked no more
158] Amongst the Trial Men,
159] And I knew that he was standing up
160] In the black dock's dreadful pen,
161] And that never would I see his face
162] In God's sweet world again.
- 163] Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
164] We had crossed each other's way:
165] But we made no sign, we said no word,
166] We had no word to say;
167] For we did not meet in the holy night,
168] But in the shameful day.
- 169] A prison wall was round us both,
170] Two outcast men were we:
171] The world had thrust us from its heart,
172] And God from out His care:
173] And the iron gin that waits for Sin
174] Had caught us in its snare.
- 175] In Debtors' Yard the stones are hard,
176] And the dripping wall is high,
177] So it was there he took the air
178] Beneath the leaden sky,
179] And by each side a Warder walked,
180] For fear the man might die.
- 181] Or else he sat with those who watched
182] His anguish night and day;
183] Who watched him when he rose to weep,
184] And when he crouched to pray;
185] Who watched him lest himself should rob
186] Their scaffold of its prey.
- 187] The Governor was strong upon
188] The Regulations Act:
189] The Doctor said that Death was but
190] A scientific fact:
191] And twice a day the Chaplain called
192] And left a little tract.
- 193] And twice a day he smoked his pipe,
194] And drank his quart of beer:
195] His soul was resolute, and held
196] No hiding-place for fear;
197] He often said that he was glad
198] The hangman's hands were near.
- 199] But why he said so strange a thing
200] No Warder dared to ask:
201] For he to whom a watcher's doom
202] Is given as his task,
203] Must set a lock upon his lips,
204] And make his face a mask.
- 205] Or else he might be moved, and try
206] To comfort or console:
207] And what should Human Pity do
208] Pent up in Murderers' Hole?
209] What word of grace in such a place
210] Could help a brother's soul?
- 211] With slouch and swing around the ring
212] We trod the Fool's Parade!
213] We did not care: we knew we were
214] The Devil's Own Brigade:
215] And shaven head and feet of lead
216] Make a merry masquerade.
- 217] We tore the tarry rope to shreds
218] With blunt and bleeding nails;
219] We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
220] And cleaned the shining rails:
221] And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
222] And clattered with the pails.
- 223] We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
224] We turned the dusty drill:
225] We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
226] And sweated on the mill:
227] But in the heart of every man
228] Terror was lying still.
- 229] So still it lay that every day
230] Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
231] And we forgot the bitter lot
232] That waits for fool and knave,
233] Till once, as we tramped in from work,
234] We passed an open grave.
- 235] With yawning mouth the yellow hole
236] Gaped for a living thing;
237] The very mud cried out for blood
238] To the thirsty asphalte ring:
239] And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
240] Some prisoner had to swing.
- 241] Right in we went, with soul intent
242] On Death and Dread and Doom:
243] The hangman, with his little bag,
244] Went shuffling through the gloom
245] And each man trembled as he crept
246] Into his numbered tomb.
- 247] That night the empty corridors
248] Were full of forms of Fear,
249] And up and down the iron town
250] Stole feet we could not hear,
251] And through the bars that hide the stars
252] White faces seemed to peer.
- 253] He lay as one who lies and dreams
254] In a pleasant meadow-land,
255] The watcher watched him as he slept,
256] And could not understand
257] How one could sleep so sweet a sleep
258] With a hangman close at hand
- 259] But there is no sleep when men must weep
260] Who never yet have wept:
261] So wethe fool, the fraud, the knave
262] That endless vigil kept,
263] And through each brain on hands of pain
264] Another's terror crept.
- 265] Alas! it is a fearful thing
266] To feel another's guilt!
267] For, right within, the sword of Sin
268] Pierced to its poisoned hilt,
269] And as molten lead were the tears we shed
270] For the blood we had not spilt.
- 271] The Warders with their shoes of felt
272] Crept by each padlocked door,
273] And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe,
274] Grey figures on the floor,
275] And wondered why men knelt to pray
276] Who never prayed before.
- 277] All through the night we knelt and prayed,
278] Mad mourners of a corpse!
279] The troubled plumes of midnight were
280] The plumes upon a hearse:
281] And bitter wine upon a sponge
282] Was the savour of Remorse.
- 283] The gray cock crew, the red cock crew,
284] But never came the day:
285] And crooked shape of Terror crouched,
286] In the corners where we lay:
287] And each evil sprite that walks by night
288] Before us seemed to play.
- 289] They glided past, they glided fast,
290] Like travellers through a mist:
291] They mocked the moon in a rigadoon
292] Of delicate turn and twist,
293] And with formal pace and loathsome grace
294] The phantoms kept their tryst.
- 295] With mop and mow, we saw them go,
296] Slim shadows hand in hand:
297] About, about, in ghostly rout
298] They trod a saraband:
299] And the damned grotesques made arabesques,
300] Like the wind upon the sand!
- 301] With the pirouettes of marionettes,
302] They tripped on pointed tread:
303] But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear,
304] As their grisly masque they led,
305] And loud they sang, and loud they sang,
306] For they sang to wake the dead.
- 307] Oho! they cried,The world is wide,
308] But fettered limbs go lame!
309] And once, or twice, to throw the dice
310] Is a gentlemanly game,
311] But he does not win who plays with Sin
312] In the secret House of Shame.
- 313] No things of air these antics were
314] That frolicked with such glee:
315] To men whose lives were held in gyves,
316] And whose feet might not go free,
317] Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things,
318] Most terrible to see.
- 319] Around, around, they waltzed and wound;
320] Some wheeled in smirking pairs:
321] With the mincing step of demirep
322] Some sidled up the stairs:
323] And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer,
324] Each helped us at our prayers.
- 325] The morning wind began to moan,
326] But still the night went on:
327] Through its giant loom the web of gloom
328] Crept till each thread was spun:
329] And, as we prayed, we grew afraid
330] Of the Justice of the Sun.
- 331] The moaning wind went wandering round
332] The weeping prison-wall:
333] Till like a wheel of turning-steel
334] We felt the minutes crawl:
335] O moaning wind! what had we done
336] To have such a seneschal?
- 337] At last I saw the shadowed bars
338] Like a lattice wrought in lead,
339] Move right across the whitewashed wall
340] That faced my three-plank bed,
341] And I knew that somewhere in the world
342] God's dreadful dawn was red.
- 343] At six o'clock we cleaned our cells,
344] At seven all was still,
345] But the sough and swing of a mighty wing
346] The prison seemed to fill,
347] For the Lord of Death with icy breath
348] Had entered in to kill.
- 349] He did not pass in purple pomp,
350] Nor ride a moon-white steed.
351] Three yards of cord and a sliding board
352] Are all the gallows' need:
353] So with rope of shame the Herald came
354] To do the secret deed.
- 355] We were as men who through a fen
356] Of filthy darkness grope:
357] We did not dare to breathe a prayer,
358] Or give our anguish scope:
359] Something was dead in each of us,
360] And what was dead was Hope.
- 361] For Man's grim Justice goes its way,
362] And will not swerve aside:
363] It slays the weak, it slays the strong,
364] It has a deadly stride:
365] With iron heel it slays the strong,
366] The monstrous parricide!
- 367] We waited for the stroke of eight:
368] Each tongue was thick with thirst:
369] For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate
370] That makes a man accursed,
371] And Fate will use a running noose
372] For the best man and the worst.
- 373] We had no other thing to do,
374] Save to wait for the sign to come:
375] So, like things of stone in a valley lone,
376] Quiet we sat and dumb:
377] But each man's heart beat thick and quick,
378] Like a madman on a drum!
- 379] With sudden shock the prison-clock
380] Smote on the shivering air,
381] And from all the gaol rose up a wail
382] Of impotent despair,
383] Like the sound that frightened marshes hear
384] From a leper in his lair.
- 385] And as one sees most fearful things
386] In the crystal of a dream,
387] We saw the greasy hempen rope
388] Hooked to the blackened beam,
389] And heard the prayer the hangman's snare
390] Strangled into a scream.
- 391] And all the woe that moved him so
392] That he gave that bitter cry,
393] And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,
394] None knew so well as I:
395] For he who live more lives than one
396] More deaths than one must die.
- 397] There is no chapel on the day
398] On which they hang a man:
399] The Chaplain's heart is far too sick,
400] Or his face is far too wan,
401] Or there is that written in his eyes
402] Which none should look upon.
- 403] So they kept us close till nigh on noon,
404] And then they rang the bell,
405] And the Warders with their jingling keys
406] Opened each listening cell,
407] And down the iron stair we tramped,
408] Each from his separate Hell.
- 409] Out into God's sweet air we went,
410] But not in wonted way,
411] For this man's face was white with fear,
412] And that man's face was gray,
413] And I never saw sad men who looked
414] So wistfully at the day.
- 415] I never saw sad men who looked
416] With such a wistful eye
417] Upon that little tent of blue
418] We prisoners called the sky,
419] And at every careless cloud that passed
420] In happy freedom by.
- 421] But there were those amongst us all
422] Who walked with downcast head,
423] And knew that, had each got his due,
424] They should have died instead:
425] He had but killed a thing that lived
426] Whilst they had killed the dead.
- 427] For he who sins a second time
428] Wakes a dead soul to pain,
429] And draws it from its spotted shroud,
430] And makes it bleed again,
431] And makes it bleed great gouts of blood
432] And makes it bleed in vain!
- 433] Like ape or clown, in monstrous garb
434] With crooked arrows starred,
435] Silently we went round and round
436] The slippery asphalte yard;
437] Silently we went round and round,
438] And no man spoke a word.
- 439] Silently we went round and round,
440] And through each hollow mind
441] The memory of dreadful things
442] Rushed like a dreadful wind,
443] And Horror stalked before each man,
444] And Terror crept behind.
- 445] The Warders strutted up and down,
446] And kept their herd of brutes,
447] Their uniforms were spick and span,
448] And they wore their Sunday suits,
449] But we knew the work they had been at
450] By the quicklime on their boots.
- 451] For where a grave had opened wide,
452] There was no grave at all:
453] Only a stretch of mud and sand
454] By the hideous prison-wall,
455] And a little heap of burning lime,
456] That the man should have his pall.
- 457] For he has a pall, this wretched man,
458] Such as few men can claim:
459] Deep down below a prison-yard,
460] Naked for greater shame,
461] He lies, with fetters on each foot,
462] Wrapt in a sheet of flame!
- 463] And all the while the burning lime
464] Eats flesh and bone away,
465] It eats the brittle bone by night,
466] And the soft flesh by the day,
467] It eats the flesh and bones by turns,
468] But it eats the heart alway.
- 469] For three long years they will not sow
470] Or root or seedling there:
471] For three long years the unblessed spot
472] Will sterile be and bare,
473] And look upon the wondering sky
474] With unreproachful stare.
- 475] They think a murderer's heart would taint
476] Each simple seed they sow.
477] It is not true! God's kindly earth
478] Is kindlier than men know,
479] And the red rose would but blow more red,
480] The white rose whiter blow.
- 481] Out of his mouth a red, red rose!
482] Out of his heart a white!
483] For who can say by what strange way,
484] Christ brings his will to light,
485] Since the barren staff the pilgrim bore
486] Bloomed in the great Pope's sight?
- 487] But neither milk-white rose nor red
488] May bloom in prison air;
489] The shard, the pebble, and the flint,
490] Are what they give us there:
491] For flowers have been known to heal
492] A common man's despair.
- 493] So never will wine-red rose or white,
494] Petal by petal, fall
495] On that stretch of mud and sand that lies
496] By the hideous prison-wall,
497] To tell the men who tramp the yard
498] That God's Son died for all.
- 499] Yet though the hideous prison-wall
500] Still hems him round and round,
501] And a spirit man not walk by night
502] That is with fetters bound,
503] And a spirit may not weep that lies
504] In such unholy ground,
- 505] He is at peacethis wretched man
506] At peace, or will be soon:
507] There is no thing to make him mad,
508] Nor does Terror walk at noon,
509] For the lampless Earth in which he lies
510] Has neither Sun nor Moon.
- 511] They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
512] They did not even toll
513] A requiem that might have brought
514] Rest to his startled soul,
515] But hurriedly they took him out,
516] And hid him in a hole.
- 517] They stripped him of his canvas clothes,
518] And gave him to the flies;
519] They mocked the swollen purple throat,
520] And the stark and staring eyes:
521] And with laughter loud they heaped the shroud
522] In which their convict lies.
- 523] The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
524] By his dishonoured grave:
525] Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
526] That Christ for sinners gave,
527] Because the man was one of those
528] Whom Christ came down to save.
- 529] Yet all is well; he has but passed
530] To Life's appointed bourne:
531] And alien tears will fill for him
532] Pity's long-broken urn,
533] For his mourner will be outcast men,
534] And outcasts always mourn.
- 535] I know not whether Laws be right,
536] Or whether Laws be wrong;
537] All that we know who lie in gaol
538] Is that the wall is strong;
539] And that each day is like a year,
540] A year whose days are long.
- 541] But this I know, that every Law
542] That men have made for Man,
543] Since first Man took his brother's life,
544] And the sad world began,
545] But straws the wheat and saves the chaff
546] With a most evil fan.
- 547] This too I knowand wise it were
548] If each could know the same
549] That every prison that men build
550] Is built with bricks of shame,
551] And bound with bars lest Christ should see
552] How men their brothers maim.
- 553] With bars they blur the gracious moon,
554] And blind the goodly sun:
555] And they do well to hide their Hell,
556] For in it things are done
557] That Son of God nor son of Man
558] Ever should look upon!
- 559] The vilest deeds like poison weeds
560] Bloom well in prison-air:
561] It is only what is good in Man
562] That wastes and withers there:
563] Pale Anguish keeps the heavy gate,
564] And the Warder is Despair
- 565] For they starve the little frightened child
566] Till it weeps both night and day:
567] And they scourge the weak, and flog the fool,
568] And gibe the old and gray,
569] And some grow mad, and all grow bad,
570] And none a word may say.
- 571] Each narrow cell in which we dwell
572] Is a foul and dark latrine,
573] And the fetid breath of living Death
574] Chokes up each grated screen,
575] And all, but Lust, is turned to dust
576] In Humanity's machine.
- 577] The brackish water that we drink
578] Creeps with a loathsome slime,
579] And the bitter bread they weigh in scales
580] Is full of chalk and lime,
581] And Sleep will not lie down, but walks
582] Wild-eyed, and cries to Time.
- 583] But though lean Hunger and green Thirst
584] Like asp with adder fight,
585] We have little care of prison fare,
586] For what chills and kills outright
587] Is that every stone one lifts by day
588] Becomes one's heart by night.
- 589] With midnight always in one's heart,
590] And twilight in one's cell,
591] We turn the crank, or tear the rope,
592] Each in his separate Hell,
593] And the silence is more awful far
594] Than the sound of a brazen bell.
- 595] And never a human voice comes near
596] To speak a gentle word:
597] And the eye that watches through the door
598] Is pitiless and hard:
599] And by all forgot, we rot and rot,
600] With soul and body marred.
- 601] And thus we rust Life's iron chain
602] Degraded and alone:
603] And some men curse, and some men weep,
604] And some men make no moan:
605] But God's eternal Laws are kind
606] And break the heart of stone.
- 607] And every human heart that breaks,
608] In prison-cell or yard,
609] Is as that broken box that gave
610] Its treasure to the Lord,
611] And filled the unclean leper's house
612] With the scent of costliest nard.
- 613] Ah! happy day they whose hearts can break
614] And peace of pardon win!
615] How else may man make straight his plan
616] And cleanse his soul from Sin?
617] How else but through a broken heart
618] May Lord Christ enter in?
- 619] And he of the swollen purple throat,
620] And the stark and staring eyes,
621] Waits for the holy hands that took
622] The Thief to Paradise;
623] And a broken and a contrite heart
624] The Lord will not despise.
- 625] The man in red who reads the Law
626] Gave him three weeks of life,
627] Three little weeks in which to heal
628] His soul of his soul's strife,
629] And cleanse from every blot of blood
630] The hand that held the knife.
- 631] And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,
632] The hand that held the steel:
633] For only blood can wipe out blood,
634] And only tears can heal:
635] And the crimson stain that was of Cain
636] Became Christ's snow-white seal.
C. 3. 3.
- 637] In Reading gaol by Reading town
638] There is a pit of shame,
639] And in it lies a wretched man
640] Eaten by teeth of flame,
641] In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
642] And his grave has got no name.
- 643] And there, till Christ call forth the dead,
644] In silence let him lie:
645] No need to waste the foolish tear,
646] Or heave the windy sigh:
647] The man had killed the thing he loved,
648] And so he had to die.
- 649] And all men kill the thing they love,
650] By all let this be heard,
651] Some do it with a bitter look,
652] Some with a flattering word,
653] The coward does it with a kiss,
654] The brave man with a sword!