My Ballad Reading Gets a Little Wilde

by courtvanhaaren

I have a confession to make: I went to Barnes and Noble for the intention of solely buying Shakespeare’s sonnets, and I ended up buying a collection of various works and plays by Oscar Wilde. (Two books of his, on top of buying Les Mis for french literature.) I got sucked in the collections book from reading the insert. Did any of you know that Wilde actually did an analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets? I sure didn’t! That analysis is part of the reason that I bought the book. The other reason was because it included a literary ballad. Two literary pieces, one stone. (PSA: no books were actually stoned before, during, or after their purchase)

So, here I am, reading my first ballad! The Ballad of Reading Gaol 

Another confession: I actually tried to mentally sing the ballad to the tune of Amazing Grace. I wanted to see if it would fit. Sue me. (I stopped after the first quatrain.)

Final confession: I genuinely don’t know what I expected the ballad to be about. I mean, the use of ‘reading’ threw me off a bit. The ‘Gaol’ threw me off as well. (Just looked it up. Gaol is prison. Even if I knew that beforehand I don’t know what I would have expected.)

As I had previously stated, I tried mentally singing it  to Amazing Grace. Here is the quatrain I tried that with:

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.

Yes, I went from trying  to sing it to “Oh f-k” in one stanza.

Well there was two things that caught my attention within the first quatrain, being 1) The use of color and 2) the fact that the man had wine. I know that they don’t seem significant, but hear me out. “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 color is important because the blood and wine show him of his guilt. Not only that, but the fact that the coat would be scarlet. Ah yes, scarlet, the color of sin. The color of Hester’s A, and the color of sin that our Lord has promised to turn white. (Isaiah 1:18, one of my favorite biblical lines).

And yes, the fact that the man had wine is extremely important. The ballad doesn’t blatantly state that the man was drunk, but for all intents and purposes it can be inferred from the fact that he had wine all over himself that the man was at some level of moderate to high intoxication. (I personally love that he was drunk on wine. A drink closely tied in with religion and the color of sin. Not hard liquor. Important!)

The next few stanzas go on to describe the trial, where his fate is decided in the end of the fourth one: “that fellow’s got to swing.” You know, hanging is not used in modern society so it took me about almost all of the ballad to realize what they meant by swing. It just wasn’t clicking, which I am quite embarrassed to admit.

The ballad moves on into one of the big reveals of the theme with the following stanzas:

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 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. 

These few stanzas speak volumes about how we as humans treat each other. The first quatrain is pretty straightforward- we can commit murder towards one another with our words and gestures. Simple, right? The line that states the cowards kills with a kiss says a lot. How many relationships are out there that kill one partner on the inside?

I don’t necessarily agree with the use of “brave” when the ballad says that a brave man kills with a sword, but I do understand the intent behind it. This means that the man who is straightforward with their murderous actions are considered brave over those who kill behind their actions with words. Once again, not really keen on the use of brave, but I do understand it.

“Some kill their love when they are young”- ah yes, don’t we all usually kill our first love? The aches of my first love still pain me today. I was fourteen then and I will be 21 in a few days. Yes, we do kill our loves when we are young.

“Some when they are old”- Most likely an allusion to death. I mean, what other would kill a love when they are old.  Yes, there are other things behind it but the death of the spouse would be the likely scenario in this.

“Some strangle with the hands of Lust”- Affairs. Oh how those burn.

“Some with the hands of Gold”- I would say this pertains mostly to money, but it can also pertain to materialistic views too.

I am honestly not too sure what the final line of the above stanzas mean. My best guess would be the lines between the physical and emotional deaths that are alluded to in these passages; emotional death can definitely lead to a person becoming colder, so if we give them a physical death their emotional death would be spared.

The ballad does continue on the themes of various ways we commit death to our loves, but they end with a particularly strong line: For each man kills the thing he loves, but each man does not die. 

Yes, we kill and tear apart at the emotions and lives of those we love. Yet we are not held accountable to how we change someone’s life after we hurt it. Not to say that physical murder is excusable or on par with emotional murder, but we aren’t held accountable with how we treat others. Bullying and cheating are so prominent in today’s life, which in some tragic circumstances can lead to death. We are dead before we die in those cases.

I think people don’t really consider how actions and words affect one another, even when we try to apply it to our own lives. It doesn’t matter how certain actions are words are used against others, but when it comes to the individual their world becomes torn apart. It’s just sad that we are so insensitive to the lives around us that we are willing to hurt others to the point were they are dead inside.

Well, moving on with the ballad.

The ballad moves on to the prison that the convicted man stays in, commenting on his interaction with the world. I don’t have any personal commentary on his behavior while he waits for his inevitable swing; he just seems like a man who has (almost completely) accepted his fate and takes in what life he can behind bars.

To be honest, it’s hard to comment on the next few stanzas because my interest diminishes a little bit. The only thing that truly captures any remote interest in me is the behavior displayed by the other inmates. I find it rather interesting that the inmates are so affected by such an affair.

My best guess, putting aside all the sociological and psychological factors aside, is the interpretation of punishment and sin. Why is their punishment different than his? They have all sinned, and surely some are religiously held to a different standard than what they receive. (Oh, punishment by man is so interesting in contrast to religious punishment and forgiveness).

It is actually pretty ironic the behavior of the swinging man versus the other inmates. He was at peace with his fate while the inmates felt the fear.

Alas! It is a fearful thing to feel another’s guilt!

It’s funny to say, but I think it’s a more positive side to human nature in this particular poem. It is a very strong reoccurring theme of isolation and judgement from the other beings in the poem; the jury, the guards, the chaplain all treat him differently because of his sin. The inmates are empathetic towards the man. It’s a pretty interesting take on the sociological aspects of such a situation.

As the ballad closes in on the day of the hanging, there is a particular verse that just really saddens me 

Something was dead in each of us, 

And what was dead was hope.

I just can’t help but feel sympathetic for the incarcerated men now. The stanzas quote often of their growing fear and now the ballad is stating that they have no hope. What a dreadful state of mind to be in when there is no hope, only fear.

The ballad moves onto the aftermath of the hanging- the wardens with the evidence on their boots, the burning of lime. These few stanzas are actually my favorite part of the entire ballad. I’m not going to quote most of it, because it’s a lengthy section, but here are some of my favorite lines:

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,

As the red rose would but blow more red,

The white rose whiter blow.

So never will wine-red 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. 

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray

By his dishonored 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. 

I love love love LOVE love these stanzas more than I can even begin to express. We as both societies and religions can be so exclusive when – no matter how you are raised- is initially taught that we are all one, all equal, all human. There are so many examples in the media floating around that show we hold very little sentiment to these beliefs, but religions -more than just Christianity- value humans as equal. The role that Christianity plays in this ballad just shows the difference of what our God and what our Man holds men accountable for and their treatment afterwards. 

The ballad closes with the conclusion of prison as a terrible institution that we have instilled that does not work for the penitence of crime and sin. 

With bars they blur the gracious moon,

And blind the goodly sun; 

And they do well to hide their Hell,

For in it things are done,

That Son of God nor son of Man

Ever should look upon!

The stanzas then move on to cover the Lord’s kind Laws and how the soul is then on cleansed. This section is also a favorite of mine.

And with tears of blood he cleansed the hand,

The hand that held the steel:

For only blood can wipe out the blood,

And only tears can heal:

And the crimson stain that was of Cain

Became Christ’s snow-white seal. 

(Isaiah 1:18 again, holla!)

The underlying theme of the ballad seems to come off as that we as humans all commit sin towards one another, out of love or out of hate. Maybe of equal amounts. Both are of equal passion and are connected. (No, not opposites. Both are a consuming and obsessing emotion that can drive people to do some pretty insane things.) Yet we are only held accountable for such sins if it is physical, not emotional. It’s a pretty interesting commentary on human behavior, human conviction, and human sympathy. It has great parallels between the physical and emotional lines of existence, and it has even better parallels between religious and man-made conceptions of sin, punishment, and penitence. The ballad should not be overlooked on it’s obvious commentary of the faults of our justice system and the faults of imprisonment, which are completely relevant in modern society. 

I genuinely enjoyed reading this ballad. I already had to cut about a thousand or so words out for religious commentary alone, so I hope this post is at the very least entertaining to those who take the time to read it. Definitely share your thoughts on the ballad as well!

Until next time

~C M VanHaaren

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