“A Criminal with a Noble Face”:  Oscar Wilde’s Encounters with the Victorian Gaol by Kristian Williams

“A Criminal with a Noble Face”:

Oscar Wilde’s Encounters with the Victorian Gaol

by Kristian Williams

Prologue: A Visit to An American Jail

During his American tour of 1882, Oscar Wilde visited Lincoln, Nebraska, and lectured there propounding the doctrines of the aestheticist movement with which he was associated. Afterward, his hosts took him for a tour of their city’s most impressive public building — the local jail. The warden showed him photographs of habitual offenders and recounted vivid tales of their crimes. Wilde later wrote a friend about the prisoners: “Poor sad types of humanity in hideous striped dresses making bricks in the sun, and all mean-looking, which consoled me, for I should hate to see a criminal with a noble face.”

Wilde visited the “Little whitewashed cells, so tragically tidy, but with books in them. In one I found a translation of Dante, and a Shelley. Strange and beautiful it seemed to me that the sorrow of a single Florentine in exile should, hundreds of years afterwards, lighten the sorrow of some common prisoner in a modern gaol. . . .”[1]

Without realizing it, Wilde had glimpsed his own future.

Reading Wilde, Reading Gaol: A Synopsis

Wilde’s indifference to and naive dissociation from the class of prisoners was not to last long. In 1895, at the age of forty years, he was arrested for “gross indecency” (i.e. homosexual acts). He was held at Holloway Prison, then tried, convicted, and sentenced to the maximum allowed by law, two years’ hard labor. He was kept for two nights at Newgate Prison, adjacent to the Old Bailey, and was then sent to Pentonville, Wandsworth, and at last to Reading, where he served out the remainder of his sentence.

Many assumed that the physical strain of a prison term would kill a man of Wilde’s age and class. One prison officer put it bluntly: “like all men unused to manual labour who receive a sentence of this kind, he will be dead within two years.”[2]

Wilde stood at the summit of his success at the moment of this disaster. He was wealthy, famous, admired as a poet, novelist, and playwright. When he went to trial, he had two plays showing simultaneously in London’s West End — The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband. Yet Oscar Wilde also stood as a living challenge to Victorian society: he symbolically embodied an inversion of English respectability. He made a philosophy of his individuality, crowned beauty as higher than morals, named style and appearance as among the deepest values, claimed life as one of the fine arts, and declared pleasure nature’s mark of approval. He would “willingly profess himself an anarchist,” as his friend Stuart Merrill put it, “between two glasses of champagne.”[3]

Wilde played daringly against public sensibilities. He said funny, outrageous things like “Wickedness is a myth invented by good people to account for the curious attractiveness of others.”[4] He collected around himself a circle of admirers, mostly handsome young men. And there always seemed to be an air of something vaguely immoral and perhaps dangerous associated with him, and with his work.

It was in this context and for these reasons that the Marquess of Queensberry objected to Wilde’s relationship with his youngest son, Lord Alfred Douglas. Seeking to drive the men apart, Queensberry embarked on a personal crusade of harassment and antagonism, culminating in the accusation that Wilde was “posing as a sodomite.” The charge was serious, especially because it was true, and it sparked the series of trials that ended with Wilde in prison.[5]

Wilde never again achieved the success of his pre-carceral career, but after his release he turned his prodigious talents toward describing the cruelties of prison life — describing, with an eye toward changing. In this essay, I consider what Wilde tells us about prison, and what his writing on prison tells us about Wilde. I do not, of course, attempt an exhaustive analysis of the Victorian penitentiary and its development; nor do I recount every recorded incident and every available detail of Wilde’s time in gaol.[6] Instead, by focusing on Wilde’s experience, and especially his writing of that experience, bring an element of subjectivity to the analysis of the prison system while maintaining a level of specificity.

Wilde’s writing is used, in part, to understand his prison life; and the details of that “season of Sorrow”[7] are used, in part, to understand his writing. These two aspects of the essay divide fairly neatly into distinct periods on either side of his release. Thus the first part of the essay concentrates on Wilde’s experience in prison, while his writing is largely in the background. In the second part of the essay, the emphasis is reversed: the writing moves into the foreground, and the historical and biographical details are brought in for support. Each half functions in some respect as a reflection of the other; together they offer a fuller, stereoscopic view. While the biographical elements provide a linear structure for the narrative, and the description of prison conditions provides the context for biographical and literary analysis, the interpretation of Wilde’s prison writings may (I suggest) tell us something about both the prison system and about Wilde himself.

The result is a specifically Wildean analysis of the penitentiary. I discern in Wilde’s rhetorical strategies — such as the metonymic substitution of one prisoner’s story for another’s (or for all others’), and especially the emphasis on suffering and cruelty rather than law or justice — expressions of the ethical and political agenda his writing pursued. And through careful reading of particular texts — most prominently, Wilde’s letters to the Daily Chronicle and The Ballad of Reading Gaol, but also an early piece of journalism, petitions for release, secret correspondence with guards, De Profundis, and The Soul of Man Under Socialism— I demonstrate both the continuity and the development of Wilde’s critique of the prison, and relate it to his broader social views including his socialism, his aestheticism, his disdain for Puritan morality, and his opposition to authority.


“Poetry and Prison”

Oscar Wilde’s writing on prison began, shockingly, with praise for the institution’s influence on literature:

“Prison has had an admirable effect on Mr Wilfrid Blunt as a poet . . . . [It] must be admitted that by sending Mr Blunt to gaol [the authorities have] converted a clever rhymer into an earnest and deep-thinking poet.”[8]

Blunt, who was an acquaintance of Wilde’s, had been imprisoned in Ireland for political reasons, and while there wrote a set of poems titled In Vinculis — “in chains.” Wilde reviewed the collection anonymously in the Pall Mall Gazette of January 3, 1889. He praised Blunt’s poetry for “its fine sincerity of purpose, its lofty and impassioned thought, its depth and ardour of intense feeling.”[9] And he quoted at length the poet’s description of gaol conditions: “Cold lying, hunger, nights of wakefulness,/ Harsh orders . . . / rules meaningless.”[10] But it is clear that these facts were little more than abstractions to Wilde’s mind:

“[T]hough Mr Balfour [Chief Secretary for Ireland] may enforce ‘plain living’ by his prison regulations, he cannot prevent ‘high thinking,’ or in any way limit or constrain the freedom of a man’s soul . . . and an unjust imprisonment for a noble cause strengthens as well as deepens the nature.”[11]

Yet however naive his idealism, Wilde’s is an aesthetics with a politics. For he finds in the conversion of prison into poetry the victory of the latter over the former; therefore, also the victory of the poet over the authorities, and in this case, of Ireland over imperialism. So we see in this modest beginning — an unsigned review — the seeds, Celtic and poetic, of what would bloom in time into a lush, vivid anti-authoritarianism. Wilde would come to know for himself the gloom that Wilfrid Blunt described, and he would echo Blunt’s comparison of the prison to “the grave — nay, hell.”[12] Wilde, too, would struggle to give dreary horrors a poetic expression, and by so doing to turn his tragedy into a kind of triumph. He had articulated this standard in that early piece of criticism, and it would become his challenge to meet it in life as well as art.[13]

But prison, as Wilde discovered, posed challenges of its own.

Entering Prison, Becoming a Prisoner

After his arrest in 1895, Wilde was taken to Holloway Prison to await trial. Compared to what came later, the initial stay in Holloway was relatively comfortable. Being merely a suspect and not yet a convict, Wilde was allowed to wear his own clothes, to inhabit modest but adequately furnished rooms, to have visitors, to send and receive letters, even to order food from restaurants.[14] Prior to his first-hand experience, he had described Holloway in the four-act version of The Importance of Being Earnest: “The surroundings I admit are middle class; but the gaol itself is fashionable and well-aired; and there are ample opportunities of taking exercise at certain stated hours of the day.”[15]

Wilde was freed on bail briefly during his trials, but when the jury returned its verdict he was held for two nights at Newgate, then sent to Pentonville — this time as a convict.[16] The change in his status would have been felt immediately.

The standard admission procedure ran as follows: the new inmate’s personal details were recorded, including his height and weight. His possessions were taken, his clothing stripped, his hair shorn. (“As close as the scissors can go: them’s the governor’s orders.”[17]) A bath was mandatory. Then a doctor performed a cursory medical exam; he declared Wilde “fit for light labour.” A uniform was issued, and a number assigned in the place of a name. At last the guards read out a list of prison rules — a list so long it took most of an hour to recite.[18] For Wilde, the former dandy, this proved a terrible ordeal. “At first it was a fiendish nightmare; more horrible than anything I had ever dreamt of,” he later recalled. “[T]hey made me undress before them and get into some filthy water they called a bath and dry myself with a damp, brown rag and put on this livery of shame.”[19]

Later, the process was repeated when he transferred to Reading Gaol. “When he arrived,” a guard recalled, “his hair was long and curly, and it was ordered to be cut at once. . . .

‘Must it be cut[?]’ he cried piteously to me. ‘You don’t know what it means to me,’ and the tears rolled down his cheeks.”[20]

The major features of this process are those typical of the initiation into prison, as well as to mental hospitals, the military, and other species of what Erving Goffman has termed total institutions.[21] As Goffman explains:

“The recruit comes into the establishment with a conception of himself made possible by certain stable social arrangements in his home world. Upon entrance, he is immediately stripped of the support provided by these arrangements. In the accurate language of some of our oldest total institutions, he begins a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self. His self is systematically, if often unintentionally, mortified.”[22]

The admission procedure stood as an encapsulated representation of the work the penitentiary was meant to enact upon the raw material of its captives: to strip them of everything that distinguished their previous lives, their former selves; to remove from them all the signs, contacts, and influences of their social milieu; to cleanse them of their sinful habits and their vicious traits; and to clothe them with the uniform of the institution, the behavior prescribed by its rules, and the doctrines preached by its clergy; to instill new habits according to the virtues praised by society; in short, to impose discipline, to save their souls by force, to remake their characters in the image of the perfectly ordered institution, to rehabilitate them.

“Each Dreadful Day”

The day at Pentonville began at 5:30 a.m.[23] A sharp bell rang to wake the prisoners. They would rise, wash with cold water, and clean their cells. During winter months, “one has to get up long before daybreak and in the dark-cold cell begin one’s work by the flaring gas-jet.”[24] An inspection of the cells would follow, in which the prisoner was required to display his few possessions according to a rigorous formula. The procedure was always a misery for Wilde: “I had to keep everything in my cell in its exact place. . . and if I neglected this even in the slightest, I was punished. The punishment was so horrible to me that I often started up in my sleep to feel if each thing was where the regulations would have it, and not an inch either to the right or to the left.”[25]

Only after the inspection would the inmates be allowed to empty the lavatory bucket — their “slops.” Thin cocoa and stale bread would then be served for breakfast. At 7:30, if the weather was suitable, the prisoners would be permitted 45 minutes of exercise in the yard, silently walking in a circle.[26]

At 9:30, it was required that they attend chapel. During services, the congregation sat in tiny booths, which one inmate described as “rows of upright coffins. . . each tier raised some two feet higher than the one in front, like the pit of a theatre, thus allowing the prisoners to see the chaplain, governor and chief warder. . . but quite preventing their seeing each other, or indeed looking anywhere but straight to their front.”[27] Prison discipline was, of course, rigorously enforced during worship, with a chorus of guards sometimes competing with the parson’s homilies: “Who is that speaking? I heard someone speaking!” “Tie up your cap strings, 27! You look like a cinder picker; you must learn to dress decently here!” “Hold up your head, 30; don’t shuffle your feet.” “Don’t look about you, 12!”[28] The sermons, meanwhile, were hardly more encouraging. As one prisoner summed them up: “We were informed how wicked we were and how grateful we ought to be to society for giving us such an excellent opportunity to mend our ways.”[29 The moralizing efforts proved particularly intolerable to Wilde. “I long to rise in my place, and cry out,” he confided to a warder, “and tell the poor, disinherited wretches around me that it is not so; to tell them that they are society’s victims, and that society has nothing to offer them but starvation in the streets, or starvation and cruelty in prison!”[30]

After Chapel the inmates would return to their cells, where they would remain for the rest of the day. Aside from occasional visits from the chaplain or the Governor — and the admonishments of the guards — the prisoners had no conversation, and no company.[31] There was nothing with which to occupy oneself but tedious labour, the Bible, and perhaps a single volume from the prison library. At noon they ate dinner — “composed of a tin of coarse Indian meal stirabout” — in their cells, alone.[32] At 5:30 they received “a piece of dry bread and a tin of water” for supper, which they also ate in their cells.[33] At 8 p.m., the lights went out. Each prisoner would stay in bed until the morning bell — when the cycle could begin again.

Nor did the horrors cease during the night. Sleeplessness had been deliberately claimed as a punitive instrument: one’s mattress had to be “earned” by good conduct and could be removed for bad. Wilde explained the effect:

“The object of the plank bed is to produce insomnia. There is no other object in it, and it invariably succeeds. And even when one is subsequently allowed a hard mattress, as happens in the course of imprisonment, one still suffers from insomnia. For sleep, like all wholesome things, is a habit. Every prisoner who has been on a plank bed suffers from insomnia.”[34]

Other prisoners said much the same thing: An unnamed inmate complained that after a night on the plank bed, he “was as sore all over. . . [as if] beaten with a good thick stick.”[35] In addition to the discomfort caused by the wood, the blankets added to the distress, being usually very dirty and often insufficient to keep off the cold.[36] O’Donovan Rossa described “the abominable feeling of always waking cold, and the hopeless and helpless feeling that there was no prospect of going to sleep again, and no possible way of getting warm.”[37] Then there was the atmosphere of the prison itself. Mary Richardson described, from her time at the women’s ward at Holloway, “that horrid hush we always knew at night, a vacant, chilly hush that was broken so often by the sobbing of the prisoners.”[38] One former prisoner complained of the lasting effect: “During all the fifteen years of my imprisonment, insomnia was (and, alas! is still) my constant companion.”[39]

The cycle of long days and sleepless nights was repeated with relentless consistency. In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde recounts in some detail the stultifying routine. He mentions the cleaning of the cells:

“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.”

He describes the miserable hour of exercise:

“Silently we went round and round

The slippery asphalte yard;

Silently we went round and round,

And no man spoke a word.”

And he recalls the grueling physical labour:

“We tore the tarry rope to shreds

With blunt and bleeding nails. . .

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,

We turned the dusty drill. . .

And sweated on the mill.”[40]

That was the prisoner’s day. Each was made as near to possible exactly like the last.

The effect on those who endured it was a kind of mental stasis. As Wilde described it in De Profundis:

“With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralysing immobility of a life, every circumstance of which is regulated after an unchangeable pattern, so that we eat and drink and walk and lie down and pray, or kneel at least for prayer, according to the inflexible laws of an iron formula: this immobile quality. . . makes each dreadful day, in the very minutest detail like its brother. . . . And in the sphere of thought, no less than in the sphere of time, motion is no more.”[41]

The anarchist Peter Kropotkin similarly observed, “[T]he regular life of the prison acts depressingly on men by its monotony and its want of impressions. . . [It] results in an atrophy of the best qualities of men and a development of the worst of them. . . .”[42] He adds, a little later, “In a prisoner’s greyish life, which flows without passions and emotions, . . . [the] brain has no longer the energy for sustained attention; thought is less rapid, or, rather, less persistent: it loses depth.”[43]

Kropotkin wrote from his own experience in what were reputed to be the worst prisons in the world, those of Russia; and those considered to be the best, in France. He found them to be not very different, and suggested that those of England were much the same as well. What is remarkable for our purposes, however, is less the similarity of the prisons than the similarity of Kropotkin’s and Wilde’s critiques.

Anarchism is one common factor, but the aestheticism of Kropotkin’s complaint really stands out. He writes: “It seems to me that this depression of healthy nervous energy can be best accounted for by the want of impressions. In ordinary life thousands of sounds and colours strike our senses; thousands of small, varied facts come within our knowledge, and spur the activity of the brain. Nothing of the kind strikes the prisoner; his impressions are few, and always the same.”[44]

“The Separate System”

Built in 1843, Pentonville Prison was imagined as England’s first penitentiary of the modern type.[45] Earlier English prisons had held debtors, suspects awaiting trial, convicts awaiting punishment (such as mutilation, exile, or death), and at times, political prisoners. They were disorderly institutions which little resembled those that would follow. Felons and debtors were intermingled, though felons might be kept in chains, and debtors often brought their families with them. There was no effort to regulate the inmates’ daily activities: some worked, some drank, some gambled, and some begged money from passers-by. One’s accommodations were determined, not by rationales of punishment or concerns over security, but by the fees offered to the gaoler. Prisons had existed in that form for hundreds of years, but the nineteenth century had higher ideals. Society would no longer seek brutal revenge, but would bring its full improving influence upon the lives of those who had sinned against it. The state would not physically destroy the miscreant, but would instead spiritually reclaim him.[46] This aim called for, in the words of one chaplain, “a prison of instruction and of probation rather than a gaol of oppressive punishment.”[47] Pentonville was heralded as a “New Model Prison”[48] — a phrase reminiscent of Cromwell.

With the reformatory aim in mind, Pentonville operated according to the “Separate System” established by the Prison Act of 1865. This plan produced a sort of long-term solitary confinement, isolating the inmates from nearly all human contact. Most prisoners spent 16 hours a day alone in their cells, and when they were together — during exercise, or at chapel — any communication, even eye contact, would be severely punished.

Captain Joshua Jebb, who designed Pentonville and served as the first administrator there, explained the idea using the common metaphor of criminality as a kind of contagion: “in depriving a prisoner of the contaminating influences arising from being associated with his fellow prisoners, all the good influences which can be brought to bear upon his character are substituted for them.”[49]

Isolation within the prison was really just an extension of the logic of imprisonment itself. Confinement to the gaol was meant to remove the convict from those corrupting influences that had led him astray; confinement to one’s cell would prevent the novice from being contaminated by contact with the career criminal. Once so isolated, the inmate could enjoy the full effect and improving influence of the chaplain, the Bible, the hard work, and the daily routine.

Prison Letters

Inmates were thus twice isolated — from society, and from one another. The Separate System used cellular confinement not only to restrict mobility, but to regulate communication as well. Inside the prison the rule was silence; contact with the outside world was just as tightly controlled. Prisoners could send and receive only one letter every three months, and the correspondence itself was highly regulated. The originals of Wilde’s prison letters, for example, were printed on institutional stationary consisting of large blue sheets folded to form four pages. The first page is entirely occupied with a list of regulations, beginning with the purpose of mail privileges:

“The permission to write or receive Letters is given to Prisoners for the purpose of enabling them to keep up a connection with their respectable friends and not that they may be kept informed of public events. . . . Any [letters] which are of an objectionable tendency, either to or from Prisoners, or containing slang, or improper expressions will be suppressed.”[50]

The prison governed every aspect of communication: when and whether it was to occur, with whom (“respectable friends”), its form (“They must be legibly written and not crossed”), its style (no “slang, or improper expressions”), and perhaps most importantly, its content. The rules explicitly discourage discussion of “public events” — for example, politics. And, though the regulations do not say as much, complaints about the conditions of the prison or one’s treatment there were likewise forbidden.[51] For example, one of Wilde’s letters to his friend Robert Ross is interrupted by a gap of several lines. It begins, “Here I have the horror of death with the still greater horror of living: and in silence and misery –” after which there is an empty space, followed by — “but I won’t talk more of this.”[52]

Mail represented, at most, a tenuous link to the outside world, and this link was itself an extension of, rather than a relief from, the disciplinary regime. The very “privilege of receiving and writing a Letter” was a function of official control, “depend[ent] on the rules of the class [the prisoners] attain by industry and good conduct.” Communication, even in this most limited form, was a reward to be earned, or “In case of misconduct. . . forfeited.” Moreover, as “All Letters are read by the Prison authorities” — in fact, copied out and filed –[53] the letter itself presented an opportunity for further surveillance and, should the rules governing it be violated, additional punishment: “Persons attempting to clandestinely communicate with, or to introduce any article to or for Prisoners, are liable to fine or imprisonment, and any Prisoner concerned in such practices is liable to be severely punished.”

Visiting Day

Visits were rationed just as scrupulously. Again, each prisoner was entitled to just four a year. And the events themselves were the source of little comfort. The prisoner and his guest were kept apart, each behind a wire grill, with three feet between them and a guard stationed in the gap.[54]

Wilde described the arrangement:

“the prisoner is either locked up in a large iron cage or in a large wooden box with a small aperture covered with wire netting, through which he is allowed to peer. His friends are placed in a similar cage, some three or four feet distant, and two warders stand between to listen to, and if they wish, stop or interrupt the conversation, such as it may be.”[55]

The warder in the visiting room fills the same function as the censor:

“If a prisoner in a letter makes any complaint of the prison system, that portion of his letter is cut out with a pair of scissors. If, upon the other hand, he makes any complaint when he speaks to his friends . . . he is brutalised by the warders, and reported for punishment every week till his next visit comes round. . . .”[56]

Nor were these arrangements particularly consoling for the guests. One friend of Wilde’s, Robert Sherard, called the experience “painful,” taking place “in a degrading kind of rabbit hutch, over which wire netting was nailed, as though for the caging of an animal. . . . The hutch was almost in complete darkness, and of my friend’s presence I perceived little beyond his hesitating and husky voice.”[57]

Oscar’s wife Constance wrote similarly of her first visit: “It was indeed awful, more so than I had any conception it could be. I could not see him, I could not touch him, and I scarcely spoke.”[58]

Wilde informs us, “Many prisoners, rather than support such an ordeal, refuse to see their friends at all.”[59]

“A Wounded Conscience”

According to the advocates of the Separate System, this sort of social isolation was essential to the rehabilitative process: “alone with God and a wounded conscience, the unhappy man is forced to exercise his powers of reflection, and thus acquires a command over his sensual impulses which will probably exert a permanent influence.”[60]

The Reverend John Burt, an assistant chaplain at Pentonville, lauded the effects of the system:

“The passions of the criminal by which he is chiefly actuated, are usually excessive and malignant. Penal discipline finds the will vigorous, but vicious, propelled powerfully, but lawlessly. It is this vicious activity that is subjugated by protracted seclusion and wholesome discipline. . . . The will is bent in its direction; it is broken in its resistance to virtue, its vicious activity is suppressed only to leave it open to the control of better motives.”[61]

The prisoners, of course, saw it differently. Wilde offered a stark picture of the mental starvation imposed on the prisoner:

“without human intercourse of any kind; without writing materials whose use might help to distract the mind: without suitable or sufficient books, so essential to any literary man, so vital for the preservation of mental balance: condemned to absolute silence: cut off from all knowledge of the external world and the movements of life: leading an existence composed of bitter degradations and terrible hardships, hideous in its recurring monotony of dreary task and sickening privation: . . . the world of ideas, as the actual world, is closed to him: he is deprived of everything that could soothe, distract, or heal a wounded and shaken mind. . . .”[62]

Inherent to the theory of the penitentiary was a particular view of the causes, and therefore the correction, of crime. Crime was a contagion; the prison was a quarantine. Crime was caused by individual vice; the prison would instill virtue. Physical deprivations would teach the prisoners to control their sensual impulses; hard labour would cure them of their laziness. Implicit in this approach was, not only a theory of crime, but of morality and of society. It was not poverty that caused crime, but vice — idleness, indiscipline, drunkenness, profligacy, promiscuity, and so on. These faults, in turn, were not seen as the consequences of poverty, but its causes. Thus when the prisoner Edward Johnson complained to his missionary visitor, Sarah Martin, “The rich send poor people to prison,” Martin replied, “What made you poor? Was it not drunkenness and wickedness?”[63]

Combining Calvin and Spencer, the Victorian theorists saw society as essentially meritocratic. Those at the top socially were there by virtue of their virtue; those at the bottom were suffering only from the consequences of their own shortcomings. The solution to crime, therefore, was not to create a society suitable to the individuals who inhabited it, but to produce the individuals suitable to the society — in particular, to the emerging order of industrial capitalism.

Prison Philosophy

The philosophy of the penitentiary was an imperfect blend of Quaker self-reflection and utilitarian rationing.[64] As such it combined a scrupulous concern with the interior world of the individual prisoner and obsessive attention to planning, regimentation, and institutional control. Institutional discipline would produce individual discipline. The prison was to stamp its character onto that of the inmate, and thus fit him for life in outside society. As such the prison came to embody a sort of idealized version of the values of society at large. Prisoners were to be instilled with the habits of self-control, hard work, patience, reverence, and obedience. How better than by a system of degrading austerity, forced labour, intense boredom, mandatory worship, minute regulations, and harsh penalties?

This approach became fully dominant after the centralization of prison administration and the appointment of Sir Edmond Du Cane as the Chair of the Prison Commission in 1877. Du Cane sought to establish standard, punitive conditions for all inmates: as the slogan ran, “hard labour, hard fare, and a hard bed.”[65] He thus instituted a system of stages and classes, stratifying the inmate population and ordering each one’s prison career according to a uniform, rational plan, a progression that conceptually linked greater discipline and increased comfort. As he explained it, “Promotion into each of these classes is followed by certain privileges. . . . these privileges are necessarily very limited but still they offer inducements which are much sought after.” Everything from the type of work assigned, the amount and quality of food provided, and access to amenities such as mail, visitors, books, or a mattress, was governed by this system. Interestingly, Du Cane insisted that promotion be “gained by industry alone, and not by ‘good conduct’. . . which, in a prison, can be little more than passive, or abstaining from acts of indiscipline or irregularity.”[66] “Goodness,” in other words, was mere acquiescence. It was enough to avoid punishment, but not enough to earn rewards. Material benefits could only be gained through hard work.

Hard Labour

Work occupied a central place in the ideology of the penitentiary — as both means and end of reformation. Du Cane frankly advocated “hard, dull, useless, uninteresting monotonous labour. . . for its penal effect,” complemented by “employment which plays its part as a moral reformatory agent.”[67]

Wilde, being only “fit for light labour,” was assigned for a while to sew mail bags.[68] More often, however, he was given the job of picking oakum — that is, using his fingers to separate the fibers of old rope. The finished product was a pile of thin thread, which could then be spun into new rope or used as caulk in the walls of ships. Economically it was near worthless, fetching about a penny a pound. The rope itself, which had been retired from use aboard ships, was typically an inch or so thick and hard with tar. The work was thus difficult and dirty; it left one’s hands sticky with filth and often bleeding as well. Prisoners were assigned three pounds of oakum each day, which many regarded as an impossible quantity. But failure to produce the designated quota could be punished with a bread-and-water diet, so prisoners developed certain tricks, such as using a nail to pry apart the rope, or weighting down their day’s production by soaking it in water.[69]

The most famous and most dreaded prison task was the futile walking on the treadwheel. The treadwheel worked as an endless staircase, a forced march to nowhere. On it, prisoners would climb between 6,000 feet (at York) and 19,400 feet (at the New Bailey) each day.[70] Experiments were made in using the wheel to grind flour, or for some other beneficial purpose. Usually, however, the labour was merely pointless. Other unlucky convicts spent their days turning a crank to pump water, or again, in most cases, to pump nothing at all.[71]

The prisoners exhausted themselves and produced nothing. The edifying effect of hard work was reward enough. Under Du Cane’s system, every action was ruled and rationalized, every moment set out in detail according to an inflexible plan. Hard work and meticulous attention to regulations could be rewarded with improved treatment. Laziness or violations of the rules would be punished by loss of these same privileges. By rationalizing the system of rewards, it was hoped, the prison could instill in its inmates the habits of self-regulation and self-restraint, as well as a general tendency toward living a well-planned and neatly ordered life. As Du Cane wrote:

“day by day, week by week, and year by year, [the prisoner] can count and record the progress he is making towards an advance in class, in accumulation of money, and towards conditional release; and he is made perfectly to see and feel that his fate is in his own hands, and that he has something more to work and to hope for than the mere avoidance of punishment.”[72]

If it was “failure” in life, as Walter Pater suggested and Oscar Wilde insisted, “to form habits,”[73] then the prison was an engine for the prisoner’s defeat. Its whole aim was not only to form habits, but to force them, to reorder the character of the inmates and make them ideal Victorian subjects. Perfect order meant perfect virtue meant perfect obedience. This would “reform” the prisoners, make them people well suited to family and factory, loyal to Church and Crown. It was training them for “freedom” — which meant precisely the same thing as training them for obedience. If the prisoners were indeed expected to take their habits of industry and obedience back with them into the outside world, they were also expected, more subtly, to take with them a very specific worldview in which those who prospered materially did so on account of their hard work and their moral goodness, while those who suffered or failed were only enduring the effects of their own bad characters or weak wills. The prison, in this sense, concentrated and perfected the moral system implicit in the ideology of class society. It served as an institutional embodiment of the Protestant Ethic.[74]

The result, though, was not often what was desired. Many prisoners saw in their punishments a justification for their crimes. As Kropotkin observed, “[The prisoner] accustoms himself to hate — cordially to hate — all those ‘respectable’ people who so wickedly kill his best feelings in him. . . . The prisoner is an outlaw to them; they become outlaws to him. . . . Prison education will make him consider society as an enemy. . . .'”[75] An anonymous convict likewise recalled, “As [one] grows accustomed to imprisonment. . . a quiet, immeasurable contempt for legality and ‘authorities’ and ‘regulations’ and ‘discipline’ dominates and never leaves him.”[76]

For Wilde, this attitude was readily comprehensible, and perhaps an inevitable consequence of the prison system itself and the resentment it produced. As he remarked to an interviewer in 1894, the year before his arrest:

“What a perfect fiasco is our system of penal administration! . . . To punish a man for wrong-doing, with a view to his reformation, is the most lamentable mistake it is possible to commit. . . . If he has any soul at all, such procedure is calculated to make him ten times worse than he was before. . . . It is a sign of a noble nature to refuse to be broken by force.”[77]

Prison Discipline

Despite the Victorians’ high moral ideals, the punitive element of incarceration never really dissipated. One might suggest, in fact, that it was precisely because of the moral outlook that punishment flourished.[78] Violations of the rules could cost a prisoner marks, resulting in harsher treatment. Further punishment might consist of admonishments from the Governor of the Prison, confinement to a bare cell with a plank bed and wooden pillow, a restricted diet of bread and water, birching with a rod, or flogging with a knotted whip.[79]

But under such tightly controlled conditions, offenses were practically unavoidable and almost necessarily minor. As the Reverend Daniel Nihill, Governor of Millbank Prison, explained, “Things which in another situation would be ridiculous to notice, are here of necessity inflated into unnatural importance, and made matters of grave discussion, of formal investigation and trial. . . .” This scrupulous perfectionism and the constant threat of punishment was, in Nihill’s mind, justified by the authorities’ fear of the population they governed: “when a multitude of bad characters are collected under the control of a few officers, they form a very combustible mass.” And so, in the total institution, any disorder is regarded as dangerous. “Little matters might easily be blown up into a mighty flame, and it is therefore necessary to notice every slight tendency to disorder, and promptly to check it by punishment.”[80]

According to his warder, Oscar Wilde was a reasonably compliant prisoner. He kept his cell neat and clean, and “he faithfully obeyed the laws, and conscientiously observed the rules.” Yet this general capitulation was not enough: “I understand he was punished once for talking. . . . twenty-four hours’ bread and water is the usual punishment for talking.” Such violations were of course predictable: “it would be almost a miracle for one to serve two years’ imprisonment without once being reported.” The impossible demands of the regulations, the warder believed, were part of their purpose: “Some of the rules are made with no other object than to be broken, so that an excuse may be found for inflicting additional punishment.”[81]

Such is the nature of prison discipline: The authorities do not employ punishments for the sake of enforcing the rules; they create regulations for the sake of inflicting penalties. The very emphasis on “discipline” arises in the context of, and for the sake of, suppressing the individual will. If we remove all the moralizing talk of crime and justice, of either punishment or reformation, if we strip the prison down to its mechanics and ignore the pronouncements of its defenders, then the picture that emerges is one of a conflict of wills: the state, the penal institution, and its deputies on the one side, the prisoner on the other. The one commands; the other obeys — or resists.

And what is true in the prison is also true of the prison. Prison continued the work of society, begun outside its walls. Throughout the nineteenth century, as the mode of punishment shifted away from hanging and toward incarceration, the law came to focus increasingly on the habits, manners, and morals of the lower classes. Prosecutions increased markedly, not for offenses against persons or property but for those against abstractions like decency or public order. Thousands were gaoled for drunkenness, gambling, and prostitution.[82] Most of the prisoners at Reading Gaol, for example, were imprisoned for minor offenses: half were serving less than two weeks and only 1% were in for a year or more. Eighty percent were gaoled for public order offenses, and a considerable number had been transferred to Her Majesty’s Prisons simply for violating Work House rules.

More striking still, a large number of inmates were incarcerated not only for crimes caused by poverty, but for crimes more or less coextensive with poverty, such as vagrancy.[83] These figures are in keeping with the overall pattern. By 1900, 30% of the men in English prisons were “without fixed abode and with no regular means of subsistence”; about half of these had been charged under the Vagrancy Act.[84] The Victorians spoke of the “criminal class,” a term they meant literally to refer to a group with its own culture and institutions, distinct from the body of respectable tradesmen or manual labourers.[85] Foucault has suggested, rather provocatively, that the prison, especially through its attendant cycle of recidivism, functions to produce this class, in something like the manner that the factory produces the proletariat.[86] Once established, this group serves as a very useful reminder of the parameters of responsibility and decorum within which the respectable workers must remain and of the consequences should they transgress.

It is thus not only the prisoners that the prison controls, and it is not only the inmates that it confines and disciplines. In effect, the criminal justice system did not simply use punishment to deter crime; rather it defined crime and devised penalties so as to narrow the compass of existing freedom. As Wilde wrote of capitalism more generally, “the man who is poor is in himself absolutely of no importance. He is merely the infinitesimal atom of a force that, so far from regarding him, crushes him: indeed, prefers him crushed, as in that case he is far more obedient.”[87]

Wilde’s Criminology

Wilde argued against every element of the Victorian penal theory. He found the source of crime not in the faults or shortcomings of the individual criminal, but in the social system that made crime necessary: “For what are called criminals nowadays are not criminals at all. Starvation, and not sin, is the parent of modern crime. . . . They are merely what ordinary respectable, commonplace people would be if they had not got enough to eat.”[88]

As early as 1890, Wilde had understood inequality as the cause of crime. Citing Chuang Tsu, he wrote, “The accumulation of wealth is to him the origin of evil. It makes the strong violent, and the weak dishonest. It creates the petty thief, and puts him in a bamboo cage. It creates the big thief, and sets him on a throne of white jade.”[89] A year later, in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Wilde expanded this analysis to incorporate the role of the state. He suggested, with his characteristic paradox, that crime results in part from the very institutions presented as its remedy — authority, law, and punishment: “a community is infinitely more brutalised by the habitual employment of punishment than it is by the occasional occurrence of crime. It obviously follows that the more punishment is inflicted the more crime is produced. . . . The less punishment, the less crime.”[90]

By Wilde’s theory society produces crime, first by depriving masses of its citizens of the essential elements of life, and then through the “brutalis[ing]” influence of official violence. And if the causes of crime are economic and political, the solutions must be as well. Therefore his economic proposal is the elimination of capitalism and the introduction of Socialism: “When private property is abolished there will be no necessity for crime, no demand for it; it will cease to exist.” At the same time, on the political side Wilde insists, “the State must give up all idea of government . . . . With authority, punishment will pass away. . . . [And:] When there is no punishment at all, crime will either cease to exist, or, if it occurs, will be treated by physicians as a very distressing form of dementia, to be cured by care and kindness.”[91] Wilde advocates not the production of individuals suited to the present society, but the creation of a new society suitable for the individuals who live in it. For Wilde, in other words, the solution to crime was not confinement — but freedom.

To and From Wandsworth

On July 4, 1895, Wilde was moved from Pentonville Prison to Wandsworth; and on November 20, he was moved again, this time to Reading. Officially, he left Wandsworth for medical reasons.[92] But an unnamed guard surmised, “The probable cause of his transfer from Wandsworth Prison was his inability to comply with the regulation tasks allotted to his class of prisoner. On one or two occasions he had been brought up before the governor there for idleness at oakum-picking or talking.”[93]

In fact, the difference between illness and idleness may not have been so great. Wilde later described the situation, outlining a terrible chain of cause-and-effect, beginning with the prison diet:

“The result of the food. . . is disease in the form of incessant diarrhoea. . . . The wretched prisoner is then left a prey to the most weakening, depressing, and humiliating malady that can be conceived: and if, as often happens, he fails from physical weakness to complete his required revolutions at the crank or the mill, he is reported for idleness, and punished with the greatest severity and brutality.”[94]

Wilde is writing here in the third person of things he experienced in the first. While at Wandsworth, Wilde had suffered constantly from hunger and dysentery. The chaplain wrote the Home Office, “He is now quite crushed and broken. . . . In fact some of our most experienced officers openly say that they don’t think he will be able to go through the two years.”[95]

Yet the prison doctor suspected him of faking and refused to release him from his duties. Wilde told Frank Harris, “One Sunday morning after a very bad night I could not get out of bed. The warder came in and I told him I was ill.

‘You had better get up,’ he said; but I couldn’t take the good advice. . . .

Half an hour later the doctor came and looked in the door. He never came near me; he simply called out: ‘Get up; no malingering; you’re all right. You’ll be punished if you don’t get up,’ and he went away.”[96]

Though ill, Wilde was thus forced to attend chapel. During services he fainted and fell, injuring his ear when his head struck the ground. As a result, he spent nearly half of his time at Wandsworth in the infirmary: “I was confined [at Wandsworth] for two months, till I had to be carried into hospital, where I remained for another two months,”[97] after which he was moved to Reading.

But there may have been a further reason for Wilde’s transfer to Reading: politics. After his fall, Wilde had been visited in Wandsworth by his friend R. S. Kennedy, who asked extensively about his treatment there. The nature of the discussion worried the guard, who then wrote a report to the Governor: “in the course of conversation [the visitor] informed the prisoner that it was thought something could be done, by means of the Daily Chronicle, to call attention to his case, meaning to me to infer that a correspondence should be started in this paper.” Wilde, however, demurred: “The prisoner expressed himself as not being in favour of this course, and the prisoner seemed very averse to any publicity of this kind.”[98]

Still, the authorities had reason to worry. Even before his collapse, reports on Wilde’s poor health were already receiving attention in the newspapers. After visiting Wilde at Wandsworth, his friend Robert Sherard had complained to the Chronicle that the poet was “suffering greatly from sheer want of nourishment.”[99] Similar reports appeared in the French press, and members of Parliament, especially the Liberal Richard Haldane and the Conservative Ernest Flowers, were beginning to make enquiries on Wilde’s behalf.[100]

The Governor passed the warder’s report on to the Home Secretary, and offered his own suggestion that Wilde be transferred somewhere more removed from the influence of “outside agitators.”[101] This was a bit ironic, since the initial transfer from Pentonville to Wandsworth had been arranged for similar reasons; as the Home Secretary, Sir Matthew Ridley put it, “there were suspicions that the Officers of Pentonville Prison were being tampered with by O. Wilde’s friends.”[102]

In the mean time, the Home Office ordered a special exam by two doctors from Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum, David Nicolson and Richard Brayne. The doctors met with and examined Wilde, and issued a report on October 29, 1895, to the effect that there were “no indications of disease or derangement,” and that the “tokens of mental depression” were more or less what was to be expected “due to the natural and not unhealthy operation of circumstances.” They summed up, “It is our opinion that, taking imprisonment for what it is and what it is intended to be, its operation upon the mind of prisoner Oscar Wilde has not been such as to give rise to anxiety or alarm.” Nevertheless, the doctors offered several recommendations for changes in his treatment. First, “it would be well. . . to select a suitable prison in the country or away from London to which he should be transferred.” Furthermore, they urged “the continuation of such minor relaxations of the full rigour and discipline of prison life as have already been sanctioned.” And they suggested additional privileges, including “a cell larger than the usual size,” some limited “association with other prisoners,” “variation of employment” (specifically bookbinding), “a freer range of books. . . and a larger supply,” “outdoor exercise with some garden work,” and “additional food.”[103]

About three weeks later, Wilde was transferred to Reading. His health did improve there, though unfortunately his ear would continue to bother him for the rest of his life. It became infected repeatedly and very likely contributed to his early demise.[104]

The Dietary and Dysentery

The attention given to Wilde’s health was, under the circumstances, exceptional. But his illness, as he himself explained, was a normal element of one’s sentence — “a recognised institution in every prison.”[105]

Wilde saw the ailment as, without question, the “result of the food.”[106] He wrote, “This diet . . . is always productive of illness of some kind, chiefly, of course, diarrhoea, with its attendant weakness.”[107] The other prisoners seem to have agreed. Complaints about prison food were nearly universal. What the 1878 Committee of Dietaries in Prisons called “a nutritious stirabout, composed of equal parts of oatmeal and Indian meal,” prisoners described as “a bad unpalatable oatmeal gruel.”[108] This was no accident: prison officials had prescribed recipes to make it as unappetizing as possible.[109] The quality of the bread is reported to have varied greatly, but according to Philip Priestley’s review of the period’s prison literature, the word most commonly used in describing it was “sawdust.”[110] Likewise, although Wilde found the soup “very good and wholesome,”[111] it was not uncommon for the potatoes to be rotten and the meat spoiled.[112]

But despite the poor quality of the food, prisoners also complained that there was simply never enough of it. The labor leader John Burns testified before the House of Commons that during his time in gaol “I have wetted my hands with my spittle, and gone down on my hands and knees on the asphalted floor in the hope of picking up a stray crumb from the meal I had ten hours before.”[113] It was in fact a matter of policy — nearly a matter of principle — to provide only the bare minimum required to keep the inmate population alive, which in practice resulted in chronic under-feeding.[114] The Dietary Committee tried to present this as a matter of justice since “prisoners are, to some extent, maintained at the expense of those whom they have injured.” Furthermore, it was feared, taking too much good care of the prisoners would turn incarceration into a kind of bargain holiday: “The struggle for survival is suspended; and the prisoner appears to feel that the prayer for daily bread is rendered unnecessary by the solicitude of his custodians.” Therefore, the Committee noted that short-term prisoners could get by on less than “a diet necessary for the maintenance of health during the longer terms,” and urged the authorities not to “forgo [this] opportunity for the infliction of salutary punishment.”[115] “In other words,” explained the more straightforward Lord William Neville, “they deliberately urged that starvation should be added to imprisonment and labour as a punishment in English gaols.”[116]

“No Shape or Form”

The move to Reading did not at first represent much of a change of scene. Reading Gaol was constructed in conscious imitation of Pentonville. Separate confinement, silent exercise, oakum picking, and mandatory chapel were all part of the regime there as well.

Oscar Wilde’s cell, number C.3.3, was spare and small, just thirteen feet by seven feet, and ten feet high. Its floors were red and black tile, and its walls were whitewashed brick. The room had two high, south-facing windows, allowing in just a little sunlight. Additional light was provided by gas jets which, as a safety precaution, were set behind thick glass. The doors were made of heavy wood, with iron studs and a small glass spy hole, which allowed the guards to peer in.[117] One warder remembered watching the poet pacing — “pacing his cell — one, two, three. Three steps when he has to turn. Three steps and turn again.”[118]

Wilde would later struggle to describe such surroundings, to convey the effect they have on one so confined. As he wrote to Robbie Ross:

“The difficulty is that the objects in prison have no shape or form. . . . A cell again may be described psychologically, with reference to its effect on the soul: in itself it can only be described as ‘whitewashed’ or ‘dimly-lit’. It has no shape, no contents. It does not exist from the point of view of form or colour. . . . [T]he horror of prison is that everything is so simple and commonplace in itself, and so degrading, and hideous, and revolting in its effect.”[119]

Prison clothes were no better. On entering Pentonville, Wilde handed over the clothes he had worn to court — including a frock coat, a silk hat, and a pair of patent leather boots.[120] In their place he received a jacket, waistcoat, and trousers, made out of thick, stiff brown cloth and marked “with crooked arrows”;[121] a striped cotton shirt, woolen underwear and socks; and old, patched, ill-fitting boots. The uniforms came in two sizes only: men and boys.[122]

One guard remembered, “[Oscar] was dreadfully distressed because he could not polish his shoes or brush his hair. ‘If I could but feel clean,’ he said, ‘I should not feel so utterly miserable. These awful bristles’ — touching his chin — ‘are horrid.'”[123] Prison represented an assault not only on Wilde’s presentation of himself, or even just on his self-image, but on his entire philosophy of life. “Penitentiaries,” Wilde declared to an interviewer in 1882, “are not artistic.”[124] Prison stood both as an aesthetic (or anti-aesthetic) assault on the senses, and as a sensual (or anti-sensual) assault against aesthetics. Everything in gaol was deliberately made as ugly as possible — the cells, the clothes, the food, the prisoners. And yet, as another guard recalled, “Not even the hideous prison garb. . . could altogether hide [Wilde’s] air of distinction and ever-present intellectual force. . . .”[125]

Library Privileges

The Governor at Reading, Lieutenant Colonel Jacob Isaacson, was known for the frequency and severity of his punishments. Even minor mistakes were met with the full harshness of the whole prison system, and Isaacson had made a special project of, in his own words, “knocking the nonsense out of Wilde.”[126] “The governor loves to punish,” Wilde told his friends, “and he punishes by taking my books from me.”[127]

Wilde’s books, which had traveled with him from Pentonville, were a privilege granted him thanks to the intervention of Richard Haldane. Haldane had known Wilde socially and was “haunted by the idea of what this highly sensitive man was probably suffering under ordinary prison treatment.”[128] So the Liberal legislator visited Wilde on June 12, 1895, and promised to “try to get for him books and pen and ink.” [129] Wilde was not only allowed more books, but better ones. He was given special leave to request additional titles; subject to the approval of the authorities, these could be sent by his friends and added to the prison library.[130] These books, it seems, were sacrosanct.

Largely thanks to the agitation of Wilde’s friends, including the journalist Frank Harris, Isaacson was transferred. The new Governor, Major James Nelson, proved more friendly by far. Not only in Wilde’s case, but throughout the prison, the instances of punishment decreased dramatically from 700 punishment reports per annum to just 360.[131] Of Nelson Wilde wrote, “though he cannot alter the rules of the prison system, he has altered the spirit in which they used to be carried out under his predecessor. . . . Indeed he has quite altered the whole tone of the prison life.”[132]

It was not long before Wilde’s work was changed from oakum-picking and crank-turning to library work and gardening. As his warder recalled,

“From the first it was apparent to us that he was totally unfitted for manual work or hardships of any kind, and he was treated accordingly. . . . The only task Wilde was put to was to act as ‘schoolmaster’s orderly,’ which was in the nature of a great privilege, for it meant that he could take charge of the books and go round with them to other prisoners, besides having the pick of the literature for himself. Strange as it may seem considering his literary bent, he failed to accomplish even this task satisfactorily.”[133]

In addition to his new work assignment, Wilde was also allowed both to keep a score of books in his cell and to leave the light on as late as he wished. One guard explained: “on account of his former greatness a small concession was made him, and he was allowed to read and write as much as he liked. . . . Had this boon not been granted him he would, I am confident, have pined away and died.”[135]

Whatever his faults as a library worker, indifference was surely not among them. Wilde loved books, and he took a sincere interest in the intellectual development of the other prisoners. He extended, in a way, his own special privileges to the others held alongside him. In one of his requests for books he noted, “The Library here contains no example of Thackeray’s or Dickens’s novels. I feel sure that a complete set of their works would be as great a boon to many amongst the other prisoners as it certainly would be to myself.” Likewise, after he procured a copy of Treasure Island he was pleased to learn that it was “in great request and much appreciated” by the other inmates. There even survives a note he left for one of his prison friends: “Have a very good Sunday. . . reading Goethe’s Faust, a very great work of art.”[134]

It was here at Reading, alone and miserable but permitted at last both books and paper, that Wilde wrote De Profundis, a long, autobiographical letter addressed to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. It was also here that he recalled his brief look inside the American jail. “Dante!” he later told André Gide, “I read Dante every day in the Italian, every page of him; neither the Purgatory nor the Paradise was intended for me. . . . But the Inferno! What else was I to do but adore it? Hell — were we not dwelling in it? Hell: that was the prison.”[136]

The Prisoner’s Plea

Of course, there were limits to what political influence could win. Wilde’s friends could help safeguard his health, they could provide him special privileges and send him books, but they could not give him what he wanted most — his freedom.

On July 2, 1896, while Isaacson was still in charge and before the granting of the fullest privileges, Oscar Wilde used the standard form to petition the Home Secretary for release. The letter begins with the preprinted lines

“To the Right Honourable Her Majesty’s Principal Secretary of State for the Home Department.

The Petition of the above-named prisoner humbly sheweth. . . .” [137]

From there, Wilde argues (with reference to himself in the third person, as required by bureaucratic procedure) that “the terrible offenses of which he was rightly found guilty. . . are forms of sexual madness . . . diseases to be cured by a physician, rather than crimes to be punished by a judge.” He cites some of the recent psychological literature to this effect, and then argues that his incarceration can only make matters worse, causing “this insanity, that displayed itself in monstrous sexual perversion before” to “extend to the entire nature and intellect.” Citing his “terror of madness,” as well as concerns over his failing hearing and eyesight, Wilde requested that he be let out of gaol.

The tone of this letter is utterly abject, with Wilde repeatedly confessing his “sexual perversity,” “erotomania,” and “vice,” and expressing his regret, repentance, and self-loathing.[138] Yet there comes in this unlikely place an extension of the critique of punishment that began in The Soul of Man Under Socialism and reached its fullest expression in Wilde’s post-prison writing. In among the desperate pleading — and we should remember that the poet is in a very real sense begging for his life — we find this:

“Dreadful as are the results of the prison system — a system so terrible that it hardens their hearts whose hearts it does not break, and brutalises those who have to carry it out no less than those who have to submit to it — yet at least amongst its aims is not the desire to wreck the human reason. Though it may not seek to make men better, yet it does not desire to drive them mad. . . .”

This passage borrows a line from The Soul of Man Under Socialism and anticipates others from The Ballad of Reading Gaol and his post-prison letters to the Daily Chronicle, thus showing the continuity as well as the development of Wilde’s thought on these questions.

The clause also employs a clever rhetorical trick. Wilde insists, somewhat against the evidence, that however cruel the prison may be, at least it does not go beyond the farthest limit of decency by intentionally creating madness. But by so flatly stating the assumption, while surrounding it with pronouncements of his fears to the contrary, Wilde also draws that very claim into question. The presumed humanity of those with power serves as a sort of challenge: surely the government does not mean to drive us insane! (or do they?)

Yet a petition to the authorities was perhaps not the wisest place to decry the institution they oversaw, calling into question its very purposes. Wilde’s plea was dutifully forwarded by the Governor, together with a report from the prison doctor saying, in brief, that the petitioner was gaining weight and showed no signs of mental illness. In fact, using the logic of the catch-22, the doctor argued, “from the lucid way in which he quotes authorities and gives his own ideas of insanity, [the petition itself is] clear evidence of his present sanity.”[139]

The Home Office sent a committee of doctors to Reading to verify Wilde’s condition, and on July 27, 1896 the Chairman of the Prison Commission, Evelyn Ruggles-Brise, issued secret instructions concerning Wilde’s treatment: “With reference to the Petition of Oscar Wilde, dated 20th instant, the Secretary of State has decided that this prisoner should be provided with foolscap paper, ink and pen, for use in his leisure moments in his cell. . . .” Furthermore, “The Prison rules limiting the issue of books to two per week may be relaxed in the case of this prisoner, and you will use your discretion as to allowing to the prisoner sufficient books to occupy his mind. . . .” Lastly, the prison doctor was authorized to consult with an outside specialist should the problems with Wilde’s ear warrant it. Several conditions attached to these privileges, chiefly that Wilde not use the paper for communicating with people outside the prison, and that such accommodations “not interfere with the ordinary labour required of the prisoner in fulfillment of his sentence.”[140]

Wilde was not released, but he was given additional books and paper. He received daily medical attention for his ear, and spectacles for his eyes. Still, he had hoped for more.

A few months later, on November 10, Wilde tried again, writing a second petition. The tone of this letter is quite different. It is much less plaintive, though not quite defiant. He begins by remonstrating with the Home Secretary for failing to send a reply to his earlier letter, and though he notes the improved conditions, he insists that “these alleviations, for which the petitioner is naturally grateful count for but little in relieving the terrible mental stress and anguish that the silence and solitude of prison-life intensify daily.”[141]

He does not, in this letter, make a show of his intense remorse, but only mentions that he has been gaoled “for offenses which are in other countries of Europe more rightly recognized as tragic forms of madness.” He repeats — with infinitely more dignity, and even with some sense of indignation — the argument that prison only makes things worse:

“while one may bear up against the monotonous hardships and relentless discipline of an English prison: endure with apathy the unceasing shame and the daily degradation: and grow callous even to that hideous grotesqueness of life that robs sorrow of all its dignity, and takes from pain its power of purification: still, the complete isolation from everything that is humane and humanising plunges one deeper and deeper into the very mire of madness, and the horrible silence, to which one is, as it were, eternally condemned, concentrates the mind on all that one longs to loathe, and creates those insane moods from which one desires to be free, creates them and makes them permanent.”

He asks again to be let out, and promises that he will seek medical treatment if he is.

And then, as the coup de grace, Wilde offers a surprisingly general critique of the institution that holds him:

“But the solitary confinement, that breaks one’s heart, shatters one’s intellect too: and prison is but an ill physician: and the modern modes of punishment create what they should cure, and, when they have on their side Time with its long light of dreary days, they desecrate and destroy whatever good, or desire even of good, there may be in a man.”

Like its predecessor, the petition was rejected almost at once.[142] But Oscar Wilde at last sounds again like himself. But his most powerful argument is the one least suited to his immediate purposes. For Wilde’s petition to have its desired effect, it must claim that his is a special case. It does so — or seems to — with the references to his deteriorating health and the suggestion that stultifying isolation is somewhat worse for a man of letters. But Wilde cannot resist stating the general case that the prisons are cruel, that the laws are wrong, and that the system of punishment only succeeds in destroying whatever is best in both warder and inmate. What began as a confession ends as an indictment. Taken literally, Wilde’s argument would constitute a plea, not just for his own freedom, but for that of all those similarly confined. As Wilde remarked to one of his guards, “Sir, if this is the way Queen Victoria treats her convicts, she doesn’t deserve to have any.”[143]


After Prison: An Intention to Reform

Oscar Wilde was released from prison on May 19, 1897. Late that night he left England for good, to live the remainder of his life in poverty and exile. He survived three more years, and died in France at the age of 46.

The image that has grown up around Wilde’s last years is largely the result of his biographers’ need to fit messy reality into neat narrative forms. But the truth, as Wilde once observed, is “rarely pure and never simple.”[144] There is a real tragedy to Wilde’s story, of course, but he was not the useless, broken man that both the moralists and the martyr-worshippers imagine. Neal McKenna has recently offered this reappraisal of Wilde’s last years:

“During the last three years of his life Oscar was to remain strangely happy . . . . There were times when Oscar was penniless and went hungry for a day, or even two, but such occasions were rare. He lived in cheap but clean and comfortable hotels, and ate well in inexpensive — and sometimes expensive — restaurants. His appetite for life was undimmed. Everything he did, he did to excess. He drank prodigiously, because he wanted to. He was a self-declared and unapologetic sexual pagan who indulged his appetite to the full. He was an outcast, an outlaw, but he gloried in his notoriety. His life was, for the most part, joyous and affirming.”[145]

Wilde himself was annoyed by those who wished that he would reform.[146] But it’s not at all clear that he would have agreed with McKenna’s assessment either. “Not happiness!” he said to André Gide. “Above all, not happiness. Pleasure! We must always want the most tragic.”[147]

Perhaps Wilde’s attitude toward his new life is best related through a heretical parable that he told repeatedly in that time after his release from prison. In this story, Jesus returns to Nazareth and meets again people he had known there, each one now very different. The leper he cured is now a drunkard living for pleasure: “I was a leper; Thou hast healed me. Why should I lead another life?” The blind man, given sight, is now driven by lust: “I was blind; Thou hast healed me. What should I do otherwise with my sight?” Christ sees a woman “whose face and garments were painted, and whose feet were shod with pearls.” He chastises her, “The road which you follow. . . is that of sin; wherefore follow it?” But she replies, laughing, “Thou hast pardoned me all my sins.” At last, Jesus finds a young man weeping at the edge of the city. “My friend,” He asks, “wherefore weepest thou?” “I was dead and Thou hast raised me up; what should I do otherwise with my life?”[148]

Prison had changed Wilde, and he knew it. He could not return to singing the praise of beauty and pleasure. Nor could he re-create the success of his comedies, mocking at society with his paradoxes while forcing respectable audiences to laugh at their own cherished hypocrisies. But moreover, Wilde had to expand his philosophy to include what he had endured, to make use of sorrow as well as joy. He wrote from prison of his new outlook:

“the laws under which I am convicted are wrong and unjust laws, and the system under which I have suffered a wrong and unjust system. But, somehow, I have got to make both of these things just and right to me. . . . I have got to make everything that has happened to me good for me. The plank-bed, the loathsome food, the hard ropes shredded into oakum till one’s finger-tips grow dull with pain, the menial offices with which every day begins and finishes, the harsh orders that routine seems to necessitate, the dreadful dress that makes sorrow grotesque to look at, the silence, the solitude, the shame — each and all of these things I have to transform into a spiritual experience. There is not a single degradation of the body which I must not try and make into a spiritualising of the soul. . . . The important thing, the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, or be for the brief remainder of my days one maimed, marred, and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear, or reluctance.”[149]

This was, in effect, the reformatory ideal of the penitentiary turned on its head. Wilde would change. He would seek out, or create, a vantage point from which prison would be good for him — not by the standards of society, but by his own measure. He would turn his disgrace into a triumph.[150] And the prison would not reform him; he would reform it: “It is not the prisoners who need reformation. It is the prisons.”[151]

Wilde expressed this intention in a note that still survives. It is penned on a small scrap of envelope, the front of which is marked “Private” and addressed to Major Nelson, the Governor of Reading Gaol. On the back Wilde has written:

“I hope to write about prison-life and to try and change it for others, but it is too terrible and ugly to make a work of art of. I have suffered too much in it to write [a] play about it.”[152]

This is the perspective from which we must understand Wilde’s post-prison writing, especially his greatest literary success, The Ballad of Reading Gaol.

“Some Cruelties of Prison Life”

Not counting De Profundis, which was not published until after his death, Wilde’s attack on the penitentiary comprised three written works: The Ballad of Reading Gaol and two long letters to the Daily Chronicle. Together, these represent the entirety of his literary output between imprisonment and death.[153]

The first letter in the Chronicle appeared on May 28, 1897, just a few days after his release. To call the piece a letter is actually somewhat misleading. It is more of a polemic, running to nineteen paragraphs and approximately 1100 words. (The second letter is about half as long.) Under the heading “The Case of Warder Martin, Some Cruelties of Prison Life,” Wilde addresses two incidents that had troubled him toward the end of his time in prison. A guard at Reading, Thomas Martin, had, apparently, been removed from his post for the grave offense of giving biscuits (that is, cookies) to some children who had been gaoled for poaching rabbits. The Chronicle had been following the case with some attention, running letters from Martin as well as news reports concerning the case.[154] The incident had also led to questions in Parliament, posed to the Home Secretary.[155]

In his letter, Wilde begins by saying that he had seen the children in question: “They were quite small children, the youngest — the one to whom the warder gave the biscuits — being a tiny little chap, for whom they had evidently been unable to find clothes small enough to fit.” He also, soon after, tells of another “small boy,” placed in “the dimly lit cell right opposite my own” at Reading. “I heard him at breakfast-time crying, and calling to be let out. His cry was for his parents. From time to time I could hear the deep voice of the warder on duty telling him to keep quiet.”[156]

The feelings of these children, Wilde explains, are easy enough to understand:

“The child consequently, being taken away from its parents by people whom it has never seen, and of whom it knows nothing, and finding itself in a lonely and unfamiliar cell, waited on by strange faces, and ordered about and punished by the representatives of a system it cannot understand, becomes an immediate prey to the first and most prominent emotion produced by modern prison life — the emotion of terror.” [157]

“This terror,” he adds in the next paragraph, “seizes the grown man also. . .” It is “intensified beyond power of expression by the solitary cellular system of our prisons.”[158] Though Wilde returns again and again to the plight of the children, he uses their suffering to critique the entire prison system. The specific complaints he makes are more general than the particular case. They are, in fact, some of the main characteristics of prison life: the hunger, the food, the bad sanitation, the insanity.

Insanity becomes the second major theme of the essay, as Wilde proceeds to draw attention to “the large number of men who become insane or weak-minded” owing to the isolation. He relates the story of a man named Prince, number A.2.11: “About three months ago I noticed amongst the prisoners who took exercise with me a young man who seemed to me to be silly or half-witted. . . . [At] exercise he always seemed hysterical, and used to walk round crying or laughing.” Rather than recognizing his condition as an illness to be treated with compassion, the prison could only view it as willful disobedience: “of course he was continually punished. . . . I saw that he was becoming insane, and was being treated as if he was shamming.”[159]

The case followed its inevitable trajectory. Prince’s condition made him incapable of following the prison rules. So he misbehaved, and was punished. Of course his condition worsened, leading to harsher punishment. Eventually he was flogged with a birch rod. Wilde describes hearing “the most horrible and revolting shrieks, or rather howls, for at first I thought some animal like a bull or a cow was being unskillfully slaughtered outside the prison walls. I soon realised, however, that the howls proceeded from the basement of the prison, and I knew that some wretched man was being flogged.”[160] Prince received twenty-four lashes.

Wilde ends the piece, almost oddly, with praise for “the present Governor of Reading. . . a man of gentle and humane character greatly liked and respected by all the prisoners.” The state of the prison is not, Wilde insists, the fault of Major Nelson: “his hands are tied.”[161] So, then, where does the fault lie? This Wilde made clear at the outset, in the second paragraph of his letter: cruelty, he argues, is not the product of individual sadism, but instead the inevitable result of a system of authority, especially in its bureaucratic form:

“Ordinary cruelty is simply stupidity. It is the entire want of imagination. It is the result in our days of stereotyped systems, of hard-and-fast rules, and of stupidity. Wherever there is centralisation there is stupidity. What is inhuman in modern life is officialism. Authority is as destructive to those who exercise it as it is to those on whom it is exercised. . . . Responsibility is shifted on to the disciplinary regulations. It is supposed that because a thing is the rule it is right.”[162]

When Wilde writes of Prince, he testifies from observation. But he also, without acknowledgement, writes of his own experience; for during his time in prison, Wilde feared for his own sanity as well, and he too was suspected of faking.[163] Wilde tells his story by telling that of another. This becomes a motif — in fact, a strategy — for his post-prison work.[164] He expresses his own sorrow by expressing sympathy for others. Their pain is his pain. As he wrote in De Profundis: “Whatever happens to another happens to oneself.”[165] So Wilde defends himself by defending his fellow prisoners. He offers his sympathy, and thus he silently demands sympathy from the reader. In this hidden autobiography, poetic imagination, moral sympathy, and political solidarity converge.

The Prison Guard’s Dilemma

Wilde saw the demoralizing effect of the prison system, on prisoner and guard alike — the stifling of all kind or gentle impulses, the depression of all mental or imaginative energy, the deadening of all sensitivity, and the denial of all compassion or sympathy. In the Chronicle, Wilde relayed a further story of Thomas Martin’s unlawful generosity: “Some days before my release, Martin was going the rounds at half-past seven with one of the senior warders.” They came upon a new inmate who, “suffering from violent diarrhoea,” “asked the senior warder to allow him to empty the slops,” noting “the horrible odour of the cell and the possibility of illness again in the night.” But it was after 5:30, the last time prisoners were scheduled to leave the cells. And so the senior officer refused. Martin, however, took pity and emptied the bucket himself. “A warder emptying a prisoner’s slops, is of course, against the rules, but Martin did this act of kindness to the man out of the simple humanity of his nature. . . .”[166]

Martin’s simple acts of humanity were no small thing. He was not fired merely over the question of whether children should be given biscuits, or whether prisoners should be allowed newspapers, or whether guards might empty an inmate’s chamber-pot. At bottom, the issue was whether any institution could require cruelty, or any rule forbid what most people would regard as basic human decency.

From a certain point of view, Martin’s kindness seemed so wonderful because it represented disobedience. Legalize it, rationalize it, and all its poetic beauty disappears. As an illegal act, individual and defiant, it is grand and even Christ-like. Once authorized, it becomes just another element of the prison routine — better than some others, but not one to be singled out as a symbol of deep humanity. The institution could not incorporate Martin’s perspective any more than he could adjust himself to the unfeeling demands of the prison environment.

Martin’s disobedience, and his punishment, illustrate a fundamental, irreconcilable, conflict between the morality of the individual and the morality of the institution. The good of the institution lies in order and discipline: every action must be planned, regulated, and rule-bound. But for Thomas Martin, the good lay in kindness and sympathy; his greatest actions — those that were most his own, and those for which we most admire him — were spontaneous, unpracticed, and defiant. Martin’s transgressions of prison rules may have been minor, but they were not trivial. His offenses represented his real virtues.

A Hidden Autobiography

Though Wilde had always opposed society’s hypocrisies, in the case of the warder Thomas Martin, he also had personal reasons for intervening. There survive, in the Clark Library archive, a handful of notes that Wilde and Martin exchanged surreptitiously at Reading. One note was passed back and forth, making a sort of dialogue. It reads:

“My Dear Friend,

What have I to write about except that if you had been an officer in Reading Prison a year ago my life would have been much happier. Everyone tells me I am looking better — and happier.

That is because I have a good friend who gives me the Chronicle, and promises me ginger biscuits!


At the bottom, Martin replied: “Your ungrateful [sic]. I done more than promise.”[167]

Another note to Martin directly foreshadows the letter to the Chronicle:

“Please find out for me the name of a.2.11.

also: the names of the children who are in for the rabbits, and the amount of their fine.

Can I pay this and get them out? If so I will get them out tomorrow? Pleas [sic] dear friend do this for me. I must get them out.

Think what a thing for me it would be to be able to help three little children. I would be delighted beyond words: if I can do this by paying the fine tell the children that they are to be released tomorrow by a friend, and ask them to be happy and not to tell anyone.”[168]

Martin was fired, in effect, for his kindness — a kindness that Wilde had himself received, and that he knew to be all too rare. Wilde must have felt not only intense gratitude toward Martin but also some responsibility for his predicament. In another note, Wilde had promised “– of course I vow not for worlds [to] get such a friend as you are into any danger –“[169]

But more startling, the elements of these notes — the children, the biscuits, Martin himself, the violation of the rules, even the mention of the Chronicle — allow us to read Wilde’s later epistle not only as an altruist intervention on behalf of justice, but again as a form of disguised autobiography. For Wilde here is not only pleading Martin’s case, or that of these poor children — or later, that of Prince. He is also pleading his own case, recounting his own story, and doing so in a form that will allow him to avoid accusations of self-pity. These children become in Wilde’s treatment the stand-in for the entire inmate population, an identification highlighted by the utter pity that the adult prisoners felt for their young colleagues. “There is not a single man in Reading Gaol that would not gladly have done the three children’s punishment for them.”[170]

With this contrast, between the sympathy of the prisoners and the indifference and cruelty of the prison system, Wilde effects a reversal of the moral theory of incarceration — especially the notion of “contamination.” He wrote in the Chronicle:

“[A] great deal has been talked and written lately about the contaminating influence of prison on young children. What is said is quite true. A child is utterly contaminated by prison life. But the contaminating influence is not that of the prisoners. It is that of the whole prison system — of the governor, the chaplain, the warders, the lonely cell, the isolation, the revolting food, the rules of the Prison Commissioners, the mode of discipline, as it is termed, of the life. . . . [T]he only really humanising influence in prison is the influence of the prisoners. . . . [T]he bad influence on children is not, and could never be, that of the prisoners, but is, and will always remain, that of the prison system itself.”[171]

Wilde’s letter became a news item in itself, earning articles not only in the Chronicle, but in The Catholic Times as well.[172] In February 1898 the letter was reprinted as a pamphlet by Murdoch and Company, under the title Children in Prison and Other Cruelties of Prison Life. It included a note from the publisher, explaining that it was intended “as evidence that the prison system is opposed to all that is kind and helpful. Herein is shown a process that is dehumanizing, not only to the prisoners, but to every one connected with it.”[173] This is a point that Wilde made repeatedly, and more forcefully, first in “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” (1891);[174] then, in his petition to the Home Secretary (1896); and now in the Chronicle (1897): “Authority is as destructive to those who exercise it as it is to those on whom it is exercised.”[175]

A Prison Poem

The Ballad Of Reading Gaol was Oscar Wilde’s one major literary achievement after his release from prison. The poem tells of an unnamed soldier who kills his wife, and is sentenced to hang. For six weeks, the narrator (another unnamed prisoner) watches him in the exercise yard, and notes that the soldier does not seem to worry, but instead “only looked upon the sun,/ And drank the morning air.”[176]

After a time the murderer is moved to death row, where the guards “watched him lest himself should rob/ Their scaffold of its prey.” The convict, however, is fully resigned to his fate: “His soul was resolute, and held/ No hiding-place for fear.”[177] But when the other inmates see an open grave, and know the execution is near, they are filled with “Dread and Doom.”[178] The soldier is hanged and buried; the prisoners mourn, and the narrator objects to the ignoble manner of the execution.[179]

The poem then digresses for seventeen verses, to articulate a thorough indictment of the prison system. Wilde argues quite clearly here that the laws are useless, and punishment worse than useless: “every Law/ That men hath made for Man/. . . straws the wheat and saves the chaff “[180] — meaning, on one level, that the law punishes the best people and spares the truly wicked; and, on another, that its actual operations kill what is best in its victims, and save what is worthless. This second meaning is reiterated a few lines later:

“The vilest deeds like poison weeds,

Bloom well in prison-air;

It is only what is good in Man

That wastes and withers there.”[181]

Reading Gaol also revisits some of the points raised in the Chronicle, concerning the treatment of children, the brutal punishment of the sick or insane, the poor sanitation, the bad food, and the impossibility of sleep:

“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 grey,

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. . . .

The brackish water that we drink

Creeps with 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.”[182]

Only at the end does the poem return to the soldier, with a brief meditation on the unmarked grave.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol was inspired by the execution of Charles Thomas Wooldridge, who was hanged at Reading while Wilde was there.[183] The soldier’s wife, Laura Ellen Wooldridge, had left him for another man, and Charles, overcome with jealousy, had killed her with a razor on March 29, 1896. He was executed on July 7, that same year. He was thirty years old.[184]

One of the Reading guards recalled,

“Wilde, of course, never saw the murderer after his condemnation, but he heard the bell tolling for the execution, and it made a terrible impression on his mind. . . . Wilde told me that those moments when the bell rang out, and his imagination conjured up the execution scene, were the most awful of a time rich in horrors.”[185]

Thus the subject of the poem — Wooldridge’s crime and subsequent execution — was in some respect determined by proximity. But, as the focus of a political pamphlet, it was also a smart choice. Already Wooldridge had become a figure of public sympathy and agitation, his being what was called a “crime of passion.” A petition for clemency received 1,000 signatures from people in the surrounding towns, but the authorities refused mercy on the grounds that the murder was premeditated.[186]

And while the force of Wilde’s expression in the Ballad was undoubtedly stoked by his experience in prison, the ideas he put forward demonstrate the continuity with his earlier work. Well before he went to prison, in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, Wilde had argued along similar lines — that it is punishment that creates crime, that “people are good when they are left alone,” that “all modes of government are failures,” and that “all authority is equally bad.”[187]

Anti-Prison Propaganda

That Reading Gaol was intended as a kind of political intervention, there can be no dispute. Wilde described it as “suffer[ing] under the difficulty of a divided aim in style. Some is realistic, some is romantic: some poetry, some propaganda.”[188] Later, he replied to some editorial suggestions from Robbie Ross, “You are quite right in saying that the poem should end at ‘outcasts always mourn’, but the propaganda, which I desire to make, begins there.”[189]

Clearly, Wilde’s priorities had shifted. Early in his career, he had argued against sacrificing the aesthetic purity of art for any political or moral purpose. In “The Decay of Lying” (1889), he had criticized Charles Reade for

“wast[ing] the rest of his life in a foolish attempt to be modern, to draw public attention to the state of our convict prisons. . . . Charles Reade, an artist, a scholar, a man with a true sense of beauty, raging and roaring over the abuses of contemporary life like a common pamphleteer or a sensational journalist, is really a sight for the angels to weep over.”[190]

Yet here Wilde is doing the same thing. Art, in this case at least, does not exist only for art’s sake. And in the poem’s subject, too, Wilde noted the departure; as he mentioned in a letter to Laurence Housman, “I am occupied in finishing a poem, terribly realistic for me, and drawn from actual experience, a sort of denial of my own philosophy of art in many ways.”[191] Wilde also adopted the form of the ballad — “a new style for me, full of actuality and life in its directness of message and meaning.”[192] The form may have helped signal the political intentions behind its composition, given the ballad’s association with Irish protest songs. But it also, certainly, indicated his intended audience.[193] Unlike the decadent poetry of his youth, Wilde was not writing here for other artists and intellectuals, but for the wider public. Hence, he considered having the poem printed in the Chronicle, or in Reynolds — the first because it was always “reckless in art”[194]; the second, because “it circulates among the lower orders, and the criminal classes, and so ensures me my right audience for sympathy.”[195]

Writing to his publisher, Leonard Smithers, he explained his reasoning in somewhat different terms:

“My idea is Reynolds. It has, for some odd reason, always been nice to me, and used to publish my poems when I was in prison, and write nicely about me. Also, it circulates widely amongst the criminal classes, to which I now belong, so I shall be read by my peers — a new experience for me.”[196]

Despite the jest, this became something of a refrain in Wilde’s correspondence: “Reynolds is an organ that appeals directly to the criminal classes, so my audience is gathered together for me”;[197] “I want the poem to reach the poorer classes.”[198]

And so Oscar Wilde ends his career with a piece of self-conscious propaganda, though he always insisted that “there is more in the poem than a pamphlet on prison-reform.”[199] And indeed, The Ballad of Reading Gaol is without rival Wilde’s best poem, far superior aesthetically speaking to any of his purely aestheticist works.

The poem was a commercial success as well. With the first printing of the Ballad in February 1898, 800 copies sold out in a few days. The second printing of 1,000 was gone within a month. All told, the book was in its sixth printing, for a total of 5,099 copies, by May. Two thousand more were printed the following year.[200] Moreover, the Ballad was promptly translated, with French and Spanish versions appearing in 1898, and German, Italian, Greek, Russian, and Yiddish following within a few years.[201] In 1925 an illustrated edition appeared, featuring beautiful woodcuts by Frans Masereel, an artist with pronounced anarchist sympathies. Perhaps the most remarkable of these illustrations is the frontispiece, which shows a man in prison, his hands bound, a locked door behind him. Covering his face is a square labeled “C33” — Wilde’s prison number.[202]

The anarchist Benjamin Tucker decided to delay publication of two other pamphlets in order to bring out an American edition of Reading Gaol. He saw in the poem not only a critique of the prison as such, but also an indictment of hierarchical society. Where Wilde’s earlier political writing had conveyed the hopeful prospects of humanity under socialism, “In this poem we get a terrific portrayal of the soul of man under Archism.”[203] Tucker’s paper, Liberty, later devoted more than six columns of text to reprinting excerpts of the poem’s reviews.[204] A great deal of the critical attention focused on politics, rather than poetics. As Horace L. Traubel wrote in the Conservator:

“People who despise or hate Wilde should read this poem. People who imagine themselves superior to the prisoners in jails should read this poem. People who love invasive laws should read this poem. . . . People who do not know that laws may make as well as punish crime should read this poem. In fact, everybody should read this poem. . . .

“When this poem is understood, when the background of this poem is penetrated, jails will be revised or be no more, criminals will be loved and persuaded, and the veiled and mailed hands of institutions will be withdrawn.”[205]

Of course, some who hated Wilde did read the Ballad, and brought their hate with them into their printed columns. The New York Tribune opined:

“No one pretends to sympathize with the notorious author. . . . Candidly, [the poem] has no merit. The tone is the familiar tone of the criminal who, in an abyss of self-pity, finds the hands of justice intolerably cruel.”[206]

Still, The Chicago Times-Herald found in the poem a vindication, not just of Wilde, but of aestheticism:

“It is, more than anything else, a plea for the divine quality of poetry, which, oftener than any other form of expression, betrays the angel of man’s higher nature masquerading in leprous flesh. The impulse toward beauty and sweetness may be hidden even in corruption. A pansy seed will sprout and bloom in a pile of garbage.”[207]

For decades after his death, Wilde’s work served as a kind of scripture for those advocating prison reform — or, in the case of the anarchists — abolition. Edward Carpenter used a section from The Ballad of Reading Gaol as the epigram to Prisons, Police, and Punishment. Later in the book, he discusses Wilde’s first letter to the Chronicle at some length.[208] Alexander Berkman likewise takes a passage from Reading Gaol as the epigram for Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. He also uses lines from the poem as chapter headings, for instance, “And by All Forgot, We Rot and Rot” (Part II, Chapter 31) and “How Men Their Brothers Maim” (Part II, Chapter 38).[209]

Emma Goldman, who cited Wilde with regularity, continued the practice in her writings on prison. She quoted Reading Gaol at the beginning and end of her article “The Tragedy of Buffalo,” on President McKinley’s assassin Leon Czolgosz.[210] She quoted the poem twice again in “Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure.”[211] Goldman also reprinted an excerpt from De Profundis in her magazine Mother Earth, under the title “The Ennobling Influence of Sorrow,”[212] and sold Wilde’s works — including The Ballad of Reading Gaol, De Profundis, and The Soul of Man Under Socialism — through the same magazine.[213] Decades later, the anthology Forces of Law and Order (Selected Articles from the Anarchist Journal ‘Freedom’) again quoted Wilde in an epigram, this time from The Soul of Man Under Socialism: “Wherever there is a man who exercises authority, there is a man who resists authority.”[214]

The Prison Reform Bill

Building on the success of his Ballad, Wilde composed a second letter to the Chronicle, appearing on March 24, 1898 under the heading “Don’t Read This If You Want To Be Happy Today.” In this piece, Wilde’s political aims are at their most explicit. He begins:

“Sir, — I understand that the Home Secretary’s Prison Reform Bill is to be read this week. . . . I hope that you will allow me, as one who has had long personal experience of life in an English gaol, to point out what reforms in our present stupid and barbarous system are urgently necessary.”[215]

His first argument dismisses the agenda of the Bill under consideration:

“the chief reform proposed is an increase in the number of inspectors. . . . Such a reform as this is entirely useless. . . . The visitors arrive not to help the prisoners, but to see that the rules are carried out. Their object in coming is to ensure the enforcement of a foolish and inhuman code.”

In fact, Wilde suggests that such inspections actually make things worse:

“A prisoner who has been allowed the smallest privilege dreads the arrival of the inspectors. And on the day of any prison inspection the prison officials are more than usually brutal to the prisoners. . . to show the splendid discipline they maintain.”

Wilde argues, as an alternative to better (that is, stricter) adherence to the rules, that reforms should concern themselves with “the needs of the body and the needs of the mind of each unfortunate prisoner.” The authorities may have described the prison regime in terms of “hard labour, hard fare, and a hard bed,”[216] but Wilde listed the

“three permanent punishments authorized by law in English prisons: —

1. Hunger.

2. Insomnia.

3. Disease.”

He proceeds through each subject with some detail: the “revolting” quality and “insufficient” quantity of the food, its result being “incessant diarrhoea”; the “sanitary arrangements” consisting of a “small tin vessel” which the prisoner may empty only at set intervals; “the foul air of the prison cells”; the plank bed.[217]

He then turns his attention to the needs of the mind. Where he had in his earlier petition to the Home Secretary ironically advanced the proposition that the prison “does not desire to drive [the inmates] mad,”[218] here he forthrightly states the opposite: “The present system seems almost to have for its aim the wrecking and the destruction of the mental faculties. The production of insanity is, if not its object, certainly its result.” It is on this point that Wilde’s rhetoric achieves its greatest force:

“Deprived of books, of all human intercourse, isolated from every humane and humanising influence, condemned to eternal silence, robbed of all intercourse with the external world, treated like an unintelligent animal, brutalized below the level of any of the brute creation, the wretched man who is confined in an English prison can hardly escape becoming insane.”[219]

The remedies Wilde proposes are commonsense to the point of being banal: “The food supplied to prisoners should be adequate and wholesome”; “Every prisoner should be allowed to have access to the lavatories when necessary, and to empty his slops when necessary”; “Every prisoner should have an adequate supply of good books. . . whatever books they want”; “A prisoner should be allowed to see his friends once a month, and for a reasonable time. . . [and] in a room . . . [instead of] a cage”; “Every prisoner should be allowed to write and receive a letter at least once a month”; “The habit of mutilating and expurgating prisoners’ letters should be stopped;” “prison doctors . . . [should be] prohibited from private practice. . . [and] compelled to take some interest in the health and sanitary condition of the people under their charge.”[220]

Wilde’s advocacy seems to have had some effect. As Christopher Millard later reported in The Athenaeum:

“It is related on undeniable authority that the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the question of Prison Reform in the years 1897 and 1898 spent three days considering the suggestions made in Wilde’s letters, with what good results may very briefly be stated as follows: At the end of the first month’s imprisonment a prisoner is allowed to write a letter or to receive a visit, and to read a book, instead of waiting three months as formerly; the sanitary arrangements have been improved; the food weighed out each day is somewhat less scanty and more varied; [and] the plank bed is insisted on for the first fourteen days only, instead of a month. . . .”[221]

Furthermore, the law abolished the treadwheel, crank, and other pointless labor and replaced it with useful work and technical instruction — though the picking of oakum was reserved as a punishment. The regime of silence and cellular confinement was relaxed somewhat, the reliance on corporal punishment reduced, and the system of early release liberalized.[222]

Wilde himself was jubilant in this victory:

“Yes: I think that, aided by some splendid personalities like [Michael] Davitt and John Burns, I have been able to deal a heavy and fatal blow at the monstrous prison-system of English justice. There is to be no more starvation, nor sleeplessness, nor endless silence, nor eternal solitude, nor brutal floggings. The system is exposed, and, so, doomed.”[223]

This was, of course, entirely too optimistic. Nearly a century later, Peter Southerton described the conditions at Reading Gaol in the 1980s:

“Although the inhumanity of the prison regime as suffered by Oscar Wilde was now a thing of the past, the quality of life had improved little. Especially for those prisoners on remand, overcrowding meant spending most of every twenty-four hours locked up, not alone but with one or, more often, two other people and a full slop bucket, wearing clothes which soon became dirty and smelly, looking forward to the statutory minimum of an hour’s exercise a day if it didn’t rain and hoping that a few hours’ work, however menial or unconstructive, might be available to ease the boredom.”[224]

The socialist singer Billy Bragg described these conditions in depressingly familiar terms, looking back to the Separate System with an almost nostalgic eye:

“I ended up in this jail

Built in 1882

When one man to one prison cell

Was a Victorian value

Now three of us are squeezed in here

And you can’t escape the smell

Of that bucket in the corner

And we eat in here as well. . . .

Apart from one hour’s exercise

I’m locked in here all day

You don’t turn criminals into citizens

By treating them this way.”[225]

Rethinking Reform

The history of the prison system is, more than anything else, a cautionary tale concerning the dangers of reform. The penitentiary was itself the child of reformers; proposed as a humane alternative to corporal punishment and public humiliation, it was to work gently, quietly, on the prisoner’s conscience, rather than brutally, publicly, on his flesh.[226] And since its inception, its progress — if it can be called progress — has been marked by a long series of tragic experiments, each undertaken with the best intentions. In the United States, for instance, we’ve recently seen one disastrous reform — “indeterminate sentencing” — undone by and replaced with an equally disastrous reform — “mandatory minimums.”[227]

But how do we attend to the pressing needs of those who live in the current system without inadvertently reinforcing that system with legitimizing improvements? It was for just such reasons that, early in his career, Wilde had dismissed the whole notion of reform, and any concern with practicality: “For what,” he asked rhetorically, “is a practical scheme? A practical scheme is either a scheme that is already in existence, or a scheme that could be carried out under existing conditions. But it is exactly the existing conditions that one objects to; and any scheme that could accept these conditions is wrong and foolish.”[228] Likewise, Wilde argued forcefully against the good intentions of philanthropists: “their remedies do not cure the disease: they merely prolong it. Indeed, their remedies are part of the disease. . . . [T]he people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”[229]

Yet after prison, in the Chronicle, he argues most explicitly in favor of reforms. The change is easily explained. In the intervening years he had learned what it was like to be in prison, and what the loss of freedom did to a person. He had come to know from bitter experience how wrong he had been when he’d written that “even in prison, a man can be quite free. His soul can be free. His personality can be untroubled.”[230] He had felt the impact of confinement on his imagination; he had seen its devastating effects on his fellow prisoners.

In his early work, Wilde had wanted to assert the power of the artistic imagination over sordid reality. His mistake was to insist on too pure an idealism. But in his romanticization of prison and his idealization of freedom, he seems to have forgotten his own maxim, that “Those who see any difference between soul and body have neither.”[231] And if we can “cure the soul by means of the senses, and the senses by means of the soul,”[232] then it stands to reason that one could also starve the soul by means of the senses, and kill the senses by means of the soul. And the gaol — with its thoroughgoing lack of sensual pleasure, mental stimulation, and emotional connection — punishes both the physical and the spiritual, leaving “soul and body marred.”[233]

Realizing this, Wilde’s solution, imperfect though it may be, was to push for reforms while with the same breath acknowledging the inadequacy of any possible improvements, and emphasizing at each opportunity the corruption inherent in the institution itself.

“Of course,” he argues in his first letter to the Chronicle, “no child under fourteen years of age should be sent to prison at all. It is an absurdity, and, like many absurdities, of absolutely tragic results. If, however, they are to be sent to prison. . .” their days should be spent “in a workshop or schoolroom”; “they should sleep in a dormitory”; “They should be allowed exercise for at least three hours a day”; they should be fed “tea and bread-and-butter and soup.” He thus begins with an assertion of the “absurdity” of the entire practice; and then, without backtracking, offers practical reforms that could at least ameliorate some of its worst effects, and which could be enacted under the present system. “A resolution of the House of Commons could settle the treatment of children in half an hour.”[234]

In his second letter, Wilde again “tired to indicate. . . a few of the reforms necessary to our English prison system. They are simple, practical, and humane.” Yet they are also, he admits, entirely inadequate: “They are, of course, only a beginning. But it is time that a beginning should be made. . . .” And Wilde ends, ironically, by reminding the reader of the complete hopelessness of the institution he is proposing to change: “the first, and perhaps the most difficult task, is to humanise the governors of prisons, to civilise the warders and to Christianise the chaplains. –“[235]

Wilde’s experience in prison convinced him of the urgent need for change, but it did nothing to move him away from his most radical positions. Instead he developed his radical politics toward a more comprehensive view, one which offered a layered critique of the penal institution — arguing against specific conditions and practices, while also denouncing the structures of authority that created such conditions, the standards of morality that sought to justify them, and the degrading effect they had on everyone concerned.[236]

The Prison Revolt of Morality

With this in mind, it is important that Wilde places the blame on the prison system, rather than its particular functionaries. Clearly he had no wish to libel those guards and administrators, like Martin and Nelson, who had been kind to him.[237] Moreover, he did not want to imply that the faults of the prison could be remedied simply by hiring new staff. He knew from his own experience that a change in leadership could improve conditions, but the same experience showed him how little effect a humane administrator could permissibly achieve. As he wrote of Major Nelson, “the system is, of course, beyond his reach as far as altering its rules is concerned.”[238]

Likewise, in Reading Gaol, when he describes those officials closest to the prisoners — the warders — Wilde emphasizes the imperatives suppressing any sense of human compassion. For a warder, Wilde writes,

“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. . . .”[239]

Thomas Martin, of course, had been so moved, and did “try To comfort and console” — and he was punished for his efforts.

Wilde saw that the prison did everything that it could to grind all sense of mercy and fellow-feeling out of those who entered its gates — whether prisoner, guard, Governor, chaplain, or doctor.[240] The unyielding regimentation, the humiliation, the brutality, and the lack of human contact all combined to silence any feelings of pity or tenderness: “The most terrible thing about it is not that it breaks one’s heart — hearts are made to be broken — but that it turns one’s heart to stone.”[241] To “hard labour, hard fare and hard bed,” then, we can add — hard hearts.

That is why, as odd as it seems, Wilde came to praise sorrow in De Profundis:

“Clergymen, and people who use phrases without wisdom, sometimes talk of suffering as a mystery. It is really a revelation. . . . Behind Joy and Laughter there may be a temperament, coarse, hard and callous. But behind Sorrow there is always Sorrow. . . . There is not a single wretched man in this wretched place along with me who does not stand in symbolic relations to the very secret of life. For the secret of life is suffering. . . . To those who are in prison, tears are a part of every day’s experience. A day in prison on which one does not weep is a day on which one’s heart is hard, not a day on which one’s heart is happy. . . . [B]ehind Sorrow there is always sorrow. . . . [B]ehind sorrow there is always a soul.”[242]

Wilde refused, as a kind of resistance, to become unfeeling or indifferent. He would sooner accept suffering than apathy. He determined not to turn away from misery and pain; to do so would be to renounce the full experience of life. He would instead embrace it as he had previously embraced pleasure and joy — to its fullest, without hesitation or restraint.[243] Wilde refused to let his heart grow hard; he would allow it to be broken instead.

In this sorrow, in this broken-heartedness, Wilde found a kind of salvation. “[W]hat chills and kills” the prisoners, he says, even more than “lean Hunger and green Thirst,” is their bitter apathy, the feeling “that every stone one lifts by day/ Becomes one’s heart by night.” Sorrow, then, comes almost as a mercy, for “God’s eternal Laws are kind/ And break the heart of stone.” And it is through suffering that one may learn to love: “How else but through a broken heart/ May Lord Christ enter in?”[244]

This sounds at first like the very aim of the penitentiary — the reform of the inmates, the saving of their souls. But in fact Wilde repeatedly contrasts divine sympathy with human law. As he wrote of Christ in De Profundis:

“His morality is all sympathy, just what morality should be. . . . His justice is all poetical justice, exactly what justice should be. . . . The beggar goes to heaven because he had been unhappy. I can’t conceive a better reason for his being sent there.”[245]

Jesus is on the side of the prisoners, not the chaplain or the hangman. Christ is reclaimed on behalf of the oppressed, and the moral conventions of Victorian respectability are perfectly reversed. The criminals are vindicated, their judges condemned.

In The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde accomplishes this reversal through a series of sympathetic identifications. The prisoners sympathize with the murderer; the readers sympathize with the prisoners. More, the poem identifies the prisoners with the murderer, the reader with the narrator, the innocent with the guilty.[246]

The prisoners understand that, like the hanged man, they are not blameless: “had each got his due,/ They should have died instead.”[247] Their attitude is contrasted with that of the chaplain, who is blinded by his own righteousness. And so, on the eve of the execution, the prisoners “– the fool, the fraud, the knave — “keep an “endless vigil.” Some men “weep/ Who never yet have wept” and some men “knelt to pray/ Who never prayed before.”[248] But after the prisoner is hanged, “The Chaplain would not kneel to pray/ By his dishonoured grave” and refused to mark it with the sign of “that blessed Cross/ That Christ for sinners gave.” Thus, the convicted criminals call upon God while the pious clergyman, without any sense of the irony, refuses to extend grace to “one of those/ Whom Christ came down to save” and will not mark the grave of one condemned man with the sign of another.[249] Like the “Philanthropic people” Lord Henry Wotton condemns in Dorian Gray, the minister “lose[s] all sense of humanity,”[250] and for much the same reason — precisely because he believes himself good.

The prisoners, on the other hand, know how “To feel another’s guilt” and weep with pity and regret “For the blood we had not spilt.”[251] Hence each prisoner takes on the guilt of the murderer, but the murderer takes the punishment for all — if not as one innocent of sin, then at least as one no more guilty than the rest. (“For each man kills the thing he loves,/ Yet each man does not die.”[252]) Sympathy erases the distinctions between innocence and guilt. And isn’t that, after all, a kind of forgiveness?

One surprising result of this sympathetic identification is that capital punishment, which creates the central action of the poem, is not singled out for special criticism. Death is not presented as a separate, unique category of penalty, but as another barbarous aspect of the whole system of punishment — statistically exceptional, but typical in its cruelty. The other prisoners are not so different from the murderer, and their punishment contains traces of his. Thus Wilde describes confinement as a kind of death and compares the prison cell to a “numbered tomb.”[253]

He may have drawn this comparison because, during his long days in gaol, alone and ill, he felt that death would come as a relief. His thoughts often turned to suicide. Or it may be that, feeling the depressing effects of isolation on his imagination and his mental faculties, he believed that something had died within him already. But Wilde also understood the implicit claim to one’s life inherent in any system of authority, and the threat of violence implicit in every exercise thereof. As he wrote in De Profundis: “All trials are trials for one’s life, just as all sentences are sentences of death.”[254]

The hanged man therefore stands in for the other prisoners at every point. His crime is their crime; his punishment is their punishment. He is a murderer by his deeds, while they are murderers in their hearts. He takes the penalty for all of them, but they suffer while he is punished. The first-person narration, all the while, draws the reader in and encourages us to identify with the unnamed prisoner who addresses us. The poem calls on our sympathy and, more subtly, demands we take sides: are we like the prisoners, sinful but compassionate, or are we like the chaplain and those other representatives of the penal system, self-righteous and cruel?

Wilde develops this perspective in part by turning away from questions of justice and law. The fifth and most polemical section of the Ballad begins:

“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.”[255]

The relevant issue is not one of “right, Or. . . wrong,” but of the actual oppression that results from the law. Moral judgments, it seems, are individual and uncertain, while the experience of suffering is collective and sure: it is I who know not “whether Laws be right,” but it is we “who lie in gaol” and we who do know what it means to suffer there.

Wilde thus places the discussion of punishment on different ground, moving it away from guilt or innocence, away from right and wrong, toward the question of suffering, and sympathy for suffering. The guilt of Wooldridge, or of the other prisoners, is suddenly irrelevant compared to their shared experience of sorrow. And the justice of the laws that convicted them is unimportant compared to the cruelty of the punishments imposed on them. As Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism: “As one reads history, . . . one is absolutely sickened, not by the crimes that the wicked have committed, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted.”[256]

Epilogue: One of the Criminal Classes

Oscar Wilde’s punishment did not end when he was released. Wilde was freed, but he was freed to a life of sickness, poverty, and anonymous exile. He died in 1900, less than four years after leaving Reading Gaol.

But as much as he lost, Wilde also gained something from his prison experience. In prison, he won a kind of self-knowledge, the kind that only comes from tragedy. It was not the lesson that society meant to teach him, and it came less as a departure from his earlier life than as a development of it.[257] He learned to view suffering, as he had always viewed pleasure, as a mode of beauty and a means of self-realization. And he came to understand sympathy, not as mere sentimentality, but as a species of imagination that enlarges the individual personality and through which we share in the lives of others.

He learned his lessons in sympathy in large part from his fellow inmates.[258] One day at exercise, while the prisoners marched in their cheerless circle, Wilde suddenly heard a voice. One of the other men in the line whispered, “Oscar Wilde, I pity you because you must be suffering more than we are.” Without looking to see whom he addressed, the poet replied, “No, my friend, we are all suffering equally.”

Unfortunately, the brief exchange did not go unnoticed. A watchful guard shouted, “C.3.3 and C.4.8, step out of line! You’re going to be brought up before the warden.” Both men would be punished, but the one who began the conversation would be punished more severely. Yet each one insisted it was he who first spoke, and accepted the harsher penalty — three days in a dark cell, with a bread and water diet.[259]

This sort of identification marked Wilde deeply,[260] and his sense of connection with his fellow inmates proved most genuine. He kept in touch with several of them after his release, and one came to visit him in France.[261] He also sought to aid them, not just politically but personally, writing them small notes of encouragement, trying to set them up with work, and sending them money when he could.[262]

Wilde himself was bankrupt, of course, and living chiefly on the generosity of his friends. But this, as he saw it, only increased his responsibilities. As he wrote to Reginald Turner, “Now Robbie has whatever little money I possess, but he is very severe on me for having sent some money to four chaps released last week. He says I can’t afford it. But, dear Reggie, I must look after my prison-friends, if my good friends, like you, look after me.”[263]

We can see something of this attitude in Wilde’s decision to engage in the question of prison reform. He had survived prison largely because of the agitation and interference of his friends on the outside. And though he had refused to write the Chronicle on his own behalf from prison, once released he was willing to use whatever influence he had to win improved treatment for others.[264]

Oscar Wilde had sympathized with the poor, and identified with the criminal, throughout his literary career — from his defense of Thomas Griffiths Wainewright in “Pen, Pencil, and Poison” to his eulogy for Charles Thomas Wooldridge in The Ballad of Reading Gaol. But it was not until he was sent to prison that he became, at last, fully one of their number. As he wrote to Major Nelson after his release, “Of course I side with the prisoners: I was one, and I belong to their class now.”[265]


I am grateful to the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation and the Institute for Anarchist Studies for funding my research on Wilde.

I also owe thanks to my friends, whose comments on this chapter improved it immeasurably: Jen Angel, Daniel Scott Buck, Carl Caputo, Emily-Jane Dawson, Jamie Dawson, Walidah Imarisha, Candace Larson, Sara Libby, Jerusha McCormack, Missy Rohs, Gabriel Ryder, Josef Schneider, Laura Stokes, Spencer Sunshine, Clayton Szczech, Kevin Van Meter, Adam Warner, and Casey Welch.

Author Bio

Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (both from South End Press). He is currently writing a book on Oscar Wilde and anarchism, of which the present essay is a part.

[1] Oscar Wilde to Helena Sickert, April 25, 1892, in The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, ed. Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000) 166.

A note on terminology: “Gaol” is simply a British spelling for “jail.” Aside from the American context, and in quotation, I use “gaol” throughout this essay, so that I may remain consistent with Wilde’s use of the word in The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Similarly, the modern American distinction between jails (which hold untried suspects and those convicted of misdemeanors) and prisons (which hold felons) has no ready analogy in the Victorian context. Therefore, I have used the words “prison,” “gaol,” and (in the American story) “jail” as synonyms, though I have reserved “penitentiary” to refer to the particularly modern type of institution. For more on the terminological complexities, see: Seán McConville, “The Victorian Prison: England, 1865-1965,” in The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, ed. Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 117-8.

[2] Quoted in Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988) 521.

[3] Stuart Merrill, “Oscar Wilde,” in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, Volume 2, ed. E.H. Mikhail (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1979) 466.

[4] Oscar Wilde, “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” in Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003) 1244.

[5] Ellmann concisely describes the events leading to Wilde’s arrest: Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 435-456. The quote from Queensberry, along with alternate readings of his scribbled note, appears on page 438.

[6] For a thorough account of Wilde’s prison life, see: H. Montgomery Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Company, 1963).

[7] Oscar Wilde, De Profundis, in Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003) 1010.

[8] Oscar Wilde, “Poetry and Prison: Mr Wilfrid Blunt’s ‘In Vinculis’,” in Selected Journalism, ed. Anya Clayworth (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 27-9.

Albert Camus later said precisely the same thing about the prison’s effect on Wilde. See: Albert Camus, “The Artist in Prison,” Encounter (March 1954).

[9] Wilde, “Poetry and Prison,” 27.

[10] Quoted in Wilde, “Poetry and Prison,” 29.

[11] Wilde, “Poetry and Prison,” 29.

[12] Quoted in Wilde, “Poetry and Prison,” 29.

[13] That Wilde took Blunt as a model may be indicated by the original title of his prison letter, Epistola: In Carcere et Vinculis, later re-named De Profundis. Richard Ellmann, “Introduction: The Critic As Artist As Wilde,” in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982) xxiv.

[14] Thomas Wright, Oscar’s Books (London: Chatto & Windus, 2008) 233; Philip Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives: English Prison Biography, 1830-1914 (London: Methuen, 1985) 14-6.

[15] Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, in Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003) Act Two, 386.

Elsewhere in Earnest, Miss Prism expresses doubts about the justice of rehabilitation: “I am not in favour of this modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice. As a man sows so let him reap.”

Cecily replies: “But men don’t sew, Miss Prism. . . . And if they did, I don’t see why they should be punished for it. There is a great deal too much punishment in the world.” Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act Two, 376. Ellipses in original.

[16] Richard Ellmann, among others, suggests that Wilde was returned to Holloway for a few days before being moved to Pentonville. Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 479-80.

Even contemporary sources disagree as to whether Wilde went back to Holloway. I have here followed H. Montgomery Hyde, based on his review of the official records. Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 12.

[17] A prison barber, quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 22.

[18] For details of the admission process, see: Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 4; Wright, Oscar’s Books, 240; and Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 18-23.

For a full list of prison rules (the set from Millbank, circa 1883), see: Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 289-90.

[19] Quoted in Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde (Michigan State University Press, 1959) 194.

[20] The guard sympathized, but followed his instructions: “it cut me to the heart to have to be the person to cause him his crowning shame. Warders have feelings, although their duty will not always allow them to show it.'” Anonymous, “In the Depths,” in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, Volume 2, ed. E.H. Mikhail (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1979) 328-9.

[21] “We very generally find staff employing what are called admission procedures, such as the taking of a life history, photographing, weighing, fingerprinting, assigning numbers, searching, listing personal possessions for storage, undressing, bathing, disinfecting, haircutting, issuing institutional clothing, instructing as to rules, and assigning the quarters. . . . The admission procedure can be characterized as a leaving off and a taking on, with the midpoint marked by physical nakedness.” Erving Goffman, “On the Characteristics of Total Institutions,” in Asylums: Essays on the Social Situation of Mental Patients and Other Inmates (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1961) 16 and 18.

Wilfrid Blunt gave the process poetic expression with a verse Wilde quoted in his review: “Naked I came into the world of pleasure,/ And naked come I to this house of pain./ Here at the gate I lay down my life’s treasure,/ My pride, my garments, and my name with men./ The world and I henceforth shall be as twain,/ No sound of me shall pierce for good or ill/ These walls of grief. Nor shall I hear the vain/ Laughter and tears of those who love me still.” Quoted in Wilde, “Poetry and Prison,” 29.

[22] Goffman, “On the Characteristics of Total Institutions,” 14.

The prison officials were aware of this effect. As Captain Donald Shaw reported, the mandatory bath “admirably fulfils its twofold function; it insures a thorough wash, and it removes the last trace of one’s former self.” Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 19.

The effect this had on Wilde in particular may be indicated by the urgency with which he sought to reverse the process upon release. He wrote to More Adey about the preparations necessary for his return from jail, and included an amazingly long and detailed list of items to be procured ahead of time, including “a blue-serge suit from Doré and an ulster. . . , and boots, . . . a brown hat, and a grey hat, soft felt, seaside things. . . , eighteen collars made after the pattern you have, . . . two dozen white handkerchiefs, and a dozen with coloured borders. Also some neckties: some dark blue with white spots and diapers, and some of whatever is being worn for summer wear. I also want eight pair of socks, coloured summer things. . . , two or three sets of plain mother-of-pearl. . . studs. . . . Also, some nice French soap, Houbigant’s if you can get it. . . : either ‘Peau d’Espagne’ or ‘Sac de Laitue’ would do: a case of three. Also, some scent; Canterbury Wood Violet I would like, and some ‘Eau de Lubin’ for the toilet, a large bottle. Also some of Pritchard’s tooth-powder, and a medium toothbrush. . . hair-tonic. . . night-shirts. . . with a turn-down collar, and a breast-pocket for a handkerchief: coloured border to collar and cuffs.” He explained: “I want, for psychological reasons, to feel entirely physically cleansed of the stain and soil of prison life, so these things are all — trivial as they may sound — really of great importance.” Oscar Wilde to More Adey, May 6, 1897, in Complete Letters, 808-9. Emphasis in original.

[23] The following schedule is from Wright, Oscar’s Books, 241-2.

[24] Oscar Wilde to More Adey, September 25, 1896, in Complete Letters, 664.

[25] Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 7.

After prison, this habit endured, and Wilde compulsively arranged whatever was before him in perfect symmetry.

[26] An illustration of the exercise yard at Pentonville can be seen in The Oxford History of the Prison, following page 210.

[27] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 92.

A drawing of the Pentonville chapel shows row upon row of faces, each framed by its individual booth. Guards are posted on elevated balconies at the edges, and in the center row. Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 93.

[28] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 92.

[29] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 100.

A guard from Reading offered a more elaborate paraphrase of a typical sermon: “the Chaplain was addressing his shorn and grey-garbed flock, telling then how wicked they all were, and how thankful they should all be that they lived in a Christian country where a paternal Government was as anxious for the welfare of their souls as for the safe-keeping of their miserable bodies; that society did not wish to punish them, although they had erred and sinned against society; that they were undergoing a process of purification; that their prison was their purgatory, from which they could emerge as pure and spotless as though they had never sinned at all; that if they did so society would meet and welcome them with open arms; that they were the prodigal sons of the community, and that the community, against which they had previously sinned, was fattening calves to feast them, if they would but undertake to return to the fold and become good citizens. . . .” [Thomas Martin], “The Poet in Prison,” in Robert Harborough Sherard, The Life of Oscar Wilde (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1928) 391.

Originally published anonymously, this essay was the work of Reading Gaol warder Thomas Martin — about whom, more to follow.

[30] Quoted in [Martin], “The Poet in Prison,” 391-2.

[31] Wilde described the visits of the Chaplain: “Once every six weeks or so a key turns in the lock of one’s cell door, and the chaplain enters. One stands, of course, at attention. He asks one whether one has been reading the Bible. One answers ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ as the case may be. He then quotes a few texts, and goes out and locks the door. Sometimes he leaves a tract.” Oscar Wilde, “Two Letters to the Daily Chronicle [March 24, 1898]” in Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003) 1070.

The first time the Pentonville Chaplain visited Wilde, he asked, “Mr Wilde, did you have morning prayers in your house?” “I am sorry,” Wilde replied, “I fear not.” So, the chaplain concluded, “You see where you are now.” Quoted in Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 484.

[32] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1062.

[33] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1062.

[34] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1068

[35] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 31-2.

[36] Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 32 and 44-6.

[37] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 44-5.

[38] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 43.

[39] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 43.

[40] Oscar Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, in Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003) 888, 894, and 888.

[41] Wilde, De Profundis, 1009-10.

[42]Peter Kropotkin, In Russian and French Prisons (New York: Schocken Books, 1971) 283.

[43] Kropotkin, In Russian and French Prisons, 320-1.

[44] Kropotkin, In Russian and French Prisons, 322.

Kropotkin’s book first appeared in 1887. I don’t know whether Wilde had read it, but the two men knew each other, and Wilde referred to Kropotkin’s prison experience in De Profundis: “Two of the most perfect lives I have come across in my own experience are the lives of Verlaine and of Prince Kropotkin: both of them men who passed years in prison. . . .” Wilde, De Profundis, 1038.

[45] Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 6.

[46] This history is efficiently recounted in: Randall McGowen, “The Well-Ordered Prison: England, 1780-1865,” in The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, ed. Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).

[47] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 29.

[48] Quoted in Peter Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town (Phoenix Mill: Berkshire Books, 1993) 3.

[49] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 36.

[50] Oscar Wilde Prison Letters and Other Documents 1895-1897 [bound manuscript]. Clark Library, Wilde W6721L R825 1895-1897. Page 5. The follow quotations concerning mail regulations are taken from this same source.

These regulations are reprinted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 201-2.

[51] Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, 59.

[52] Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, March 10, 1896, in Complete Letters, 654.

[53] Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 211.

[54] Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, 59.

[55] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1069.

[56] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1069-70. Sherard reports a warder interrupting when he addressed Wilde in French, “Stop that now! No foreign tongues allowed here.” Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 56.

[57] Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 55-6.

[58] Constance Wilde to R. Sherard, September 21, 1895. British Library, Add 81732 4009E.

[59] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1069.

[60] Dr. Daniel Ritchie, quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 37.

[61] Quoted in McConville, “The Victorian Prison,” 122.

[62] Oscar Wilde to the Home Secretary, July 2, 1896, in Complete Letters, 657.

[63] Both quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 102.

For more on vice as the perceived cause of crime, see: John Briggs, et al., Crime and Punishment in England: An Introductory History (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996) 126-7.

[64] On the influence of utilitarianism, see: Briggs, et al., Crime and Punishment in England, 158-60; on that of Quakers and other religious groups, Briggs, et al., 160-2, and McGowen, “The Well-Ordered Prison,” 86-8.

[65] Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 2.

[66] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 195.

[67] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 137.

[68] Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 26.

[69] Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 121-3.

[70] Donald Thomas, The Victorian Underworld (Washington Square, New York: New York University Press, 1998) 270; and Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 127.

A picture of the treadwheel can be found on page 126 of Victorian Prison Lives.

[71] Prison doctors often prescribed the crank to punish sloth. Such a crank could be installed in the cell, with a counter to record each rotation. Prisoners were expected to execute 10,000 turns a day, which at the rate of 20 per minute would occupy eight hours and twenty minutes. Thomas, Victorian Underworld, 269. A diagram of the crank can also be seen on this page.

[72] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 195.

[73] Quoted in Wilde, De Profundis, 985.

[74] The pivotal study on the relationship between Calvinist theology, ascetic rationalism, and economic inequality remains Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, trans. Talcott Parsons (Los Angeles: Roxbury Publishing, 1998).

[75] Kropotkin, In Russian and French Prisons, 333-4.

[76] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 49.

[77] Percival W. H. Almy, “New Views of Mr. Oscar Wilde,” in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, Volume 1. ed. E.H. Mikhail (New York; Barnes and Noble, 1979) 232-3.

[78] I owe this observation to Jerusha McCormack, in personal correspondence, July 25, 2009.

[79] Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, 55-6; Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 194-6 and 205-6.

[80] Quoted in Priestly, Victorian Prison Lives, 225.

[81] [Martin], “The Poet in Prison,” 392.

[82] “The forces of the law had always had a concern with order, but not until the middle decades of the nineteenth century did the ambition extend to controlling all public spaces, particularly in towns and cities. In earlier times, disorder attracted concerted attention only when it directly threatened the possessions or wellbeing of the propertied. Now order was seen as an end in itself. The educated classes had a right not to encounter immoral behaviour as they went about their business but a responsibility to rescue the less educated from the consequences of their excesses. . . . Drunkenness, vagrancy, prostitution and gambling and, later homosexuality, drug-taking and bad driving were stigmatized for the danger they posed to civilization at large or for the harm they might do to families, innocent bystanders or the perpetrators themselves.” Briggs, et al., Crime and Punishment in England, 193.

The criminalization of homosexuality, and Wilde’s prosecution in particular, came as an effect of the new emphasis on moral order. Briggs, et al., Crime and Punishment in England, 203.

[83] Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, 67-8.

[84] Briggs, et al., Crime and Punishment in England, 197.

[85] For a fascinating study of the history of the idea of the criminal class as it developed in England over the course of the nineteenth century, see: J.J. Tobias, Crime and Industrial Society in the 19th Century (London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1967), Chapter 4, “The Criminal Class,” 52-77.

Tobias quotes Rev. W.D. Morrison, who was Chaplain at Wandsworth when Wilde was there: “There is a population of habitual criminals which forms a class by itself. Habitual criminals are not to be confounded with the working or any other class; . . . to commit crime is their trade. . . .” Tobias, Crime and Industrial Society, 52.

[86] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995) 277.

[87] Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, in Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003) 1175.

[88] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1182.

[89] Oscar Wilde, “A Chinese Sage,” in The Artist as Critic: Critical Writings of Oscar Wilde, ed. Richard Ellmann (Chicago: University of Chicago press, 1982) 224.

The bamboo cage shows up again in Wilde’s second letter to the Daily Chronicle, suggesting that Chuang Tsu was still on his mind: “With regard to the punishment of insomnia, it only exists in Chinese and in English prisons. In China it is inflicted by placing the prisoner in a small bamboo cage; in England by means of the plank bed.” Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1068.

[90] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1182.

It is not only anarchists who have suggested a causal relationship between punishment and crime. Cesare Beccaria also argued, “The severity of punishment itself emboldens men to commit the very wrongs it is supposed to prevent. . . . The countries and times most notorious for severity of penalties have always been those in which the bloodiest and most inhumane deeds were committed.” Quoted in David J. Rothman, “Perfecting the Prison: United States, 1789-1865,” in The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, ed. Norval Morris and David J. Rothman (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998) 102.

[91] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1181-2.

[92] Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, 77-8.

[93] Anonymous, “In the Depths,” 328.

[94] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1067.

[95] Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 495.

[96] Quoted in Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde, 196.

Such neglect was typical of the rather un-Hippocratic position in which the physicians found themselves. Prison doctors were responsible for certifying the prisoners as fit for labour (or not); they could authorize (or withhold) additional rations; they supervised flogging and determined when (or whether) it jeopardized the prisoner’s survival; they decided whether a prisoner was so ill as to require transfer to a hospital, or near enough insanity as to require release. Since the interests of the prisoners typically fell on one side of these questions, and the demands of the institution on the other, the role of the doctor became, as Philip Priestly put it, “fundamentally disciplinary. . . . The doctors patrolled the narrow straits that separate hunger from starvation and punishment from outright cruelty. . . .” Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 190.

Wilde wrote later of “the type of prison-doctor in England. As a class they are brutes, and excessively cruel.” Oscar Wilde to Leonard Smithers, November 19, 1897, in Complete Letters, 983.

[97] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1067.

[98] Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 34.

[99] Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 26.

[100] Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 34, note 1; Richard Burdon Haldane, “Oscar Wilde in Prison” in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, Volume 2. ed. E.H. Mikhail (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1979) 324; Wilde, Complete Letters, 1022, note 5.

[101] Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 34.

[102] Quoted in Neil McKenna, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (New York: Basic Books, 2005) 404.

[103] Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 36-7. Emphasis in original.

[104] See: Robert Ross to Adela Schuster, December 23, 1900, in Complete Letters, 1228.

[105] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1067.

[106] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1067.

[107] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1062.

[108] Both quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 151.

[109] McConville, “The Victorian Prison,” 133.

[110] Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 151.

[111] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1064.

[112] Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 152.

[113] Quoted in McConville, “The Victorian Prison,” 134.

[114] For the full dietary chart, see Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 150.

[115] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 164-5.

[116] Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 165.

McConville notes that, as many prisoners were already sick and malnourished when they entered prison, the restricted diet represented a genuine danger to their health. McConville, “The Victorian Prison,” 133.

It’s true that the Dietary Committee did insist on medical supervision, but this proved a meager safeguard. Prison doctors commonly argued that it was good for the health of the inmates that they be kept in a state near to starvation, since “when free, [they] lead a life of reckless self-indulgence.” Quoted in Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 156.

[117] Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, 33.

A photograph of the cell appears in McKenna, Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, following 274.

[118] [Martin], “The Poet in Prison,” 398.

[119] Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, October 8, 1897, in Complete Letters, 956-7.

[120] Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 139.

[121] Wilde, The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, 894.

[122] Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, 44; and Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 21.

[123] [Martin], “The Poet in Prison,” 389.

[124] “Speranza’s Gifted Son,” in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, Volume 2, ed. E.H. Mikhail (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1979) 56.

[125] Anonymous, “In the Depths,” 328.

[126] Quoted in McKenna, Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, 420.

[127] Quoted in Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde, 193.

[128] Haldane, “Oscar Wilde in Prison”, 323.

[129] Haldane also offered some sincere, if sanctimonious, words of encouragement: he told Wilde that he “had not fully used his great literary gift, and the reason was that he had lived a life of pleasure and had not made any great subject his own. Now misfortune might prove a blessing for his career, for he had got a great subject.” Wilde, then, “burst into tears, and promised to make the attempt.” Haldane later received, anonymously, a copy of The Ballad of Reading Gaol. “It was the redemption of his promise to me.” Haldane, “Oscar Wilde in Prison,” 323-4,

[130] Wright, Oscar’s Books, 243.

[131] Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 42, note 4.

[132] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1066.

[133] Anonymous, “In the Depths,” 328-9.

[134] Both quoted in Wright, Oscar’s Books, 271.

[135] Anonymous, “In the Depths,” 328.

[136] Quoted in Wright, Oscar’s Books, 264.

[137] This petition appears as: Oscar Wilde to the Home Secretary, July 2, 1896, in Complete Letters, 656-60. The quotations in this section are from pages 656-8.

[138] The “sexual madness” theory of homosexuality represented the most progressive “scientific” position of the day, though it contradicted Wilde’s own earlier treatment of the issue in, for example, The Portrait of Mr. W.H. How much the new position reflected his real feelings, and how much it represented a cynical ploy to win release, we may perhaps best judge with reference to his later life. See, for example, the discussion to follow; also, McKenna, Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, 440-462.

[139] Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 75.

[140] Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 77-8.

[141] The second petition appears as: Oscar Wilde to the Home Secretary, November 10, 1896, in Complete Letters, 667-8. The following quotations are drawn from those pages.

[142] Again, the Home Office concluded, “The prisoner’s fear of mental breakdown or decay of his literary capability is expressed in too lucid orderly and polished a style to cause apprehension on that point.” Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 84.

Wilde wrote the Home Secretary once again on April 22, 1897, requesting that he be let out a few days early “to avoid the notoriety and annoyance of newspaper interviews and descriptions on the occasion of his release.” Oscar Wilde to the Home Secretary, April 22, 1897, in Complete Letters, 803.

His request was not granted, but special arrangements were made to avoid publicity. See, for details: Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 524; and Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 100-6 and 136-40.

[143] Quoted in Seymour Hicks, “Unbreakable Spirit,” in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, Volume 2, ed. E.H. Mikhail (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1979) 286.

[144] Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act One, 362.

[145] McKenna, Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, 461.

[146] Wilde wrote, “the world is angry because their punishment has had no effect. They wished to be able to say ‘We have done a capital thing for Oscar Wilde: by putting him in prison we have put a stop to his friendship with Alfred Douglas and all that that implies.’ But now they find that they have not had that effect, that they merely treated me barbarously, but did not influence me, they simply ruined me, so they are furious.” Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, November 25, 1897, in Complete Letters, 993.

[147] André Gide, “Oscar Wilde in Memoriam,” in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, Volume 2, ed. E.H. Mikhail (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1979) 296.

[148] Quoted in Gide, “Oscar Wilde in Memoriam,” 293.

The story is repeated in a different form in Gedeon Spilett, “An Interview with Oscar Wilde,” in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, Volume 2, ed. E.H. Mikhail (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1979) 357.

[149] Wilde, De Profundis, 1020.

[150] See, for example: Oscar Wilde to William Rothenstein, February 1898, in Complete Letters, 1024.

[151] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1064.

[152] Oscar Wilde Prison Letters [bound manuscript]. Clark Library, Wilde W6 721L R825, 1895-1897 Bound. Page 21d. Reprinted as: Oscar Wilde to Thomas Martin, circa April 1897, in Complete Letters, 798.

[153] Wilde had begun a poem (now lost) called The Ballad of the Fisher-Boy. It was to be “a joy-song,” and had he completed it, it would have served as a counter-point to Reading Gaol, “sing[ing] of liberty instead of prison, joy instead of sorrow, a kiss instead of an execution.” Quoted in McKenna, Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, 459.

As it was, however, Wilde knew that Reading Gaol would be his “chant de cygne, and I am sorry to leave with a cry of pain — a song of Marsyas, not a song of Apollo; but Life, that I have loved so much — too much — has torn me like a tiger. . . . [I am now] the ruin and wreck of what once was wonderful and brilliant, and terribly improbable.” Oscar Wilde to Carlos Blacker, March 9, 1898, in Complete Letters, 1035.

[154] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1060.

Not all guards were as kind as Thomas Martin. Stuart Wood reported warders beating child prisoners to make them quiet. Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 56.

[155] On two occasions, May 25 and May 27, Michael Davitt (a Socialist MP, who had himself been jailed previously for Fenian activities) questioned the Home Secretary, Sir Matthew White Ridley, about the cause for Martin’s dismissal. Ridley refused to cite specific reasons, but insisted that they were not those reported. Stuart Mason [Christopher Millard], Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (London: Bertram Rota, 1967) 51.

Wilde wrote to Davitt afterward to encourage him to keep “in some way stirring in the matter. No one knows better than yourself how terrible life in an English prison is and what cruelties result from the stupidity of officialism, and the immobile ignorance of centralisation.” Oscar Wilde to Michael Davitt, May or June 1897, in Complete Letters, 870. Emphasis in original.

Wilde later suggested that Davitt write a preface to The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Oscar Wilde to Leonard Smithers, May 2, 1898, in Complete Letters, 1058.

[156] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1060.

[157] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1061.

[158] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1061.

[159] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1064.

[160] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1065.

[161] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1066.

[162] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1060-1.

[163] Toward the end of his letter, he remarks (likely from his own experience), “No report by the Medical Commissioners is of any avail. It is not to be trusted. The medical inspectors do not seem to understand the difference between idiocy and lunacy — between the entire absence of a function or organ and the disease of a function or organ.” Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1066.

[164] It was not until De Profundis appeared — posthumously — that Wilde’s more directly autobiographical account of prison became known.

[165] Wilde, De Profundis, 1027. Emphasis in original.

[166] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1063.

[167] Oscar Wilde Prison Letters and Other Documents [bound manuscript]. Clark Library, Wilde W6 721L R825, 1895-1897 Bound. Page 20a. Emphasis in original.

This note, and those following, are also reprinted as: Oscar Wilde to Thomas Martin, circa April 1897, in Complete Letters 798, and Oscar Wilde to Thomas Martin, May 17, 1897, in Complete Letters, 831. There is something special, though, in seeing the originals, those tiny scraps of paper covered over with marks from dull pencil. The documents themselves seem to hold traces of the circumstances in which they were produced. Evidence, in this case, is not purely textual.

[168] Oscar Wilde Prison Letters and Other Documents [bound manuscript]. Clark Library, Wilde W6 721L R825, 1895-1897 Bound. Page 21c.

[169] Oscar Wilde Prison Letters and Other Documents [bound manuscript]. Clark Library, Wilde W6 721L R825, 1895-1897 Bound. Page 20b.

[170] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1063.

[171] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1063.

[172] Mason, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, 50.

[173] Quoted in Mason, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, 51-2.

[174] “[F]or all authority is quite degrading. It degrades those who exercise it, and degrades those over whom it is exercised.” Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1182.

[175] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1060.

Bakunin made much the same point: “We are in fact enemies of all authority, for we realize that power and authority corrupt those who exercise them as much as those who are compelled to submit to them.” Mikhail Bakunin, The Political Philosophy of Bakunin: Scientific Anarchism, ed. G.P. Maximoff (New York: The Free Press, 1953) 249.

[176] Wilde, The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, 885.

[177] Wilde, The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, 887.

Wilde had some idea of what it was like to be so closely watched. A report to the Home Secretary from the Governor of Pentonville explained: “He was placed under observation on first reception for seven days to be specially watched. . . as is frequently done with prisoners owing to depression and mental strain of their trial and sentence.” Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 6.

[178] Wilde, The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, 889.

[179] “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./ They stripped him of his canvas 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 their convict lies.” Wilde, The Ballad Of Reading Gaol, 896.

[180] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 896.

[181] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 897.

[182] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 897.

[183] In the poem, neither Wooldridge nor Wilde are named directly. The poem is dedicated to “CTW,” and the poet is identified only by his cell number, C.3.3.

[184] Mason, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, 426; Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, 75.

Given the nature of Wooldridge’s crime, it is worth noting something that Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism: “Jealousy, which is an extraordinary source of crime in modern life, is an emotion closely bound up with our conceptions of property, and under Socialism and Individualism will die out. It is remarkable that in communistic tribes jealously is entirely unknown.” Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1183.

[185] Anonymous, “In the Depths,” 331.

[186] Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, 76.

[187] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1182, 1194, 1181, 1193.

[188] Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, October 8, 1897, in Complete Letters, 956.

[189] Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, October 19, 1897, in Complete Letters, 964.

[190] Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying,” in Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003) 1077.

[191] Oscar Wilde to Laurence Housman, August 22, 1897, in Complete Letters, 928.

[192] Oscar Wilde to W. R. Paton, August 1897, in Complete Letters, 922.

[193] Ian Small writes that Wilde “drew inspiration from the example of contemporaries such as Rudyard Kipling, who had demonstrated the appropriateness of popular vernacular forms for addressing contemporary political and social issues.” Ian Small, “Introduction,” The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Volume I: Poems and Poems in Prose, ed. Bobby Fong and Karl Beckson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) xxxvi.

[194] Oscar Wilde to Edward Strangman, July 20, 1897, in Complete Letters, 916.

[195] Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, October 19, 1897, in Complete Letters, 964.

[196] Oscar Wilde to Leonard Smithers, October 19, 1897, in Complete Letters, 966.

[197] Oscar Wilde to Reginald Turner, October 19, 1897, in Complete Letters, 966.

[198] Oscar Wilde to Leonard Smithers, May 9, 1898, in Complete Letters, 1063.

Wilde had to give up on the idea of seeing the poem in a periodical, “as it is far too long for a paper.” Oscar Wilde to Leonard Smithers, October 1, 1897, in Complete Letters, 952.

[199] Oscar Wilde to Leonard Smithers, February 18, 1898, in Complete Letters, 1019. See also, Oscar Wilde to More Adey, February 21, 1898, in Complete Letters, 1023.

[200] Mason, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, 417, 420, 422, and 423.

[201] Robert Harborough Sherard, The Life of Oscar Wilde (New York: Dodd, Mead, & Company, 1928) 461-3; and Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 183.

Later, Bulgarian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Hebrew, Hungarian, Japanese, Polish, Portuguese, Serbo-Croat, Swedish, and White Russian translations would be added to this list.

[202] C.3.3. (Oscar Wilde), with woodcuts by Frans Masereel, The Ballad of Reading Gaol (London: The Journeyman Press, 1978 [reprint]).

[203] Benj. R. Tucker, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” Liberty (March 1899) [reprinted in Liberty; Volumes 13-14, 1897-1905 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Reprint Corporation, 1970] 5.

[204] “The Critics on Oscar Wilde’s Poem,” Liberty (May 1899) [reprinted in Liberty; Volumes 13-14, 1897-1905 (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Reprint Corporation, 1970] 4-5 and 8.

[205] Quoted in “The Critics on Oscar Wilde’s Poem,” 4.

[206] Quoted in “The Critics on Oscar Wilde’s Poem,” 5.

[207] Quoted in “The Critics on Oscar Wilde’s Poem,” 8.

[208] Edward Carpenter, Prisons, Police, and Punishment: An Inquiry into the Causes and Treatment of Crime and Criminals (London: Arthur C. Fifield, 1905) 8 and 128-30; Carpenter again quotes from Reading Gaol, without attribution, on 41.

[209] Alexander Berkman, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (New York: Mother Earth Publishing Association, 1912), the unpaged epigram, as well as pages 342 and 389.

[210] Emma Goldman, “The Tragedy at Buffalo,” in Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Volume One: Made for America, 1890-1901, ed. Candace Falk (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003) 471 and 477.

[211] Emma Goldman, “Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure,” in Anarchism and Other Essays (New York: Cosimo Classics, 2005) 117 and 132.

[212] Oscar Wilde, “The Ennobling Influence of Sorrow,” Mother Earth (July 1906) 12-9.

[213] “Books to be had through Mother Earth [advertisement],” Mother Earth (June 1906), 62-4.

Along with Wilde’s works, the ad lists books by Kropotkin, Carpenter, Morris, Paine, Tolstoy, and Nietzsche.

[214] Forces of Law and Order (Selected Articles from the Anarchist Journal “Freedom”) (London: Freedom Press, 1963), unpaged epigram. The original is from Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1178.

Somewhat reversing this pattern, H. Montgomery Hyde dedicated his account of Wilde’s prison life “To the memory of those who have toiled in the cause of penal reform.” Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, v.

[215] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1066-7. The quotes in the following paragraph are likewise from these pages.

Wilde’s knowledge of the issues went beyond his “long personal experience.” At the time of his death, among his few possessions were numerous books, pamphlets, and articles on prison reform. Wright, Oscar’s Books, 297; Sherard, Life of Oscar Wilde, 411.

[216] Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 2.

[217] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1067-8.

[218] Oscar Wilde to the Home Secretary, July 2, 1896, in Complete Letters, 658.

[219] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1068-9.

[220] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1068-70.

[221] Less cheerfully, “little children are still committed to most of the horrors of prison life. . . .” Christopher Millard, “Oscar Wilde’s Letters on Prison Reform,” The Athenaeum (May 3, 1908) 638.

It was Millard who compiled the Bibliography of Oscar Wilde under the pseudonym “Stuart Mason.”

[222] Briggs, et al., Crime and Punishment in England, 237; Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, 5; Priestley, Victorian Prison Lives, 123. Briggs, et al., specifically note the influence of The Ballad of Reading Gaol in shifting popular opinion about prison conditions (238).

[223] Oscar Wilde to Georgina Weldon, May 31, 1898, in Complete Letters, 1080.

[224] Southerton, Reading Gaol by Reading Town, 101.

[225] Billy Bragg, “Rotting on Remand,” Worker’s Playtime (New York: Elektra/Asylum Records, 1988).

[226] Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003) 40-3.

[227] I discuss some of this history, and the prison abolition movement’s efforts to learn from it, in my article: Kristian Williams, “Critical Resistance at 10: Addressing Abolition, Violence, Race and Gender,” Against the Current (March/April 2009).

[228] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1194.

Similar dilemmas continue to haunt today’s prison abolition movement. See, for example: Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? 20.

[229] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1174.

Michel Foucault has astutely observed that the reform movement occupies a position, not of conflict with the prison system, but of symbiosis: “One should also recall that the movement for reforming the prisons, for controlling their functioning is not a recent phenomenon. It does not even seem to have originated in a recognition of failure. Prison ‘reform’ is virtually contemporary with the prison itself: it constitutes, as it were, its programme. From the outset, the prison was caught up in a series of accompanying mechanisms, whose purpose was apparently to correct it, but which seem to form part of its very functioning, so closely have they been bound up with its existence throughout its long history.” Foucault, Discipline and Punish, 234

[230] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1180.

Perhaps Wilde was thinking here of Wilfrid Blunt, who wrote in his preface to In Vinculis, “Imprisonment. . . is a reality of discipline most useful to the modern soul, lapped as it is in physical sloth and self-indulgence. Like a sickness or a spiritual retreat it purifies and ennobles; and the soul emerges from it stronger and more self-contained.” Quoted in Wilde, “Poetry and Prison,” 27-8.

[231] Oscar Wilde, “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” 1244.

[232] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in Collins Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (Glasgow: HarperCollins, 2003) 134.

[233] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 898.

[234] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1064. Emphasis added.

[235] Wilde, “Two Letters [March 24, 1898],” 1070.

[236] Kropotkin also struggled with the possibilities of reform: “If I were asked, what could be reformed in this and like prisons, provided they remain prisons, I could really only suggest improvements in detail, which certainly would not substantially ameliorate them. . . .” But, like Wilde, Kropotkin then went on to itemize a few simple changes, like higher pay for prison labour, an end to mandatory silence, and the allowance of tobacco. He concluded: “the more one reflects about the partial improvements which might be made; the more one considers them under their real, practical aspect, the more one is convinced that the few which can be made will be of no moment, while serious improvements are impossible under the present system. Some thoroughly new departure is unavoidable. The system is wrong from the very foundation.” Kropotkin, In Russian and French Prisons, 301 and 303-4. Emphasis in original.

[237] In his Ballad, it was another matter. Wilde’s publisher’s worried about charges of libel, especially concerning the doctor, the chaplain, and the governor (Isaacson). Wilde insisted that, in each case, “the description is generic.” Then he added, “The only people I have libelled in the poem are the Reading warders. They were — most of them — as good as possible to me. But to poetry all must be sacrificed, even warders.” Oscar Wilde to Leonard Smithers, November 19, 1897, in Complete Letters, 987.

[238] Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1066.

[239] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 888.

[240] Reverend W.D. Morrison, the chaplain at Wandsworth, wrote: “The great difficulty with all of us in prisons. . . is that we are so accustomed to seeing people under punishment and under suffering that we are apt to get a little hard in the matter unless we take very great care.” Quoted in Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 18.

[241] Wilde, De Profundis, 1025.

[242] De Profundis, 1024 and 1040.

[243] Wilde, De Profundis, 1026.

As Wilde told Anna, Comtesse de Bremont, “I have lived — yes — I have lived. . . . I have lived all there was to live. Life held to my lips a full flavoured cup, and I drank it to the dregs — the bitter and the sweet. I found the sweet bitter, and the bitter, sweet — yes, I have lived.” Quoted in Anna, Comtesse de Bremont, “‘I Have Lived’,” in Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, Volume 2, ed. E.H. Mikhail (New York: Barnes and Noble Books, 1979) 450.

[244] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 898.

This reading suggests an additional meaning of Wilde’s line to Ross: “the poem should end at ‘outcasts always mourn’, but the propaganda . . . begins there.”

Wilde had written earlier, in De Profundis: “for the first year of my imprisonment I did nothing else, and can remember doing nothing else, but wring my hands in impotent despair, and say ‘What an ending! What an appalling ending!’; now I try to say to myself. . . ‘What a beginning! What a wonderful beginning!'” Wilde, De Profundis, 1038.

[245] Wilde, De Profundis, 1035.

[246] I owe this observation in part to Kevin Van Meter, in conversation, May 20, 2009.

The murderer is specifically identified with the narrator: “Like two doomed ships that pass in storm/ We had crossed each other’s way:/ . . . A prison wall was round us born,/ 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.” Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 887.

Ellmann makes this point at greater length. Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 532.

After his death, Wilde was personally identified with Wooldridge. The epitaph on the poet’s tomb is a quote from The Ballad of Reading Gaol: “And alien tears will fill for him/ Pity’s long-broken urn,/ For his mourners will be outcast men,/ And outcasts always mourn.” Quoted in Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 588-9.

[247] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 893.

[248] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 889.

[249] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 896.

Wilde makes clear in his correspondence, “I do not mean the present Chaplain of Reading: he is a good-natured fool, one of the silliest of God’s silly sheep: a typical clergyman in fact. I mean any priest of God who assists at the unjust and cruel punishments of man.” Oscar Wilde to Leonard Smithers, November 19, 1897, in Complete Letters, 983.

For details of the Chaplain’s role in executions, see: Harry Potter, Hanging in Judgment: Religion and the Death Penalty in England (New York: Continuum, 1993), especially Chapter 9, “Sentiment and Salvation: The Conversion of the Condemned in Late Victorian and Edwardian England,” pages 111-119.

[250] Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 39.

[251] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 889.

[252] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 884.

[253] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 889.

[254] Wilde, De Profundis, 1057.

[255] Wilde, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, 896.

[256] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism, 1182.

[257] De Profundis 1026.

[258] “Their cheerfulness under terrible circumstances, their sympathy for each other, their humility, their gentleness, their pleasant smiles of greeting when they meet each other, their complete acquiescence in their punishments, are all quite wonderful, and I myself learned many sound lessons from them.” Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1063.

[259] Quoted in Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, 497. See also, Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 20.

Reflecting on this story, Albert Camus wrote: “Am I wrong in thinking that, at that moment, Wilde was conscious of a happiness of a kind he had never hitherto so much as imagined? All at once, he was no longer alone. . . . He realised that his brothers were not people who lived at the Ritz but men like the one who tramped ahead of him during that same exercise, muttering incoherently, or that other who was to inspire The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Camus, “The Artist in Prison,” 27.

[260] Later, in the Chronicle, Wilde wrote, “Prisoners are, as a class, extremely kind and sympathetic to each other. Suffering and the community of suffering makes people kind, and day after day as I tramped the yard I used to feel with pleasure and comfort what Carlyle calls somewhere ‘the silent rhythmic charm of human companionship.'” Wilde, “Two Letters [May 28, 1897],” 1063.

[261] Hyde, Oscar Wilde: The Aftermath, 153.

Wilde wrote to Reginald Turner, in anticipation of Arthur Cruttenden’s visit: “You see what a good chap he is: he was one of my great friends at Reading. . . . Now I have asked him to come and stay a week here with me, so that he may have a holiday after eighteen months’ hard labour. . . . You don’t know, Reggie, what a pleasure it is to me to think I shall have the chance of being kind to a chap who has been in trouble with me. I look forward to it with tears of joy and gratitude.” Oscar Wilde to Reginald Turner, June 7, 1897, in Complete Letters, 887-8.

[262] See, for examples: Oscar Wilde to an Unidentified Correspondent, circa May 28, 1897 in Complete Letters, 861-2; and Oscar Wilde to Frank Harris, June 13, 1897, in Complete Letters, 897.

[263] Wilde to Turner, June 7, 1897, in Complete Letters, 887.

[264] Wilde’s friends seem to have discouraged him from engaging in this advocacy, worried about the personal consequences of public attention. But Wilde replied, “[D]on’t you see how right I was to write to the Chronicle? All good impulses are right. Had I listened to some of my friends I would never have written.” Oscar Wilde to Robert Ross, May 29-30, 1897, in Complete Letters, 864. Emphasis in original.

[265] Oscar Wilde to Major J. O. Nelson, May 28, 1897, in Complete Letters, 863.

1 thought on ““A Criminal with a Noble Face”:  Oscar Wilde’s Encounters with the Victorian Gaol by Kristian Williams”

  1. Insightful indictment systems that control the body. Not at all more humane than brutalization of the body.

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