“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is a poetic description of Oscar Wilde’s experiences in prison, specifically witnessing the sentence and execution of a fellow inmate at Reading Gaol.
The first part of the poem consists of several verses describing the prisoner: his appearance, emotions, and situation. Within this part of the poem, Wilde also compares the condemned inmate’s situation to the situations faced by other men, saying repeatedly that “each man kills the thing he loves” as the inmate killed the woman he loved.
The second part of the poem describes the condemned inmate’s emotional reactions to his approaching death. Although the other prisoners expect him to be depressed and self-pitying, they are surprised to find that he is not upset and seems to be trying to enjoy his time left.
The third part describes the inmate’s continuing indifference, and even contentedness, in the days leading up to his execution. Wilde describes seeing an open grave that had been dug for the man’s corpse. He discusses how although he and the other inmates could not sleep the night before the execution, the man who was to die slept soundly throughout the night. Wilde and the other prisoners anxiously await the morning, and when morning comes they anxiously await the execution. Finally, the execution is performed, and Wilde describes the man’s strangled cry as he is hanged.
In the fourth part, the prisoners are let out from their cells and walk, saddened and fearful, to the man’s grave. The man’s corpse is mocked and disrespected by prison officials, but at last he is cremated and buried, and Wilde says that he is “at peace, or will be soon.”
The fifth part of the poem is a reflection on the darkness, discomfort, and other horrors of prison life. In comparison to previous parts of the poem, the fifth part contains several references to God and Christ, used to emphasize the religious implications of the suffering the prisoners are forced to endure as punishment for their crimes.
The sixth and final part, also the shortest part, is a summary of the poem. It mentions several important points brought up in other parts of the poem: the disrespect of the man’s grave, the inevitability of his death, and his indifference toward his death in the time leading up to his execution. the final stanza is a repetition of the most famous stanza in the poem, found in the first part: “And all men kill the thing they love,/By all let this be heard,/Some do it with a bitter look,/Some with a flattering word,/The coward does it with a kiss,/The brave man with a sword!”