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«The Ballad of Reading Gaol BY OSCAR WILDE I He did not wear his scarlet coat, For blood and wine are red, And blood and wine were on his hands When ...»

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The Ballad of Reading Gaol



He did not wear his scarlet coat,

For blood and wine are red,

And blood and wine were on his hands

When they found him with the dead,

The poor dead woman whom he loved,

And murdered in her bed.

He walked amongst the Trial Men

In a suit of shabby gray;

A cricket cap was on his head,

And his step seemed light and gay;

But I never saw a man who looked Share this text ... ?

So wistfully at the day.  Twitter  Pinterest I never saw a man who looked With such a wistful eye Upon that little tent of blue Which prisoners call the sky, And at every drifting cloud that went With sails of silver by.

I walked, with other souls in pain, Within another ring, And was wondering if the man had done A great or little thing, When a voice behind me whispered low, "That fellow's got to swing."

Dear Christ! the very prison walls Suddenly seemed to reel, And the sky above my head became Like a casque of scorching steel;

And, though I was a soul in pain, My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what hunted thought Quickened his step, and why He looked upon the garish day With such a wistful eye;

The man had killed the thing he loved, And so he had to die.

Yet each man kills the thing he loves, By each let this be heard, Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word, The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young, And some when they are old;

Some strangle with the hands of Lust,

Some with the hands of Gold:

The kindest use a knife, because The dead so soon grow cold.

Some love too little, some too long, Some sell, and others buy;

Some do the deed with many tears,

And some without a sigh:

For each man kills the thing he loves, Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame On a day of dark disgrace, Nor have a noose about his neck, Nor a cloth upon his face, Nor drop feet foremost through the floor Into an empty space.

He does not sit with silent men Who watch him night and day;

Who watch him when he tries to weep, And when he tries to pray;

Who watch him lest himself should rob The prison of its prey.

He does not wake at dawn to see Dread figures throng his room, The shivering Chaplain robed in white, The Sheriff stern with gloom, And the Governor all in shiny black, With the yellow face of Doom.

He does not rise in piteous haste To put on convict-clothes, While some coarse-mouthed Doctor gloats, and notes Each new and nerve-twitched pose, Fingering a watch whose little ticks Are like horrible hammer-blows.

He does not know that sickening thirst That sands one's throat, before The hangman with his gardener's gloves Slips through the padded door, And binds one with three leathern thongs, That the throat may thirst no more.

He does not bend his head to hear The Burial Office read, Nor while the terror of his soul Tells him he is not dead, Cross his own coffin, as he moves Into the hideous shed.

He does not stare upon the air

Through a little roof of glass:

He does not pray with lips of clay For his agony to pass;

Nor feel upon his shuddering cheek The kiss of Caiaphas.

II Six weeks the guardsman walked the yard,

In the suit of shabby gray:

His cricket cap was on his head, And his step seemed light and gay, But I never saw a man who looked So wistfully at the day.

I never saw a man who looked With such a wistful eye Upon that little tent of blue Which prisoners call the sky, And at every wandering cloud that trailed Its ravelled fleeces by.

He did not wring his hands, as do Those witless men who dare To try to rear the changeling Hope

In the cave of black Despair:

He only looked upon the sun, And drank the morning air.

He did not wring his hands nor weep, Nor did he peek or pine, But he drank the air as though it held Some healthful anodyne;

With open mouth he drank the sun As though it had been wine!

And I and all the souls in pain, Who tramped the other ring, Forgot if we ourselves had done A great or little thing, And watched with gaze of dull amaze The man who had to swing.

For strange it was to see him pass With a step so light and gay, And strange it was to see him look So wistfully at the day, And strange it was to think that he Had such a debt to pay.

For oak and elm have pleasant leaves

That in the spring-time shoot:

But grim to see is the gallows-tree, With its alder-bitten root, And, green or dry, a man must die Before it bears its fruit!

The loftiest place is that seat of grace

For which all worldlings try:

But who would stand in hempen band Upon a scaffold high, And through a murderer's collar take His last look at the sky?

It is sweet to dance to violins

When Love and Life are fair:

To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes

Is delicate and rare:

But it is not sweet with nimble feet To dance upon the air!

So with curious eyes and sick surmise We watched him day by day, And wondered if each one of us Would end the self-same way, For none can tell to what red Hell His sightless soul may stray.

At last the dead man walked no more Amongst the Trial Men, And I knew that he was standing up In the black dock's dreadful pen, And that never would I see his face In God's sweet world again.

Like two doomed ships that pass in storm

We had crossed each other's way:

But we made no sign, we said no word, We had no word to say;

For we did not meet in the holy night, But in the shameful day.

A prison wall was round us both,

Two outcast men we were:

The world had thrust us from its heart,

And God from out His care:

And the iron gin that waits for Sin Had caught us in its snare.

III In Debtors' Yard the stones are hard, And the dripping wall is high, So it was there he took the air Beneath the leaden sky, And by each side a Warder walked, For fear the man might die.

Or else he sat with those who watched His anguish night and day;

Who watched him when he rose to weep, And when he crouched to pray;

Who watched him lest himself should rob Their scaffold of its prey.

The Governor was strong upon

The Regulations Act:

The Doctor said that Death was but

A scientific fact:

And twice a day the Chaplain called, And left a little tract.

And twice a day he smoked his pipe,

And drank his quart of beer:

His soul was resolute, and held No hiding-place for fear;

He often said that he was glad The hangman's hands were near.

But why he said so strange a thing

No Warder dared to ask:

For he to whom a watcher's doom Is given as his task, Must set a lock upon his lips, And make his face a mask.

Or else he might be moved, and try

To comfort or console:

And what should Human Pity do Pent up in Murderer's Hole?

What word of grace in such a place Could help a brother's soul?

With slouch and swing around the ring We trod the Fools' Parade!

We did not care: we knew we were

The Devil's Own Brigade:

And shaven head and feet of lead Make a merry masquerade.

We tore the tarry rope to shreds With blunt and bleeding nails;

We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,

And cleaned the shining rails:

And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank, And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,

We turned the dusty drill:

We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,

And sweated on the mill:

But in the heart of every man Terror was lying still.

So still it lay that every day

Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:

And we forgot the bitter lot That waits for fool and knave, Till once, as we tramped in from work, We passed an open grave.

With yawning mouth the yellow hole Gaped for a living thing;

The very mud cried out for blood

To the thirsty asphalte ring:

And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair Some prisoner had to swing.

Right in we went, with soul intent

On Death and Dread and Doom:

The hangman, with his little bag,

Went shuffling through the gloom:

And each man trembled as he crept Into his numbered tomb.

That night the empty corridors Were full of forms of Fear, And up and down the iron town Stole feet we could not hear, And through the bars that hide the stars White faces seemed to peer.

He lay as one who lies and dreams In a pleasant meadow-land, The watchers watched him as he slept, And could not understand How one could sleep so sweet a sleep With a hangman close at hand.

But there is no sleep when men must weep

Who never yet have wept:

So we—the fool, the fraud, the knave— That endless vigil kept, And through each brain on hands of pain Another's terror crept.

Alas! it is a fearful thing To feel another's guilt!

For, right within, the sword of Sin Pierced to its poisoned hilt, And as molten lead were the tears we shed For the blood we had not spilt.

The Warders with their shoes of felt Crept by each padlocked door, And peeped and saw, with eyes of awe, Gray figures on the floor, And wondered why men knelt to pray Who never prayed before.

All through the night we knelt and prayed, Mad mourners of a corse!

The troubled plumes of midnight were

The plumes upon a hearse:

And bitter wine upon a sponge Was the savour of Remorse.

The gray cock crew, the red cock crew,

But never came the day:

And crooked shapes of Terror crouched,

In the corners where we lay:

And each evil sprite that walks by night Before us seemed to play.

They glided past, they glided fast,

Like travellers through a mist:

They mocked the moon in a rigadoon Of delicate turn and twist, And with formal pace and loathsome grace The phantoms kept their tryst.

With mop and mow, we saw them go,

Slim shadows hand in hand:

About, about, in ghostly rout

They trod a saraband:

And damned grotesques made arabesques, Like the wind upon the sand!

With the pirouettes of marionettes,

They tripped on pointed tread:

But with flutes of Fear they filled the ear, As their grisly masque they led, And loud they sang, and long they sang, For they sang to wake the dead.

"Oho!" they cried, "the world is wide, But fettered limbs go lame!

And once, or twice, to throw the dice Is a gentlemanly game, But he does not win who plays with Sin In the Secret House of Shame."

No things of air these antics were,

That frolicked with such glee:

To men whose lives were held in gyves, And whose feet might not go free, Ah! wounds of Christ! they were living things, Most terrible to see.

Around, around, they waltzed and wound;

Some wheeled in smirking pairs;

With the mincing step of a demirep

Some sidled up the stairs:

And with subtle sneer, and fawning leer, Each helped us at our prayers.

The morning wind began to moan,

But still the night went on:

Through its giant loom the web of gloom

Crept till each thread was spun:

And, as we prayed, we grew afraid Of the Justice of the Sun.

The moaning wind went wandering round

The weeping prison-wall:

Till like a wheel of turning steel

We felt the minutes crawl:

O moaning wind! what had we done To have such a seneschal?

At last I saw the shadowed bars, Like a lattice wrought in lead, Move right across the whitewashed wall That faced my three-plank bed, And I knew that somewhere in the world God's dreadful dawn was red.

At six o'clock we cleaned our cells, At seven all was still, But the sough and swing of a mighty wing The prison seemed to fill, For the Lord of Death with icy breath Had entered in to kill.

He did not pass in purple pomp, Nor ride a moon-white steed.

Three yards of cord and a sliding board

Are all the gallows' need:

So with rope of shame the Herald came To do the secret deed.

We were as men who through a fen

Of filthy darkness grope:

We did not dare to breathe a prayer,

Or to give our anguish scope:

Something was dead in each of us, And what was dead was Hope.

For Man's grim Justice goes its way

And will not swerve aside:

It slays the weak, it slays the strong,

It has a deadly stride:

With iron heel it slays the strong, The monstrous parricide!

We waited for the stroke of eight:

Each tongue was thick with thirst:

For the stroke of eight is the stroke of Fate That makes a man accursed, And Fate will use a running noose For the best man and the worst.

We had no other thing to do,

Save to wait for the sign to come:

So, like things of stone in a valley lone,

Quiet we sat and dumb:

But each man's heart beat thick and quick, Like a madman on a drum!

With sudden shock the prison-clock Smote on the shivering air, And from all the gaol rose up a wail Of impotent despair, Like the sound the frightened marshes hear From some leper in his lair.

And as one sees most fearful things In the crystal of a dream, We saw the greasy hempen rope Hooked to the blackened beam, And heard the prayer the hangman's snare Strangled into a scream.

And all the woe that moved him so That he gave that bitter cry, And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,

None knew so well as I:

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