The Ballad of Reading Gaol

When I came home from the hospital after I was born, the first thing that my dad read to me was The Ballad of Reading Gaol. It’s an odd thing to read to a newborn baby, and it is the first thing that was ever read to me. After I read the poem for class, I texted my dad and asked him why, of everything he could have chosen to read to me, he chose that poem. His response was simple: “it’s a good poem.” That is true, but it still didn’t feel like enough of a justification. The poem is fairly dark and has intense themes. Of course, a baby isn’t going to understand the poem, but it is interesting for a new parent to reach for such a poem to share with his daughter.

I thought about it a bit more, and thought about what draws us to poetry in the first place. My dad did not connect to the actual material in the poem, but something about the poem made him want to read it in that moment. I was born on 9/11, and my dad was in Lower Manhattan when the Twin Towers fell. I reread the poem thinking about that and wondering if that experience made him think of the poem in the days afterwards. The Ballad of Reading Gaol–while far from related plot-wise–does have some themes that I imagine would have resonated with someone at the time. There is despair throughout the poem as the prisoners feel their own shame and watch the death of their fellow prisoner. Especially as the poem reaches its end, there is a transition from a more general attitude describing what prison is like to a deep sadness at the death. Such themes are universal to tragedy, which is what people experienced on 9/11 in a grand scale.

That leaves us with the question of why people are drawn to poetry in the first place. My dad has not been to prison and has not “killed the thing he loves,” yet something about the poem felt important to him at a specific time in his life. There are certain poems that I love that follow a story that I don’t relate to, but that doesn’t stop me from loving them or connecting to them. I think that part of the benefit of poetry is that it can make us feel connected to things far away from ourselves because certain themes apply in a variety of situations. When poetry works well, it resonates on a personal level even when the poem isn’t personal at all. The Ballad of Reading Gaol is much better than Wilde’s other poetry because it is less concerned with appearing to be a certain thing and more concerned with expressing a story that Wilde clearly thought was important. Because the aim is different, the poem comes out feeling more genuine, which I find much more interesting to read. When we read Wilde’s earlier poetry, we talked in class about how it seems as if Wilde felt as if he had to follow a certain form in order for his poetry to be legitimate. By this poem, that is no longer his focus.

De Profundis and Ballad of Reading Gaol are interesting shifts for Wilde because they–to use his term–are so much more earnest than everything else that he wrote. The material that came before these works was witty and clever and carefully constructed. Although that person is still very much apparent in his later work, it seems like how he comes across is less of his focus. What came before is so intentionally masked, and by the time Wilde was in prison, it seems as if he no longer felt as if masking would be useful. That brings about very honest writing that I found to be some of the best that we’ve read this semester. There is a lot of charm in Wilde’s witticisms, but De Profundis and Ballad of Reading Gaol are different in that it feels as if there is so much more passion in them. I think it is easier to connect with Ballad of Reading Gaol than it is to connect with any of his other poems, and that is because he is expressing what feels real rather than trying to be clever or construct a mask.

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