BBC Radio 7, 30 November 2010
Read by Samuel West, Oscar Wilde's poem laments the dead and condemned
in Reading Gaol, written at a time when he was imprisoned, having been found guilty of immoral practices.
In West's reading, the tone of the poem emerged as very different from Wilde's
stage plays; here he was much more expansive and sympathetic to those who, like him, have been condemned to lives of
drudgery breaking rocks for no particular purpose. There are other prisoners who have been condemned to die, living out their
last days in a state of semi-limbo, with the added indignity of having to endure insincere pieties from the prison chaplain.
Wilde's poem keeps the iambic pentameter rhythm, whose jauntiness often seems to
undermine the gravity of the subject-matter. But this is Wilde's point: people tend to adopt a policy of "out of sight, out
of mind," with condemned prisoners, or at least reduce the prisoners' experiences to banalities. The Ballad of Reading
Gaol tries to speak on their behalf.
In West's reading, the poem reminded us of how sad Wilde's last years were, leading
up to his early death aged only forty-six.