"The Ballad of Reading Gaol"
1. What use does Wilde make of his experiences as a prisoner in Reading Gaol? Why do you think he doesn’t refer more specifically to his own case?
2. What symbolic and dramatic effect is gained by making the subject of the poem a condemned man hanged during the poem?
3. What is the poem’s poetic form? What associations do you have with the tradition to which it belongs? How, for example, does the poem differ from Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”?
4. What are some qualities of the poem's narrator/observer/use of multiple observers? How are these designed to amplify or render more resonant the narrator's observations and reflections? (concentric rings of observers around a silent center--society, the officials, readers, the narrator, his fellow prisoners ("we"), and the condemned man)
5. How is sound used throughout the poem? What is the significance of the fact that some communications can be made solely in whispers?
6. What signs does this poem give of the influence of other late-century poetry or of “decadent” consciousness in general? How can we tell that it was written in the 1890s rather than, say, the 1850s? (strong identification with outcast, indictment of religious and political institutions, self-conscious “aesthetic” use of earlier forms)
5. What themes are introduced in the first section? What is the relationship of the narrator to the condemned man, and of both to the reader? To what extent does the narrator judge the prisoner?
6. Of what crime is the speaker guilty? What crimes are others alleged to have committed?
7. What purpose is served by shifting from narrative detail to abstraction?
8. How does the poem use color? Sounds, especially assonance? Imagery? Is the imagery intended to be pleasant?
9. What are ways in which fear and tension are conveyed?
10. What are some of the most degrading indignities associated with imprisonment?
11. How are the representatives of society, such as the Chaplain, Sheriff and Governor, portrayed? What is the importance of “the kiss of Caiaphas”?
12. What bitter images occur in this section? What happens to the condemned man? What is the significance of the narrator’s encounter with him?
13. Why does the speaker describe their meeting as having occurred in “the shameful day”? (Section 4)
14. What do the prisoners believe about their own guilt?
15. How are imagery and allegory used to create mood?
16. How does the poem convey its view of the warders? (ll. 445ff)
17. What are monstrous and unnatural aspects of the burial of the hanged man? What is the significance of the growth of the red and white rose?
18. Does this imagery remind you of any old English ballads? Of imagery from "Goblin Market"? If so, how does Wilde's use of the motif of roses on the grave compare or contrast with these earlier asssociations?
19. Does the narrator enter the poem directly? What effect is caused by his statement, “It is not true!”
20. What is the effect of the poem’s many repetitions and echoes?
21. What does Wilde seem to think of the prison system and its administrators? Of the morality of its religious accompaniments?
22. What seems to be the poem’s relationship to legal morality and Christian orthodoxy--are the two identical, complementary, or opposed?
23. Why does he appeal to the memory of Christ? Does he espouse an alternate interpretation of Christian ethics?
24. What is the significance of the appeal to the pope's blooming staff? (from story of Tannhauser)
25. Is the poem’s final statement one of social criticism? If so, what aspects of society does Wilde indict? (society and its members are equally guilty)
26. What purpose is served by the final section? Is the tone different from that in perceding ones? Why will the hanged man be forever remembered?
27. Does the poem end with any sense of hope? If so, where does this sense of hope seem to reside?
28. Do you think the ballad form was effective in conveying Wilde's intentions? How would you characterize those intentions?
29. Can you see parallels between Wilde's themes and scenes or statements in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" and his other works?
1. What features of diction, language, and rhythm does Wilde seem to identify with the object of attraction in this poem?
2. Why the choice of part-animal, part-woman, part stone as object of interest? Does she/it evoke sexual desire in the narrator, and if so, how? What are important features of her taste and history? What function is served by the extended description of Ammon?
3. How does the speaker's relationship to the sphinx differ from Keats' to the nightingale or urn, Rossetti's to the winged beast of Nineveh, or Yeats' Leda to the swan?
4. Are there motifs or characteristics which you recognize from Baudelaire's poetry to which this poem might be indebted?
5. To what degree is the speaker's final abjuration of the sphinx consistent with his earlier fascination with her/it?
1. What are some romantic echoes in Wilde's shorter lyrics, and how are these reworked to his own ends? What seems to be Wilde's view of the poet's position in the world?
2. In general, how do Wilde's themes and choice of subjects resemble or differ from those of Symons? Can you contrast "The Harlot's House" with any poem by Symons placed in a similar setting?