The Ballad of Reading Gaol as a rejection of all law and politics, or: humanism as anarchic aspiration

For he who lives more lives than one
  More deaths than one must die.

-Section III

They think a murderer’s heart would taint
  Each simple seed they sow.
It is not true! God’s kindly earth
  Is kindlier than men know,
And the red rose would but blow more red,
  The white rose whiter blow.

-Section IV


When I was young, a number of horrific experiences convinced me that I could either choose to be wholly on the side of humanity- all of humanity- or a misanthrope. I chose the first option, although I fall short constantly, and trying to explain how that commitment works on the level of feeling- to show how certain ideas are emotionally and aesthetically compossible- is what led me to write this essay.

We’ll get to the Ballad of Reading Gaol soon as promised in the title, but before we do I want to take a detour through the Gospel of John.

One of the most famous passages in the New Testament is the story of the woman taken in adultery. You may remember it as the story with the line: “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”. It’s in the Gospel of John:

[…] Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.

Now my friend Karl Hand, biblical scholar extraordinaire, assures me of two things. Firstly, there is almost no doubt that this passage is a later addition, written by another author. Secondly, that among the relatively small number of scholars who defend the authenticity of this passage, most are conservatives. However, interestingly in my research I found that, while evangelical and fundamentalist Christians generally defend the whole of the bible, on the grounds that God would not let his word be polluted with error, there is a grouping of far-right scholars who argue that this passage is, unlike the rest of the bible, inauthentic. The uh, always interesting source Conservapedia has it:

“Historians and scholars agree that the story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is not authentic and was added decades later to the Gospel of John by scribes. The story was almost certainly added for the purpose of Democrat ideology: if no one who has sinned should cast the first stone, then the message is that no one should punish or even criticize sinners. It is also clear from the writing style that this story was added later.”

It is most curious, surely, that the very same people who have defended the literal accuracy of the bible even to the extent of claiming the world is 6000 years old are suddenly astute textual critics when it comes to this passage?


The reason why a minority of biblical conservatives are keen to disavow this, and only this passage, is that this passage proposes, more or less explicitly, that because we all share in the same sinful nature, none of us has the right to punish another. Such a perspective, however impractical it may be, is a conceptual threat to all systems of authority, laws, hierarchy and ultimately society itself.

The two oldest functions of government are criminal punishment and defence of territory. This last category might even be seen as a special case of punishment- deterrence through the use of incentives. It’s often said that the state is defined by a monopoly on violence, well the most fundamental form of that violence for the state is punishment. This story, of a woman, her accusers and God become flesh, cuts against the very heart of government. It is in the purest, most glorious and sadly impractical sense, anarchist.

The same radical message appears in many places, but few as eloquent as the Ballad of Reading Gaol almost two thousand years later- but here it comes with a twist.


In 1895, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to 2 years hard labour for “gross indecency with another man”. He spent much of his sentence in Reading Gaol.

While at Reading Gaol he watched, appalled and terrified, as Charles Thomas Wooldridge was executed for the crime of slitting his wife’s throat. Oscar Wilde was a humanitarian, an anarchist, a socialist and a man who never softened to the world’s cruelties. The idea of executing anyone was truly indecent to him, and he saw the deep hypocrisy of a violent society punishing violence.

After being released from prison he wrote the Ballad of Reading Gaol.


The Ballad of Reading Gaol is a poem, therefore its content cannot be distilled into a list of “points”. As Harold Bloom once said, the meaning of a poem could only be another poem, and yet there are clear themes which, however superficial it may be, we can grab and isolate.

Where it differs from the story in John of the woman taken in adultery is that it proposes two reasons why punishment is fundamentally indecent. These reasons are in tension with each other, but not, I think, ultimately contradictory. The first reason is that we are all fundamentally sinful in nature, so whoever performs the punishment is implicitly claiming to be fundamentally different from the punished in a way which just isn’t true. This reasoning can be found in the story of the woman taken in adultery.

The second reason it gives isn’t so obviously present in that biblical story. People are noble and beautiful, and whatever their flaws, don’t deserve the dehumanisation, agony and humiliation that comes with punishment, at least as it is practiced in our society. Describing the prisoners coming out after the morning of the hanging:

“And down the iron stair we tramped,
  Each from his separate Hell.

Out into God’s sweet air we went,
  But not in wonted way,
For this man’s face was white with fear,
  And that man’s face was grey,
And I never saw sad men who looked
  So wistfully at the day.

I never saw sad men who looked
  With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
  We prisoners called the sky,
And at every careless cloud that passed
  In happy freedom by.”


“They hanged him as a beast is hanged:
  They did not even toll
A reguiem that might have brought
  Rest to his startled soul,
But hurriedly they took him out,
  And hid him in a hole.”

The passages where he describes the mourning of the prisoners for Woolridge before and after he dies are beautiful. The contrast between the shabby surrounds of the men, and the glory of their souls as they keep a futile vigil on Woolridge’s behalf is rending:

“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!”


It is possible to believe in both bits of reasoning. People are too beautiful and important to be brutalized, and too fallen to administer punishment without being hypocrites. They’re not logically inconsistent, and I don’t think they’re aesthetically or emotionally inconsistent either. Just like a sufficiently skilled art work can contain moments of appalling ugliness alongside tremendous beauty without those “cancelling out”, so too are people woven through with beauty and horror. Too beautiful to be judged, and too ugly to judge something as glorious as a human.


I am speculating here, but I wonder if there isn’t something erotic or romantic in Wilde’s outlook on Woolridge:

"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."

Now this is further stepping into the realm of pure speculation, but I wonder if that romantically charged perspective on Woolridge wasn't a path by which Wilde humanised him- saw past the horrific thing he'd done? Romantic and erotic energies have this power- to randomly connect us with, and make us sympathisers for, people we would otherwise despise, or at least try not to think about it. This is a side of the erotic we don't often consider. We often conceive of the eroticism as turning people into objects in our mind,  but what about its capacity to make us sympathizers? Sometimes this power takes on a sinister or at least ambivalent aspect- like the people who fantasize about serial killers and court them  in prison. Sometimes it is exalted in literature,  as in Romeo and Juliet would a rose by any other name not- etc etc.


Obviously a conservative will find much to disagree with in the poem, but the Ballad of Reading Jail is an uncomfortable read, whatever your political orientation. I’m all for mercy, but as someone who thinks women have historically had a rough deal, I’ll admit I wasn’t comfortable with Wilde’s seemingly blithe dismissal of Woolridge’s murder of his wife:

“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!”

“Well sure he brutally murdered his wife, but in a funny sort of a way, doesn’t every man kill their wife? To which the answer is no. There is a very important sense in which the vast majority of men don’t kill their wives- the literal sense. Is Wilde playing with words here to minimise a gross act of violence against a woman?

Perhaps. But there’s also a sense in which Wilde’s sentiment can be read not as a minimisation of what Woolridge did, but a maximisation of the emotional violence inherent in a certain sort of marriage. In this regard, this stanza might be read not as an apologia for Woolridge, but as a biting critique of the social violence of patriarchy. I’m not fully comfortable with this defence of Wilde, but sometimes being uncomfortable is okay.

To fully draw out the critical power of the poem, we must remember that there are four victims in it. The first is Woolridge, the second is Wilde and the prisoners collectively, the third is the collective warders, doctors, reverends of the prison who are brutalised by what they do and the fourth, and most gravely wronged of all, is Laura Ellen/Nell Woolridge, murdered by Thomas Woolridge. Having recognised the victims, we then need consider the possibility that simply because they are human, not a single one of these people deserved what happened to them.

Aside: The passage also has to be read in light of Oscar Wilde’s own life. It sent him to prison and ruined his health and his reputation, so Wilde must have been acutely aware of the bitter face of love.


Because I like to make up words, let’s call generalized opposition to punishment generally
antipoenaism from “poena” which is Latin for “punishment” and “anti” which is Latin for “anti”. Could antipoenaism ever be viable? Is antipoenaism the sort of idea which depends for its interest on whether it is, or ever will be, viable?

I’ve touched on this- and other themes in this essay elsewhere but to recap: no. antipoenaism is pretty obviously not viable with the world the way it is- some people need incentives not to do bad things. However, it possibly could be viable in a future where we have the technological capacity to restrain the violent without removing their liberty (c.f. Iain Banks concept of the slap drone) or to cure the violent of their violent tendencies.

But I think antipoenaism is an idea that holds power even in a world where it is not feasible and should hold that power to shock and shame us all. Jesus’s provocation “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” holds our imaginations even today. We need a compass that points us towards utopia, even if we can’t make it there, and even if it can’t be real- you won’t see the world as it is without crazy dreams of what it could be.


It’s very interesting that the greatest piece of work by Wilde is the Ballad of Reading Gaol. Wilde was an aesthete holding that art should be for its own sake- the sake of beauty, and not to serve pedagogic, political or moral purposes. How strange then that his best and most passionate work brims with moral significance and feeling. The chronic ironist driven by circumstances to express real feeling is a potent thing (happens all the time on Twitter). I wonder- and this is pure speculation- if Wilde’s aesthete sensibilities weren’t like a shell to contain his powerful moral sense, which perhaps he feared might be, well, in today’s language “cringe”. When the physical, emotional and moral torture he had experienced finally burst through that qlippoth, his best work emerged.


Finally, maybe it’s soppy or maybe I’m just in a bad mood, but I wanted to say something about Wilde. I don’t know if he was, in any overall sense, a good person, I haven’t studied his life closely, and even if I had I am no judge of souls. But it is almost unbearable to think of what happened to the glorious, kind spirit that shines through in these poems. A big fuck you to anyone who would valorise the kind of society that did this to such a beautiful man.


I’ve been exploring the idea of turning old poems into songs, and it occurred to me that the feel of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” is thematically very similar to a lot of things, including “Starry Starry Night” by Don McLean and “The Only Thing” by Sufjan Stevens. So I merged the lyrics and structure of both with the themes of the poem. First the Only Thing, and then, when I reluctantly accepted it was well outside my prime vocal range and I am not skilled enough to transpose it, Starry Starry night. Here’s the lyrics to both:

The martyr recalls the murderer

[Sung to the tune of "The Only Thing]
I never saw a man
Looking so sad eyed
Upon that blue tent
Which prisoners call sky
Blissfully drifting
Silver clouds sail by
Other chained men
Utter that inmate will die

Do I care if he survives this,
He left the dead where they lay

In a torrent of great heartaches
I wonder did he love her at all? 

The only thing that creeps
Hard upon my old heart
A soul to die
Hungry noose at dawn
His crimson lover
Blood stain blotting the bed
Juror’s message,
Blood of his death on us all

Do I care if I despise him
His heart matters I know
In a realm of poor namesakes
How could we live with his ghost?

Should I rend my hope up now?
Everything I see turns to gallows somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Every guilt I feel turns to him somehow
I want to save you from your sorrow 

The only reason why I continue at all
Faith in love, I wasted my life playing cold
Signs and wonders, socialists meet in the dark
Blind faith, God’s grace, nothing else left to impart

Do I care if he survives this, he left the dead where they lay
In a vale of great surmises, strike my back till I fall 

Should I tear my eyes out now?, for I have seen too much.
Should I tear my arms out now, and give them to him to touch
Should I tear my eyes out now?
Everything I see returns to blood somehow
Should I tear my heart out now?
Everything I feel turns to guilt somehow

Beauty in a cell arises to shame the world

[Sung to the tune of "Starry Starry Night"]
 Starless, starless night
Upon your hands ink blue and black
Look out on a summer’s sky
With eyes that know the darkness in all souls
Shadows in the cells
Here be no trees nor rose reds
Howling breeze and rocky chill
In shades upon the stony grave ground
 Now I understand
 What you tried to say to me
 And how you suffered for our insanity
 And how you tried to set all free
 They would not listen, 
they did not know how
 Perhaps they’ll listen now
 Starless, starless night
 Cruel chains that bite and bind
 Wandering clouds of summer sky
 Reflect in Oscar’s eyes of silver sorrow
 Stone’s unchanging hue
 Morning sky of dreadful blood
 Weathered faces lined in pain
 Are recalled through the author’s kindly pen

 Now I understand
 What you tried to say to me
 And how you suffered for their insanity
 And how you tried set them free
 They would not listen, they did not know how
 Perhaps they’ll listen now
 For they could not let love you
 But still your love was true
 And when no hope was left in sight
 On that starless, starless night
 You  wept your prayer, as lovers often do
 But I could have told you, Oscar
 This world was never meant for one
 As beautiful as you
 Starless, starless night
 Woolridge hung on hempen rope
 Quicklime graves in nameless yard
 Your eyes they watch the world and couldn’t forget
 Like the prisoners that you’ve met
 The ragged men in ragged clothes
 The green thorn of heartsblood rose
 Lie crushed beneath the fool’s parade
 Now I think I know
 What you tried to say to me
 And how you suffered for their insanity
 And how you tried to set us free
 We would not listen, we’re not listening still
 Perhaps we never will 

I won't post links to me singing them, because while I'm determined to become the Florence Foster Jenkins of the blogging world I'm not quite at that level of cringe yet. Give it about two months.

I need to write that article on why I think bad art, especially singing, is important.


While we're on the subject of Sufjan (always a favourite here at de Pony Sum), I think this essay is probably the perfect springboard in to what I find wrong with a certain kind of liberalism, most eloquently expressed by Sufjan in terms of his peculiar Christianity:


I agree with the pro-immigrant sentiment of course. What I don’t agree with is the strain of liberalism that says: “We are all complicit in the injustices against basic human rights and common decency, to put it mildly, which renders our own ‘inalienable rights’ as questionable or obsolete.” I hold the opposite is true. Every person alive and dead on this planet- and I do mean every single person- deserves better than they have gotten- especially, but not only, every one outcast, imprisoned, or just not rich. Even those who did great evil deserve the circumstances that would have made them better people.

Sufjan’s liberalism here is the same kind that calls not being pulled over by the cops for no reason because you’re white “privilege” rather than, I dunno, the absolute basic minimum we all deserve and should demand. It’s the same strain of liberalism that holds that the way to deal with working class men being paid more than working class women is to reduce the wages of men, rather than demanding that the money come not from the wages of working men, but from the wages of senior management and the profits accruing to capital. It’s the kind of liberalism that bemoans the lenient prison sentences of rich white men, rather than calling for such mercy to be universalised.

How much richer, more persuasive, generous of spirit, free and holy is it to claim, instead, that we all deserve so much more. I’m committed to believing and living that, even if I often fail.

If you enjoyed this article please consider joining our mailing list: also, a collection of my best writing between 2018 and early 2020 is available as a free e-book “Something to read in quarantine: Essays 2018-2020”. You can grab it here.

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