Open Culture and Flavorwire have both posted a clip today of the 1900 recording of Oscar Wilde reading “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” but it’s not new. It’s been kicking around youtube for awhile now. “Although the recording isn’t great, his voice is definitely audible enough to make out the Irish-born writer’s cultivated accent and his sly, whimsical inflection,” according to Judy Berman at Flavorwire. I’ve found a cleaner version of the recording – you don’t have to scroll forward 45 seconds through music and photos to hear the scratchy, muffled recording. The voice is … not quite what I was expecting for this somber work, in which Wilde recalls the horror of the execution of a Charles Thomas Wooldridge,
who had murdered his wife. It was written two or three years before Wilde’s own death, in exile and poverty.
It’s a moving poem, but I wonder what the wife’s version of the events would have been, before and after her throat was slit. The pity usually goes to the perps; the victims are forever silent. The horrors of a man facing execution, barbaric as the modern death penalty is, probably had at least a veneer of civilization missing from her killing.
I was introduced to the poem when I was living on Offord Road in Islington, around the corner from Pentonville prison, one of the places where Wilde had been imprisoned. An English pianist of my acquaintance recited it (as I recall) from memory. It’s been in my head ever since.
The whole recording is less than a minute, but the quality of the cylinders is such that you might benefit from this crib sheet (the entire poem is, of course, much longer – you can read it here):
In Reading Gaol by Reading Town
There is a pit of shame,
And in it lies a wretched man
Eaten by teeth of flame,
In a burning winding-sheet he lies,
And his grave has got no name.
No need to waste the foolish tear,
Or heave the windy sigh:
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.
Postscript: Whoops. It appears there is some controversy about the authenticity – the full detective story is here. We’ll probably never know for sure… is it, or is it not?
Tags: Oscar Wilde