The Ballad of Reading Gaol (Jail) is a poem by Oscar Wilde first published in February 1898 under the name C.3.3. which stands for block C, landing 3, cell 3. Wilde was incarcerated and spent time in Reading after being convicted of homosexual offences in 1895 and sentenced to two years hard labour in prison.
The poem narrates the execution of C. T. W. - Charles Thomas Wooldridge, a trooper of the Royal House of guards convicted of cutting the throat of his wife.
It starts as an objective story-telling perspective
He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were red on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.
and later moves to a symbolic identification with the prisoners as a whole
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.
highlighting the brutalization of the punishment that all convicts share.
A part of The Ballad of Reading Gaol was written while Wilde was living in France, where he exiled himself after being released from Reading prison in May 1897 and it was finished in Italy where he travelled to with Alfred Douglas – who had been responsible for his down fall and whom he had declared his intention of never seeing again. While writing it he gradually realized that he could never write again under his own name, therefore the first six editions didn't have his name on the title page.
The First Edition had 800 copies and was sold out within a week. The book was very popular and the first seven editions were all published in 1898. But by the time the seventh edition was published his name was printed below C.3.3. as many reviewers and readers knew that he was the author.
The book brought him a small income for the remainder of his life. He died in November 1900 in the Hotel d'Alsace in Paris having never set foot in England again after his release.