Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Prison and After

"Hard labor" in an English prison was no euphemism. Every prisoner was expected to walk six hours a day on a treadmill in 29-minute increments with five-minute breaks. The distance to be covered was the equivalent of a 6,000-foot incline. Taken from the Old Bailey to Newgate Prison, Wilde had his belongings taken from him and was outfitted with gray prison togs with their distinctive black arrows pattern.

Shortly after being read the rules of the prison system utter silence at all times Wilde was taken to his cell and fed a typical meal of watery porridge and a slice of bread. From Newgate he was taken to Pentonville Prison where he was placed on the treadmill. At night he was returned to his cell, where he slept on a wooden plank without mattress.

Book cover: The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Book cover: The Bal-
lad of Reading Gaol

Diet at Pentonville consisted of cocoa and bread for breakfast, soup or sliced meat for dinner, and suet and potatoes for tea. Exercise consisted of walking in a circle single-file silently for one hour a day. He was required to attend chapel every morning and twice on Sundays. Visitors were allowed once every three months for 20 minutes. Physical contact was out of the question, as were books, paper and pen.

"Already Wilde has grown much thinner," wrote a contemporary newspaper. "He has great difficulty in getting to sleep, and from time to time he loudly bemoans the bitterness of his fate."

Slowly, over time, Wilde adapted to prison and it to him. He was later allowed writing materials and was transferred to better surroundings. It was in Reading that he developed one of his best works, {A Ballad of Reading Gaol}. The Ballad is an allegorical biography of Wilde's downfall and was prompted by Wilde's witnessing of an execution. In it, he wrote what could almost serve as his obituary:

Dear Christ! the very prison walls
Suddenly seemed to reel,
And the sky above my head became
Like a casque of scorching steel;
And, though I was a soul in pain,
My pain I could not feel.

I only knew what haunted thought
Quickened his step, and why
He looked upon the garish day
With such a wistful eye;
The man had killed the thing he loved,
And so he had to die.

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!

Lord Alfred Douglas
Lord Alfred Douglas

Wilde served his time and was released. His works had enjoyed a small revival because of his notoriety, but he was still bankrupt and persona non grata in London. Over time, with the help of his friends, he managed to bring his estate out of bankruptcy. He fled to France where Bosie was waiting for him. But Wilde's ardor had cooled in the two years in prison. He did not hate Lord Alfred, but the passionate love of the years before was gone.

Wilde's other prison work, De Profundis, was a biography, a confession and absolution for Bosie. The two men saw little of each other in the first months of Wilde's freedom but they did exchange a number of letters, most lost to history.

The love that had brought Wilde down in England was somewhat rekindled in Europe much to the dismay of Wilde's wife and his friends. It alienated Wilde and Bosie from everyone who had stood with Oscar over the years and it would prove too painful for even Wilde and Lord Alfred to bear. They separated after a short time in Europe. Wilde continued to write and entertain and be his egotistical self up until the end. He lived long enough to see the Ballad of Reading Gaol published in London anonymously to great success and was convinced by his publisher to add his name to the poem for the seventh printing.

He died in 1900.

Oscar Wilde, remembered in stained glass at Westminster Abbey (AP)
Oscar Wilde, remembered in stained glass
at Westminster Abbey (AP)

Much of Wilde's writing is autobiographical, not so much in relation of events, but in thoughts and desires. Dorian Gray is probably the most self-reflective. One of its characters expresses Wilde's philosophy of life: "We can have in life but one great experience at best, and the secret of life is to reproduce that experience as often as possible."

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