The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde, The Old Stile Press (1994) & The Limited Editions Club (1937)

{Ed. Note: The first part of this article is taken from an earlier article from Books and Vines contributor Neil. I have updated the article, including some quotes, new pictures of the Old Stile Press edition, and have added the section on the Limited Editions Club edition.}

Oscar Wilde (1854-1890) was an Irish poet/writer whose works remain immensely popular today. His best known works are The Picture of Dorian GrayThe Importance of Being EarnestLady Windermere’s FanSalomeDe Profundis and The Ballad of Reading GaolWilde’s wit and humor are legendary, as is the controversy surrounding his life.

Statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Chris Adamson
Statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Chris Adamson

Wilde was convicted of homosexual offences in 1895 and sentenced to two years hard labour.  He was incarcerated in Reading Gaol from November 1895 until May 1897. He wrote De Profundis while at the prison and following his release and ‘exile’ to France he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol.  The poem was published in 1898 under the name C.3.3., which was his cell number in Reading Gaol – cell block C, landing 3, cell 3.

Wilde dedicated the poem to ‘C.T.W.’.  During his imprisonment a hanging took place on the 7th July 1896.  Charles Thomas Wooldridge had been a trooper in the Royal Horse Guards.  He was convicted of cutting his wife’s throat.  The witnessing of this execution and the horrific nature of the crime had a profound effect on Wilde, inspiring the line “Yet each man kills the thing he loves.”

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.

There is no question of Wooldridge’s guilt:

He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.

And what was therefore inevitable:

I only knew what hunted 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.

What exists between the murder and Wooldridge’s subsequent hanging, Wilde uses to criticize what he saw as the inhumanity of the penal system of his time. For instance, here he describes the inhumanity of a typical day for a prisoner:

With slouch and swing around the ring
We trod the Fools’ Parade!
We did not care: we knew we were
The Devils’ Own Brigade:
And shaven head and feet of lead
Make a merry masquerade.

We tore the tarry rope to shreds
With blunt and bleeding nails;
We rubbed the doors, and scrubbed the floors,
And cleaned the shining rails:
And, rank by rank, we soaped the plank,
And clattered with the pails.

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.

So still it lay that every day
Crawled like a weed-clogged wave:
And we forgot the bitter lot
That waits for fool and knave,
Till once, as we tramped in from work,
We passed an open grave.

With yawning mouth the horrid hole
Gaped for a living thing;
The very mud cried out for blood
To the thirsty asphalt ring:
And we knew that ere one dawn grew fair
Some prisoner had to swing.

Right in we went, with soul intent
On Death and Dread and Doom:
The hangman, with his little bag,
Went shuffling through the gloom:
And each man trembled as he crept
Into his numbered tomb.

The poem is more than just a criticism of the penal system that Wilde loathed. Like Wilde’s work in De Profundis, this work amazes in Wilde’s deft handling of suffering and his explorations of themes around regeneration.

This copy of the The Ballad of Reading Gaol was published by Frances and Nicolas McDowall’s wonderful The Old Stile Press (in Wales) in 1994 and is illustrated with powerful wood engravings by English artist Garrick Palmer (b.1933). Palmer is one of the pre-eminent wood engravers of our time. He has illustrated many books for fine publishers and his works are included in places such the Tate Gallery and the Fitzwilliam Museum.

The binding is parchment with the front cover blind-stamped C.3.3.  It comes in a nicely made slipcase with elements of the wood engravings from Mr. Palmer. The work is set in Baskerville type printed on Zerkall mould-made paper. Baskerville stands up well with Mr. Palmer’s illustrations. Finding a copy of this edition is somewhat tough, since the limitation was 225 copies. Hard to say what they ‘usually’ go for, but the last couple I have seen are $400-600 for fine condition.

About the Edition (The Old Stile Press)

  • Designed and printed in 1994 by Nicolas McDowall at The Old Stile Press, Catchmays Court, Llandago, near Monmouth, Gwent, Great Britian
  • Garrick Palmer’s wood-engravings were printed from the wood and elements from them were used in the design of the slipcase
  • Bound in parchment with the front cover blind-stamped C.3.3.
  • Printed in Baskerville type (set by Bill Hughes in Upton upon Severn) on Zerkall mould-made paper
  • Binding by The Fine Bindery, Wellingborough
  • 269mm X 164mm, 48pp
  • Limited to 225 copies, numbered and signed by Garrick Palmer

Pictures of the Edition  (The Old Stile Press ) (All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press and The Limited Editions Club, Books in Slipcases
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press and The Limited Editions Club, Books in Slipcases
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Slipcase
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Slipcase
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Spine and Covers
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Spine and Covers
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Front Cover
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Front Cover
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Macro of Front Cover
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Macro of Front Cover
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Macro of Title Page
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Macro of Title Page
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #1 Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Macro of Sample Illustration #1 Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Sample Text #1
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Sample Text #1
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Sample Text #2
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Sample Text #2
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Sample Illustration #3 with Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Colophon
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Old Stile Press, Colophon

 

The Limited Editions Club Edition (1937)

The Limited Editions Club (LEC) publication of The Ballad of Reading Gaol is, like most 1930’s era LEC’s, very nicely done. Like the Old Stile Press edition above, the LEC opts for a cover with a direct association with the work. George Macy tells us:

Here again, an attractive “association-idea” has been used upon the binding. Embossed upon leather is a prison wall, figuratively speaking. The risk involved in the creation of such association bindings is that, when they are bad, they are horrid. I think most designers avoid them only through fear of failure.

The cover is indeed nice; the LEC did not fail here. The biggest issue with the binding is the delicacy of the full granite-grey sheepskin. Finding a copy in fine shape can be tough (typically the leather is rubbed on the spine ends at the very least). Some sunning to the spine is also a pretty frequent occurrence. None-the-less, it is certainly worth the search (as you will see in some pictures below).

This edition was designed by John S. Fass of the Harbor Press, who had previously designed Undine (1930), The Golden Ass (1932) and Typee for the Limited Editions Club. In addition to the cover, the best thing about the edition is the original lithographs by Zhenya Gay. Gay’s work here is reminiscent of her work on Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, especially in her capturing the inner anguish of the protagonists. It is interesting that she is best known as an illustrator of childrens books, as her work for the LEC shows a mature understanding of complex psychological inner turmoil with an uncanny ability to represent such in a foreboding manner.

This edition was set in inter type Egmont (thin and delicate, but wonderfully readable especially with the generous spacing in this edition; however perhaps stylistically not quite a great match for the somber mood) and was printed on Hurlbut special paper. The red box-like decoration with the chapter number adds a nice dash of color, helping with the overall attractiveness of the page. There is an excellent introduction by American journalist and literary critic Burton Rascoe, also known for his work Titans of Literature: From Homer to the Present (1932).

All in all, this is an edition well worth owning and enjoying.  Copies can be found for under $100, though it will typically cost $200-400 for one without issues with the leather.

About the Edition (The Limited Editions Club)

  • Designed and printed by John S. Fass at the Harbor Press in New York
  • Introduction by Burton Rascoe
  • Original lithographs by Zhenya Gay
  • Set in intertype Egmont
  • Hurlbut special paper
  • Bound by Russell-Rutter Company in full granite-grey sheepskin, embossed blind and gold
  • 7 1/4″ x 11″, 76 pages
  • Limited to 1500 copies, signed by Zhenya Gay

Pictures of the Edition (The Limited Editions Club) (All pictures on Books and Vines are exclusively provided, under fair use, to highlight and visualize the review/criticism of the work being reviewed. A side benefit, hopefully, is providing education on the historical and cultural benefits of having a healthy fine press industry and in educating people on the richness that this ‘old school approach’ of book publishing brings to the reading process. Books and Vines has no commercial stake or financial interest in any publisher, retailer or work reviewed on this site and receives no commercial interest or compensation for Books and Vines. Please note that works photographed are copyrighted by the publisher, author and/or illustrator as indicated in the articles. Permission to use contents from these works for anything outside of fair use purposes must come directly from the copyright owner and no permission is granted or implied to use photo’s or material found on Books and Vines for any purpose that would infringe on the rights of the copyright owner.)

The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Cover
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Cover
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Cover
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Spine
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Spine
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Frontispiece
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Frontispiece
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Title Page
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Introduction
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Text #1 (Introduction)
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #1 with Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration #1 Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Macro of Sample Illustration #1 Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Sample Text #2
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #4 with Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Sample Illustration #2 with Text
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Colophon
The Ballad of Reading Gaol, The Limited Editions Club, Colophon

2 thoughts on “The Ballad of Reading Gaol, by Oscar Wilde, The Old Stile Press (1994) & The Limited Editions Club (1937)

  1. I was unsuccessful in finding a copy where the sheepskin wasn’t badly rubbed. so I rebound it in chocolate goatskin with a new solander box, Throughout his imprisonment, Wilde did not lose his sense of humour. While waiting in the prison yard, it began to rain, making the Incarceration more lugubrious. Wilde, getting rain soaked, quickly quipped, “If her Majesty treats all her prisoners like this, she doesn’t deserve to have any”.

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