A Pastoral Reflection on Oscar Wilde’s “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”

Zac HicksArt and WorshipLeave a Comment

I’ve been preparing as a student for a most unique course on “Doctrine for Preaching and Pastoral Care,” with Dr. Jonathan Linebaugh at Knox Seminary. It will happen in a few weeks. He has us reading some unconventional (and splendid) material. The course is particularly designed to intersect with my English Reformation tract, as it is attempting to exposit the pastoral heart behind the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Along with a few great theological books, we have been tasked to read novels by George Eliot, Mark Rutherford, Thornton Wilder, and William Inge, and poetry by Oscar Wilde and Samuel Johnson.

Below is what I would describe as a “pastoral exposition” of a moving poem by Oscar Wilde, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Do yourself a favor and spend an hour soaking in this poem.

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Where Souls In Pain Find No Comfort

How can a guilty murderer look toward his day of execution with restful surrender, without guile or self-deception? Oscar Wilde’s answer is, “In Christ.” The “Ballad of Reading Gaol” recounts a prisoner’s observation of another prisoner’s peace and freedom as he approaches the hangman’s noose—the unavoidable consequence for killing his wife in cold “blood and wine.” The convict’s freedom was evident in the prison yard—a “light and gay” bounce to his step, and a wistful gazing at the sky as if to say, with Dorothy, “There’s no place like home.”

The narrator exposits the gracelessness of prison, where “souls in pain” find no comfort—not from the Chaplain, not from the Sheriff, not from the Governor, not from the guards who watch the death-bound murderer weep and pray. The other guilty prisoners look upon him and see their own eventual fate, and they dread it. This dread accounts for the shock they experience as they observe his peace. Their “endless vigil” of anxious prayer the night before the murderer’s execution is contrasted with his deep sleep. And he goes to the gallows a free man, freer than anyone in the prison—including Chaplain, Sheriff, Governor, and guard. The noose is the murderer’s gateway to Paradise.

Hopelessness Leading to Hope

Wilde’s prisoner would agree with Paul Zahl that perhaps the best exterior sign on a church’s door should read “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,”[1] for salvation and freedom only begin at the end of Hope, “in the cave of black despair” (II.3.4). Wilde’s murderer found no freedom until he found no hope in himself and was forced to look out and up. And when he looked up, he found that “only blood can wipe out blood, and only tears can heal.” He found “Christ’s snow-white seal” (V.17.3-4, 6). The doomed prisoner discovered the only thing that would set him free: “the loftiest place is that seat of grace for which all worldlings try” (II.8.1-2). The murderer discovered that, even while he was yet a murderer, Christ died for him (Rom 5:8).

Wilde’s ultimate point, though, has less to do with the murderer and more to do with everyone else (including you and me). After a blunt critique of society and the justice system in Part V, Part VI offers the punchline—we are all the murderer. In the Spirit of Christ in His Sermon on the Mount, Wilde ratchets the bolt of the law, so that none can escape its bind:

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all 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! (VI.3)

The Futility of Separating Wheat and Tares

Perhaps Wilde would have pastors see that there is very little (really no) good in sorting our congregations into the good and the bad. We are all prisoners. We are all murderers. The only response, then, is grace and comfort to every last one of our parishioners. Wilde initially implies that perhaps no word of grace can exist for prisoners of this sort (and therefore us): “What word of grace in such a place could help a brother’s soul?” (III.6.5-6). But he doubles back on the question toward the end, claiming that the Word about Christ is that word of grace which can help. I translate Wilde’s warning to pastors: that pure and precious word of grace is especially given for preachers to proclaim from pulpits.

Wilde’s indictment of pastors is perhaps most pointed in his few mentions of the Chaplain who, in response to the murderer’s anguish, called twice a day and “left a little tract” (III.3.6). In the end, the Chaplain’s ministry was as cold as the Governor who, instead of seeing a person before him, saw the need to uphold “The Regulations Act,” and the Doctor who, instead of seeing a person before him, felt it better to be clinical about death. This all feels a bit like Jesus’ storied reply to the man’s self-justified question, “And who is my neighbor?” (Luke 10:29). For pastors, then, we must be careful to not make ministry to all the “prisoners” around us clinical and formulaic. We must see that every last one of us is hurting.

Let Us Preserve the Pulpit (and the Worship Service)

May the final gauntlet thrown down on the Chaplain never be thrown down on us:

The Chaplain would not kneel to pray
By his dishonored grave:
Nor mark it with that blessed Cross
That Christ for sinners gave,
Because the man was one of those
Whom Christ came down to save. (IV.22)

Let us preserve the pulpit, not for good teaching, good advice, good will, or (God help us) good fun. No, let us preserve the pulpit for Good News. Wilde would tell pastors that graceless preaching is “pitiless and hard,” and leads only to soul-rot (V.11), hastening people to their graves beside which such preaching would neither kneel to pray nor offer its cruciform seal.

Perhaps, then, the Governor, Doctor, Chaplain, and guards can be seen as metaphors of what not to do in the pulpit, and what not to do in pastoral care. We are not ultimately executors of God’s law, clinical diagnosticians of our people’s sickness, tract-tossers of Christian platitudes, and gatekeepers whose sole job is to tow the line of church discipline. We are heralds of a Word of peace to a people nightly tormented by guilt.

“The Ballad of Reading Gaol” helps me see that even the most hardened person before me is really “the little frightened child” who “weeps both night and day” (V.5.1-2). God, give me eyes to see and ears to hear.

 


[1] Paul F. M. Zahl, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), 232.

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