Hear Oscar Wilde Recite a Section of The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1897)

Even those of us who have never read The Importance of Being Earnest, The Picture of Dorian Gray, or anything else Oscar Wilde wrote can still recite a thing or two he said. “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal,” for example, or that jewel of so many Facebook profiles, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” I personally prefer “I can resist everything except temptation,” but none of these quite hold the power of Wilde’s immortal (if seemingly unconfirmed) dying line: “Either those drapes go or I do.” Now you can hear the poet, playwright, one-time novelist, and dedicated raconteur speak his own words in this recording of two verses from his 1897 poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, embedded above.

Wilde got his material for this work straight from the source: convicted in 1895 of “gross indecency,” he did the following two years of “hard bed, hard fare, hard labour” at HM’s Prison, Reading. There he witnessed a Royal Horse Guard trooper hang for cutting his wife’s throat. Sensing a theme of the human condition, Wilde would later write: “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!” The earlier verses you hear Wilde read — for whatever definition of “hear” the limitations of eighteenth-century recording devices allowed — end in a summation of just what struck him so deeply about all this business: “The man had killed the thing he loved / And so he had to die.”

Find more works by Oscar Wilde in our collections of Free Audio Books and Free eBooks.

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Oscar Wilde in His Own Words

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (10)
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  • Tardy says:

    Mmm. I think the authenticity of this has been disputed. A discovery of a recording of Wilde speaking would, I have thought, been fairly newsworthy. It’s not a bad reading, though!

  • Tardy says:

    I mean, I’d love it if a recording did exist, but I’d want him to be a better reader than this guy! However, even if this turns out not to be Wilde, it may have value as a record of an impersonation of Wilde. (Which, at least at one point, convinced even his son Vyvian.)

  • Tardy says:

    Sorry, Vyvyan.

  • Brian says:

    ‘eighteenth-century recording devices’?


  • Dean says:

    On Twitter Stephen Fry says it’s not Oscar Wilde so it’s not Oscar Wilde…

  • Daniel Gackle says:

    I’m happier if it’s a fake. To my ear that voice sounds far too overblown and sentimental to be Wilde reading that of all things after what he went through.

  • Jens says:

    No covincing evidence so far presented to confirm or disprove the authenticity. Stephen Fry’s personal opinion of no value.

  • Tripleransom says:

    I’m convinced that it doesn’t sound like Oscar Wilde’s normal voice. However, when you consider that he was confronted by the first microphone he had ever seen, why should we expect him to sound ‘normal’? None of us would. I imagine that a mike would have intimidated even dear Oscar. I’m not certain it’s real, but I sure would like for it to be.

  • Mitchell says:

    I can’t believe there’s anybody who believes that this was authentic. As a Wilde scholar whose thesis was on Oscar, specifically his poetry, I promise you this was debunked a while ago. And no Englishman would use the word “drapes,” an incorrect Americanism to describe what in the US are actually called “draperies.” In the UK they say “curtains,” which is still irrelevant Because the actual quotation is, “This WALLPAPER will be the death of me — one of us will have to go.” And he didn’t say it on his deathbed, either but some time previously.

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