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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

“Jer­sey Shore” in the Style of Oscar Wilde

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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