By Dr Oliver Tearle
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) gave us many memorable lines. The majority of these are one-liners and witticisms which he either used in conversation or sprinkled throughout his clever comedies – his plays which were performed to great acclaim during the first half of the 1890s. But ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ is a little different, as we discover when we delve into the origins of this particular Wildean quotation.
Here’s a question for you: which great work did Oscar Wilde write while imprisoned in Reading Gaol? Not The Ballad of Reading Gaol – that was written while he was in exile in France following his release from prison – but De Profundis, his long letter to his former lover, Lord Alfred Douglas.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), Wilde’s best-known poem by some way, is about sin, crime, love, and hatred. A book-length poem, it has given us a number of famous lines, with ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ being the most memorable. But what is the meaning of this line?
Wilde dedicated the poem to a fellow prisoner, Charles Thomas Woolridge (‘C. T. W.’), a soldier who had been convicted for murdering his wife and who was hanged in Reading Gaol in July 1896 – the first execution that had taken place at the prison for eighteen years. Woolridge is the ‘He’ of the poem’s opening stanzas, and also the inspiration for the recurring refrain: ‘Each man kills the thing he loves.’ Although Wilde never met Woolridge, he had observed him in the prison yard on several occasions.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol was published in February 1898 not under Wilde’s name but rather his prison number, ‘C.3.3.’ His identity was only established the following July. Although Reading was the most famous prison Wilde was sent to, he was not imprisoned there immediately: first of all, in March 1895, he was at Newgate, then at Pentonville, before being moved to Wandsworth, and then finally, in November 1895, to Reading.
And the poem is, in summary, a meditation on his experience of the British penal system, and the very idea of capital punishment (embodied, in the poem, by the hanging of Woolridge).
Following his conviction for ‘gross indecency’ in 1895 and his being sentenced to two years’ hard labour in prison, and then his subsequent release in 1897, Wilde returned to poetry, which he had written early on in his career before his fiction and drama became more successful.
And Wilde’s own fate is clearly there in the poem. The oft-quoted refrain from The Ballad of Reading Gaol, ‘each man kills the thing he loves’, is not just about Charles Thomas Woolridge.
It is also a reference to Wilde’s own downfall and his tempestuous relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas (‘Bosie’) and his even more disastrous run-in with Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, whose accusation of Wilde as a ‘somdomite’ (sic) led Wilde to take the Marquis to court.
Subsequently, Wilde himself was charged with ‘gross indecency’ for his relations with other men, and it was this that led to the well-known court case in 1895.
Indeed, the idea that Wilde was reflecting upon his own life as he was portraying Woolridge’s seems clear from one of the most famous stanzas in The Ballad of Reading Gaol:
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 coward kills the thing he loves with a kiss (recalling Judas, the betrayer of Jesus, who identified Jesus to the Roman authorities by kissing him), much as Wilde’s own relationship with Bosie had been the kiss of death.
So, when he wrote ‘each man kills the thing he loves’, Wilde meant that everyone destroys the thing he holds dearest: it seems to be in our natures to ruin those things (or people) which mean the most to us. Jealousy is one motive for such a paradoxical truth (and many of Wilde’s pithiest lines are paradoxes at heart).
Love can be powerful and all-consuming, and sometimes it may consume our sense of perspective, including our moral perspective. Othello loves Desdemona in Shakespeare’s play, for instance. And as the Judas reference (that ‘kiss’) makes clear, many people destroy that which they love by being unfaithful or betraying their loved ones.
But what is less well-known is that ‘each man kills the thing he loves’ is an allusion to another Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice, but with the more logical-sounding line from Shakespeare being inverted (as so often) in Wilde’s rendering of it. In Shakespeare’s play Bassanio asks: ‘Do all men kill the things they do not love?’
On the surface of it, Bassanio’s makes more sense: hate is more of a motivation for killing than love. And yet love can make people do some awful things as well; it’s not the exclusively positive force for good that empty slogans like ‘love is the answer’ and ‘love’s all you need’ (sorry, Beatles) make it out to be.
Yet neither is it true that men kill things they don’t love all the time. Both Wilde’s and Shakespeare’s lines offer us a glimpse of the truth, though, especially in Wilde’s case, they over-simplify, for rhetorical effect, the complexities of human nature.