In 1896 Wilde was imprisoned in Reading jail , to 1897. This ballad was begun after his release.
It was published under the pseudonym of C-3-3, Wilde’s own number as a prisoner.
The poem starts in media res and it is formally built around the story of a soldier who has been sentenced to death in Reading jail for having killed his lover. The poem is made up of 107 stanzas divided into six sections. It doesn’t show traces of Aestheticism.
The soldier isn’t a ruthless assassin: he has killed not because of cruelty or greed or hate, but for love, probably was drunk because he was found with blood and wine on his hand.
The prison transforms a guilty man into a victim: whatever he may have done, suffering and being deprived of liberty are in themselves a form of expiation and purification.
The soldier becomes the symbol of man’s tragic destiny: he is seen as a sacrificial victim who pays for man’s sins. The analogy with the figure of Christ is clear, but also with Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The fundamental injustice is not just that a man’s life is going to be taken away but also that this happens within a context of society’s general hypocrisy.
All the people kill, in a way, or in another: with words, a look, money and greed, some repent and some don’t, but society doesn’t punish them because they don’t use external violence as did the prisoner.
In the ballad there are some colors: Scarlet (coat of the guard’s uniform) represent courage and patriotism;
Red suggests passion but also blood and murder; Grey is associated with prison, squalor and lack of life;
Blue suggests hope and freedom but there is only a little.
The poem is typical of the ballad genre in which there are a plain language, repetition, similes, metaphors, internal rhymes and an apparent simplicity of thought which hides profound truths and tragic contents; but the stanzas are made up of 6 lines and the rhyme scheme is abcbdb, traditionally were 4 and the rhyme scheme were abab.