[WILDE, Oscar (1854-1900)]. The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C.3.3. London: [The Chiswick Press for] Leonard Smithers, 1898.
8° (225 x 132mm). Uncut in original cinnamon and white cloth [by Matthew Bell & Co.], morocco-backed green cloth case. Provenance: Robert Baldwin Ross (1869-1918, presentation inscription on verso of half-title 'Robbie Ross from the author: in deep gratitude and affection Feby. 98. Naples'). Purchased from Scribners, New York, 3 June 1941, $135. Exhibited: Grolier Club, (1950s exhibition label loosely inserted).
PRESENTATION COPY OF THE FIRST EDITION, TO WILDE'S 'MOST CONSTANT AND LOYAL FRIEND'. One of 800 copies on hand-made paper; Smithers only risked printing 400 out of the projected 800 copies in January 1898, but early in February ordered 400 more and then had to print another thousand the same month. Wilde had begun writing the poem in exile at the Châlet Bourgevat, Berneval, near Dieppe in the summer of 1897. Smithers sent a final proof to him in Naples on 29 December, and the work was officially published on 13 February. Ellmann observes that 'Wilde sent copies to many old friends, with suitable inscriptions', listing many of the recipients, including Ross, in a footnote (Oscar Wilde, Oxford 1987, p.526).
Ross's own association with Wilde and the poem was very close, and is reflected by the word 'deep' in Wilde's expression of 'a deep gratitude and affection' to the man he had first met in 1886. After Wilde's sentence to two years' hard labour in 1895, Ross became almost the only friend on whom he could wholly rely. While still in prison, he made Ross his literary executor. After his release in 1897 and exile abroad, Ross remained a close friend and continued to support him, acting as an intermediary with Wilde's estranged wife and her advisers. Remarkably, it was Ross who suggested the title 'The Ballad of Reading Goal' (as he had the title of De profundis; cf. Ellmann pp.479 and 499), the poem was revised in August 1897 with Ross's help, and the final parts, V and VI, were added in October against his advice. Such was the strength of Ross's attachment that he asked for his own ashes to be taken to Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris and placed within Oscar Wilde's tomb; only in 1950 were those wishes finally honoured. Mason 371.