Trooper Charles Thomas Wooldridge was someone whom Wilde had seen many times during his imprisonment. He had been found guilty of slitting his wife’s throat with a razor. It inspired in Wilde’s mind an illustration of the way we are all malefactors, all in need of forgiveness. According to Wilde the greater the crime, the more necessary charity. His final vision of the world is not frivolity, but one of suffering.
Although Wilde never hid his authorship of the poem, it was published under the name 'C.3.3.', which stood for building C, floor 3, cell 3, at Reading. This ensured that Wilde's name (by then notorious) did not appear on the front cover.
Wilde knew the town of Reading from happier times when boating on the Thames and also from visits to the Palmer family, including a tour of the famous Huntley & Palmers biscuit factory quite close to the prison.
Several quotes from the poem have become famous in their own right:
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!
For he has a pall, this wretched man
Inspired by Wilde's poem, in 1920 Jacques Ibert wrote an extended symphonic work with the same title.