A brief look at a famous phrase ‘Every man ends up killing what he loves’

The phrase was used by Oscar Wilde in his poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and is an allusion to Shakespeare’s “Merchant of Venice”, in a paraphrase in Wilde’s typical and ironic way. In this work, Bassiano asks “Do all men kill what they love?” and Oscar Wilde made it his most famous and contradictory verse.
If we want to analyze this phrase, we must read the rest of the poem or at least the central stanza:
“… However, each man kills what he loves […].
Some do it with a sour look
Some with a flattering word.
The coward does it with a kiss;
The brave man with a sword…. ”
It is obvious that the poet wants to link love – in its most extreme meaning, painful and perhaps desperate and forbidden – with a dangerous potential that can drive a man to madness, or worse, to death. And be it himself or the person he loves. The reference to Othello perhaps who killed his adored wife, or to the cowardice of Judas who denounced Jesus with that kiss of the most notorious betrayal, which without equal has righteously been considered as the most horrendous betrayal of all history; Romeo’s bitter gaze at his lover and at the whole world when he saw the dead body Juliet right before he drank the poison to be together with her, and the same kind of antemortem gaze of hers that saw nothing alive around her after her precious Romeo had died, ending up killing herself with his own dagger to follow him into eternity.
Of course, there are cases in which someone begins by expressing his love, towards his adoration, and ends up destroying the thing, the person or the adored idea. Nietzsche, for example, the German philosopher, wanted to elaborate on the phenomenon of Jesus, his miracles, his love for all humanity and ended after so much analysis by declaring that God does not exist or is dead, surprising negatively in addition to his religious and conservative family, the entire society of his time, the church, and the world of literature and philosophy. And he keeps doing it!
When it comes to love within a couple, everything can start as an omen for a miraculous, unconditional and eternal love, but over time it can turn into a nightmare due to selfishness, lack of communication and respect, simply because of daily problems or routine. That means the end of love, i.e. its death, at the hands of the lovers or at least by one of the two. Because pride, arrogance and arrogance lead to alienation and ultimate breakup.
Finally, there is the path that leads to the end, and that is the death of oneself, that is by means of suicide. It is the way to end the greatest gift that God or the universe has given to man, that is, one’s own life. It may be that one does it out of disappointment, out of despair, or to free oneself from a tormenting situation; out of the desire to escape from a tragic and unbearable life equaling to bodily torture. Regardless of the objective or the cause, the person who points the weapon, the sword or the dagger against oneself, ends up killing what he probably loves the most – or in the end hates the most – that is, one’s own life. Because according to the same famous and popular poet, Oscar Wilde, only great loves are of short duration, killed at last for their fullness; while superficial loves, like superficial sorrows too, are of long duration.
The man had killed the thing he loved
  And so he had to die.
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!
Some kill their love when they are young,
  And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
  Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
  The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
  Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
  And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves;
Yet each man does not die.

The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Oscar Wilde – 1854-1900

Short Biography

Oscar Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland, on October 16, 1854. He attended Trinity College, Dublin, from 1871 to 1874 and Magdalen College, Oxford, from 1874 to 1878. At Oxford, he received the Newdigate Prize for his long poem Ravenna (T. Shrimpton and Son, 1878). He also became involved in the aesthetic movement, advocating for the value of beauty in art.
Article by Irene Doura-Kavadia
© Irene Doura-Kavadia
Editor-in-Chief, Writers Edition