Oscar Wilde Poetry: British Analysis
Oscar Wilde’s poetry derives from the rich tradition of nineteenth century poetry, for, as Richard Aldington shows, Wilde imitated what he loved so intensely in the great poets of his century. Drawing from John Keats, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris, and Algernon Charles Swinburne, Wilde demonstrated an aestheticism like theirs in his lush imagery and in his pursuit of the fleeting impression of the moment. His poetry tries to capture the beautiful, as the Victorian critic John Ruskin had urged a generation earlier, but generally lacks the moral tone that Ruskin advocated. Wilde’s poetry best fulfills the aesthetic of Walter Pater, who, in his Studies in the History of the Renaissance, advocated impressionism and art for art’s sake. Indeed, Wilde paraphrased Pater’s famous line of burning with a “hard, gemlike flame” in several of his poems.
Wilde published many poems individually before 1881, but his Poems of 1881 included almost all these poems and many new ones. With this collection, he published more than half of the poetry that he was to produce. The collection of 1881 is a good representation of his aestheticism and his tendency to derivativeness. Wilde avoided the overtly autobiographical and confessional mode in these poems, yet they mirror his attitudes and travels as impressions of his life. The forms he tried most often in the collection were the Italian sonnet and, for longer poems, a six-line stanza in pentameter with an ababcc rhyme scheme. The smaller poetic output that followed the 1881 collection consists of a number of shorter poems, two longer poems, and Poems in Prose. The short poems break no new ground, The Sphinx heralds a decadence and a celebration of pain unequaled in the nineteenth century except by Swinburne a generation earlier. The Ballad of Reading Gaol, however, builds on Wilde’s earlier efforts. Again, he avoids the confessional mode that one would expect, considering the horrors of incarceration out of which the poem grew. The persona of the poem is no longer an urbane mind observing nature and society, but a common prisoner at hard labor generalizing about the cruelties of humans and their treatment of those they love. In this poem, despite its shrillness and melodrama, Wilde struck a balance between his own suffering and art, a balance that the impressionism of his poetic talents made easier. He dealt, as an observer, with the modern and the sordid as he had dealt earlier with art and nature. Poems in Prose is Wilde’s effort at the short parable, offering neither the impressionism nor the formal qualities of his other poems, but ironic parables that refute the pieties of his era. Here Wilde is at his wittiest.
Ravenna was Wilde’s first long poem to be published, and it won the Newdigate prize for poetry while he was still at Oxford. Written in couplets, the poem deals with many of the themes that he developed for the 1881 collection; thus, Ravenna is the starting point in a study of Wilde’s poetry. Like the later long poems, Ravenna develops through contrasts: northern and southern European cultures, innocence and experience, past and present, classical and Christian. As a city, Ravenna evokes all these contrasts to the youthful Wilde.
The opening imagery is of spring, with a tendency to lushness typical of Keats. The boyish awe that Wilde felt in Ravenna is tempered, however, by recollection, for in the poem he is recalling his visit a year later. It is through recollection that he understands the greatness of the city, for in his northern world he has no such symbol of the rich complexity of time. What he learns from the English landscape is the passage of seasons that will mark his aging. He is sure, though, that with his love for Ravenna he will have a youthful inspiration despite his aging and loss of poetic powers.
Most of the poem is a poetic recounting of Ravenna’s history. Wilde discusses the classical past of the city with reference to Caesar, and when he refers to Lord Byron’s stay in the city, by association with Byron’s last days in Greece, he imagines the region peopled with mythological figures; but the evening convent bell returns him to a somber Christian world. Recounting the Renaissance history of the city, Wilde is most moved by Dante’s shrine. He closes the poem with references to Dante and Byron.
Wilde published twenty-eight sonnets in the 1881 collection, Poems, all of them Italian in form. Like his mentor Keats, Wilde used the sonnet to develop themes that he expanded in his longer poems.
“Hélas,” an early sonnet not published in the 1881 collection, is his artistic manifesto that sets the tone for all the poems that followed. “Hélas” finds Wilde rhetorically questioning whether he has bartered wisdom for the passion or impression of the moment. In the sonnets that follow, he clearly seems to have chosen such moments of vivid impression.
In several sonnets, Wilde alludes to the poets who molded his style and themes, including two sonnets about visiting the graves of Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley in the Protestant cemetery in Rome. He identifies himself with Keats as he never identifies with Shelley, and rightly so, for Keats’s style and themes echo throughout the 1881 collection. Wilde also refers directly to Keats in another sonnet, “Amor Intellectualis,” and to other poets important to him:Robert Browning, Christopher Marlowe, and particularly Dante and John Milton. The sonnet “A Vision” is a tribute to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. On a larger scale than the sonnets, the longer poem “The Garden of Eros” presents Wilde’s pantheon of poets with his feelings about them.
Some of the sonnets have political themes; in a number of these, Wilde advocates freedom, occasionally sounding like a Victorian Shelley. He is concerned with the political chaos of nineteenth century Italy, a land important to him for its classical past; “Italia” is a sonnet about the political venality in Italy, but it stresses that God might punish the corrupt. In his own country, Wilde idealizes the era of the Puritans and Oliver Cromwell; the sonnet “To Milton” laments the loss of democracy in England and advocates a return to the ideals of the Puritan revolution. In “Quantum Mutata,” he admires Cromwell for his threat to Rome, but the title shows how events have changed, for Victorian England stands only for imperialism. This attack on British imperialism informs the long poem “Ave Imperatrix,” which is far more emotional in tone than the political sonnets.
A number of Wilde’s sonnets express his preference for the classical or primitive world and his antipathy for the modern Christian world. These poems have a persona visiting Italy, as Wilde did in 1877, and commenting on the Christian elements of the culture; “Sonnet on Approaching Italy” shows the speaker longing to visit Italy, yet, in contemplating far-off Rome, he laments the tyranny of a second Peter. Three other sonnets set in Italy, “Ave Maria, Gratia Plena,” “Sonnet Written in Holy Week in Genoa,” and “Urbs Sacra Aeterna,” have Wilde contrasting the grandeur and color of the classical world with the emptiness and greyness of the Christian world. It is in these poems that Wilde is most like Swinburne. In other sonnets, he deals with religious values, often comparing the Christian ideal with the corruption of the modern Church he sees in Italy, or Christ’s message with the conduct of his sinful followers. In “Easter Day,” Wilde depicts the glory of the Pope as he is borne above the shoulders of the bearers, comparing that scene with the picture of Christ’s loneliness centuries before. In “E Tenebris,” the speaker appeals for help to a Christ who is to appear in weary human form. In “Sonnet, On Hearing the Dies Irae Sung in the Sistine Chapel,” Wilde criticizes the harsh picture of a fiery day of judgment and replaces it with a picture of a warm autumn harvest, in which humankind awaits reaping by and fulfillment in God.
Wilde’s best religious sonnet, “Madonna Mia,” avoids the polemicism of some of his other religious sonnets, showing instead an affinity with the Pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry of a generation earlier. This sonnet is Pateresque in its hard impression, and it fulfills the credo suggested by the sonnet “Hélas.” The picture Wilde paints in words is detailed: braided hair, blue eyes, pale cheeks, red lips, and white throat with purple veins; Wilde’s persona is a worshiper of Mary, as Dante was of Beatrice.
“The Burden of Itys”
“The Burden of Itys” is one of several long philosophic poems about nature and God to be found in the 1881 collection. Each of these poems has the same stanza form, a six-line stanza with an ababcc rhyme scheme; the first five lines are iambic pentameter, and the sixth is iambic heptameter. The stanza form gives a lightness which does not perfectly fit the depth of the ideas the poems present; it seems a form better suited to witticism than to philosophy.
Set in England close to Oxford, “The Burden of Itys” is similar in imagery and setting to Matthew Arnold’s poems “The Scholar Gypsy” and “Thrysis.” Wilde piles image on image of the flora of the region to establish the beauty of the setting, suggesting that the beauty of the countryside (and thus of nature in general) is holier than the grandeur of Rome. Fish replace bishops and the wind becomes the organ for the persona’s religious reverie. By stanza 13, Wilde shifts from his comparison between Rome and nature to a contrast between the English landscape and the Greek. Because England is more beautiful than Greece, he suggests that the Greek pantheon could fittingly be reborn in Victorian England. A bird singing to Wilde, much like the nightingale singing to Keats, is the link between the persona imagining a revival of classical gods and actually experiencing one in which he will wear the leopard skin of a follower of Bacchus. This spell breaks, though, with another contrast, for a pale Christ and the speaker’s religion destroy the classical reverie.
Brought back then to the Victorian world, as Keats was brought back to his world at the end of “Ode to a Nightingale,” Wilde philosophizes and fixes the meaning of his experience in a way Keats never would have done. He stresses that nature does not represent the lovely agony of Christ but warm fellowship both in and between the worlds of humankind and animal. Even Oxford and nature are linked to each other, Wilde implies, as the curfew bell from his college church calls him back.
“Panthea” also works through dissimilarity, this time between southern and northern Europe, passion and reason, and classical and Christian thought. Wilde’s rejection of the Church in “The Burden of Itys” is gentle, but in “Panthea” it is blatant. The gods have simply grown sick of priests and prayer. Instead, people should live for the passion and pleasure of an hour, those moments being the only gift the gods have to give. The poem emphasizes that the Greek gods themselves dwell in nature, participating fully in all the pleasures there. Their natural landscape, though, is not the bleak landscape of northern Europe, but the warm rich landscape of southern Europe.
Wilde proceeds to the philosophical theme of the poem, that one great power or being composes nature, and Nature, thus, subsumes all lives and elements and recycles them into various forms. For people to be reborn as flower or thrush is to live again without the pain of mortal existence; yet, paradoxically, without human pain, nature could not create beauty. Pain is the basis of beauty, for nature exists as a setting for human passion. Nature, in Wilde’s words, has one “Kosmic Soul” linking all lives and elements. Wilde echoes lines of Keats and Pater, and, uncharacteristically, William Wordsworth; Wilde’s affirmation proceeds with lines and images from Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.”
“Humanitad” is the longest of the philosophical poems in the 1881 collection, and it has much less in common with the other two philosophical poems than they have with each other. While spring is imminent, the speaker responds only to the winter elements still persisting. He emphasizes (paraphrasing Pater) that he has no fire to burn with a clear flame. The difference here is with the renewal of spring and spiritual exhaustion, and the speaker must look outside himself for some source of renewal. At one point, the poem turns topical by referring to ideals of simplicity and freedom: Switzerland, Wordsworth, and Giuseppe Mazzini. Wilde invokes the name of Milton as epitomizing the fight for freedom in the past; and, at the same time, he laments that there are no modern Miltons. Having no modern exemplar, Wilde also dismisses death and love as possible solutions for his moribund life. Turning to science, Wilde also rejects it. Wilde then has no recourse, and he faces a meaningless universe until he touches on mere causality after having rejected science.
Causality leads to God and creed, for causality is a chain connecting all elements. Nature, as in “Panthea,” cannot help the speaker, for he has grown weary of mere sensation. Accordingly, he turns to the force behind nature (in this instance, God as Christ), although he rejects orthodoxy. He sees modern humanity’s creed as being in process, for humanity is in the stage of crucifixion as it tries to discover the human in Christ and not the divine. The persona then sees his emptiness as the suffering leading to renewal. It is the full discovery of Christ’s humanity that will make modern human beings masters of nature rather than tormented, alienated outcasts.
Just as Wilde drew from classical mythology for many of his poems and then contrasted the gray Christian world with the bright pagan world, he used Egyptian mythology in The Sphinx to picture a decadent sadistic sensuality as distinguished from a tortured Christian suffering. The situation in the poem is that a cat has crept into the speaker’s room; to the speaker, the cat represents the Sphinx. Now, giving his imagination play, the speaker reveals his own sadistic eroticism, a subject that Wilde had not developed in other poems. The style also represents a departure for him; the stanzas consist of two lines of iambic octameter with no rhyme, resulting in a languorous slow rhythm in keeping with the speaker’s ruminations about sensuality and sadism.
The cat as Sphinx represents the lush, decadent, yet appealing sensuality found in Egyptian mythology. In half of the poem, Wilde rhetorically questions the Sphinx about mythological figures of ancient Egypt, asking who her lovers were and at the same time cataloging the most famous myths of Egypt. Wilde settles on Ammon as the Sphinx’s lover, but then he discusses how Ammon’s statue has fallen to pieces, thus suggesting that the lover might be dead. Yet the Sphinx has the power to revive her lover; Ammon is not really dead. Having earlier referred to the holy family’s exile in Egypt, Wilde now mentions that Christ is the only god who died, having let his side be pierced by a sword. Christ then is weaker than Ammon, and, in this way, Wilde suggests that pagan mythology is more vital than Christian mythology. The speaker’s reflections on love become orthodox at the end; he feels he should contemplate the crucifix and not the Sphinx. He returns to a world of penitence where Christ watches and cries for every soul, but the speaker sees the tears as futile. The poem then raises the question of whether human beings can be redeemed from their fallen condition.
The Ballad of Reading Gaol
Wilde’s most famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, is a departure from any of the poems he had published previously. Sometimes overdone emotionally, the poem uses the prison as a metaphor for life and its cruelties. Wilde is the observer rather than the subject; in this way, he distances himself from his own experiences. The poem raises the thematic question of why humans are cruel to other human beings, so cruel that they always destroy what they love. It is through cruelty that people kill or destroy the ones they love, just as the prisoner whom Wilde observes, and who is soon to hang, murdered his lover. The mystery of human cruelty was the mystery of the Sphinx in Wilde’s previous poem, but here the issue is the agony of the mystery rather than the decadent glory of cruelty, as in The Sphinx.
Wilde exploits the Gothic elements of the situation, dwelling on the macabre details of the grave of quicklime that dissolves the murderer’s body. He uses the dread and gloom of the prisoners’ lives to heighten the tone, but he often becomes shrill and melodramatic by emphasizing details such as the bag that covers the head of the condemned, tears falling like molten lead from the other prisoners as they observe the condemned, terror personified as a ghost, and the greasy rope used for the hanging. Ironically, the surviving prisoners are bedeviled by terror and horror, while the condemned dies calmly and serenely. Wilde uses a simple six-line stanza for a forcefully direct effect. The short lines alternate three and four feet of iambic pentameter with masculine rhyming of the second, fourth, and sixth lines. The stanza form is not one that suggests a reflective tone but rather a direct, emotional one.
The concluding motif of the poem is religious. The prison is a place of shame, where brother mistreats brother. Christ could feel only shame at what he sees his children do to each other there; but he rescues sinful humankind when he is broken by suffering and death. Even though the body of the hanged had no prayers said over it before interment in the quicklime, Christ rescued his soul. The surviving prisoners, their hearts broken and contrite, also gain salvation from the effects of their suffering.
Poems in Prose
Wilde’s Poems in Prose was the last collection published of all his poems except The Ballad of Reading Gaol, and the reader hears a different voice from that of the other poems, satirical and paradoxical like William Blake’s in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). In Wilde’s hands, the prose poem is a debonair and provocative parable on religious subjects. More often than not in his six prose poems, Wilde is trying to shock the bourgeoisie out of complacency and religious orthodoxy.
“The Artist” sets the tone of the prose poems; in this piece, the artist forsakes the oppressive sorrow of Christianity for the pursuit of hedonism. It is this kind of ironic reversal that the other prose poems also develop. In “The Doer of Good,” Christ returns to find sinners and lepers he has saved or cured delighting in the sin, no longer wrong, from which he saved them. The one person whom Christ saved from death wishes that Christ had left him dead. “The House of Judgment” ironically shows the sinner complaining that his earthly life was hellish, and confronted now with Heaven, he has no conception of it after his life of suffering. The most moving of the six is “The Teacher of Wisdom,” in which Wilde shows that the finest act of humankind is to teach the wisdom of God. A hermit, having attained the knowledge of God, refuses to part with it by giving it to the young sinner who is imploring him. Frustrated, the sinner returns to sin, but, in so doing, extracts the knowledge from the hermit, who hopes to turn the sinner away from more sin. Fearing that he has parted with his knowledge, the hermit is consoled by God, who now, for his sacrifice, grants him a true love of God. In this parable, Wilde has transcended the satiric wit of the other parables to teach through irony.