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...
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