The Poetry of Wilde Critical Essays

Oscar Wilde

Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature, Revised Edition)

Oscar Wilde’s first literary reputation was made by his poems; the later success of his lectures, essays, stories, and plays obscured his reputation as a poet until the notoriety surrounding his last poem and last piece of writing, THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL. The most important volume is his POEMS of 1881, the others being the Newdigate Prize poem, “Ravenna”; THE SPHINX, published in 1894, and THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL, which appeared in 1898. The poems collected from periodicals by Robert Ross were added to the unpublished works to make up the modest collected edition of 1906. Wilde’s poetry may be divided by form into long and short poems or by content into those which spiritualize bodily sensations and those which represent spiritual matters in terms of physical sensation.

The long poems of Oscar Wilde cover the twenty years between “Ravenna” and THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL. Their chief use is not to tell a simple fable like those found in Wilde’s short stories, but chiefly to celebrate a situation. There is a similar static quality in the short poems where the lack of argument induces a hortatory opening and a fading or frenzied close. “Ravenna,” as is proper in a poem intended to win a prize in late nineteenth century Oxford, is written in modified early eighteenth century couplets, in which the favorite words seem to be “O,” “yon” and “adieu,” giving the poet a declamatory stance to excite energy, a post from which he can observe Ravenna’s scenery, and a pathetic resolution. The success of the poem is the succession of enameled portraits of flowers and other pastoral properties needed to construct the contrast between the Italian and English landscapes which is the matter of the poem, all expressed without one false note in the verse or a sincere one in the expression:

So runs the perfect cycle of the year.And so from youth to manhood do wego,And fall to weary days and locks ofsnow.

It is something of a shock to find Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling publishing short poems entitled “Ave Imperatrix” within a year of each other. Kipling’s seven stanzas were “Written on the Occasion of the Attempt to Assassinate Queen Victoria in March 1882”; the “Queen” in his poem is obviously Victoria; Wilde’s “Queen” is England, but his tone expresses similar jingoistic rejoicing in imperial power and some of the geographical references are identical, particularly when Wilde brings in Afghanistan (strictly Kipling territory) as evidence of imperial might. After many apostrophes (“O wasted dust! O senseless clay!”) Wilde shoulders the White Man’s Burden and grants that heavy losses in the Pathan wars are necessary to the destiny of his “Imperatrix”: “Up the steep road must England go.” But he cannot help regretting the loss of many fine young men. A similar public stance is held in poems like “To Milton” and “Louis Napoleon.” But Wilde soon tired of these Miltonic and Wordsworthian imitations and imitated instead Rossetti in his Roman Catholic sonnets and Swinburne in his nature pieces.

Wilde’s ear was remarkably true; like those of Swinburne his lines have melody but lack sense, particularly if poem is placed against poem, when the inconsistencies typical of Wilde become obnoxious. Not that such placing is a fair test, but when “the Holy One . . . shepherd of the Church of God” of “Urbs Sacra Aeterna” in the section entitled “Rosa Mystica” becomes a “Fra Giovanni bawling at the mass” of “The Burden of Itys,” one questions the sincerity of both the public poems and the private ones. Wilde’s sincerity or his most deeply felt pose is contained in the long poems which glorify a naked pantheism that seems to place the sunny Italian body in the fresh fields of England. In that respect all but the last of his poems is a refinement of the first, “Ravenna,” and the last, THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL, is a contradiction of such pieces as “Ave Imperatrix.”...

(The entire section is 1720 words.)