Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1720
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 The poems collected from periodicals by Robert Ross were added to the unpublished works to make up the modest collected edition of 1906.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.” His best known short poem is “Helas,” which prefaces the 1881 volume and is usually regarded, like THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY, as a form of Wilde’s artistic credo; it begins with an anticipation of Lord Henry Wotton’s training of Dorian:
To drift with every passion till my soulIs a stringed lute on which all windscan play . . .
and ends with the unanswered question that haunts all Wilde’s work:
. . . lo! with a little rodI did but touch the honey of romanceAnd must I lose a soul’s inheritance?
Of the sonnets which make up the bulk of the short poems, those at the graves of Shelley and Keats are effective memorials, but the more characteristic and interesting are the “Impressions” and similar poems in the three sections titled “Wind Flowers,” “Flowers of Gold,” and “The Fourth Movement,” in which Wilde is painting in clear, rich, and sophisticated color combinations. The best known of these “etudes in color” is “Symphony in Yellow,” among the previously uncollected poems in the 1906 volume.
There are five long poems in the 1881 volume: “The Garden of Eros,” “The Burden of Itys,” “Charmides,” “Panthea,” and “Humanitad.” Each is written in approximately the same stanza form of six lines, a quatrain plus a couplet, of varying pentameter and quadrameter meter: all five poems have the flowers, colors, and classical allusions and material of Tennyson’s “OEnone,” and many echoes of a golden treasury of English verse; but their most characteristic feature is the length to which Wilde could prolong the combined bookish and natural sensations, as he was later to prolong sensation and sensibility in THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL. The easiest to follow is “Charmides” because it tells the legend of the Athenian youth who made love to the naked statue of Athena one long night and was drowned by the goddess the next day for his presumption; in the second section his body is washed ashore on the Greek coast and an Oread, who falls in love with the dead youth, is also slain by Athena; in the third section the girl and the youth are revived by Proserpine and consummate their love in a passionate scene in Hades.
“The Garden of Eros” begins with English flowers, passes to classical myth, surveys English poetry as culminating in Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and concludes the June night of the poem with a return to the beauty of the flowers, all described in fresh images of striking sensuality:
Mark how the yellow iris wearilyLeans back its throat, as though itwould be kissedBy its false chamberer, the dragon-fly.
“The Burden of Itys” follows the same pattern, an invocation to the classic gods of field and forest to visit English fields and repeat their bacchanals:
O that some antique statue for one hourMight wake to passion . . .
But the dream passes with the dawn. “Panthea” begins in the usual English pastoral setting, enumerates such attractive myths as those of Ganymede and Endymion, contrasts the lot of the poet’s race to the gods’—“O we are born too late”—and reaches at last the consolation that in the end death will unite the past in “passions Hymeneal” with the earth which then becomes the “Kosmic Soul” of the conclusion. “Humanitad” is as personal a poem in its way as THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL: beginning in winter the poem laments the poet’s inability to respond to the approaching spring as he used to because he is now too experienced in passion and wise to the ways of the world. In the search for a meaning to life—
O for one grand unselfish lifeTo teach us what is Wisdom! . . .To make the Body and the Spiritone . . .
he looks past modern Italy to ancient Greece, to Wordsworth, and finally to Christ, at which point he resolves the dilemma by deciding to come down from his own Cross: “That which is purely human, that is Godlike, that is God.”
The sexual fantasies of “Charmides” are more evident in “The Sphinx” and in SALOME. “The Sphinx” is a sequence of thirteen short poems in four-line stanzas which begin and end with an invocation to the Sphinx imagined by the poet to be brooding at him from a corner of his room. He asks the Sphinx about her lovers and supplies a long catalogue of possibilities before he decides that Ammon filled the role; then he remembers the present state of the Sphinx and tells her to assemble the ruins of her old lovers and to leave him, as the dawn enters, because she awakens in him “each bestial sense . . . foul dreams of sensual life.” This effect is certainly borne out in the poem, where Wilde’s sense of color and form becomes fully tactile, passionate, and ultimately preposterous. One doubts whether in Wilde’s time poetry could go further without becoming obscene. His jail sentence put a stop to this kind of poetry and produced his last work.
THE BALLAD OF READING GAOL like “Charmides,” tells a narrative of the hanging of a murderer for killing the woman he loved; the paradox of his fate and the correspondence Wilde saw to his own is, together with the realism, the source of the energy which carries the poem through six sections and contains more than one hundred six-line stanzas. In spite of repetitions induced by the stanzas Wilde kept adding to the poem, the ballad rhythm is rarely monotonous and the use of color even more startling than it was in Wilde’s earlier verse: “little tent of blue,” “scarlet coat,” “yellow hole,” “purple throat,” “teeth of flame.”
The first three sections narrate the six weeks spent by the subject of the elegy waiting to “swing”; the fourth describes the execution and in intimate and graphic detail shows its effect on the prisoners; the fifth section contains Wilde’s reflection on the execution and on the meaning of prison as a place for repentance, a subject he covered more fully but equally indefinitely in DE PROFUNDIS; the sixth section is a brief envoi or epilogue which repeats the central line of the poem: “all men kill the thing they love.” This may be in accord with modern psychology; if Wilde was as utterly self-centered as he seems to have been, there could have been no truer epitaph for his own grave.