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The Poetry of Oscar Wilde




“I never saw a man who looked With such a wistful eye Upon that little tent of blue Which prisoners call the sky.” Mia Forbes looks at the poetry of Oscar Wilde.


Although best known as a playwright and novelist, not to mention as a character himself, Oscar Wilde spent his entire career writing poetry. From the prize-winning Ravenna that he presented at Oxford, to the haunting Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde’s verse provides a complex and perplexing lens through which to examine his life and other creations.

In fact, it was with his poetry that Wilde first attempted to cement his place among the London literary elite. Although his father had been knighted for his services as a surgeon and his parents therefore enjoyed the titles of Sir and Lady Wilde, the young Oscar could not truly consider himself a member of the aristocracy. Moreover, his Anglo-Irish heritage meant he could never sincerely assume the role of English gentleman. Such circumstances necessitated the manufacture, or at the very least the embellishment, of his persona. And this is the way in which Wilde led the remainder of his life, with some parts of himself hidden or diminished, others created or exaggerated.

Ideas of duality and duplicity are evident in many of his works. Jack Worthing and Dorian Gray are two of his most notably binary characters: the former modifies his attitude and opinions depending on company, going by “Ernest in town and Jack in the country”; the latter becomes increasingly reckless and cruel while maintaining the façade of “one who had kept himself unspotted from the world”. Writing provided Wilde with a valid way of giving voice to the contradictions that he observed in the world, and particularly in his own life, and where could such inconsistencies be more freely realised than in poetry?

Rennell Rodd, a friend from Wilde’s Oxford days, had once warned him of the dangers of indulging in these contradictions: “You see you’ve no one to contradict you!—Which is bad for you!”. The very nature of verse makes its messages and meanings far more difficult to overtly challenge or contradict than the speech and actions of the stage, or the more easily decipherable words of prose. Perhaps it is for this reason that Wilde’s poetry did not generate as much scandal as some of his other work, and yet it contains much the same sense of duplicity, hedonism and unorthodoxy that offended the sensibilities of many of his Victorian contemporaries.   

His poetry makes it abundantly clear that, for Wilde, reality itself was a disappointment. Of course not every poetic speaker is a direct mouthpiece for the poet, but certain ideas appear so consistently, and have such appreciable parallels in his own life, that it does not seem too presumptive to read Wilde’s own views in them. In some poems, his disappointment at the world around him takes the form of general concern about declining standards of decency, morality and goodness, stemming from a very human empathy he felt for the suffering of others: “Christ, dost thou live indeed? or are thy bones / Still straitened in their rock-hewn sepulchre?” (On the Massacre of the Christians in Bulgaria). But more often, his disappointment comes from a more personal place, a taedium vitae (‘boredom of life’), as one of his poems is entitled. In The Burden of Itys, he expresses the desire to “forget the wearying wasted strife, / The riven veil, the Gorgon eyes of Truth”, to escape “the dull insensate air”, and instead to “be drunk with life, / Drunk with the trampled vintage of my youth”. In Γλυκυπικρος Ἐρος (glukupikros eros, ‘bittersweet love’), love and life are destroyed by reality:

“Two young lovers lying in an orchard would have read the story of

our love.

Would have read the legend of my passion, known the bitter secret

of my heart,

Kissed as we have kissed, but never parted as we two are fated now

to part.

For the crimson flower of our life is eaten by the cankerworm of

truth,

And no hand can gather up the fallen withered petals of the rose of

youth.”

(Γλυκυπικρος Ἐρος)

And so in the face of this disappointing and destructive reality, Wilde and his characters creates alternatives, losing themselves in fantasies and escaping into illusory worlds and experiences. Dreams are a frequent feature, truth is often the adversary of happiness, and most of the narrative poems are set in environments stripped of any vulgar trivialities or mundane hallmarks of everyday life: money, buildings, work, crowds. Things appear in the wrong times and places, reflecting Wilde’s romantic nostalgia for the epic grandeur and pagan mysteries of the classical civilisations, his “fond Hellenic dream” (Ravenna):

For well I know they are not dead at all,

The ancient Gods of Grecian poesy:

They are asleep, and when they hear thee call

Will wake and think ’tis very Thessaly,

This Thames the Daulian waters”

(The Burden of Itys) 

“But when they had unloosed the linen band

Which swathed the Egyptian’s body, – lo! was found

Closed in the wasted hollow of her hand

A little seed, which sown in English ground

Did wondrous snow of starry blossoms bear

And spread rich odours through our spring-tide air.”

(Athanasia)

Despite voicing disgust at the façade of “pomp and pageantry and powers” that he saw disguising the “dull and grey” realities of British society, “changed unto a mimic play” (To Milton), Wilde does quite the same, colouring dismal and disappointing reality to his own fancy, embellishing it with impossible pleasures and interpolating wonders from distant times and places.

Where love sits in this dichotomy between sad reality and idyllic illusion is difficult: sometimes love is the fantasy destroyed by reality, “the crimson flower...eaten by the cankerworm of truth” (Γλυκυπικρος Ἐρος), and at other times the reality of love is what leads the lover to create the fantasy: “When one is in love, one always begins by deceiving one’s self, and one always ends by deceiving others. That is what the world calls a romance” (The Portrait of Dorian Gray). At whichever point the cycle starts, it is clear that love and truth are opposed in Wilde’s poetry. Often this is expressed with an elevated, whimsical and dreamlike air:  

“And Love! that noble madness, whose august

And inextinguishable might can slay

The soul with honeyed drugs, ...

... made my youth

So soft a swoon of exquisite indolence

That all the chiding of more prudent Truth

Seemed the thin voice of jealousy”

(Humanitad) 

Look upward where the white gull screams,

What does it see that we do not see?

Is that a star? or the lamp that gleams

On some outward voyaging argosy, –

Ah! can it be

We have lived our lives in a land of dreams!

(Her Voice)

Sometimes, however, Wilde explores the murkier side to the illusion of love: 

Like wire-pulled automatons,

Slim silhouetted skeletons

Went sidling through the slow quadrille.

They took each other by the hand,

And danced a stately saraband;

Their laughter echoed thin and shrill.

Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed

A phantom lover to her breast,

Sometimes they seemed to try to sing.

Sometimes a horrible marionette

Came out, and smoked its cigarette

Upon the steps like a live thing.

(The Harlot’s House)

Thus he presents love and sex as existing on the borders of reality. Something else that floats in this liminal zone, and perhaps the most important of all, is art. The artist works where reality meets irreality, whether it be the musician: “Her ivory hands on the ivory keys / Strayed in a fitful fantasy” (In the Gold Room); the actor: “How vain and dull this common world must seem / To such a One as thou” (Phèdre, dedicated to Sarah Bernhardt); or poet, who at times is merged with the philosopher: 

O come out of it,

Come out of it, my Soul, thou art not fit

For this vile traffic-house, where day by day

Wisdom and reverence are sold at mart,

And the rude people rage with ignorant cries

Against an heritage of centuries.

It mars my calm: wherefore in dreams of Art

And loftiest culture I would stand apart,

Neither for God, nor for his enemies.

(Theoretikos) 

Ultimately, however, these artists, if submerged too deep in their creations as perhaps all great artists must be, will find themselves unable to sustain a harmonious balance between reality and fantasy. They will end up consumed by the illusory world, making a return to reality impossible. A question that any reader of Wilde’s work must ask is whether this omnipresent duality strengthens the characters and the author, adding to their interest, abilities and artistry, or weakens it, dividing them with a dichotomy that can never be resolved.

Written in 1881, Hélas! is a sonnet of introspection, its speaker an artistic soul whose references to the lute and “idle songs for pipe and virelay” immediately identify him with the poet. He wonders how best to handle his art, and whether something more important must be sacrificed when one fully indulges in the sensual, that is, whether “to drift with every passion till my soul is a stringed lute on which all winds can play” inevitable means “los[ing] a soul’s inheritance”. The “austere control” of reality is set against the freedom of art which allows the artist to “drift” from truth when it becomes unpleasant or ugly:


To drift with every passion till my soul
Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play,
Is it for this that I have given away
Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control?—
Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll
Scrawled over on some boyish holiday
With idle songs for pipe and virelay
Which do but mar the secret of the whole.
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God:
Is that time dead? lo! with a little rod
I did but touch the honey of romance—
And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?

(Hélas!)

What is so troubling about this sonnet, and which explains the lament with which it is titled, is the doubt that has crept into the artist’s reflections on his art: “Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll / Scrawled over on some boyish holiday / With idle songs for pipe and virelay / Which do but mar the secret of the whole”. His work is nothing but “some boyish holiday...which do but mar the secret of the whole”.  In other poems, we see the same thing occurring in a romantic sense: the speaker realises that the love which has altered their world and freed them from the bonds of reality cannot be sustained if not grounded in truth:


Look upward where the white gull screams,

What does it see that we do not see?

Is that a star? or the lamp that gleams

On some outward voyaging argosy, –

Ah! can it be

We have lived our lives in a land of dreams!

How sad it seems.

...

And there is nothing left to do

But to kiss once again, and part,

Nay, there is nothing we should rue,

I have my beauty, – you your Art,

Nay, do not start,

One world was not enough for two

Like me and you.

(Her Voice)

  

Within this restless, hurried, modern world

We took our hearts’ full pleasure – You and I,

And now the white sails of our ship are furled,

And spent the lading of our argosy.

(My Voice) 

Wilde acknowledges that the types of art and love which allow one to escape from reality are ultimately untenable, and yet equally he shows them to be irresistible. In fact, the delight and freedom that they bring is often presented as a worthy exchange for the ruin in which they all too often end: 

Nay, if it be thy will I shall endure,

And sell ambition at the common mart,

And let dull failure be my vestiture,

And sorrow dig its grave within my heart.

...

Many a man hath done so; sought to fence

In straitened bonds the soul that should be free,

Trodden the dusty road of common sense,

While all the forest sang of liberty,

...

But surely it is something to have been

The best belovèd for a little while,

To have walked hand in hand with Love, and seen

His purple wings flit once across thy smile.

(Apologia)

 

Enough, enough that he whose life had been

A fiery pulse of sin, a splendid shame,

Could in the loveless land of Hades glean

One scorching harvest from those fields of flame

Where passion walks with naked unshod feet

And is not wounded, – ah! enough that once their lips could

meet

In that wild throb when all existences

Seemed narrowed to one single ecstasy

Which dies through its own sweetness and the stress

Of too much pleasure,

(Charmides)
 

Anyone familiar with the dramatic and tragic story of Wilde’s personal life will immediately be able to distinguish the parallels between his own experiences and beliefs, and those voiced by his poetic speakers. In the context of the conservative and reputation-driven society of the late nineteenth century, it is no doubt easier to see why, for Wilde, reality meant rules, conventions and restrictions that cost him his freedom and happiness. Both his art and his love, hovering at the edge of this reality, eventually crossing the boundary of what it deemed true and acceptable. In arguably his greatest poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, Wilde indicates that the cause of his ruin lay not so much in the content of his scandal-raising works, nor in the very fact of his homosexuality, but in the duplicity with which he led his life and handled his relationships with others, and in his refusal to be tied down by reality:

“...the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats

None knew so well as I:

For he who lives more lives than one

More deaths than one must die.”

(The Ballad of Reading Gaol)

 Mia Forbes

Image: Statue of Oscar Wilde in Dublin's Merrion Square. Credit: Liam White / Alamy Stock Photo

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