Wilde the Classicist
“He was a Grecian lad…” —A poetic pilgrimage
Proficient in ancient Greek and Latin, having read Classics at Oxford and achieving a double-first degree, Wilde’s ardent love of the ancient, particularly the Hellenistic world, remained with him long after his university education. It was not just a phase of his intellectual development, but became an inspirational and vital part of “his private codes of self-understanding and his incessant experiments in self-styling”: ancient Greece was “the foundation on which Wilde’s identity as aesthete, critic and writer [was] built.” His career as a poet began with a classical subject, winning the Newdigate Prize in 1878 for his long poem “Ravenna”, an ancient city he had recently visited. As much as he had enjoyed his classical studies at Oxford, his holidays to Greece and Italy clearly surpassed reading Plato in tutorials, for he missed the beginning of term in 1877 while touring the Mediterranean (“I hope you will not mind if I miss ten days at the beginning: seeing Greece is really a great education for anyone and will I think benefit me greatly”), and was threatened with suspension by irritated college dons.
Many of the works in Poems were written on or inspired by these travels. The appeal of both Christianity and Greek paganism, and the opposition between papal Rome and pagan Greece fixated Wilde during his spiritual and geographical pilgrimage, where “the pagan and the Christian worlds had thus been placed before him in swift succession in their most intense form.”
The poetic sequence “Rosa Mystica” tracks his personal experiences and revelations during his Mediterranean tour, in which he “set down his religious history”, from his initial attraction to Roman Catholicism, strengthened after a private audience with the Pope in Rome, to inevitably succumbing to the allure of Hellenism. Written in Florence, “Ave Maria Gratia Plena” (“Hail Mary, full of grace”) wonders upon the humility of Christ’s conception, compared with the spectacular, violent scenes of classical mythology:
Was this His coming! I had hoped to see
A scene of wondrous glory, as was told
Of some great God who in a rain of gold
Broke open bars and fell on Danaë:
Or a dread vision as when Semele
Sickening for love and unappeased desire
Prayed to see God’s clear body, and the fire
Caught her brown limbs and slew her utterly:
With such glad dreams I sought this holy place,
And now with wondering eyes and heart I stand
Before this supreme mystery of Love:
Some kneeling girl with passionless pale face,
An angel with a lily in his hand,
And over both the white wings of a Dove.
At the outset of the sonnet, the speaker expresses disappointment with the Christian story of divine conception. The octave is then entirely devoted to Greek myth, the decorum of the Christian scene contrasted with the “wondrous glory” he was expecting, such as the Greek god Zeus breaking through bars as a violent gilded storm to the imprisoned princess Danaë to conceive the hero Perseus, and instantly incinerating his mortal lover princess Semele, the mother of Dionysus, by revealing his true blazing form to her. The first two lines of the sestet then shift the focus from the fiery splendours of Zeus to the speaker standing before a painting or sculpture of the Annunciation. Enjambment is used consistently throughout the octave, offering a gushing retelling of the destruction wrought by terrible divine power, which continues until the last quatrain, when suddenly the enjambment finally ceases completely, and the poem ends in strict, metrical iambic pentameter with no caesuras to break the lines, mirroring the stillness and tranquillity of the Annunciation scene before him.
Wilde adopts a very ingenuous tone in his surprise and disillusionment at the Christian story. This also works to the effect of diminishing any grandeur the Annunciation might have. The traditionally beautiful, demure face of the Madonna is reduced to a “passionless pale face”, and the Virgin herself is only “some kneeling girl”, “some” achieving a dismissive, even disdainful effect. But the understated depiction of the Annunciation – the dove’s white wings, the white lily, symbol of purity and innocence –conveys a cool chasteness in contrast to the whirling pagan scenes described in the octave. The soft white wings of the dove are in opposition to Zeus’s “rain of gold”, and the Virgin’s “passionless pale face” contrasts with Semele’s swarthy “brown limbs”, suggesting that the Christian Annunciation possesses the charm of an austere, sedate and composed aesthetic, which the heavy-handed, destructive pagan god and his swarthy princesses lack.
Overall, the poem is ambiguous: in the end, it is uncertain which world, the pagan or the Christian, the speaker decides has more appeal. Rather, the two worlds are merged and confused. No divinities are mentioned by name, and even Zeus is referred to simply as “God”. The naivety of the speaker also casts doubt on his view of things, such as when he rather callously remarks, “With such glad dreams I sought this holy place”, directly after describing how Zeus revealed himself to Semele and “slew her utterly”.
“Ave Maria Gratia Plena” is ultimately a dalliance with the aesthetics of Catholicism and paganism by a naïve and uncertain mind, in which many suggestions and comparisons are made, but no definitive conclusion is reached. After reading the poem, the ironic title, “Hail Mary, full of grace”, drawn from the traditional Catholic prayer to the Virgin, becomes an empty, ritualistic phrase, as the final static image of the Annunciation hardly stirs the speaker to reverent praise. It does, however, reveal Wilde’s uncertainty and ambivalence towards religion of any kind. In the example of Semele, Wilde realises that praying for a vision of the divine does not always end so well for mortals, a sentiment he expresses in a more conventionally devout way in “San Miniato”: “Mary! Could I but see thy face / Death could not come at all too soon.”
The contemplation of religion, and particularly the aesthetics of religion, is a dominant theme of the “Rosa Mystica” sequence. The poetic tug-of-war between Catholicism and Hellenism which preoccupied Wilde during his travels gave him opportunity for displaying his knowledge of the classics, along with his genuine search for faith and meaning. The “Sonnet written in Holy Week at Genoa”, unlike “Ave Maria”, truly prefigures the inevitable triumph of Hellenism over Catholicism in the battle for Wilde’s ideological, aesthetic and poetic preferences:
I wandered in Scoglietto’s green retreat,
The oranges on each o’erhanging spray
Burned as bright lamps of gold to shame the day;
Some startled bird with fluttering wings and fleet
Made snow of all the blossoms, at my feet
Like silver moons the pale narcissi lay:
And the curved waves that streaked the sapphire bay
Laughed i’ the sun, and life seemed very sweet.
Outside the young boy-priest passed singing clear,
“Jesus the Son of Mary has been slain,
O come and fill his sepulchre with flowers.”
Ah, God! Ah, God! those dear Hellenic hours
Had drowned all memory of Thy bitter pain,
The Cross, the Crown, the Soldiers, and the Spear.
One of many poems which express “Wilde’s conception of himself as a soul trembling between two waves not of thought but of feeling”, the speaker ultimately returns to the Christian wave, but “out of a surge of pity rather than of awe.” Happily losing himself in the intoxicating beauty of the landscape (“those dear Hellenic hours”), he is suddenly reminded of Christian sobriety and chides himself for temporarily forgetting his sense of Christian guilt.
The poem sets up the Christian world view in opposition to the Romantic appreciation of nature. His delight in natural splendour echoes Wordsworth’s daffodils: Wilde’s description of “the curved waves that streaked the great green bay / Laughed i’ the sun, and life seemed very sweet”, evokes the famous Romantic imagery of Wordsworth’s sparkling, dancing waves, and the poet “In such jocund company”. Wilde’s lines, “Some startled bird with fluttering wings and fleet / Made snow of all the blossoms” recalls the daffodils “fluttering and dancing in the breeze”. The association is complicated with Wilde’s description of the flowers themselves: “at my feet / Like silver moons the pale narcissi lay”, the narcissus being the older horticultural name for the daffodil, as well as representing the famous character of Greek mythology. Contrary to being golden and gay, “tossing their heads in sprightly dance”, Wilde’s narcissi are pale and moonlike, possessing a haunting stillness and solemnity. A possible interpretation is that the narcissi come to represent their mythological roots. They lay forlornly by the lake, just as their namesake, the original Narcissus, lies pining for his own reflection in the River Styx for all eternity. The solemn narcissi foil the Romantic notion of joy and freedom in nature, for Wilde uses their ancient associations to introduce a Greek gravity to the scene to reflect another side of nature, of inherent and profound sadness. This note of graveness in the otherwise charming scene foreshadows the turn of the sonnet at the sestet, when the speaker’s remorse takes over.
Even in the final quatrain, classical allusions are still prominent. “Hellenic” is used to describe the beauty and delight of nature, and the phrase “drowned all memory” – a reminder of the joyous lake from the octave – alludes to the River Lethe, the waters of forgetfulness. So although an obvious contrast to draw would be between the Hellenistic gaiety of the octave and the Christian sobriety of the sestet, the presence of the narcissus flower and all its associations suggest that the pagan world also possesses the gravity of Catholicism. In comparison with the subtlety and allusion – both to classicism and to Romanticism – seen in the octave, the “remembering” of Christian theology, “The Cross, the Crown, the Soldiers and the Spear”, seems somewhat forced and mechanical, devoid of the refinement and poetic finesse of the descriptions in the octave. The last line’s chant-like listing evokes a sense of enforced guilt, a pathos which the speaker imposes on himself in an act of figurative self-flagellation. The capitalised words heighten their sense of importance without offering any poetic embellishment. The Christian aesthetic is portrayed as more grave and solemn, but the Hellenistic world with its Romantic associations and rich mythology proves ultimately more appealing and, for Wilde, the richer subject for verse. Wilde would come to fully embrace the Greek spirit over the Christian, as seen most prominently in his creation of Dorian Gray, the embodiment of classical Greek beauty, whose initial unspotted purity represents the purely “aesthetic” morality of the Greeks, untainted by the Christian fixation with sin.
These two poems are examples of the two very different cultures Wilde was drawn to, and they seem to assert that Wilde the proud, unshakable Hellenist did not spring into being from the Classics classrooms at Oxford, but was developed over this phase of his life, a cultivation tracked in verse. Inevitably, the gifted classicist was intellectually and aesthetically, as well as for obvious more personal reasons, irresistibly drawn to ancient Greece. Although the poetry Wilde produced in Italy does show a reverence for Roman Catholicism, “there was a creed older than Christendom to which the divided Wilde had also pledged allegiance.”
 Stefano Evangelista, “The Greek Life of Oscar Wilde”, British Aestheticism and Ancient Greece: Hellenism, Reception, Gods in Exile (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) p125.
 A letter written from Oscar Wilde to his disapproving tutor at Magdalen College. He also added that his experiences and company were “quite as good as going to lectures”. (Raby, p14.)
 Ellmann, Oscar Wilde, p74.
 Raby, p15.
 Ellmann, p70.
 Arthur H. Nethercot, “Oscar Wilde and the Devil’s Advocate”, PMLA, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Modern Language Association, 1944) p835.
 Ellmann, p69.
 Evangelista, p152.
 Ellmann, p71.