Jessica Sun : Chapter I § iii

Wilde the Classicist


“The heterosexual Wilde of antiquity”

Wilde’s ability to adapt, innovate and experiment with genres to shock and amuse owes a debt to a particular aspect of his thorough classical education. Despite his self-promoted image as a staunch Hellenist who preferred the purity of Greek literature over its commonplace Latin counterpart, there was one Roman poet whom Wilde is most fittingly compared to. The poetic persona of the Augustan poet Ovid is described by Peter Green, Ovid’s notable translator, as a “heartless, witty, articulate student of Roman manners and morals, the heterosexual Wilde of antiquity.”[1] Considering Wilde’s deliberate subversiveness, his emphasis on artifice and playing the societal game, and his eventual downfall and imprisonment, it is difficult not to draw parallels with Ovid. Similarly characterized by his famously witty and elegant writings, Ovid was also eventually punished for them, exiled for his “immoral” love poetry – although this may have been a euphemism for his conduct – almost two thousand years previously. Ovid’s characters, especially the protagonist of The Art of Love (“a pseudo-didactic handbook on seduction”[2]), amused and outraged his audience in period of Augustan moralism comparable to the moralism Victorian England. Ovid, like Wilde, shocked and fascinated his era, and was thought of “as a degenerate in a degenerate age.”[3] Norman Vance describes him as “a kind of Roman Byron”, who, again like Wilde, was regarded with a mix of admiration and disapproval, his reputation somewhere between fame and infamy. [4]

The nineteenth-century was not too comfortable with Ovid either. Although he was part of every schoolboy’s education, often the introductory texts to the study of Latin poetry, the Victorians were constantly ill at ease with the notoriety attached to the self-styled praeceptor amoris (“teacher of Love”), whose “reputation for impudence, or at least frivolous artificiality, was of long standing.”[5] An artist unhappy with what he saw to be the vulgarity of his times, Ovid had satirized Augustus’ moral reforms, and “had laughed, in a patronizing way, at the pomp of Roman triumphs, the stuffiness of Roman law, the rusticitas of Roman virtue”.[6] He had used poetry as a tool for “persistent self-dramatization”, and wrote himself into the role of the “lonely aesthete fallen among Philistines”.[7]

Ovid’s Metamorphoses was greatly influential on Wilde: Wilde’s retellings of the Narcissus story among others have definite Ovidian characteristics. But the parallel between Wilde and Ovid extended to their entire circumstances in their respective cultural contexts. Of course, Wilde could not have known how closely paralleled his and Ovid’s fates were to be. But an excelling classicist like Wilde would have been profoundly aware of Ovid’s reputation – in the Victorian reception of Ovid, at least – as a frivolous hedonist, exiled and disgraced for his scandalous love poetry. They were both poets who, in their own respective epochs, were daringly experimenting with literature and the ideas surrounding the value and purpose of literature.

Ovid and Wilde were both devoted Hellenists. Shelley wrote, in his Defence of Poetry, that the “great writers of the Virgilian age” strived to imitate Greek perfection, and “saw man and nature in the mirror of Greece.”[8] The Greek aesthetic for elegiac poetry – Ovid’s metre and genre of choice – was largely influenced by the Alexandrian poet Callimachus, who offered an alternative to the large-scale, heroic epics of Homer.[9] While Virgil wrote his great Latin epic The Aeneid to elevate Roman glory to the same level as the Greek age of heroes, Ovid wrote all his poetry except for the Metamorphoses in elegiac verse, considered less masculine than the dactylic hexameter of epic. His first major work of love poetry, the Amores, is deliberately and self-consciously counter-cultural. He openly declares the mischievous and licentious nature of his poems – both a warning and a boast – in the opening lines of Amores II:

A second batch of verses by that naughty provincial poet,
Naso,[10] the chronicler of his own
Wanton frivolities: another of Love’s commissions (warning
To puritans: This volume is not for you).

Ovid’s address to his readers before divulging into amatory verse is echoed in Wilde’s stanza from Charmides, placed between two sensuous passages describing the Grecian lad’s ravishing of Athena’s statue:

Those who have never known a lover’s sin
Let them not read my ditty, it will be
To their dull ears so musicless and thin
That they will have no joy of it, but ye
To whose wan cheeks now creeps the lingering smile,
Ye who have learned who Eros is, – O listen yet awhile. (104)

Sentiments such as these mark the beginnings of Wilde’s controversial claim, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors”.[11]  Like Ovid, Wilde addresses both sides of a divided, imaginary audience, the critically puritanical, and the passionate like-minded. Ovid continues his address by wishing his verses to be read by “some fellow sufferer”, who will “see his own passion reflected there” (Am. II.i.7-9), just as Wilde asks those who share Charmides’s passion to “listen yet awhile”. The art-mirroring-spectator idea is rhetorically expressed in when Wilde uses “musicless”, a deliberately clumsy and unsophisticated coining of a word to mirror the dullness of his critical audience, to whom his poetry will sound “to their dull ears so musicless and thin”. Wilde’s double-edged wit is present here in its more subtle form: the quality of the music, he implies, reflects the ears of the listeners, an expression of the criticism-as-autobiography claim Wilde would later make.  Ovid was an earlier example of this writing for a specific, imagined audience, and deflecting any arrows of criticism or accusations by using the theory that elegiac poetry should reflect the readers’ passions, and that his particular type of verse was not suitable for everyone.

The elegiac meter and genre were used and experimented with by Ovid as he sought to define love elegy as separate from other – and in his view, inferior – forms of verse. Poetry was essential to Ovid’s self-presentation, and he demonstrates, in didactic poems like the Ars Amatoria, that love elegy was not just a poetic pursuit, but a lifestyle. Wilde’s love poem “Flower of Love”, ends on a similar note, when he reflects that “[I] have lived my poems”, and “I have found the lover’s crown of myrtle better / than the poet’s crown of bays.” He emulates the Ovidian model of the elegiac persona, which was a deliberate anti-ideal to the self-controlled, Ciceronian model of Roman manhood advocated by staunch Republicans.  Rome was built by soldiers, not lovers. Ovid’s elegiac persona, the most outrageous of all Augustan elegiac poets, made it clear that he was in the camp of Venus not Mars:

Arms, warfare, violence – I was winding up to produce a
Regular epic, with verse-form to match –
Hexameters, naturally. But Cupid (they say) with a snicker
Lopped off one foot from each alternate line. (I.i.1-4)

Ovid begins the Amores by parodying Virgil’s patriotic epic in the very first line: the Aeneid begins, “Of arms, of a man at war I sing”.[12] Feigning ambition to write an epic, in “hexameters, naturally”, the heroic meter, he then describes Cupid lopping “off one foot from each alternate line”, punning on the metrical “foot”, and describing the elegiac couplet – one line of hexameter followed by one of pentameter. Wordplay around the metrical feet of the elegiac couplet was especially common in Ovid’s love elegy, either to describe the elegance of the lady’s gait, or the halting limp of the crippled poet, as Ovid does in the Tristia, written from exile.[13]

The elegy was traditionally a genre for mourning, the metre often used for sepulchral epitaphs, and the idea of uneven metrical feet representing some kind of thematic imbalance or disorder in poetry – a feature Wilde must have noticed in his study of Latin verse – may have influenced the composition of “The Harlot’s House”. Published in The Dramatic Review (1885), the ballad describes the grotesque and surreal revelry of “ghostly dancers” and “slim silhouetted skeletons”, to which his innocent love is eventually drawn and corrupted.  An Ovidian technique is used in the final two stanzas, after “Love passed into the house of lust”:

Then suddenly the tune went false,
The dancers wearied of the waltz,
The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.

 And down the long and silent street,
The dawn, with silver-sandalled feet,
Crept like a frightened girl.

The final line, in three iambs, is the only line metrically different to the rest of the poem, which is written in tetrameter. Using stanzas of three lines of equal metre imitates the rhythm of the waltz, a dance in triple time. But when the rhythm is suddenly broken in the last line, it mirrors the stumbling of the dancers when they “wearied of the waltz” and “ceased to wheel and whirl”, as well as representing the moral stumbling of his love. Like the elegiac poet, Wilde uses different metrical lines to suggest disorder, emotional and moral, within his poetic scenario. [14] The mention of dawn’s “silver-sandalled feet”, and the verb “crept”, further strengthen this wordplay with literal feet and metrical feet prominent in Ovidian rhetoric.

Wilde’s poetic subtleties, as seen in “The Harlot’s House”, were almost certainly learnt from the classical masters. Having studied Ovid’s ingenuity with poetic forms, metres and genres, it would be hard to believe that Wilde did not gain an immense wealth of techniques and ideas from the Latin elegist, and must have shared some empathy – in cultural context, aesthetic ideas and preferences, or sheer admiration of his bold persona – with his classical, heterosexual counterpart.

[1] Peter Green, Ovid: The Erotic Poems (London: Penguin Books, 1982) p66. All subsequent quotations from Ovid’s love poetry are taken from this translation.

[2] Green, p44.

[3] Vance, p156.

[4] Vance, p157.

[5] Vance, p154.

[6] Green, p44.

[7] Vance, p156.

[8] Jonathan Sachs, Romantic Antiquity: Rome in the British Imagination, 1789-1832 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) p168.

[9] See Jane L. Lightfoot’s “Ovid and Hellenistic Poetry” (pp217-235), and Benjamin Acosta-Hughes’ “Ovid and Callimachus: Rewriting the Master” (pp236-251), both in A Companion to Ovid, ed. Peter E. Knox (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing) 2009.

[10] Ovid’s full name, Publius Ovidius Naso.

[11] Preface to Dorian Gray.

[12] Aeneid, Book I.i: “arma virumque cano…” (my translation)

[13] Stephen Hinds, “Booking the return trip: Ovid and Tristia I.” 1985. PCPS 31: pp13–32. Also see Maria Wyke, 1989. “Reading Female Flesh: Amores 3.1.” in Oxford Readings in Ovid, ed. Peter E. Knox (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006) ***page numbers!!!

[14] Wilde does not write in the original ancient metres because – as many English poets before him have discovered – dactylic hexameter is almost impossible to use in the stress-based English language, as opposed to the rhythm-based ancient Greek. His using of iambic tetrameter, and ending with a line with one less iamb replicates the elegiac meter in a way which is most suited to English.


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