Jessica Sun : Chapter II § iii

Wilde the Aesthete and Decadent

III.

SALOMÉ: How good it is to see the moon. She is like a little piece of money, you would think she was a little silver flower. The moon is cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin, she has a virgin’s beauty.[1]

Stasis, metamorphosis and representation

The figurative linking of nature with humanity has a different purpose in Wilde’s surrealist play Salomé, in which the Judean princess ponders the beauty of the moon:

SALOMÉ: How good it is to see the moon. She is like a little piece of money, you would think she was a little silver flower. The moon is cold and chaste. I am sure she is a virgin, she has a virgin’s beauty.[2]

Originally written and published in French, the play reflects the style of the Symbolists in its bizarre, visceral and dreamlike tone. The leitmotif of the moon is constantly described with varying similes throughout the play – she is like “a woman rising from a tomb”, a “dead woman”, a silver flower, a piece of money, a princess covered in veils, a beautiful virgin and naked madwoman “seeking everywhere for lovers”. In wanting to fix the moon within a simile, the characters of Salomé instead make the moon a fluctuating symbol which undergoes constant metamorphosis. This paradox of representation reflects the sensibility of Decadent poetry, of which paradox itself was a central conceit.[3] It is a motif which is consistent with Pater’s aestheticism, his well-known image of the “hard, gemlike flame” from his influential The Renaissance “is famously based on a temporal paradox: the desire to celebrate the flux and transitory nature of life by stilling the moment and preserving it.”[4] The longing for stasis in a temporal world of flux partially explains Wilde’s repeated engagement with Ovid. The Metamorphoses, collected stories “of shapes transformed to bodies strange” (Met. I. i), narrated repeatedly the transformation of living, moving figures – like Narcissus, Syrinx, and Daphne – into still objects. These metamorphosed characters represent something akin to the “gemlike flame”: they are objects of stasis in a world of constant flux, but also possess a symbolic potency (the narcissus flower, the Pan-pipes, the laurel tree) which belies their static nature. This idea of simultaneous stasis and metamorphosis, like the moon in Salomé, is also used by Wilde in a passage we have already encountered in Charmides, when the sleeping lad is compared to various figures of Greek mythology (“It is young Hylas”, “Nay, / It is Narcissus”, “It is young Dionysus”). Only when Charmides himself is motionless is he figuratively metamorphosed into different figures of myth. He becomes a work of art, an unidentified marble sculpture from antiquity, with observers speculating upon which beautiful male of classical myth he might represent.

Charmides, who in this passage exists as a lifeless statue, is enlivened by classical allusion and potent symbolism. Like the statue of Athena he had ravished, the symbolism imbued within the cold stone – of virginity and chastity – is potent enough to bring about Charmides’ downfall. Similarly, Dorian’s static portrait represents his true self. The power and life within static objects is an idea Wilde almost certainly borrowed from Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn.

In the three-part poem “Written at the Lyceum Theatre” addressed to the acclaimed actress Ellen Terry (Poems, 1881), the first stanza of “Camma” (part III) pays homage to Keats’ famous ode:

As one who poring on a Grecian urn
Scans the fair shapes some Attic hand hath made,
God with slim goddess, goodly man with maid,
And for their beauty’s sake is loth to turn
And face the obvious day, must I not yearn
For many a secret moon of indolent bliss,
When in the midmost shrine of Artemis
I see thee standing, antique-limbed, and stern?

Like Charmides, entranced by a stern statue in the temple of Athena, the speaker of “Camma” admires the still beauty and gravitas of the “antique-limbed” figure in another virgin goddess’ shrine.  While the mention of “poring on a Grecian urn” evokes Keats’ “unravished bride of quietness”, the “indolent bliss” of examining the urn also brings to mind Keats’ “Ode on Indolence”, in which again a static object, the antique vase, is a source of endless movement (“like figures on a marble urn, / When shifted round to see the other side; / They came again”). [5] In the long poem “The Burden of Itys”, Wilde asserts that all the tales of Greek heroes are “imperishably stored / In little Grecian urns” (141-2), a phrase which skilfully merges the original practical use of the vase (“stored in”, rather than painted on) with its aesthetic, cultural, and historical significance. Marion Thain argues that “a paradox is, by its very nature, a means of overcoming impossible divisions …a finely wrought artistic conceit that enabled reconciliations not quite possible in life”. [6] In the vein of Keats, Wilde uses the paradox of the urn, physically static but symbolically animated, to bring both the cool, grave beauty and the colourful liveliness of the ancient world into the modern, overcoming the division of time, place and culture.


[1] Plays, p138.

[2] Plays, p138.

[3] Thain, p225.

[4] Thain, p226.

[5] This idea of simultaneous stasis and vividness is also manifest in “The Sphinx”, in which the silent monument arouses in the speaker amorous passion then derisive hatred as he imagines the Sphinx’s licentious history. For a fuller account, see San Juan, pp31-33.

[6] Thain, p226.

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