Brought to life in 1890, Oscar Wilde’s most infamous literary creation, the guileful Lord Henry Wotton, proposes a new and seductive way of living to the beautiful Dorian Gray. Lord Henry languidly muses to his new-found protégé, who sits spellbound as he poses for his fateful portrait:
I believe that if one man were to live out his life fully and completely, were to give form to every feeling, expression to every thought, reality to every dream – I believe that the world would gain such a fresh impulse of joy that we would forget all the maladies of mediævalism, and return to the Hellenic ideal – to something finer, richer, than the Hellenic ideal, it may be.[i]
Wotton is often thought to be a thinly-veiled, dangerously-eloquent mouthpiece for Wilde himself, the keen advocate for this “return to the Hellenic ideal”. Lord Henry expresses discontent with the current age of moralism and repression, disdain for the “maladies of medievalism” which taint the present, and champions the glories of a bygone era – a point of view which was more or less the ethos of the Aesthetic movement in later nineteenth-century England, of which Wilde was seen as a chief pioneer.
The Wilde of popular conception possesses all of Wotton’s cool assurance, the charm of Lord Goring and the debonair gaiety of Algernon Moncrieff. In the public eye, Wilde was a frivolous dandy sprung from his own society comedies. However, to assume this public image wholly encapsulated Wilde’s literary voice would be to oversimplify his complexities as a writer. The immutable Wotton himself wilfully asserts, with a characteristically Wildean paradox, that a great poet is really “the most unpoetical of all creatures”. While a second-rate poet is fascinating because “he lives the poetry he cannot write”, the great poets “write the poetry that they dare not realize.” (p56)
In Wilde’s case, it was in his poetry that he gave “form to every feeling, expression to every thought”. But with the exception of “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, Wilde’s poems are little known. His verse, central in his self-perception as an artist and essential to our understanding of his literary canon as a whole, is sadly underrated. While the “Ballad” is thought to reveal a never-before-seen profundity in Wilde’s poetic voice, devoid of the frivolous wit and humour, “to which, at last, pity and terror have come in their own person, and no longer as puppets in a play”[ii], this only shows how little his other poems are read. The characters of Wilde’s comedies may have been intended to amuse, but the sentiments in Wilde’s poetry were never merely puppets in a play. The seriousness and value of his nuanced and complex poetry, which tracks his literary development throughout his life, have been overlooked and overshadowed by his better-known prose and drama.
“The poet is WILDE, / But his poetry’s tame.”
When Wilde’s first edition of Poems was published in 1881, it was met with distaste from literary critics, but his celebrity status as a cultivated wit and eccentric was enough ensure its commercial success.[iii] The critics were hostile, accusing him of depending too much on other poets – Swinburne, Rossetti, Tennyson, Arnold and particularly Keats – and possessing a fancy, verbose, fluent but ultimately empty, imitative and insincere poetic voice.[iv] Oscar Browning, a friend of Wilde’s but a critic nonetheless, admitted to being overwhelmed by “the irregular pulsations of a sympathy which never wearies”, and writes:
Roman Catholic ritual, stern Puritanism, parched Greek islands, cool English lanes and streams, Paganism and Christianity, despotism and Republicanism, Wordsworth, Milton and Mr Swinburne, receive in turn the same passionate devotion.[v]
Rather than being inconsistent and excessively varied, as the critics denounced, Poems was really a volume of poetic experimentation: Peter Raby argues that the vast diversity of subject, form and style “represents a spiritual and imaginative odyssey”. The numerous poetic voices he adopts are “in the nature of conscious experiments, necessary episodes in the exploratory journey that he had embarked upon.”[vi]
In his opening sonnet “Hélas!” [“Alas!”], Wilde’s profound search for meaning beyond just leisure and enjoyment is vehemently pronounced:
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.[vii]
The “twice-written scroll” of Wilde’s life, scrawled and scribbled over with changing thoughts and fancies, characterizes the tensions and uncertainties which emerge in his far less prominent poetic career, in his search for “the secret of the whole”. Biographers such as Richard Ellmann have argued that Wilde’s frivolity, as well as his extravagance bordering on absurdity, should never be mistaken for studied shallowness. Wilde’s carefully cultivated persona, with his constantly changing sense of dress and style, were not about artifice or superficiality at all, but represented his obsession with poses and masks, and the multi-faceted nature of personality, and of life.[viii] Despite his self-promoted public image as Aesthete extraordinaire, Karl Beckson and Bobby Fong have argued that Wilde had difficulty sustaining this purely Aesthetic sensibility in his poetry. Rather, his poems are very Victorian in the sense that they are concerned with the moral, political and religious attitudes of his age.[ix] Arthur Nethercot has suggested that Wilde was divided between two voices, indulging his love for debate and rhetoric: his true self – a deeply moral man at heart, who never truly believed in the complete amorality of art – and the “Devil’s advocate”, the adversary to Victorian moralism. [x]
The prominent themes and sentiments of Wilde’s verse are demonstrated in the following short poem, “In the Forest”, first published in the Lady’s Pictorial (1889)[xi]:
Out of the mid-wood’s twilight
Into the meadow’s dawn,
Ivory limbed and brown-eyed,
Flashes my Faun!
He skips through the copses singing,
And his shadow dances along,
And I know not which I should follow,
Shadow or song!
O Hunter, snare me his shadow!
O Nightingale, catch me his strain!
Else moonstruck with music and madness,
I track him in vain!
As expected from a poet writing in the shadow of Romanticism, several characteristics of that age are prominent: the natural, arcadian setting, and the surreal, almost Keatsian tone of idiosyncratic experience. In fact, several lines seem to pay homage to John Keats: Wilde’s mingling of shadows and song within the greenness of the natural setting evokes Keats’ “melodious plot / Of beechen green and shadows numberless” where the nightingale “singest of summer in full-throated ease.”[xii] The “O Nightingale” in the third stanza further suggests this association.
“In the Forest” also borrows the familiar allegory of the doe as the beloved, particularly prevalent in the Renaissance love-lyric. In the possessive “my Faun”, Wilde marks the beautiful creature as his beloved who he pursues through the forest. Rather than a nymph or naiad, typical classical (and especially Ovidian) icons of desirability, Wilde chooses the half-animal, half-human faun. In classical mythology, the faun, like the centaur and satyr, was a symbolic “image of the divided self”: the dichotomy of the cultivated man and wild beast in human nature.[xiii] This choice of mythological creature signals the merging of intellectual and sensual love Wilde celebrates, as well as the semi-divine nature of his beloved.
The poem has resonances of the most famous Renaissance example of the doe/hunter love-chase allegory, “Whoso list to hunt” by Thomas Wyatt, in which the speaker fruitlessly chases an uncatchable “hind” (a female deer), while Wilde’s male faun introduces the element of homoeroticism into a typically heterosexual poetic discourse. A loose translation of Petrarch’s Rime 190, Wyatt’s love poem is an exemplar of the Petrarchan voice, which Wilde adopts for the voice of the eager lover. As Wyatt wearily admits that “the vain travail hath wearied me so sore”, Wilde similarly concludes, “I track him in vain!” The speaker in Wilde’s poem hopelessly pleads, “O Hunter, snare me his shadow! / O Nightingale, catch me his strain”, just as Wyatt’s speaker laments the impossibility of the catch: “I leave off therefore, / Since in a net I seek to hold the wind!” Both poets use the allegory of catching wind, shadows or sounds in a hunter’s net to convey the elusiveness of their desired beloved and the futileness of their pursuit.[xiv]
Use of the Petrarchan sentiment, which has been considered out-dated since Phillip Sidney’s time, represents another prominent aspect of Wilde’s poetry: his merging of older, even archaic, traditions with contemporary poetic styles. While the Petrarchan love-lyric is an archaic mode of expression, Wilde simultaneously incorporates sentiments of modernity and the ideals of Aestheticism into his poem. Although the confused and unsure voice of the narrator (“I know not which I should follow, / Shadow or song!”) may again evoke Keats’ “Ode to a Nightingale” (“Was it a vision, or a waking dream? / Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?”), the fragmentary nature of fleeting momentary experience is particularly reminiscent of Charles Baudelaire and the Symbolists, whose poetry Wilde particularly admired.[xv] The alliterating description of being “moonstruck with music and madness” stresses the dreamlike and surreal existence of Wilde’s narrator, suggesting sensory overload, temporary detachment, drunken stupor and possible decadence. The Aesthetic movement in England was strongly influenced by French Symbolist and Parnassian poetry, while the seminal text for English Aestheticism – and Wilde in particular – was Walter Pater’s The Renaissance, with its famous creed, to “burn always with this hard, gemlike flame.”[xvi] “In the Forest”, for all its celebration of the elusive and fleeting nature of its subject, expresses a desire to fix his beloved – his shadow, voice and skipping gait – in representational stasis, like Pater’s paradoxical “gemlike flame”, which is simultaneously flickering and hard as stone. [xvii] By expressing the desire to “catch” and “snare” the poetic subject, Wilde expresses this Aesthetic desire to still and preserve a specific movement in a world of constant flux.
“In the Forest” introduces the most prominent aspects and influences in Wilde’s poetry. The first chapter is a study in classical receptions, tracing the poetry’s classical legacy, and how Wilde’s passion for antiquity, especially Greek civilization, is used to advocate what Henry Wotton describes as “the Hellenic ideal”. It will focus on particular figures, myths and icons from classical antiquity to which Wilde was repeatedly drawn, and how the poet’s use of them might contribute to understanding his own classical learning and ideals.
The second chapter investigates Wilde’s poetry in cultural context within the English fin de siècle, from the influence of Pater and the French Symbolists, to his development of his own vision of artistic purpose. The opposing values of traditional Victorianism and of Aestheticism and Decadence – morality, nature versus artifice, decay and degeneration – are explored and experimented with, producing poetry fraught with tension and paradox.
Reviving Wilde’s often overlooked poetic corpus not only sheds profound light upon his better-known prose and drama, but more significantly unveils a unique melting pot of different traditions, intertextual references and contrasting ideas which both reflect and transcend his times – deserving, in its own right, a place in the English poetic canon.
[i] Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, (1891) ed. Robert Mighall (London: Penguin Books, 2006) p21. All references to the 1891 novel will be from this edition, and the page references will be included in parentheses within the essay.
[ii] Arthur Symons, quoted by Karl Beckson and Bobby Fong, “Wilde as Poet” from The Cambridge Companion to Oscar Wilde (ed. Peter Raby, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997) p67.
[iii] Peter Raby, Oscar Wilde (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988) p12.
[iv] Raby, p23.
[v] Academy, 30 July 1881, The Critical Heritage, quoted in Raby, p23.
[vi] Raby, p24.
[vii] All poetry of Oscar Wilde is quoted from Poems by Oscar Wilde (ed. Robert Ross, London: Metheun & Co, 13th edition, 1916).
[viii] Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (London: Penguin Books, 1987) p294.
[ix] Beckson and Fong, p57.
[x] Arthur H. Nethercot, “Oscar Wilde and the Devil’s Advocate”, PMLA, Vol. 59, No. 3 (Modern Language Association, 1944).
[xi] Chronological Table from The Complete Stories, Plays and Poems of Oscar Wilde (London: O’Mara Books, 1990) pp.857-861. All dates of publication are sourced from here.
[xii] All poetry other than Wilde’s is quoted from The Norton Anthology of Poetry 5th ed. (editors Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter and Jon Stallworthy, New York: W.W. Norton, 2005), unless otherwise specified.
[xiii] Stephen L. Harris and Gloria Platzner, Classical Mythology: Images and Insights 2nd ed. (California: Mayfield Publishing Company, 1998) p232.
[xv] Ellmann, p202.
[xvi] Marion Thain, “Poetry”, The Cambridge Companion to the Fin de Siècle, (ed. Gary Marshall, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) pp224-226.
[xvii] Thain, “Poetry”, p226.