[Caveat for readers: this post is longer than previous ones]
. . . that fiery heart, that morning star
Of re-arisen England, whose clear eye
Saw from our tottering throne and waste of war
The grand Greek limbs of young Democracy
Rise mightily like Hesperus and bring
The great Republic! him at least thy love hath taught to sing,
And he hath been with thee at Thessaly
And seen white Atalanta fleet of foot
In passionless and fierce virginity
Hunting the tuskèd boar, his honied lute
Hath pierced the cavern of the hollow hill,
And Venus laughs to know one knee will bow before her still.
And he hath kissed the lips of Proserpine,
And sung the Galilaean’s requiem,
The wounded forehead dashed with blood and wine
He hath discrowned, the Ancient Gods in him
Have found their last, most ardent worshipper,
And the new Sign grows grey and dim before its conqueror.
Spirit of Beauty! tarry with us still. . .
[from Wilde's poem ‘The Garden of Eros’: explanation below]
Apart from the famous Ballad of Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde’s poems are probably still among the least read of all his writings. There is nothing too surprising about this: even the editors of the modern scholarly edition of the poems don’t claim that they represent his best work. But for anyone interested in Wilde generally, the poems are well worth getting to know, or at least getting to know about, since they provide many clues to his complicated personality and the development of his thought. Also, with Wilde now much more famous than many of his literary contemporaries, the poems offer something of a gateway into the lush, ornate world of late Victorian poetry. (For many people I suspect this is a bit of a poetical ‘dark age’, lying between the better-known Romantic poets and ‘modern' poetry.)
Wilde’s poems are nearly all early works, most appearing in his first published book, Poems (1881). Thereafter, following a period as a literary journalist, Wilde switched his main efforts to the stories, plays, and essays that made him famous. After 1881 he published only a handful of poems, culminating in The Ballad of Reading Gaol written after his imprisonment.
Wilde’s 1881 Poems had a generally unenthusiastic reception when published. ‘Thin’, ‘mediocre’ and ‘derivative’ were among the terms applied to the volume. I suspect that the modern reader’s initial reaction is more likely to be simple bafflement. Most of us today are simply not in a position to spot unaided many of Wilde’s allusions, or the points where he is imitating or plagiarising other poets of his time. Certainly this was my experience when as a teenager I acquired the standard one-volume Collins edition of Wilde’s Complete Works. For me the poems were largely a blank area, a section I skipped over while I was looking for his more appealing writings. It was only after Richard Ellmann’s critical biography of Wilde appeared in 1987, followed by the scholarly edition of the poems in 2000 (see Endnote), that comprehension of the poems for modern readers became somewhat easier.
Before exploring the context and content of the poems further, some biographical background about Wilde. Born in 1854 in Dublin, with a distinguished eye surgeon for a father and a prominent literary figure for a mother, Wilde studied classics at university, first at Trinity College Dublin (1871-4) and then at Oxford (1874-8), after which he moved to London. He published individual poems in magazines from 1876 onwards. His 1881 Poems gave him enough reputation to land him a year-long tour lecturing on poetry and art in the United States. (Ironically, this was largely organized to publicise the US tour of the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Patience, which satirised ‘aesthetic’ poets.) Poems (1881) was Wilde's first published book. Further lecturing, journalism and story-writing followed, culminating in his greatest period of fame from 1890-95, which encompassed the publication of his critical essays and his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and the production of the famous plays. Sentenced in May 1895 to two years’ hard labour for homosexual offences, Wilde lived abroad after his release. The Ballad of Reading Gaol was his only completed post-imprisonment work. He died in 1900 in Paris.
THE KEATS STRAND
Although the world of nineteenth-century English poetry is vast, I think it can be useful to regard Wilde as belonging to a distinct and major tendency that one might call the 'Keats strand' - by which I mean a way of writing poetry, inspired by John Keats, that lays emphasis on ideal beauty and on elaborateness of poetic expression.
Keats (1795-1821) was undoubtedly the greatest poet of the nineteenth century so far as Oscar Wilde was concerned. In contrast to most other writers he discusses, Wilde never criticizes Keats: his remarks, whether in prose or poetry, are always complimentary, often adulatory. Indeed, Wilde makes Keats the starting point for the movement he labelled ‘The English Renaissance of Art’ in the lecture of that name he gave across America in 1882, the year after his Poems were published.
Since the ‘Keats strand’ encapsulates a very different attitude to poetry from the way we’re used to today, I think it’s worth examining in detail.
The English Romantic poets, and their Victorian successors, were arguably trying to go forwards by going backwards, seeking inspiration in earlier forms of English and European poetry. They generally saw themselves as in revolt against ‘artificial’ and ‘unpoetic’ modes of eighteenth-century poetry. Keats made a point of returning to the ornate style of the Elizabethans, to Shakespeare and especially Edmund Spenser (hence Byron’s jibe about Keats belonging to ‘the second-hand school of poetry’). This reaching backwards is also a feature of later poetry of the nineteenth century.
Keats's early death at 25 (‘the youngest of the martyrs’ Wilde calls him in a poem) probably added to his myth in later Victorian times. Personally I have reservations about the poetry Keats actually completed, though I enjoy his personality as expressed in his much-admired letters. I suspect he would have become a greater and somewhat different poet if he had lived longer.
Keats was mauled in reviews during his lifetime, and these maulings have usually been held against those reviewers, but it must be remembered that the worst reviews were of his long sprawling romance Endymion (famous first line: ‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever’), which even the poet admitted was an immature work. Keats had a robust character, with many loving friends, and he clearly desperately wanted to live, to write more poetry and to marry his sweetheart Fanny Brawne. I have no doubt he died of the tuberculosis that had already killed his brother, and not of career disappointment or anything else. But as regards the subjects of his works, many, apart from his purely narrative poems, are in effect ‘poems about writing poems’, and there’s perhaps a limit to how much one wishes to read about that. Also, despite the titles of some of the poems, I don’t regard Keats as a nature poet like Wordsworth or John Clare (if one defines ‘nature’ as ‘the real non-urban outdoors’): the worlds he describes are too idealised for that.
An important if curious belief that Keats held is that one should conceal rather than express one’s own personality in poetry. This viewpoint may have had a deleterious effect on some of his Victorian successors. Such an attitude is all very well for epic or dramatic poets such as Homer and Shakespeare, but when it comes to short lyric poems, our attitude today is surely almost the opposite - we welcome honest personal expressions of thought and feeling on the part of a poet. (The 'Ode to a Nightingale' admittedly reads as quite personal, and Keats breaks his own precepts completely in his late poems of love and jealousy addressed to Fanny Brawne -- although he might never have wanted these latter published.) There are indications in Keats’s later letters that he was thinking of turning more to the ‘real world’ rather than continuing in the ‘never-never lands’ of romance. But he did not live to do this, and it was the ‘romantic’ Keats, with his professed devotion to the ‘principle of beauty’, which made him a hero for poets later in the century who advocated ‘art for art’s sake’.
FROM KEATS TO WILDE
After a few years of posthumous neglect, Keats’s poems were taken up enthusiastically by the young Tennyson and his undergraduate friends around 1830. (Tennyson thought Keats the greatest poet of the century, and was much influenced by him, although Tennyson’s melancholy gives his own poetry a rather different flavour.) The big breakthrough came in 1848, when a member of Tennyson’s circle, Richard Monckton Milnes (later Lord Houghton) published Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats. Independently, at the same time, the young D. G. Rossetti discovered Keats’s poetry, and his pre-Raphaelites associates (including William Morris and A. C. Swinburne) became enthusiasts for Keats. As painters they used scenes from Keats’s narratives as subjects, while as poets they emulated Keats’s reaching into the past and his creation of exotic worlds. The worlds of the sagas and of medieval French and Italian poets were explored, and Swinburne in particular employed verse forms and vocabulary that had not been used for centuries. Sometimes the meaning of the poems became secondary to their ‘beautiful’ form. And despite Wordsworth having denounced artificial ‘poetic diction’ at the beginning of the century, archaic vocabulary such as ‘thine’, ‘hath’, ‘methinks’, and so on flourished during the period. Victorian poetry, arguably, thus navigated itself into a giant escapist cul-de-sac, separate from the real world –– from which a revolution, partly influenced by French poetry, was required at the end of the nineteenth century to break free.
Wilde's enthusiasm for the poets of the ‘Keats strand’ shines through his early poetry and other writings. His long poem ‘The Garden of Eros’, published in the 1881 Poems, anticipates the critical line he took in his American lectures, celebrating Keats and the pre-Raphaelite poets who succeeded him. The stanzas quoted at the beginning of this post, for example, all celebrate Swinburne, and allude to several of Swinburne's poetical works including 'Atalanta in Calydon' and 'Laus Veneris'. (Wilde does not name Swinburne: the reader is supposed to be able to recognize him by description.) D. G. Rossetti and William Morris (as poet) are praised by Wilde in succeeding passages in the same poem.
Sadly there is one obvious name Wilde misses out, both in 'The Garden of Eros' and his American lectures. That is Christina Rossetti, who was a much more prolific and surely also a better poet than her brother Dante Gabriel. Indeed, in my opinion Christina Rossetti put the ‘beautiful’ pre-Raphaelite poetic style to its best use, marrying it with intense expressions of love, sadness, and Christian hopes and fears. Since Wilde later called some of her poems ‘exquisite in their beauty’, her absence unfortunately probably shows Wilde conforming to the sexist assumption of his age that, in a general survey of poetry, somehow only male poets ‘counted’.
ASPECTS OF WILDE'S POEMS
There was a practical side to Wilde’s publication of his Poems in 1881. When Wilde graduated in 1878, he was ambitious (and his mother was ambitious for him) but what he was actually going to do was unclear. Classics scholar, archaeologist, school inspector and even Member of Parliament were all career options he considered at this time. So was a literary career, although monetarily that was far more uncertain. The editors of the modern scholarly edition of Wilde’s poems argue that, although poetry was much less commercially profitable in 1880 than at the beginning of the century, it retained its place as the most prestigious literary form, and so it was still worth ‘launching' oneself with a book of poems. Wilde had already published many shorter poems in magazines, and it was towards 1880 that he apparently began to write longer ones to provide the bulk to fill out a whole volume.
As mentioned above, my main interest in Wilde’s poetry is in what it tells us about the man himself and about the poetic times he lived in. Technically it is polished, but it's not difficult to deride aspects of it as padded or insincere. A friend of Wilde’s reported seeing him at his desk with a botany book looking for flower names to pad out one of his poems: this story accords well with ‘The Garden of Eros’, which begins with twelve fairly unnecessary stanzas about woodland flowers before it gets to its main point. Many of Wilde's poems have pretentious French or Greek titles when they could perfectly well have English ones, while some of the opinions expressed in the poems may have been to please eminent readers. (Wilde sent inscribed copies of his Poems to Robert Browning, Swinburne, and Matthew Arnold, amongst others.)
Nonetheless, it's clear that Wilde put a lot of effort into presenting his volume as a neat and coherent whole. The shorter poems are gathered into groups by subject and placed between five longer poems including ‘The Garden of Eros’. There are poems about theatrical performances, political poems praising liberty and democracy, travel poems, imitation medieval ballads, and poems expressing vacillation and indecision. A few impressionistic descriptive poems, perhaps French-influenced, strike a more modern flavour. A risqué element of the Swinburne variety is introduced in the long poem ‘Charmides’, about a young man who makes love to a goddess’s statue, is killed for it, and is himself made love to when dead by a nymph. (Surprisingly, it manages a happy ending.) One group of poems is reputed to record Wilde’s unhappy love for ‘professional beauty’ Lily Langtry (Wilde's inclinations seem to have been bisexual in 1881, his first gay sexual experience not taking place till several years later.)
There are two major omissions from Wilde’s poetry that I don’t recall having seen remarked upon, although they are really rather glaring. The first is the absence of anything Irish. Wilde spent many childhood summers in beautiful parts of Ireland, which would surely have furnished material for poetic descriptions and narratives if he had felt so inclined. Instead the poems are full of expressions such as ‘Our English land’, which offended at least one of his Irish editors (Wilde’s early poems were mostly published in Irish magazines). It’s all too clear that Wilde, on the make in the English metropolis, saw his Irish background as a disadvantage and deliberately suppressed it, just as he had deliberately lost his Irish accent at Oxford.
The other omission is humour. Wilde is one of the wittiest men in history by reputation, and yet as far as I can see there is not a single glimmer of humour in his entire poetic output. No comic verse, no parodies (even in manuscript form), not even an ironic line to raise a smile. Wilde could be humorous in prose about other poets, but the writing of poetry itself he seems to have regarded as a solemn, even a po-faced activity.
One theme present, though half-hidden, in Wilde’s poetry is made much of in Richard Ellmann’s biography: Roman Catholicism. One of the strangest aspects of Wilde’s 1881 volume is that it contains poems both strongly defending and strongly attacking the Pope and the Catholic Church. One could write a whole post just on this aspect, but in essence Ellmann traces the origins of these poems to a period of anguished soul-searching in the late 1870s when Wilde felt spiritually rootless and wondered whether he should convert to Catholicism. In the end he did not, and Ellmann’s conclusion (which I find convincing) was that he instead decided to live with his inner contradictions and make a virtue of them. Hence the subsequent difficulty in working out what Wilde ‘really thought' about anything –– and hence, perhaps, his success as a playwright.
There is one belief that Wilde, following Keats, seems to have maintained consistently throughout his life, and that was the paramount importance of beauty; in particular, that the object of art was to create beautiful things, and not anything else. The Ballad of Reading Gaol seems to go against this, having in part a reformist agenda, but Wilde, though he obviously thought the poem was worth writing, later expressed uneasiness about it: ‘a denial of my own philosophy of art in many ways’, he wrote in a letter.
The circumstances in which we use the word beauty have changed since Wilde’s time. Today it would be difficult to imagine someone being praised as being our best poet because the poems they wrote were more beautiful than anyone else’s. It is, perhaps, the high importance attached to the concept of beauty that most separates late Victorian poetry from that of today.
NOTE: Texts of older editions of Wilde’s Poems are visible in full online at Hathi Trust, the archiving website. The modern scholarly edition of all Wilde’s poems, Poems and Poems in Prose (ed. B. Fong and K. Beckman, OUP, 2000), prints the poems in order of composition as far as this is known. The text of Wilde’s American Lecture ‘The English Renaissance of Art’ can be found by online searching. The standard critical biography of Wilde remains Richard Ellmann’s (1987). Keats and the Victorians by G. H. Ford, originally published 1945, gives much detail about Keats’s posthumous reputation. There is also a paperback edition of Wilde’s poems published by Wordsworth Editions.