Ballad of Reading Gaol, De Profundis, Gilbert and Sullivan, Jeanne Pinto, Lord Alfred Douglas, Nightingale and the Rose, Oscar Wilde, Patience, Requiescat, Richard de Zoysa, Salome, Sphinx, The Happy Prince, The Importance of being Earnest
Oscar Wilde figures in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience as a figure of fun, but this only underscores his extraordinary achievement in launching and sustaining an aesthetic movement that swept Britain towards the end of the Victorian age. His prominence gives the lie to the concept that the Victorians were staid and prope, and though in the end society, as he superbly asserted in his valediction, De Profundis, had no place for him, it had held him in higher esteem than most for a very long time.
His fame I think rests most on his plays, and in particular The Importance of being Earnest, which is an astonishing display of self-indulgence presented as moral necessity. Much can be said about the different guiding principles of the six principle characters, who each have weaknesses that motivate their triumphant transcendence of mundane realities. But my subject is the poetry, and I cannot really claim that the great drawing room comedies are poetic.
Wilde did write some plays in verse, and perhaps it is worth quoting his efforts to put into poetry some of his more outrageous aphorisms
So be not honest; eccentricity
Is not a thing should ever be encouraged,
Although, in this dull stupid age of ours,
The most eccentric thing a man can do
Is to have brains, then the mob mocks at him;
And for the mob, despise it as I do,
I hold its bubble praise and windy favours
In such account, that popularity
Is the one insult I have never suffered.
But more poetic than all this is Salome and, though it is highly over-written, it is worth quoting at least a couple of the poetic passages. The heroine expanding on the horrendous attractions of John the Baptist, even when she has his head on a platter, is ghoulish, but the phrases have resounding power, though I will restrict myself to just a sentence or two of this poetic prose
But thou, thou wert beautiful! Thy body was a column of ivory set on a silver socket. It was a garden full of doves and of silver lilies. It was a tower of silver decked with shields of ivory. There was nothing in the world so white as thy body. There was nothing in the world so black as thy hair. In the whole world there was nothing so red as thy mouth. Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music. ….I amathirst for thy beauty; I am hungry for thy body; and neither wine nor fruits can appease my desire. What shall I do now, Jokanaan? Neither the floods nor the great waters can quench my passion.
I should add though that Herod, trying to tempt Salome with peacocks rather than the head of John the Baptist, is quite as self-indulgent –
Salomé, you know my white peacocks, my beautiful white peacocks, that walk in the garden between the myrtles and the tall cypress trees. Their beaks are gilded with gold, and the grains that they eat are gilded with gold also, and their feet are stained with purple. When they cry out the rain comes, and the moon shows herself in the heavens when they spread their tails. Two by two they walk between the cypress trees and the black myrtles, and each has a slave to tend it. Sometimes they fly across the trees, and anon they crouch in the grass, and round the lake
Poetic too are several of the short stories, in particular The Happy Prince, with its unlikely partners in philanthropy, and also the profoundly melancholy Nightingale and the Rose. Again, I would not do Wilde’s poetic gifts justice did I not quote from them, even if briefly.
my love will dance to the sound of the harp and the violin. She will dance so lightly that her feet will not touch the floor, and the courtiers in their gay dresses will throng round her. But with me she will not dance, for I have no red rose to give her;
But none of this would quite justify including Wilde here. What turns the balance with regard to an undoubtedly poetic writer of prose were the poems which he wrote, including the extraordinary Ballad of Reading Gaol. This was the product of his experience in jail, after he had been committed for sodomy – a punishment he might well have escaped, given the Victorian propensity to sweep things under the carpet when the socially distinguished were concerned, had he not decided to sue the father of his most exalted lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. The Marquess of Queensbury, the father, had written to Wilde claiming that he was acting as a sodomite, a characterization that could well have ben ignored, but Wilde sued and lost the case – which meant the police had then to charge him with criminality.
That was the end of his career as a socially accepted writer, but it did lead to his most powerful poem, about a man condemned to death. The grind of prison life, the horror of waiting what seems endlessly on death row, and the mixture of motives that leads to what are termed crimes of passion, are brilliantly evoked. The poem also contains lines that, if not psychologically indubitable, make us think about the nature of love and possession.
The third verse sets out the horror of imprisonment succinctly
I never saw a man who looked
With such a wistful eye
Upon that little tent of blue
Which prisoners call the sky,
And at every drifting cloud that went
With sails of silver by.
A few stanzas later come the lines that reverberate most forcefully
Yet each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!
Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.
Some love too little, some too long,
Some sell, and others buy;
Some do the deed with many tears,
And some without a sigh:
For each man kills the thing he loves,
Yet each man does not die.
Later there is the masterly account of the sense of fellow feeling that arises amongst such different prisoners, introduced through the stunning image of a different sort of dance from the celebratory –that of the Professor’s daughter, whose feet also did not touch the floor
It is sweet to dance to violins
When Love and Life are fair:
To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes
Is delicate and rare:
But it is not sweet with nimble feet
To dance upon the air!
So with curious eyes and sick surmise
We watched him day by day,
And wondered if each one of us
Would end the self-same way,
For none can tell to what red Hell
His sightless soul may stray.
At last the dead man walked no more
Amongst the Trial Men,
And I knew that he was standing up
In the black dock’s dreadful pen,
And that never would I see his face
In God’s sweet world again.
Like two doomed ships that pass in storm
We had crossed each other’s way:
But we made no sign, we said no word,
We had no word to say;
For we did not meet in the holy night,
But in the shameful day.
The best known of Wilde’s shorter poems is a dirge of a very different sort. Written when he was still a boy on the death of his younger sister, Requiescat evokes rest for the dead but also sharply illustrates the grief of the bereaved, moving from a sense of life still pulsing to lonely anguish –
Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.
All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.
Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman so
Sweetly she grew.
Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast.
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.
Peace, Peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life’s buried here,
Heap earth upon it.
My own favourite though amongst Wilde’s poems is the self indulgent Sphinx, which picks up much of the imagery used with greater psychological weight in Salome. Here Wilde builds on the images of the existing sphinx and the massive male statuary that lies broken in the desert to suggest love, or rather sexual passion, that endures beyond death. The contrast between the stone lovers and the living inhabitants of the desert who see the shattered statue adds to the mysti que of the passion portrayed.
The God is scattered here and there;
Deep hidden in the windy sand
I saw his giant granite hand
Still clenched in impotent despair.
And many a wandering caravan
Of stately negroes, silken-shawled,
Crossing the desert, halts appalled
Before the neck that none can span.
And many a bearded Bedouin
Draws back his yellow-striped burnous
To gaze upon the Titan thews
Of him who was thy paladin.
Go seek his fragments on the moor,
And wash them in the evening dew,
And from their pieces make anew
Thy mutilated paramour.
Go seek them where they lie alone
And from their broken pieces make
Thy bruised bedfellow! And wake
Mad passions in the senseless stone!
Charm his dull ear with Syrian hymns;
He loved your body; oh be kind!
Pour spikenard on his hair and wind
Soft rolls of linen round his limbs;
Wind round his head the figured coins,
Stain with red fruits the pallid lips;
Weave purple for his shrunken hips
And purple for his barren loins!
I will end with a passage that I still cherish, not least because I can still hear Jeanne Pinto reading it in her superbly rasping voice, when I did a programme on Oscar Wilde for the SLBC and she and Richard de Zoysa read with a verve I continue sorely to miss –
And take a tiger for your mate,
Whose amber sides are flecked with black,
And ride upon his gilded back
In triumph through the Theban gate,
And toy with him in amorous jests,
And when he turns and snarls and gnaws,
Oh smite him with your jasper claws
And bruise him with your agate breasts!