Monday, March 3, 2014

Something Thoughtful

 Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts, or just life in general. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 


Reviewing Thomas Wright’s Oscar’s Books, I’ve said a few negative things about Oscar Wilde’s poetry, which, with the best will in the world, is not up there with the greats. There is too much posing, preening and theatrical posturing, not to mention a tendency of Wilde’s to use an elevated Romantic vocabulary that was already dated at the time he was writing. Wilde may have been a Decadent, but where poetry was concerned, he was not a Decadent like Baudelaire, who was able to make something completely new out of older Romantic forms. Wilde simply elaborates those forms, prettifies them, and often comes close to indulging in what looks like pastiche. It is understandable that he is best remembered for his plays and stories.
And yet it would be both foolish and patronising to underrate his poetry.
My creed says that any poet who produces at least some poems worth reading, over a century after his death, is worthy of respect. And Oscar Wilde produced quite a few interesting verses. At this point, I will not hit you with his much-anthologised Ballad of Reading Gaol. Instead, take the time to read the following lyrics – mainly sonnets – and discover how the man was a bit more complex in thought than caricature has made him. I’ll supply minimal comments, so do enjoy.
First, his tribute to John Keats – frankly a very conventional sonnet-elegy, with the identification of poet and saint (“Sebastian”) a commonplace trope. But I feel some affection for it because Wilde’s ending refers to the first “grown-up” narrative poem I ever enjoyed, Keats’ re-handling of a tale from Boccaccio as Isabella, or the Pot of Basil. Besides, having visited Keats’ grave in the Protestant cemetery in Rome, I at once feel some kinship with the subject-matter.

The Grave of Keats

RID of the world's injustice, and his pain,
He rests at last beneath God's veil of blue:
Taken from life when life and love were new
The youngest of the martyrs here is lain,
Fair as Sebastian, and as early slain.
No cypress shades his grave, no funeral yew,
But gentle violets weeping with the dew
Weave on his bones an ever-blossoming chain.
O proudest heart that broke for misery!
O sweetest lips since those of Mitylene!
O poet-painter of our English Land!
Thy name was writ in water----it shall stand:
And tears like mine will keep thy memory green,
As Isabella did her Basil-tree.

            Wilde’s Sonnet to Liberty is a far more subtle poem. Despite its title, it basically expresses disdain (almost contempt) for the common herd. Their revolt is to be countenanced only because it reflects a mood Wilde likes to indulge. And yet the ending has an interesting ambiguity about it, as if Wilde has smelt out his own insufficiency.

Sonnet to Liberty

NOT that I love thy children, whose dull eyes
See nothing save their own unlovely woe,
Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know -
But that the roar of thy Democracies,
Thy reigns of Terror, thy great Anarchies,
Mirror my wildest passions like the sea,--
And give my rage a brother----! Liberty!
For this sake only do thy dissonant cries
Delight my discreet soul, else might all kings
By bloody knout or treacherous cannonades
Rob nations of their rights inviolate
And I remain unmoved--and yet, and yet,
These Christs that die upon the barricades,
God knows it I am with them, in some things.

            As for Wilde’s On the Massacre of the Christians in Bulgaria, at first Wilde tries to be the sceptic, like a Swinburne or a Clough. But the very fact of addressing Christ would suggest that he has at least one foot in the believer’s camp, where he would eventually end up.

On the Massacre of the Christians in Bulgaria

Christ, dost Thou live indeed? or are Thy bones
Still straitened in their rock-hewn sepulchre?
And was Thy Rising only dreamed by her
Whose love of Thee for all her sin atones?
For here the air is horrid with men's groans,
The priests who call upon Thy name are slain,
Dost Thou not hear the bitter wail of pain
From those whose children lie upon the stones?
Come down, O Son of God! incestuous gloom
Curtains the land, and through the starless night
Over Thy Cross a Crescent moon I see!
If Thou in very truth didst burst the tomb
Come down, O Son of Man! and show Thy might
Lest Mahomet be crowned instead of Thee!

            His poem to Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of the executed Charles I, really is a piece of dandyism, self-consciously trying hard to turn the queen into something mythical, a bit like the more truly Decadent poet Lionel Johnson’s By the Statue of King Charles at Charing Cross. Except for the effective thump at the end! Don’t underrate this man’s ability to shock.

Queen Henrietta Maria
IN the lone tent, waiting for victory,
She stands with eyes marred by the mists of pain,
Like some wan lily overdrenched with rain:
The clamorous clang of arms, the ensanguined sky,
War's ruin, and the wreck of chivalry,
To her proud soul no common fear can bring:
Bravely she tarrieth for her Lord the King,
Her soul a-flame with passionate ecstasy.
O Hair of Gold! O Crimson Lips! O Face
Made for the luring and the love of man!
With thee I do forget the toil and stress,
The loveless road that knows no resting place,
Time's straitened pulse, the soul's dread weariness,
My freedom and my life republican!

            Finally, Wilde’s poem (which I suspect is about the death of the “Prince Imperial” in the Zulu Wars) does give a nice kick in the pants to the emperor’s descendants, even as it laments them.

Louis Napoleon
EAGLE of Austerlitz! where were thy wings
When far away upon a barbarous strand,
In fight unequal, by an obscure hand,
Fell the last scion of thy brood of Kings!

Poor boy! thou wilt not flaunt thy cloak of red,
Nor ride in state through Paris in the van
Of thy returning legions, but instead
Thy mother France, free and republican,

Shall on thy dead and crownless forehead place
The better laurels of a soldier's crown,
That not dishonoured should thy soul go down
To tell the mighty Sire of thy race

That France hath kissed the mouth of Liberty,
And found it sweeter than his honied bees,
And that the giant wave Democracy
Breaks on the shores where Kings lay crouched at ease.

            None of these is a great poem, but they do all show Wilde’s metrical skills, they are at the very least interesting historical documents and they reveal a personality more complex than the persona of the aphorism-spouting dandy, which Wilde invented for the world’s consumption.

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