First of all, I want to state clearly that I am no judge of poetry. Even with all my voracious reading, I
have managed to avoid it, and I really don't remember studying it much in school either. It just wasn't my thing, I guess. I'm going to start integrating
more poetry into my reading goals, however, and this is my first poetry review
on this site. I like Oscar Wilde, and he is one of the featured
authors on my Cross-Reference index pages. Dover had this book on sale for $1.25, so I bought it and I'm glad I did. I did do a little research, and the
general consensus of the sites I browsed was that Wilde's poetry was certainly not considered fine, (with much of it written as a student and inexperienced) as compared with his incomparable plays. Most of his
poetry has faded from the public eye, though in his time it was read. The only one still considered important is the cover poem, an expression of his
horrifying two years in prison.
Every time I read another work by Wilde, I experience heartfelt sadness that such a brilliant artist came to such an unjustified end and an all-too-early passing. Convicted of the "crime" of gay sex, he was sentenced to two years hard labor, and died shortly after his release, a completely broken man. What an unnecessary tragedy!
Though Wilde was known for his humor and flippancy (which no doubt may have exacerbated his legal issues), he also had an extremely serious side in which he anguished over morals and the saving of his soul. Many of these poems are about death and loss, but also about love (and loss), and in general, his poetic themes are not happy. This short piece is called Requiescat.
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,
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.
Ok, I realize that one would not hold its own compared with other authors whose poetry is among the world's great literature, but it is simple
The Sphinx is the second-longest work in the book. It apparently was inspired by something in Wilde's room at some point—a painting or a sculpture perhaps. In it, the speaker cross-examines the Sphinx on who her lovers were, and most are figures in Egyptian mythology, which was a popular Victorian theme. I did do some research on this one, and it is described as sexy and funny. Here is a website that supplies some interesting commentary on Wilde's poetry.
Sexual themes show up in Wilde's poetry; passion and lust, followed by guilt and remorse, a struggle between giving in to physical desires and remaining pure. Panthea is about living life to its fullest, and knowing that at death, new life will spring forth, kind of like recycling energy to the Universe.
By far, the longest and most serious poem is The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written at the end of his life about the horrors of prison life. In it, a man who has murdered his love is to be hanged, and all the prisoners feel the terror along with him, as if it were their own hanging. Eventually, the deed is done, and his body is put out to burn:
For he has a pall, this wretched man,
Such as few men can claim:
Deep down below a prison-yard,
Naked for greater shame,
He lies, with fetters on each foot,
Wrapt in a sheet of flame!
In all, this book contains 24 poems taken from various collections, and a few uncollected works. If you like Oscar Wilde and want to experience his more serious side, give these a try.
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