Are these Oscar Wilde’s finest poems? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was best-known for being Oscar Wilde. As is often remarked, he was one of the first modern celebrities, courting attention for his witty conversation, his flamboyant dress, and – later – his ‘scandalous’ sex life. But he was also a playwright, novelist, short-story writer, writer of charming fairy tales for children, and poet. This last one is often overlooked, with only one of this poems remaining widely known. In the following list, we pick six of Oscar Wilde’s best poems ranging from his early years at Oxford through to his years in exile in Paris.
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 …
Its title taken from the Latin for ‘(may he or she) rest in peace’, this short poem is one of Wilde’s most understated and touching, about a dead loved one who is now buried underground. The poem was inspired by the death of someone Wilde was very close to: his own sister. Isola Wilde died, aged just nine, in 1867; Wilde wrote this moving elegy for Isola in 1881. ‘All my life’s buried here, / Heap earth upon it’ is one of Wilde’s most moving poetic lines (or couple of lines) because they are simple yet heartfelt.
2. ‘The Burden of Itys’.
This English Thames is holier far than Rome,
Those harebells like a sudden flush of sea
Breaking across the woodland, with the foam
Of meadow-sweet and white anemone
To fleck their blue waves,—God is likelier there,
Than hidden in that crystal-hearted star the pale monks bear!
Those violet-gleaming butterflies that take
Yon creamy lily for their pavilion
Are monsignores, and where the rushes shake
A lazy pike lies basking in the sun
His eyes half-shut,—He is some mitred old
Bishop in partibus! look at those gaudy scales all green and gold …
In Greek mythology, Itys was the son of Tereus and Procne. Tereus raped his wife’s sister Philomela, and cut out her tongue so she couldn’t tell anyone about what he’d done. However, Philomela ‘told’ her sister by weaving a tapestry depicting the appalling crime, and Procne took revenge on her husband by killing their son Itys and serving him up as a meal for Tereus. Wilde’s poem doesn’t explicitly refer to this myth, but this is the background to a long poem about Oxford (where Wilde studied as an undergraduate) which Wilde continued to think highly of for the rest of his life, thinking it one of his finest poems.
3. ‘The Garden of Eros’.
It is full summer now, the heart of June;
Not yet the sunburnt reapers are astir
Upon the upland meadow where too soon
Rich autumn time, the season’s usurer,
Will lend his hoarded gold to all the trees,
And see his treasure scattered by the wild and spendthrift breeze.
Too soon indeed! yet here the daffodil,
That love-child of the Spring, has lingered on
To vex the rose with jealousy, and still
The harebell spreads her azure pavilion …
Another poem which Wilde himself numbered among his best poems, ‘The Garden of Eros’, like much of Wilde’s poetry, bears the stamp of Swinburne’s influence, along with the more sensual poems of Keats and the work of the Pre-Raphaelites. As the poem’s title suggests, ‘The Garden of Eros’ is full of lush eroticism and decadent imagery, depicting a utopian world that recalls the pagan Arcadia more than the Biblical Eden…
4. ‘A Villanelle’.
O singer of Persephone!
In the dim meadows desolate
Dost thou remember Sicily?
Still through the ivy flits the bee
Where Amaryllis lies in state;
O Singer of Persephone!
Simaetha calls on Hecate
And hears the wild dogs at the gate;
Dost thou remember Sicily?
So begins this poem, an example of the villanelle form. In a separate post, we’ve compiled some of the best villanelles written in English, but we didn’t include this Wilde poem on the list. Wilde didn’t write hundreds of poems, but among the small number he did write we find sonnets, ballads, narrative poems, elegies, and many others – including this attempt at the restrictive and challenging form of the villanelle. This poem, which addresses Persephone from the world of mythology, may not be the finest example of a villanelle, but it shows Wilde’s virtuosity in verse as well as, perhaps, highlighting the limits of his own verse.
5. ‘The Sphinx’.
In a dim corner of my room for longer than
my fancy thinks
A beautiful and silent Sphinx has watched me
through the shifting gloom.
Inviolate and immobile she does not rise she
does not stir
For silver moons are naught to her and naught
to her the suns that reel.
Red follows grey across the air, the waves of
moonlight ebb and flow
But with the Dawn she does not go and in the
night-time she is there …
Wilde wrote on a number of occasions about sphinxes, with one of his characters describing women, memorably, as ‘sphinxes without secrets’. In this poem, which is a prime example of the luxurious indulgence of Decadent poetry, the narrator encounters the mysterious sphinx (‘half woman and half animal’: the sphinx being a cross between a woman and a cat) and, essentially, asks her some very personal questions about the lovers she’s had over the centuries. A fine example of fin de siècle decadence, and one of Wilde’s most intriguing poems.
He did not wear his scarlet coat,
For blood and wine are red,
And blood and wine were on his hands
When they found him with the dead,
The poor dead woman whom he loved,
And murdered in her bed.
He walked amongst the Trial Men
In a suit of shabby grey;
A cricket cap was on his head,
And his step seemed light and gay;
But I never saw a man who looked
So wistfully at the day.
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 …
We conclude this list with Wilde’s most famous poem. In November 1895, having spent a short time in Wandsworth prison, Wilde was moved to HM Prison, Reading to serve the rest of his two-year sentence of hard labour. But Wilde’s poem was inspired not only by his own incarceration there, but by the execution of a soldier – the first at the prison for eighteen years – for the murder of his wife. The repeated line, ‘Each man kills the thing he loves’, takes on a wider metaphorical significance in the context of Wilde’s own life.
For a good edition of Oscar Wilde’s poetry, we recommend Complete Poetry (Oxford World’s Classics).
About Oscar Wilde
The life of the Irish novelist, poet, essayist, and playwright Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) is as famous as – perhaps even more famous than – his work. But in a career spanning some twenty years, Wilde created a body of work which continues to be read an enjoyed by people around the world: a novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray; short stories and fairy tales such as ‘The Happy Prince’ and ‘The Selfish Giant’; poems including The Ballad of Reading Gaol; and essay-dialogues which were witty revivals of the Platonic philosophical dialogue.
But above all, it is Wilde’s plays that he continues to be known for, and these include witty drawing-room comedies such as Lady Windermere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, and The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as a Biblical drama, Salome (which was banned from performance in the UK and had to be staged abroad). Wilde is also often remembered for his witty quips and paradoxes and his conversational one-liners, which are legion. They include, ‘Work is the curse of the drinking classes’, and ‘I have nothing to declare except my genius’ (when travelling through customs in America).
Wilde’s life – his generosity to others, his double life as a family man and someone who engaged with extramarital affairs with other men, and his subsequent downfall when he was put on trial for ‘gross indecency’ – has been movingly written about in Richard Ellmann’s biography of Wilde and in the 1997 biopic Wilde, with Stephen Fry in the title role.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.