Literature

A Short Analysis of Oscar Wilde’s ‘Requiescat’

‘Requiescat’ is a poem by Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), who was better known as a playwright than a poet – indeed, better known as a novelist, a short-story writer, even for being Oscar Wilde than he ever was for his poetry. Yet Wilde had won the Newdigate Prize at Oxford for his poem ‘Ravenna’, while he was still a student; and towards the end of his life, one of the last notable works he wrote was a poem, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, reflecting on his downfall and ostracism. ‘Requiescat’ was written in the 1880s while Wilde was still an up-and-coming literary figure, and it’s one of his finest lyrics. Before we offer some words of analysis, here’s the poem.

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, 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.

‘Requiescat’ is from the Latin for ‘(may he or she) rest in peace’, which provides a clue to the poem’s meaning. This short poem is one of Wilde’s most understated and touching, about a dead loved one who is now buried underground. The poem is an elegy for someone who has died. But who?

This poem was written for someone in particular: Wilde’s own sister. ‘Requiescat’: may she rest in peace, then. Isola Wilde was just nine years old when she died, while recovering from a fever, during a visit to Edgeworthstown Rectory, in Ireland. Her death affected Wilde greatly, as notebooks from this time demonstrate: Wilde even felt partly responsible for Isola’s death. According to their mother, Lady Jane Wilde, the cause of Isola’s death was ‘a sudden effusion on the brain’.

‘Requiescat’, then, was Wilde’s deeply personal poetic response to his little sister’s sudden death, while Wilde was still a young boy of just twelve years. The poem acknowledges that Isola is dead and buried, while also allowing for hope that she is still there in spirit: ‘Speak gently, she can hear / The daisies grow.’ If this suggests a state of liminality between life and death, or at least death and some sort of afterlife, then there is also a sense of liminality surrounding Isola’s womanhood: ‘She hardly knew / She was a woman’. At not quite ten years old, Isola did not have the chance to learn what it was like to be a true woman; but Wilde’s tribute seems to hover between a girlhood/womanhood dichotomy and a human/ethereal one, i.e. ‘she hardly knew she was a mortal human, because she grew like an angel’.

In that penultimate stanza, a heaviness of heart is cleverly summoned without being spoken, like somebody whose grief weighs them down so much that they cannot speak plainly about it:

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone
She is at rest.

As ‘heavy stone’ leads to ‘heart alone’, through the rhyme but also through the visual coincidence of the ‘hea…’ beginning of the words ‘heavy’ and ‘heart’, we catch a glimpse – under pressure from the seat of the heart, the ‘breast’ – of Wilde’s heavy heart both as he recalls the burial of his sister so many years before her burial should have taken place, and as he memorialises her in verse now, a number of years later. And yet a heavy heart must not be allowed to harden into a heart of stone (‘She is at rest’ being classical stoicism but verging on carven coldness), and this is the tricky balancing act Wilde manages with his poem.

And then, at the end of the poem, there is more uncertainty and ambiguity surrounding how Wilde should categorise or view his sister: at the beginning of the poem we may have been told that she can hear the daisies grow, but now, we learn that ‘she cannot hear / Lyre or sonnet’. Poetic tributes are of little use if the one for whom they are meant cannot hear them. And then the slight oddness of the final two lines: the desire, the active command, to heap earth upon the poet’s beloved sister, who meant so much to him.

There’s a more complex psychological response at work here than might at first be apparent, as if Wilde cannot face to leave the wound of grief open: he doesn’t want to bury or forget his sister, but at the same time, he knows that burying her is what needs to happen.

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.

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