Oscar Wilde


#wilde #decadentism #poetry

Oscar Wilde confused life and work, trying to artistically manage his own existence. He was a very prominent figure, the main exponent of English Decadentism, like Baudelaire was for France and d'Annunzio for Italy; indeed, we can say that Wilde was English aestheticism.

By Decadentism we mean a literary genre and an attitude that permeates the entire end of the century. The term was first used by Verlaine, referring to impressionist painting. In England, romanticism is undermined by the Victorian compromise which is based on English greatness, on philanthropism, on faith in science. The ideals of equality and freedom are set aside, the novel by Dickens and Thackeray reigns, focused on the step up and always with a happy ending. The backbone of economic England is the merchant class that makes Calvinist and Puritan moralism its own. The judgment of society becomes more important than the divine one, sex is a taboo. A law is enacted against male homosexuals (not against females because no one has the courage to explain to the queen that homosexual women also exist) Wilde will end up in jail, in Reading Gaol precisely, because he admits to being homosexual. Wilde does not care to hide his own tendencies, convinced of the need to break down moralistic conventions in favor of experiences. He flaunts his friendship with his Basil, that is, Lord Alfred Douglas, the great passion of his life. The process that will result from this friendship will mean his end as a writer and as a man. It is a tragedy of which Wilde will be aware from the outset and which seems almost sought by him. At the trial he will not clear himself in the name of the legitimacy of his being gay. He will pay for his ideas in person and will give the last, definitive brushstroke to an artistic life, not free, however, from the sense of guilt, which is found in all decadent poets, including D'Annunzio.

Since, therefore, all romantic ideals are in crisis, an attempt is made to substitute sensations for them, thus aestheticism is born. Sensations are no longer considered as the lowest part of man but are re-evaluated in a gnoseological perspective as a form of knowledge. English decadence is a new romantic flare that burns with sensations. Wilde, born in 1854, is culturally Anglo-Irish, influenced by the Dublin culture of the mid-nineteenth century, the aesthetic movements of Oxford and France. The puritan component is completely missing in him, his approach to life is in the sense of enjoyment.

Wilde overshadows important painters and poets such as the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin, Pater, Swinburne, with whom aestheticism has a more underground life, while he advertises it and takes it into the living rooms, where it takes hold with his life, the conversation, attitudes. But all his contemporary artists enter his circle and influence him. Morris embodies a practical aestheticism that would like to change life and tie it to art. Ruskin advocates a return to individual beauty, to Hellenic models, to Nordic Gothic. Pater wants liberation from Christianity, which prevents man from sensually enjoying earthly life. He tends to "art for art", understood as an aesthetic and no longer spiritual research. Dante Gabriel Rossetti hopes for the restoration of pre-Raphaelite painting, essential and not in style. In reality, his trait will be Botticellian, languid, refined, with a murky and melancholy sensualism that reflects the exhaustion, the discomfort, the lack of ideals of the time. The stylnovistic love is sensualized and Rossetti's Beatrice has just that mixture of innocence and perversity that Wilde likes so much. Swinburne is the greatest poet of English decadence, he proposes the return to paganity, to the fullness of life enjoyed and lived in all his experiences.

Characteristic of Wilde's first works is the decadent admiration of the Renaissance and of Shakespeare, who inspired his first poems.


O listen ere the searching sun

Show to the world my sin and shame

(San Miniato)

To drift with every passion till my soul

Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play

(Helas!)

Requiescat, written in memory of a little sister who died at sixteen, is a typical Pre-Raphaelite expression, with something gothic.

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 buried here,

Heap earth upon it.

The lily is ambiguous, it is an innocent flower but with an intense perfume, here it becomes a symbol of sexuality, like Pascoli's “nocturnal jasmine”. In the poem Madonna mia, where we find the image of the lily (as well as in Ave Maria Gratia Plena) we have a clear example of Pre-Raphaelite Stynovism.

And longing eyes half veiled by slumberous tears

Like bluest waters seen through mists of rain [...]

And white Throat, whiter than the silvered dove,

Through whose wan marble creeps one purple vein.

In Ave Maria Gratia Plena the image of the kneeling Madonna, "a kneeling girl with passionless pale face" refers  to an aesthetic, graceful concept of religion. The whole scene is passionless, an act of pure beauty. Wilde tends to confuse ethics with aesthetics and the Catholic Church attracts English aesthetics because it appeals to the senses, amidst vestments, icons, hymns and unnerving smells of incense.

The yellow picture In the gold room, with impressionist images and correspondence between sounds and colors, refers to Shelley, D'Annunzio and Whistler's paintings.

Her ivory hands on the ivory keys

Strayed in a fitful fantasy,

Like the silver gleam when the poplar trees

Rustle their pale leaves listlessly,

Or the drifting foam of a restless sea

When the waves show their teeth in the flying breeze

Her gold hair fell on the wall of gold

Like the delicate gossamer tangles spun

On the burnished disk of the marigold

Or the sunflower turning to meet the sun

When the gloom of the jealous night is done

And the spear of the lily is aureoled.

And her sweet red lips on these lips of mine

Burned like the ruby fire set

In the swinging lamp of a crimson shrine,

Or the bleeding wounds of the pomegranate,

Or the heart of the lotus drenched and wet

With the spilt out blood of the rose-red wine.

Anche in Le Panneau c’è una descrizione, appunto, da pannello decorativo:

Under the rose tree’s dancing shade

There stands a little ivory girl,

Pulling the leaves of pink and pearl

With pale green nails of polished jade.


With The harlots house, from 1885, Wilde overcomes the mere decoration of his beginnings, conveying a message of disgust and weariness for the "deboscery":

Love passed into the house of lust.

It does so with words like harlot, cigarette and automatons, which are new to the poetry of the time. The saraband of automatons reminds us of Mary Shelley, Poe and Baudelaire. Much more successful and melancholy is To L.L., dedicated to his wife and the sense of guilt that lingers in the poet's soul after the end of family and love. It is no longer the Pre-Raphaelite style that saturates the poetry with smells and colors, but a sad and twilight atmosphere, which reminds us of D'Annunzio's The Rain in the Pinewood.


Could we dig up this long-buried treasure,

Were it worth the pleasure,

We never could learn love's song,

We are parted too long.

Could the passionate past that is fled

Call back its dead,

Could we live it all over again,

Were it worth the pain!

I remember we used to meet

By an ivied seat,And you warbled each pretty word

With the air of a bird;

And your voice had a quaver in it,

Just like a linnet,

And shook, as the blackbird's throat

With its last big note;

And your eyes, they were green and grey

Like an April day,

But lit into amethyst

When I stooped and kissed;

And your mouth, it would never smile

For a long, long while,

Then it rippled all over with laughter

Five minutes after.

You were always afraid of a shower,

Just like a flower:

I remember you started and ran

When the rain began.

I remember I never could catch you,

For no one could match you,

You had wonderful, luminous, fleet,

Little wings to your feet.

I remember your hair - did I tie it?