Oscar Wilde Birthday Blog: Poems and Letters.
Dear readers of my blog,
is it necessary to remind you of Oscar Wilde’s birthday? Most of you would know that he was born in Dublin on 16 October 1854. So this was 157 years ago, and he was born only a few years after the Irish Famine, the event in Irish history that apart from the Catholic Church has had by far the greatest impact on Irish families since then.
Made aware of this even before I turned my hand to working on Wilde’s lives, works, and times through a book of letters by the Scotsman Alexander Somerville (1811-1886) on a round-trip by coach using a “Rambler’s Ticket” I also saw some of the places described both by Somerville and the German winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1971, Heinrich Böll (1917-1985) when visiting the peninsula Achill Island in the hot summer of 1995 – said to have been the hottest summer in fifty years, since 1945, the summer auf VE Day on 8 May, that is, something that I first learned from translating a novel partly set in that year before a contemporary witness, a friend of long date with an Irish family, told me that during his family’s flight from Prague to the South-West of Germany at the same time it hardly ever rained.
In the context of the Great Irish Famine it is possible in another case, the Catholic James Joyce, to be precise, to link the fact that his father, born in 1849, was an only child to that historical event. In Wilde’s family, however, both professional success on his father’s part and relative wealth for a certain period as well as their social standing as members of the Protestant Irish Ascendancy made Sir William and Jane Francesca have a family of three children with William being two years Oscar’s senior, while their sister Isola was born in 1857. She died before reaching the age of ten, so that the poem Oscar wrote to recall her, entitled “Requiescat”, has become one of his best-known autobiographical pieces.
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.
Geh leise, unterm Schneeweiß
ist sie dir nah,
sprich sanft, tu ihr nicht weh,
sie lauscht dir ja.
Ihr helles goldnes Haar,
nun welkes Laub,
denn sie, so jung sie war,
zerfiel zu Staub.
Lilien-weiß wie Schnee,
süß wuchs sie auf,
daß ich als Frau sie seh,
sie kam nicht drauf.
Der Sarg, der schwere Stein
macht mich verrückt,
nicht sie ; sie ruht ! allein
ich bin bedrückt.
Verstumme, dumme Leier !
sie kann nicht hören ;
häuf Erd auf zur Feier !
hör auf zu stören !
Günter Plessow, 2021
Life and death were quite close to one another when Oscar Wilde was still young. This was, to be sure, a feature of life in the nineteenth century, but his own life was marred by many such premature deaths, not all of which were later commemorated in a work of literature. When in prison from 1895 through 1897, he only found out about his mother’s death when his wife, Constance, who had already adopted Holland as her new second name, visited him for the last time, since written communications were limited in that first year of his sentence.
So the second poem I chose for this birthday blog is also concerned, though more generally, with life and death:
Sonnet. On hearing the Dies Irae
Sung in the Sistine Chapel
Nay, Lord, not thus! white lilies in the spring,
Sad olive-groves, or silver-breasted dove,
Teach me more clearly of Thy life and love
Than terrors of red flame and thundering.
The hillside vines dear memories of Thee bring:
A bird at evening flying to its nest
Tells me of One who had no place of rest:
I think it is of Thee the sparrows sing.
Come rather on some autumn afternoon,
When red and brown are burnished on the leaves,
And the fields echo to the gleaner’s song,
Come when the splendid fulness of the moon
Looks down upon the rows of golden sheaves,
And reap Thy harvest: we have waited long.
Sonett. Beim Dies Irae
in der Sixtinischen Kapelle
Nein, Herr, nicht so ! Der Lenz, die Lilie winkt,
Olivenhaine trauern, Silbertauben
tun Deine Liebe kund ; ich kann nicht glauben,
wenn Blitz und Donner mir zu Ohren dringt ;
ein Vogel, der zur Nacht ins Nest sich schwingt,
gemahnt ein Einen, der nicht Ort noch Stelle
zu ruhen fand, nicht Stall noch Haus noch Schwelle ;
das, denk ich, ist was jeder Sperling singt.
Komm doch im Herbst an einem Nachmittag,
das Laub blitzt rot und braun, die Schnitter singen,
die Felder respondieren dem Gesang,
komm mit dem vollen Mond, der strahlen mag
auf goldne Garben – Zeit, sie einzubringen,
Ernte zu halten, denn wir warten lang.
Günter Plessow, 2021
While the year given at the end of the poem corresponds to the actual time of its composition, the original title sounded less spectacular: “Sonnet. (Written after hearing Mozart’s Dies Irae sung in Magdalen Chapel.)”.
In fact, the title Wilde gave the revised poem places it in Rome rather than in Oxford and omits the reference to the composer, so as to make a more general claim when talking about “God’s Wrath”, a part of the Catholic Requiem Mass. While Magdalen Chapel dates from the 1470s, there are no frescoes there. It may be beautiful in its own right, but the expectations raised by the title eventually chosen by Wilde are quite different ones. (See The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume I. Poems and Poems in Prose, ed. Bobby Fong and Karl Beckson, Oxford: OUP, 2000, p. 239).
Creating the impression of rendering his reaction to music as sung in the Sistine Chapel with its frescoes by Michelangelo Buonaroti and thus alluding to the very place where up to the present day the Pope is being elected – just after his predecessor has passed on – that is, Wilde assumes the grandeur of a great poet and quite a Catholic’s stance – when his first attempt at publishing the poem with the original title had failed in July 1877 (ibid.).
When he did succeed, in 1878, the poem, now entitled “Nay, Come not thus”, was included in an anthology edited by William MacIlwaine, Lyra Hibernica Sacra, interestingly published by M’Caw, Stevenson and Orr; Geo. Bell & Sons, and Hodges, Forster & Figgis in Belfast, London, and Dublin (ibid., pp. 226/227).
One might think that even then the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland contained separate entities with Belfast, London, and Dublin as capitals, but this was not officially to happen until 1921! There may, indeed, be another reason altogether, for this was an anthology of religious poems, and the Established Churches in either England, the South or the North of Ireland used different publishers to spread the word.
As it happens, Wilde had tried to place two sonnets with a Scottish religious magazine in July 1877: Good Words, edited by the Very Rev. Donald Macleod. In using a tone that was both brisk and business-like, and speaking of himself in the third person Wilde assumed the stance of an established poet, stating: “If accepted Mr Wilde would be much obliged if they were printed on a full half-page, without the intersecting line, which destroys the appearance of a sonnet very much.”
In the next paragraph, there is another interesting, essentially also aesthetic postulation: “Mr Wilde would not like them both to appear in the same month, as there is a slight similarity of rhyme in them.” In what follows, the letter includes “Easter Day”, which the editor says is word for word almost the same as the text sent to W. E. Gladstone, and the sonnet with its first sub-title put in brackets: “(Written after hearing Mozart’s Dies Irae in Magdalen Chapel)”.
All this corroborates the impression of the early Oscar Wilde as someone who knew how to strike a pose, who on the one hand was keen to impress – as an analysis of the earlier epistle to Gladstone including “Easter Day” would show – and who on the other hand was not shy at all to put down his foot once he had it in the door – no matter whether that stratagem would succeed or not.
Neither “Easter Day” nor “Sonnet. (Written after hearing Mozart’s Dies Irae in Magdalen Chapel)” did appear in Good Words, nor do the Complete Letters include a reference to an answer. No answer, if to a letter then or an e-mail today, is also an answer, as you may well know.
And yet Wilde was stubborn and willing to try again and in the process revise his poems, something that is mentioned only in passim by the editors of his poems as much as by Merlin Holland, with Rupert Hart-Davis the editor of The Complete Letters (London: Fourth Estate, 2000), from which both the quotations and the information on the background are taken (pp. 56/57 [Good Words], pp. 46/47 [Letter to Gladstone]).
In fact, the image of Wilde the writer who painstakingly polished and shaped his works, interested from early on in their proper aesthetic presentation on the page, is what can be inferred not only from looking at the materials preserved of writing and publication process of his great narrative and dramatic works. Rather, this is a character trait to be observed with any of his writings, not least “Requiescat” which, however, also shows another aspect of his writer’s persona, that of adding “the names of places to poems for effect rather than for accuracy” (Poems, p. 221). So while the poems he wrote and published convey minute moments from his writing life, the context in which that happened adds some important information to the way he wanted to be read.
Letters and poems as well as blog posts share that they are often occasional works, triggered by an event, asked for, even required writings. This is what limits their effect. Taken together, however, they add up to creating a different impression of a writer’s life or they do help to explain what might seem strange if one looks at the contrast between Wilde’s public life and his private existence as writer and scholar. This is why I have always cherished the editions of his poetry and letters I briefly reviewed in 2001 shortly after I had received them, aware that I was unable to do justice to them but in a context I have only now come to discover: a work in progress including poems by Wilde, translated by Günter Plessow, and my own notes on life and letters. Unlike Collected Works or even Complete Works, such a book is limited, so I am happy to present the first instalment in this blog. Please do not hesitate to comment on the project,
all best wishes for another year with Oscar Wilde,
Jörg W. Rademacher, 10 October 2021