Friday, August 05, 2005

BOOK: Oscar Wilde: "Poems and Poems in Prose"

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume 1: Poems and Poems in Prose. Ed. by Bobby Fong and Karl Beckson, introduction by Ian Small. Oxford University Press, 2000. 0198119607. xxxii + 333 pp.

Since one would quite clearly have to be stark raving mad to buy a book such as this one, I feel I need to begin this post with some sort of explanation how it came to happen. My first contacts with Wilde were reading a translation of Salome in the third year of secondary school, and then The Picture of Dorian Gray in English a year later. I thought Salome was curious and in a way fascinating, and I liked The Picture of Dorian Gray a great deal; so when a year or two later I noticed in a bookshop an inexpensive paperback volume of what promised to be Wilde's collected works, I bought and read it without much hesitation. I found that I really enjoy Wilde's writing; I felt that he often manages to put his thoughts into really beautiful language without having to resort to obscure words that would make his writings difficult to understand. However, I also found that the paperback edition I had did not really contain his collected works; comparing its contents with the Wilde e-texts published by Project Gutenberg, I saw that my book is missing at least a couple of plays (The Duchess of Padua and Vera, or the Nihilists) and several essays. (Some time later I saw that the publisher of that paperback volume had meanwhile published an expanded edition which contains the above-mentioned plays; I forget whether it also contained the essays.) Another problem with my one-volume paperback copy of Wilde's “collected” works was that it contained no notes or commentaries of any kind, and I'm the sort of person who very much appreciates the kind guiding hand of an editor or commentator.

Well, a few years later, I noticed that OUP was about to start issuing a new scholarly edition of Wilde's collected works, apparently in a large number of volumes, with the first volume to contain Wilde's poems. According to one website the book was to be around 500 pages long, according to another around 300 (the latter figure turns out to be correct); in the one-volume paperback I had read, Wilde's poems only occupied approx. 120 pages. Apparently then this new edition would have lots of notes and commentaries. And I remembered that Wilde's poems certainly bristled with Greek words and obscure classical references where some notes would be very welcome indeed. The book cost £60, which I thought an atrocious price; it certainly is such compared to the ordinary trade books, but as I later found out, these kind of prices are sadly quite common for this kind of publications by academic presses. Well, I'm somewhat obsessed with the notion of collected works: if I'm trying to read somebody's collected works, I'm really unhappy if something is missing. So a pedantic scholarly edition would be just the perfect thing to go for, but the problem is that these editions often run into many volumes and are terribly expensive. But here, as the edition of Wilde was just getting started and only the first volume had been published, it seemed like a good opportunity to buy them one at a time as they would become available, which might make the whole thing manageable. And I felt that Wilde was perhaps one of the few authors on whom I was willing to spend that kind of money. I hesitated long enough that the book briefly became marked as unavailable in the on-line bookstores, which alarmed me considerably, but soon afterwards I found that it was merely being reprinted. When the second printing became available, the price rose to £65 and I decided to order a copy without further hesitation. When the book arrived, I was shocked to see it had no dust jacket; I thought that the bookseller had cheated me out of it, but later I bought volumes 2 and 3 of the series from a different on-line bookseller and they also arrived without dust jackets, so I'm guessing that OUP simply no longer issues dustjackets with books of this sort. The world is truly going to the dogs. Anyway, I'm still a little frustrated that I have the second printing rather than the first; if I notice a fine copy of the first printing at a reasonable price from some second-hand bookseller, I might even consider buying it. But I shouldn't complain too much; at least I got the book for £65. In the subsequent years the price seemed to get higher and higher every time I looked at OUP's website, and currently they want £85 for it. Volumes 2 and 3 of Wilde's collected works, which have been published earlier in this year, cost £80 and £90, respectively. Whoever is setting these prices clearly ought to be tarred and feathered. Of course, since I already had volume 1, it was not so hard to persuade myself that I ought to buy volumes 2 and 3 as well, and the cheapest way I could find was $140 apiece from Barnes and Noble (actually $126 with their member discount). Volume 2 basically contains two versions of De Profundis, and volume 3 contains two versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray. I tremble at the thought of the number of volumes necessary to publish Wilde's collected works at this rate; ten, perhaps fifteen? And how high will the prices get by the time we reach the end of the series?

Anyway, this is the long and sordid story of how I, who really have no business reading, let alone owning, a scholarly edition of somebody's collected works, ended up buying and reading Volume 1 of Wilde's collected works. Now I must admit that apart from the horrible price and the lack of a dust jacket, the book is really very good. It has a very nice introduction which discusses the role of poetry in Wilde's career; he published quite a few poems in various middlebrow magazines during the 1870s, but when he first collected them in a book (in 1881), they came under the scrutiny of serious literary critics who compared them to the work of established poets and weren't that impressed by them (p. xxi). In fact Wilde borrowed so much and so often from other poets that some have gone so far as to accuse him of plagiarism (p. xxii). (He also often borrowed from his own works; I remember that I noticed many instances of this when I was reading the above-mentioned single-volume edition of his works.) The introduction contains some very interesting observations on the economic aspects of publishing in that period: “price effectively defined readerships and therefore canons of taste” (p. xii), and the introduction then goes on to compare the prices of the periodicals in which Wilde's poems were initially published and the price of his 1881 collection, and concludes that the periodicals were in the middle-price range while the 1881 book was more expensive and therefore put the poems in the hands a different audience with different tastes and expectations. The introduction also mentions the prices of various books; it seems that the range of prices was much higher than nowadays. Wilde's 1881 book of poems cost 10s. 6d., while two of his books of stories cost just 2s. and 5s. respectively (p. xii). Salomé was even more expensive — 15s. (p. xix). And by the 1890s a fashion arose for expensive, handsomely produced books in limited editions that attracted a certain kind of connoisseurs not so much by their literary value as by their rarity and material quality (p. xx). Wilde's poem The Sphinx was published in an edition like this in 1894, and copies of the large-paper edition cost as much as £5. 5s. (p. xviii). Wilde, although he was interested in the literary value of his work, also “kept a sharp eye on the commercial values normally associated with the mass media” (p. xx).

The editorial commentaries on the poems are also quite useful, and contain translations of foreign phrases, explanations of allusions to classical mythology, the editors also point out passages where Wilde borrows something from an earlier author, etc. The text of the poems also contains a critical apparatus, which I ignored as I am not interested in these things.

In fact the commentaries sometimes suprised me by explaining something that I'd expect to be obvious to everyone (even me), such as what a ladybird is (p. 264). I also think that, if they have the balls to charge £60 or £85 or some such hideous sum of money for the book, they should at least have hired a reasonably literate typesetter/editor and a more pedantic proofreader. Centuries are treated very unkindly in this book; thus we read about the “martyred St Sebastian (c. ad 3)” (p. 236), learn that Sappho and Alcaeus lived in “6 bc” (p. 237), Sappho was in fact born “in late 7 bc” (p. 264), and “the Greeks had fended off the Persian invasion in 5 bc” (p. 249). There seem to be several curious inconsistencies in the spelling of Greek words, many of which I suspect to be misspellings (but I can't be really sure because I never learnt Greek); examples of this are in note 50–1 on p. 232, and the inconsistency between “πόντος ἀτρύγετος” (p. 28) and “Πόντος Ἄτρν´γετος” (p: 240).

As for the poems themselves, they are just as lovely as when I first read them in that one-volume paperback of Wilde's works some seven or eight years ago (eeek, writing things like this makes me feel old and decrepit). One thing that is perhaps a bit different is that I've read some Swinburne in the meantime, and thus some of Wilde's poems that are really heavily influenced by Swinburne no longer seem quite so exciting since I've been able to see that it wasn't really Wilde but rather Swinburne who first came up with that sort of thing, and in much larger amounts as well. But nevertheless there are many very pretty poems in this book. Here are some of my favourites: #1 “Ye shall be gods”, #4 “Requiescat”, #9 “La bella donna della mia mente”, #19 “The Little Ship”, #32 “The Grave of Keats”, #41 “Ave Maria Plena Gratia”, #53 “Nocturne”, #74 “Γλυκυπικρος Ερως”, #80 “Sonnet to Liberty”, #98 “The Harlot's House”.

There are a few very nice immitations of popular ballads. According to the editors' notes, Wilde was influenced by Rossetti in this aspect (p. 265). I haven't read much Rossetti yet, but I loved Swinburne's immitations of the popular ballads (The Witch Mother and The Bride's Tragedy are my favourites), as I did the popular ballads themselves. Wilde's immitations are: #10 “Chanson”, #14 “The Dole of the King's Daughter”, and #56 “Ballade de Marguerite”.

There are a couple of nice pastoral poems; #13 “She stole behind him where he lay”, #105 “Canzonet”.

Several of the poems are impressionistic. I'm not terribly fond of impressionist poems, as nothing ever happens in them, and the impression by itself usually doesn't mean much to me. However, some of them are beautiful just the same: #85 “Impression du Matin”, #108 “La Dame Jaune”, #109 “Remorse (A Study in Saffron)”.

Probably my favourite poem in the whole book was #55, Charmides. I'm afraid it must be a very bad poem since I enjoyed it so much, but I won't let that trouble me. (By the way, Wilde seems to have thought it one of his best poems; p. 261.) To me it was quite simply the most drop-dead gorgeously beautiful poem I have read in a long, long time. Some passages seemed to be literally oozing aestheticism out of every line, and reminded me of Chapter 11 of The Picture of Dorian Gray, except that they were even more beautiful because they were in verse. And I was extremely glad to see that the story had a reasonably happy ending (at least as far as anything involving mortals in the world of Greek mythology can be considered to have a happy end). Charmides' lust for the beautiful statue of Athena in the first part of the poem is also quite fascinating; heck, if molesting statues had been at least half as fun in reality, I'd probably be doing it myself. [However, maybe we shouldn't take the issue of statue molestation too lightly; remember the cautionary example in Prosper Mérimée's Venus of Ille. :-)] I was wondering if the fate of Charmides after his encounter with Athena's statue should be taken as a warning against the excesses of intellectualism (what with Athena being the goddess of wisdom and all), but then the poem is so full of physical love that I doubt that such a metaphorical reading is appropriate. Incidentally, Wilde also seems to have had quite a bit of fun describing the beauty of Charmides himself; perhaps this is due to Wilde's homoerotic feelings, although there isn't any homoeroticism in the poem itself. For me, however, the most beautiful stanzas in the poem were the ones near the end, when Charmides and the Dryad meet in the underworld and finally get the opportunity to consummate their passion. Lines 649–53 are a very nice poetic description of an orgasm. Another beautiful and extremely poignant passage is ll. 523–34 about the sadness of dying a virgin. And there are several other wonderful lines and passages scattered throughout the poem. It's days like this when I realize what keeps me persisting in reading poetry. Of the poems I read, there are many, perhaps a strong majority, that I simply don't understand; then there are many that I find boring; but every now and then I come across some absolutely priceless gem of a poem, such as this one, that makes it all worth the trouble.

[Incidentally, is it still “pygmalionism” even if (like Charmides in the poem, but unlike Pygmalion) you didn't make the statue by yourself? Wikipedia recommends a more neutral term, “agalmatophilia”, instead. But this word is horrible on several counts: it's one of those big Greek compounds that look like they were designed explicitly for the purpose of frightening people who don't understand any Greek, and in particular this is one of those words that seem to cry out “beware! sick perversion ahead!” It's true that “-ism” has a poor reputation these days, but “-philia” has an even worse one. Sadly, we live in a time when sexual perversions are considered even worse than ideologies (which is what most isms are), even though the latter tend to be far more murderous while practically all of the philias are essentially harmless.]

I just have one tiny little complaint about Charmides: when he is washed ashore, he has been dead three days (l. 360), and yet the Dryad spends the whole day next to him, talking and thinking he is merely asleep and would wake presently... Not that I object to a bit of necrophilia; in fact, seeing as he's been dead for three days, a bit of haut goût is perfectly appropriate in the work of a decadent poet; but still, this is not necrophilia. She isn't attracted to him because he is dead; she's attracted to him because she thinks he isn't dead. But this is completely unrealistic; there's no way she could avoid noticing that he is dead, especially if he's been dead for so long.

Wilde also wrote a few poems in prose, which are also quite nice. My favourite is #115, “The Does of Good”, where Jesus walks around doing good deeds to people, but they all go on to do something else than what he would have liked. (Reminds me of this comic.)

Another wonderful poem is #118, “The Sphynx”. The poet is sitting in his student's cell (l. 162) and the vision of a sphinx, or perhaps a cat (l. 7), sends him off to a muse about all sorts of delightful and exotic things. The remainder of the poem is a veritable cornucopia of orientalism, purple, musical, heavy with aestheticism, full of exotic words, etc., etc. At the end of the poem he tries to shoo the sphinx away and recover his christian beliefs, but this sounds somewhat half-hearted after all his enthusiasm in the previous 150 lines... This is really the perfect poem to have been originally published in a precious and elaborately produced limited edition, as described in the editors' introduction on p. xiii.

Finally, there's #119, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”, which was and remains one of my favourite Wilde poems. Although I must admit that there are several passages that I simply don't understand (what the heck does he mean by “Each man kills the thing he loves” etc.?), and I know that e.g. Yeats criticised it savagely in his introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, yet I enjoy this poem greatly every time I read it.

In conclusion, although I know that Wilde is nowadays chiefly known for The Picture of Dorian Gray, for Salome, and for his comedies, I recommend everyone who likes literary aestheticism to give his poems a try as well.


Anonymous yannick said...


Just wanted to thank and congratulate you on your reading, as well as on your writing abilities and taste! You had me laugh and think a good many times: what a pleasure it was to read what you had to say, (almost felt the very same pleasure as when I read Wilde's own works: you sure got style!) Am a French student, but still am gonna give Wilde's poetry a go, (which -just like you-I think everybody should), by giving it the place of honour in my master researches. Am getting back to uni in a fortnight or so, with a good mind to try and change the "ill-advised" perception people often tend to adopt when it comes to Wilde's poetry. I ambition to make a close study of Wilde's writing style (which, as you've already said in your excellent article, proves to be quite economical), so as to get to a more precise idea of what actually made Wilde's poetry his own, and not a mere copy-paste from the poetry of some other guys, (like Swinburne or Blake for instance). The idea will be to pinpoint "out" (= to pinpoint + to point out), the very essence of Wilde's style as a writer and a poet, by looking at what words, or groups of words, he would systematically (or else rarely) use. I would like to come out with a pattern of what's semantically- and hence stylistically- recurrent in his poetry writing, and what is not: what makes the norm, and what makes the genius; what's normal, and what's original. As Walter Pater had it in his "introduction" to his "Renaissance, studies in Art and Poetry":

"the function of the aesthetic critic is to distinguish, to analyse, and separate from its adjuncts, the virtue by which a picture, a landscape, a fair personality in life or in a book, produces this special impression of beauty or pleasure, to indicate what the source of that impression is, and under what conditions it is experienced. His end is reached when he has disengaged that virtue, and noted it, as a chemist notes some natural element, for himself and others; and the rule for those who would reach this end is stated with great exactness in the words of a recent critic of Sainte-Beuve:–De se borner a connaitre de près les belles choses, et a s’en nourrir en exquis amateurs, en humanistes accomplis."

I was really glad to see that there do exist some people who still believe in Wilde's talent as a poet, and do not fall into the "ill-advised" yet systematic rejection of his poems, as being but a bunch of pale copies. A stupid reaction besides -let it be said- for in literature, (and generally speaking in Art), one should never follow any other piece of advice or predicament, than that of personal taste and judgement over prejudice. For all these things, I just wanted to say thank you.


Wednesday, September 15, 2010 4:42:00 PM  

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