Oscar Wilde's Poems: Analysis & Quotes

Instructor: Monica Sedore

Monica holds a master's degree and teaches 11th grade English. Previously, she has taught first-year writing at the collegiate level and worked extensively in writing centers.

Oscar Wilde's poetry is a powerful reflection of his own thoughts and feelings. In this lesson, we'll talk about 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol,' 'Ravenna,' and 'Panthea.' Read on to find out more about how Wilde translated his beliefs into words.

A Wilde Background

Famous for his witty quotes about life and love, Oscar Wilde is one of the most celebrated Irish writers. He penned the classic novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray as well as the satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest. His most well-known poem, 'The Ballad of Reading Gaol,' was written towards the end of his life during the time when was imprisoned for homosexuality. In spite of this difficult end, Wilde was an intelligent, educated man. He remains one of the most recognized and celebrated writers of our time. The poems we'll look at are called narrative poems, because they each tell a story.

Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde

Early Poetry

At the beginning of his career, Wilde's poem 'Ravenna' won Oxford University's Newdigate Prize in 1878. 'Ravenna' is a long poem that details Wilde's experience in the Italian city.

On and on
I galloped, racing with the setting sun,
And ere the crimson after-glow was passed,
I stood within Ravenna's walls at last!

The second stanza discusses how quiet the city is, and we can assume he's making a comparison to his hometown in Dublin, Ireland. In the third stanza, Wilde observes the monuments he sees: 'Yon lonely pillar,' 'a lordly tomb,' and a 'gilded shrine,' which mark the rich history of Ravenna. In particular, Wilde describes the inspiration that Dante Alighieri may have drawn from the city while he was writing The Divine Comedy, for it is Dante's grave Wilde is observing.

Towards the end of the poem, Wilde laments what Ravenna has become. He says to the city, 'In ruined loveliness thou liest dead.' It is no longer the Ravenna that Dante or Julius Caesar knew; instead, it is a forgotten city that is eerie in its silence.

First Collection - Poems

'Ravenna' was published in Wilde's 1881 collection titled simply Poems. Also in this book is his poem 'Panthea,' another long poem written about being watched by the gods above. Wilde suggests that 'our high Gods have sick and wearied grown/Of all our endless sins' or that 'our Gods they sit at ease.' He describes the gods in turn: 'There walks Queen Juno through some dewy mead,' 'young Ganymede/Leaps in the hot and amber-foaming must,' 'Queen Venus with the shepherd at her side,' while 'jealous Salmacis/Peers through the myrtle-leaves and sighs for pain of lonely bliss.' The gods appear to be too absorbed in their own comings and goings to care too deeply about the humans beneath them. But, as Wilde says, the people are tired of the gods' disinterested attitudes:

we are wearied of this sense of guilt,
Wearied of pleasure's paramour despair,
Wearied of every temple we have built,
Wearied of every right, unanswered prayer,

They want more from the gods. They are living lives of passion and love, but the gods don't seem to care. Wilde suggests that we not worry about what the gods think. He says, 'we two lovers shall not sit afar,' and they will indulge themselves. This appears to be a statement - not about the gods - for the Irish who were, at this time, largely Christian. It is a statement about the church and the government's position on homosexuality. Wilde is railing against his inability to express affection for his lover outside of closed doors.

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