Oscar Wilde

First published in 1890.

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005



He was a Grecian lad, who coming home

With pulpy figs and wine from Sicily

Stood at his galley’s prow, and let the foam

Blow through his crisp brown curls unconsciously,

And holding wind and wave in boy’s despite

Peered from his dripping seat across the wet and stormy night.

Till with the dawn he saw a burnished spear

Like a thin thread of gold against the sky,

And hoisted sail, and strained the creeking gear,

And bade the pilot head her lustily

Against the nor-west gale, and all day long

Held on his way, and marked the rowers’ time with measured song.

And when the faint Corinthian hills were red

Dropped anchor in a little sandy bay,

And with fresh boughs of olive crowned his head,

And brushed from cheek and throat the hoary spray,

And washed his limbs with oil, and from the hold

Brought out his linen tunic and his sandals brazen-soled.

And a rich robe stained with the fishes’ juice

Which of some swarthy trader he had bought

Upon the sunny quay at Syracuse,

And was with Tyrian broideries inwrought,

And by the questioning merchants made his way

Up through the soft and silver woods, and when the laboring day

Had spun its tangled web of crimson cloud,

Clomb the high hill, and with swift silent feet

Crept to the fane unnoticed by the crowd

Of busy priests, and from some dark retreat

Watched the young swains his frolic playmates bring

The firstling of their little flock, and the shy shepherd fling

The crackling salt upon the flame, or hang

His studded crook against the temple wall

To Her who keeps away the ravenous fang

Of the base wolf from homestead and from stall;

And then the clear-voiced maidens ’gan to sing,

And to the altar each man brought some goodly offering,

A beechen cup brimming with milky foam,

A fair cloth wrought with cunning imagery

Of hounds in chase, a waxen honeycomb

Dripping with oozy gold which scarce the bee

Had ceased from building, a black skin of oil

Meet for the wrestlers, a great boar the fierce and white-tusked spoil

Stolen from Artemis that jealous maid

To please Athena, and the dappled hide

Of a tall stag who in some mountain glade

Had met the shaft; and then the herald cried,

And from the pillared precinct one by one

Went the glad Greeks well pleased that they their simple vows had done.

And the old priest put out the waning fires

Save that one lamp whose restless ruby glowed

For ever in the cell, and the shrill lyres

Came fainter on the wind, as down the road

In joyous dance these country folk did pass,

And with stout hands the warder closed the gates of polished brass.

Long time he lay and hardly dared to breathe,

And heard the cadenced drip of spilt-out wine,

And the rose-petals falling from the wreath

As the night breezes wandered through the shrine,

And seemed to be in some entranced swoon

Till through the open roof above the full and brimming moon

Flooded with sheeny waves the marble floor,

When from his nook upleapt the venturous lad,

And flinging wide the cedar-carven door

Beheld an awful image saffron-clad

And armed for battle! the gaunt Griffin glared

From the huge helm, and the long lance of wreck and ruin flared

Like a red rod of flame, stony and steeled

The Gorgon’s head its leaden eyeballs rolled,

And writhed its snaky horrors through the shield,

And gaped aghast with bloodless lips and cold

In passion impotent, while with blind gaze

The blinking owl between the feet hooted in shrill amaze.

The lonely fisher as he trimmed his lamp

Far out at sea off Sunium, or cast

The net for tunnies, heard a brazen tramp

Of horses smite the waves, and a wild blast

Divide the folded curtains of the night,

And knelt upon the little poop, and prayed in holy fright.

And guilty lovers in their venery

Forgat a little while their stolen sweets,

Deeming they heard dread Dian’s bitter cry;

And the grim watchmen on their lofty seats

Ran to their shields in haste precipitate,

Or strained black-bearded throats across the dusky parapet.

For round the temple rolled the clang of arms,

And the twelve Gods leapt up in marble fear,

And the air quaked with dissonant alarums

Till huge Poseidon shook his mighty spear,

And on the frieze the prancing horses neighed,

And the low tread of hurrying feet rang from the cavalcade.

Ready for death with parted lips he stood,

And well content at such a price to see

That calm wide brow, that terrible maidenhood.

The marvel of that pitiless chastity,

Ah! well content indeed, for never wight

Since Troy’s young shepherd prince had seen so wonderful a sight.

Ready for death he stood, but lo! the air

Grew silent, and the horses ceased to neigh,

And off his brow he tossed the clustering hair,

And from his limbs he threw the cloak away,

For whom would not such love make desperate,

And nigher came, and touched her throat, and with hands violate

Undid the cuirass, and the crocus gown,

And bared the breasts of polished ivory,

Till from the waist the peplos falling down

Left visible the secret mystery

Which no lover will Athena show,

The grand cool flanks, the crescent thighs, the bossy hills of snow.

Those who have never known a lover’s sin

Let them not read my ditty, it will be

To their dull ears so musicless and thin

That they will have no joy of it, but ye

To whose wan cheeks now creeps the lingering smile,

Ye who have learned who Eros is—O listen yet a-while.

A little space he let his greedy eyes

Rest on the burnished image, till mere sight

Half swooned for surfeit of such luxuries,

And then his lips in hungering delight

Fed on her lips, and round the towered neck

He flung his arms, nor cared at all his passion’s will to check.

Never I ween did lover hold such tryst,

For all night long he murmured honeyed word,

And saw her sweet unravished limbs, and kissed

Her pale and argent body undisturbed,

And paddled with the polished throat, and pressed

His hot and beating heart upon her chill and icy breast.

It was as if Numidian javelins

Pierced through and through his wild and whirling brain,

And his nerves thrilled like throbbing violins

In exquisite pulsation, and the pain

Was such sweet anguish that he never drew

His lips from hers till overhead the lark of warning flew.

They who have never seen the daylight peer

Into a darkened room, and drawn the curtain,

And with dull eyes and wearied from some dear

And worshipped body risen, they for certain

Will never know of what I try to sing,

How long the last kiss was, how fond and late his lingering.

The moon was girdled with a crystal rim,

The sign which shipmen say is ominous

Of wrath in heaven, the wan stars were dim

And the low lightening cast was tremulous

With the faint fluttering wings of flying dawn,

Ere from the silent sombre shrine this lover had withdrawn.

Down the steep rock with hurried feet and fast

Clomb the brave lad, and reached the cave of Pan,

And heard the goat-foot snoring as he passed,

And leapt upon a grassy knoll and ran

Like a young fawn unto an olive wood

Which in a shady valley by the well-built city stood.

And sought a little stream, which well he knew,

For oftentimes with boyish careless shout

The green and crested grebe he would pursue,

Or snare in woven net the silver trout,

And down amid the startled reeds he lay

Panting in breathless sweet affright, and waited for the day.

On the green bank he lay, and let one hand

Dip in the cool dark eddies listlessly,

And soon the breath of morning came and fanned

His hot flushed cheeks, or lifted wantonly

The tangled curls from off his forehead, while

He on the running water gazed with strange and secret smile.

And soon the shepherd in rough woollen cloak

With his long crook undid the wattled cotes,

And from the stack a thin blue wreath of smoke

Curled through the air across the ripening oats,

And on the hill the yellow house-dog bayed

As through the crisp and rustling fern the heavy cattle strayed.

And when the light-foot mower went a-field

Across the meadows laced with threaded dew,

And the sheep bleated on the misty weald,

And from its nest the wakening corn-crake flew,

Some woodmen saw him lying by the stream

And marvelled much that any lad so beautiful could seem,

Nor deemed him born of mortals, and one said,

“It is young Hylas, that false runaway

Who with a Naiad now would make his bed

Forgetting Herakles,” but others, “Nay,

It is Narcissus, his own paramour,

Those are the fond and crimson lips no woman can allure.”

And when they nearer cane a third one cried,

“It is young Dionysos who has hid

His spear and fawnskin by the river side

Weary of hunting with the Bassarid,

And wise indeed were we away to fly,

They live not long who on the gods immortal come to spy.”

So turned they back, and feared to look behind,

And told the timid swain how they had seen

Amid the reeds some woodland God reclined,

And no man dared to cross the open green,

And on that day no olive-tree was slain,

Nor rushes cut, but all deserted was the fair domain.

Save when the neat-herd’s lad, his empty pail

Well slung upon his back, with leap and bound

Raced on the other side, and stopped to hail

Hoping that he some comrade new had found,

And gat no answer, and then half afraid

Passed on his simple way, or down the still and silent glade.

A little girl ran laughing from the farm

Not thinking of love’s secret mysteries,

And when she saw the white and gleaming arm

And all his manlihood, with longing eyes

Whose passion mocked her sweet virginity

Watched him a-while, and then stole back sadly and wearily.

Far off he heard the city’s hum and noise,

And now and then the shriller laughter where

The passionate purity of brown-limbed boys

Wrestled or raced in the clear healthful air,

And now and then a little tinkling bell

As the shorn wether led the sheep down to the mossy well.

Through the gray willows danced the fretful gnat,

The grasshopper chirped idly from the tree,

In sleek and oily coat the water-rat

Breasting the little ripples manfully

Made for the wild-duck’s nest, from bough to bough

Hopped the shy finch, and the huge tortoise crept across the slough.

On the faint wind floated the silky seeds,

As the bright scythe swept through the waving grass,

The ousel-cock splashed circles in the reeds

And flecked with silver whorls the forest’s glass,

Which scarce had caught again its imagery

Ere from its bed the dusky tench leapt at the dragon-fly.

But little care had he for anything

Though up and down the beech the squirrel played,

And from the copse the linnet ’gan to sing

To her brown mate her sweetest serenade,

Ah! little care indeed, for he had seen

The breasts of Pallas and the naked wonder of the Queen.

But when the herdsman called his straggling goats

With whistling pipe across the rocky road,

And the shard-beetle with its trumpet-notes

Boomed through the darkening woods, and seemed to bode

Of coming storm, and the belated crane

Passed homeward like a shadow, and the dull big drops of rain

Fell on the pattering fig-leaves, up he rose,

And from the gloomy forest went his way

Past sombre homestead and wet orchard-close,

And came at last unto a little quay,

And called his mates a-board, and took his seat

On the high poop, and pushed from land, and loosed the dripping sheet,

And steered across the bay, and when nine suns

Passed down the long and laddered way of gold,

And nine pale moons had breathed their orisons

To the chaste stars their confessors, or told

Their dearest secret to the downy moth

That will not fly at noonday, through the foam and surging froth

Came a great owl with yellow sulphurous eyes

And lit upon the ship, whose timbers creaked

As though the lading of three argosies

Were in the hold, and flopped its wings, and shrieked,

And darkness straightway stole across the deep,

Sheathed was Orion’s sword, dread Mars himself fled down the steep,

And the moon hid behind a tawny mask

Of drifting cloud, and from the ocean’s marge

Rose the red plume, the huge and horned casque,

The seven cubit spear, the brazen targe!

And clad in bright and burnished panoply

Athena strode across the stretch of sick and shivering sea!

To the dull sailors’ sight her loosened locks

Seemed like the jagged storm-rack, and her feet

Only the spume that floats on hidden rocks,

And marking how the rising waters beat

Against the rolling ship, the pilot cried

To the young helmsman at the stern to luff to windward side.

But he, the over-bold adulterer,

A dear profaner of great mysteries,

An ardent amorous idolater,

When he beheld those grand relentless eyes

Laughed loud for joy, and crying out “I come”

Leapt from the lofty poop into the chill and churning foam.

Then fell from the high heaven one bright star,

One dancer left the circling galaxy,

And back to Athens on her clattering car

In all the pride of venged divinity

Pale Pallas swept with shrill and steely clank,

And a few gurgling bubbles rose where her boy lover sank.

And the mast shuddered as the gaunt owl flew,

With mocking hoots after the wrathful Queen,

And the old pilot bade the trembling crew

Hoist the big sail, and told how he had seen

Close to the stern a dim and giant form,

And like a dripping swallow the stout ship dashed through the storm.

And no man dared to speak of Charmides

Deeming that he some evil thing had wrought,

And when they reached the strait Symplegades

They beached their galley on the shore, and sought

The toll-gate of the city hastily,

And in the market showed their brown and pictured pottery.


But some good Triton-god had ruth, and bare

The boy’s drowned body back to Grecian land,

And mermaids combed his dank and dripping hair

And smoothed his brow, and loosed his clinching hand,

Some brought sweet spices from far Araby,

And others made the halcyon sing her softest lullaby.

And when he neared his old Athenian home,

A mighty billow rose up suddenly

Upon whose oily back the clotted foam

Lay diapered in some strange fantasy,

And clasping him unto its glassy breast,

Swept landward, like a white-maned Steed upon a venturous quest!

Now where Colonos leans unto the sea

There lies a long and level stretch of lawn,

The rabbit knows it, and the mountain bee

For it deserts Hymettus, and the Faun

Is not afraid, for never through the day

Comes a cry ruder than the shout of shepherd lads at play.

But often from the thorny labyrinth

And tangled branches of the circling wood

The stealthy hunter sees young Hyacinth

Hurling the polished disk, and draws his hood

Over his guilty gaze, and creeps away,

Nor dares to wind his horn, or—else at the first break of day

The Dryads come and throw the leathern ball

Along the reedy shore, and circumvent

Some goat-eared Pan to be their seneschal

For fear of bold Poseidon’s ravishment,

And loose their girdles, with shy timorous eyes,

Lest from the surf his azure arms and purple beard should rise.

On this side and on that a rocky cave,

Hung with yellow-bell’d laburnum, stands,

Smooth is the beach, save where some ebbing wave

Leaves its faint outline etched upon the sands,

As though it feared to be too soon forgot

By the green rush, its playfellow—and yet, it is a spot

So small, that the inconstant butterfly

Could steal the hoarded honey from each flower

Ere it was noon, and still not satisfy

Its over-greedy love—within an hour

A sailor boy, were he but rude enow

To land and pluck a garland for his galley’s painted prow,

Would almost leave the little meadow bare,

For it knows nothing of great pageantry,

Only a few narcissi here and there

Stand separate in sweet austerity,

Dotting the unmown grass with silver stars,

And here aid there a daffodil waves tiny scimetars.

Hither the billow brought him, and was glad

Of such dear servitude, and where the land

Was virgin of all waters laid the lad

Upon the golden margent of the strand,

And like a lingering lover oft returned

To kiss those pallid limbs which once with intense fire burned,

Ere the wet seas had quenched that holocaust,

That self-fed flame, that passionate lustihead,

Ere grisly death with chill and nipping frost

Had withered up those lilies white and red

Which, while the boy would through the forest range,

Answered each other in a sweet antiphonal counter-change.

And when at dawn the wood-nymphs, hand-in-hand,

Threaded the bosky dell, their satyr spied

The boy’s pale body stretched upon the sand,

And feared Poseidon’s treachery, and cried,

And like bright sunbeams flitting through a glade,

Each startled Dryad sought some safe and leafy ambuscade.

Save one white girl, who deemed it would not be

So dread a thing to feel a sea-god’s arms

Crushing her breasts in amorous tyranny,

And longed to listen to those subtle charms

Insidious lovers weave when they would win

Some fenced fortress, and stole back again, nor thought it sin

To yield her treasure unto one so fair,

And lay beside him, thirsty with love’s drouth,

Called him soft names, played with his tangled hair,

And with hot lips made havoc of his mouth

Afraid he might not wake, and then afraid

Lest he might wake too soon, fled back, and then, fond renegade,

Returned to fresh assault, and all day long

Sat at his side, and laughed at her new toy,

And held his hand, and sang her sweetest song,

Then frowned to see how froward was the boy

Who would not with her maidenhood entwine,

Nor knew that three days since his eyes had looked on Proserpine,

Nor knew what sacrilege his lips had done,

But said, “He will awake, I know him well,

He will awake at evening when the sun

Hangs his red shield on Corinth’s citadel,

This sleep is but a cruel treachery

To make me love him more, and in some cavern of the sea

“Deeper than ever falls the fisher’s line

Already a huge Triton blows his horn,

And weaves a garland from the crystalline

And drifting ocean-tendrils to adorn

The emerald pillars of our bridal bed,

For sphered in foaming silver, and with coral-crowned head.

“We two will sit upon a throne of pearl,

And a blue wave will be our canopy,

And at our feet the water-snakes will curl

In all their amethystine panoply

Of diamonded man, and we will mark

The mullets swimming by the mast of some storm-foundered bark,

“Vermilion-finned with eyes of bossy gold

Like flakes of crimson light, and the great deep

His glassy-portaled chamber will unfold,

And we will see the painted dolphins sleep

Cradled by murmuring halcyons on the rocks

Where Proteus in quaint suit of green pastures his monstrous flocks.

“And tremulous opal hued anemones

Will wave their purple fringes where we tread

Upon the mirrored floor, and argosies

Of fishes flecked with tawny scales will thread

The drifting cordage of the shattered wreck,

And honey-colored amber beads our twining limbs will deck.”

But when that baffled Lord of War the Sun

With gaudy pennon flying passed away

Into his brazen House, and one by one

The little yellow stars began to stray

Across the field of heaven, ah! then indeed

She feared his lips upon her lips would never care to feed,

And cried, “Awake, already the pale moon

Washes the trees with silver, and the wave

Creeps gray and chilly up this sandy dune,

The croaking frogs are out, and from the cave

The night-jar shrieks, the fluttering bats repass,

And the brown stoat with hollow flanks creeps through the dusky grass.

“Nay, though thou art a God, be not so coy,

For in yon stream there is a little reed

That often whispers how a lovely boy

Lay with her once upon a grassy mead,

Who when his cruel pleasure he had done

Spread wings of rustling gold and soared aloft into the sun.

“Be not so coy, the laurel trembles still

With great Apollo’s kisses, and the fir

Whose clustering sisters fringe the sea-ward hill

Hath many a tale of that bold ravisher

Whom men call Boreas, and I have seen

The mocking eyes of Hermes through the poplar’s silvery sheen.

“Even the jealous Naiads call me fair,

And every morn a young and ruddy swain

Wooes me with apples and with locks of hair,

And seeks to soothe my virginal disdain

By all the gifts the gentle wood-nymphs love;

But yesterday he brought to me an iris-plumaged dove

“With little crimson feet, which with its store

Of seven spotted eggs the cruel lad

Had stolen from the lofty sycamore

At daybreak when her amorous comrade had

Flown off in search of berried juniper

Which most they love; the fretful wasp, that earliest vintager

“Of the blue grapes, hath not persistency

So constant as this simple shepherd-boy

For my poor lips, his joyous purity

And laughing sunny eyes might well decoy

A Dryad from her oath to Artemis;

For very beautiful is he, his mouth was made to kiss.

“His argent forehead, like a rising moon

Over the dusky hills of meeting brows,

Is crescent shaped, the hot and Tyrian noon

Leads from the myrtle-grove no goodlier spouse

For Cytheraea, the first silky down

Fringes his blushing cheeks, and his young limbs are strong and brown:

“And he is rich, and fat and fleecy herds

Of bleating sheep upon his meadows lie,

And many an earthen bowl of yellow curds

Is in his homestead for the thievish fly

To swim and drown in, the pink clover mead

Keeps its sweet store for him, and he can pipe on oaten reed.

“And yet I love him not, it was for thee

I kept my love, I knew that thou would’st come

To rid me of this pallid chastity;

Thou fairest flower of the flowerless foam

Of all the wide Aegean, brightest star

Of ocean’s azure heavens where the mirrored planets are!

“I knew that thou would’st come, for when at first

The dry wood burgeoned, and the sap of Spring

Swelled in my green and tender bark or burst

To myriad multitudinous blossoming

Which mocked the midnight with its mimic moons

That did not dread the dawn, and first the thrushes’ rapturous tunes

“Startled the squirrel from its granary,

And cuckoo flowers fringed the narrow lane,

Through my young leaves a sensuous ecstasy

Crept like new wine, and every mossy vein

Throbbed with the fitful pulse of amorous blood,

And the wild winds of passion shook my slim stem’s maidenhood.

“The trooping fawns at evening came and laid

Their cool black noses on my lowest boughs

And on my topmost branch the blackbird made

A little nest of grasses for his spouse,

And now and then a twittering wren would light

On a thin twig which hardly bare the weight of such delight.

“I was the Attic shepherd’s trysting place,

Beneath my shadow Amaryllis lay,

And round my trunk would laughing Daphnis chase

The timorous girl, till tired out with play

She felt his hot breath stir her tangled hair,

And turned, and looked, and fled no more from such delightful snare.

“Then come away unto my ambuscade

Where clustering woodbine weaves a canopy

For amorous pleasaunce, and the rustling shade

Of Paphian myrtles seems to sanctify

The dearest rites of love, there in the cool

And green recesses of its furthest depth there is a pool,

“The ouzel’s haunt, the wild bee’s pasturage;

For round its rim great creamy lilies float

Through their flat leaves in verdant anchorage,

Each cup a white-sailed golden-laden boat

Steered by a dragon-fly—be not afraid

To leave this wan and wave-kissed shore, surely the place were made

“For lovers such as we, the Cyprian Queen,

One arm around her boyish paramour,

Strays often there at eve, and I have seen

The moon strip off her misty vestiture

For young Endymion’s eyes, be not afraid,

The panther feet of Dian never tread that secret glade.

“Nay, if thou wil’st, back to the beating brine,

Back to the boisterous billow let us go,

And all day beneath the hyaline

Huge vault of Neptune’s watery portico,

And watch the purple monsters of the deep

Sport in ungainly play, and from his lair keen Xiphias leap.

“For if my mistress find me lying here

She will not ruth or gentle pity show,

But lay her boar-spear down, and with austere

Relentless fingers string the cornel bow,

And draw the feathered notch against her breast,

And loose the arched cord, ay, even now upon the quest

“I hear her hurrying feet—awake, awake,

Thou laggard in love’s battle! once at least

Let me drink deep of passion’s wine, and slake

My parched being with the nectarous feast

Which even Gods affect! O come Love come,

Still we have time to reach the cavern of thine azure home.”

Scarce had she spoken when the shuddering trees

Shook, and the leaves divided, and the air

Grew conscious of a God, and the gray seas

Crawled backward, and a long and dismal blare

Blew from some tasseled horn, a sleuth-hound bayed

And like a flame a barbed reed flew whizzing down the glade.

And where the little flowers of her breast

Just brake in to their milky blossoming,

This murderous paramour, this unbidden guest,

Pierced and struck deep in horrid chambering,

And plowed a bloody furrow with its dart,

And dug a long red road, and cleft with winged death her heart.

Sobbing her life out with a bitter cry

On the boy’s body fell the Dryad maid,

Sobbing for incomplete virginity,

And raptures unenjoyed, and pleasures dead,

And all the pain of things unsatisfied,

And the bright drops of crimson youth crept down her throbbing side.

Ah! pitiful it was to hear her moan,

And very pitiful to see her die

Ere she had yielded up her sweets, or known

The joy of passion, that dread mystery

Which not to know is not to live at all,

And yet to know is to be held in death’s most deadly thrall.

But as it hapt the Queen of Cythere,

Who with Adonis all night long had lain

Within some shepherd’s hut in Arcady,

On team of silver doves and gilded wane

Was journeying Paphos-ward, high up afar

From mortal ken between the mountains and the morning star,

And when low down she spied the hapless pair,

And heard the Oread’s faint despairing cry,

Whose cadence seemed to play upon the air

As though it were a viol, hastily

She bade her pigeons fold each straining plume,

And dropt to earth, and reached the strand, and saw their dolorous doom.

For as a gardener turning back his head

To catch the last notes of the linnet, mows

With careless scythe too near some flower bed,

And cuts the thorny pillar of the rose,

And with the flower’s loosened loveliness

Strews the brown mold, or as some shepherd lad in wantonness

Driving his little flock along the mead

Treads down two daffodils which side by side

Have lured the lady-bird with yellow brede

And made the gaudy moth forget its pride,

Treads down their brimming golden chalices

Under light feet which were not made for such rude ravages,

Or as a schoolboy tired of his book

Flings himself down upon the reedy grass

And plucks two water-lilies from the brook,

And for a time forgets the hour glass,

Then wearies of their sweets, and goes his way,

And lets the hot sun kill them, even so these lovers lay,

And Venus cried, “It is dread Artemis

Whose bitter hand hath wrought this cruelty,

Or else that mightier mayde whose care it is

To guard her strong and stainless majesty

Upon the hill Athenian—alas!

That they who loved so well unloved into Death’s house should pass.”

So with soft hands she laid the boy and girl

In the great golden waggon tenderly,

Her white throat whiter than a moony pearl

Just threaded with a blue vein’s tapestry

Had not yet ceased to throb, and still her breast

Swayed like a wind-stirred lily in ambiguous unrest.

And then each pigeon spread its milky van,

The bright car soared into the dawning sky

And like a cloud the aerial caravan

Passed over the Aegean silently,

Till the faint air was troubled with the song

From the wan mouths that call on bleeding Thammuz all night long.

But when the doves had reached their wonted goal

Where the wide stair of orbed marble dips

Its snows into the sea, her fluttering soul

Just shook the trembling petals of her lips

And passed into the void, and Venus knew

That one fair maid the less would walk amid her retinue,

And bade her servants carve a cedar chest

With all the wonder of this history,

Within whose scented womb their limbs should rest

Where olive-trees make tender the blue sky

On the low hills of Paphos, and the fawn

Pipes in the noonday, and the nightingale sings on till dawn.

Nor failed they to obey her hest, and ere

The morning bee had stung the daffodil

With tiny fretful spear, or from its lair

The waking stag had leapt across the rill

And roused the ousel, or the lizard crept

Athwart the sunny rock, beneath the grass their bodies slept.

And when day brake, within that silver shrine

Fed by the flames of cressets tremulous,

Queen Venus knelt and prayed to Proserpine

That she whose beauty made Death amorous

Should beg a guerdon from her pallid Lord,

And let desire pass across dread Charon’s icy ford.


In melancholy moonless Acheron,

Far from the goodly earth and joyous day,

Where no spring ever buds, nor ripening sun

Weighs down the apple trees, nor flowery May

Checkers with chestnut blooms the grassy floor,

Where thrushes never sing, and piping linnets mate no more,

There by a dim and dark Lethaean well,

Young Charmides was lying wearily

He plucked the blossoms from the asphodel,

And with its little rifled treasury

Strewed the dull waters of the dusky stream,

And watched the white stars founder, and the land was like a dream.

When as he gazed into the watery glass

And through his brown hair’s curly tangles scanned

His own wan face, a shadow seemed to pass

Across the mirror, and a little hand

Stole into his, and warm lips timidly

Brushed his pale cheeks, and breathed their secret forth into a sigh.

Then turned he around his weary eyes and saw,

And ever nigher still their faces came,

And nigher ever did their young mouths draw

Until they seemed one perfect rose of flame,

And longing arms around her neck he cast,

And felt her throbbing bosom, and his breath came hot and fast,

And all his hoarded sweets were hers to kiss,

And all her maidenhood was his to slay,

And limb to limb in long and rapturous bliss

Their passion waxed and waned—O why essay

To pipe again of love too venturous reed!

Enough, enough that Eros laughed upon that flowerless mead,

Too venturous poesy O why essay

To pipe again of passion! fold thy wings

O’er daring Icarus and bid thy lay

Sleep hidden in the lyre’s silent strings,

Till thou hast found the old Castilian rill,

Or from the Lesbian waters plucked drowned Sappho’s golden quill!

Enough, enough that he whose life had been

A fiery pulse of sin, a splendid shame,

Could in the loveless land of Hades glean

One scorching harvest from those fields of flame

Where passion walks with naked unshod feet

And is not wounded—ah! enough that once their lips could meet

In that wild throb when all existences

Seem narrowed to one single ecstasy

Which dies through its own sweetness and the stress

Of too much pleasure, ere Persephone

Had made them serve her by the ebon throne

Of the pale God who in the fields of Enna loosed her zone.

This is the longest poem in the volume [Poems, 1881] — one hundred and eleven stanzas of six lines. It is divided into three parts. E. C. Stedman in Victorian Poets, p. 467, mentions it as an example of Wilde's "sensuous pseudo-classicism," but adds that "his scholarship and cleverness are evident, as well as a native poetic gift."

Asked if Charmides was his favourite poem, the author is said to have replied: "Yes, that is my favourite poem. I think it my best. It is the most perfect and finished."

. . . tells how Charmides obtained access into the sacred secret temple of Minerva, and the terrible vengeance the haughty virgin goddess took upon him, and the maid who loved him. This poem abounds with both the merits and the faults of Mr. Oscar Wilde's style — it is classical, sad, voluptuous, and full of passages of the most exquisitely musical word painting ; but it is cloying from its very sweetness — the elaboration of its details makes it over luscious. It is no mere trick to be able to write thus ; youth is apt to be exuberant, age will mellow down his muse, and then Mr. Wilde's undoubted genius will produce something finer even than Charmides. (Walter Hamilton, The Esthetic Movement in England, 3rd edition, 1882, p. 105.)

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The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005