Collected Poems, by Oscar Wilde


Sonnet to Liberty

Not that I love thy children, whose dull eyes

See nothing save their own unlovely woe,

Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know—

But that the roar of thy Democracies,

Thy reigns of Terror, thy great Anarchies,

Mirror my wildest passions like the sea,

And give my rage a brother-! Liberty!

For his sake only do thy dissonant cries

Delight my discreet soul, else might all kings

By bloody knout or treacherous cannonades

Rob nations of their rights inviolate

And I remain unmoved—and yet, and yet,

These Christs that die upon the barricades,

God knows it I am with them, in some things.

An interviewer in San Francisco (Daily Examiner, March 27, 1882) asked Wilde, "Does the Sonnet to Liberty voice your political creed?"

Wilde replied : " You mean the sonnet beginning :

"Not that I love thy children, whose dull eyes
See nothing save their own unlovely woe,
Whose minds know nothing, nothing care to know,—

"No ; that is not my political creed. I wrote that when I was younger. Perhaps something of the fire of youth prompted it."

Wilde's recital of the lines was " surprisingly impressive and pleasing, a perfect modulation and an earnest, almost pathetic, tone giving the recital deep interest."

Ave Imperatrix

Set in this stormy Northern sea,

Queen of these restless fields of tide,

England! what shall men say of thee,

Before whose feet the worlds divide?

The earth, a brittle globe of glass,

Lies in the hollow of thy hand,

And through its heart of crystal pass,

Like shadows through a twilight land,

The spears of crimson-suited war,

The long white-crested waves of fight,

And all the deadly fires which are

The torches of the lords of Night.

The yellow leopards, strained and lean,

The treacherous Russian knows so well,

With gaping blackened jaws are seen

Leap through the hail of screaming shell.

The strong sea-lion of England’s wars

Hath left his sapphire cave of sea,

To battle with the storm that mars

The star of England’s chivalry.

The brazen-throated clarion blows

Across the Pathan’s reedy fen,

And the high steeps of Indian snows

Shake to the tread of armed men.

And many an Afghan chief, who lies

Beneath his cool pomegranate-trees,

Clutches his sword in fierce surmise

When on the mountain-side he sees

The fleet-foot Marri scout, who comes

To tell how he hath heard afar

The measured roll of English drums

Beat at the gates of Kandahar.

For southern wind and east wind meet

Where, girt and crowned by sword and fire,

England with bare and bloody feet

Climbs the steep road of wide empire.

O lonely Himalayan height,

Gray pillar of the Indian sky,

Where saw’st thou last in clanging fight,

Our winged dogs of Victory?

The almond groves of Samarcand,

Bokhara, where red lilies blow,

And Oxus, by whose yellow sand

The grave white-turbaned merchants go:

And on from thence to Ispahan,

The gilded garden of the sun,

Whence the long dusty caravan

Brings cedar and vermilion;

And that dread city of Cabool

Set at the mountain’s scarped feet,

Whose marble tanks are ever full

With water for the noon-day heat:

Where through the narrow straight Bazaar

A little maid Circassian

Is led, a present from the Czar

Unto some old and bearded khan—

Here have our wild war-eagles flown,

And flapped wide wings in fiery fight;

But the sad dove, that sits alone

In England—she hath no delight.

In vain the laughing girl will lean

To greet her love with love-lit eyes:

Down in some treacherous black ravine,

Clutching his flag, the dead boy lies.

And many a moon and sun will see

The lingering wistful children wait

To climb upon their father’s knee;

And in each house made desolate

Pale women who have lost their lord

Will kiss the relics of the slain—

Some tarnished epaulet—some sword—

Poor toys to soothe such anguished pain.

For not in quiet English fields

Are these, our brothers, laid to rest.

Where we might deck their broken shields

With all the flowers the dead love best.

For some are by the Delhi walls,

And many in the Afghan land,

And many where the Ganges falls

Through seven mouths of shifting sand.

And some in Russian waters lie,

And others in the seas which are

The portals to the East, or by

The wind-swept heights of Trafalgar.

O wandering graves! O restless sleep!

O silence of the sunless day!

O still ravine! O stormy deep!

Give up your prey! Give up your prey!

And thou whose wounds are never healed,

Whose weary race is never won,

O Cromwell’s England! must thou yield

For every inch of ground a son?

Go! crown with thorns thy gold-crowned head,

Change thy glad song to song of pain;

Wind and wild wave have got thy dead,

And will not yield them back again.

Wave and wild wind and foreign shore

Possess the flower of English land—

Lips that thy lips shall kiss no more,

Hands that shall never clasp thy hand.

What profit now that we have bound

The whole round world with net of gold,

If hidden in our heart is found

The care that groweth never old?

What profit that our galleys ride,

Pine-forest-like, on every main?

Ruin and wreck are at our side,

Grim warders of the House of pain.

Where are the brave, the strong, the fleet

Where is our English chivalry?

Wild grasses are their burial-sheet,

And sobbing waves their threnody.

O loved ones lying far away,

What word of love can dead lips send!

O wasted dust! O senseless clay!

Is this the end! is this the end!

Peace, peace! we wrong the noble dead

To vex their solemn slumber so:

Though childless, and with thorn-crowned head,

Up the steep road must England go,

Yet when this fiery web is spun,

Her watchmen shall decry from far

The young Republic like a sun

Rise from these crimson seas of war.

First published in The World, August 25, 1880.

Walter Hamilton (AEsthetic Movement in England, 1882, 3rd edition, p. 105) remarks:—

. . . the ideas expressed in Ave Imperatrix . . . show him to be a Republican, not of the noisy and blatant, but of the quiet and patient kind, content to wait till the general spread of democracy, and the absorption of governing power by the people, shall peacefully bring about the changes they desire, and remove the abuses of our present regime.

On its publication in America in Poems (Roberts Brothers), 1881, The New York Times commented on it in the following terms: —

. . . He has written an ode on England such as Tennyson has not and cannot. The Laureate perpetuates the traditions of his office by being conspicuously weak in subjects relating to the nation ... he is not capable of grasping the idea of Great Britain and her colonies as one living empire, and pouring out a majestic lament for her dead as this much-ridiculed "Maudle" has done. His [Tennyson's] sympathies are local and narrow. He is bitter and jealous, as only provincial Englishmen can be. . . . In Wilde England has a new poet, who, if not of the first order of power, is so true a poet underneath whatever eccentricity of conduct or cant of school that his further persecution in the press must be held contemptible. It will only be on a par with the infatuation some people have to vilify what is really best in their own country. Oscar Wilde need not have written but this one poem, "Ave Imperatrix," to win him respectful hearing wherever people exist who are responsive to what is noble in literature.

The Century (New York, November 1881, p. 153), in a review of Poems, said, "Ave Imperatrix ... is strong enough, simple enough, beautiful enough to delight an unsympathetic foreigner. How an Englishman can read it without a glow of pride and a sigh of sorrow is beyond comprehension. Mr. Wilde can comfort himself. Ave Imperatrix outweighs a hundred cartoons of Punch."

To Milton

Milton! I think thy spirit hath passed away

From these white cliffs, and high embattled-towers;

This gorgeous fiery-colored world of ours

Seems fallen into ashes dull and gray,

And the age changed unto a mimic play,

Wherein we waste our else too-crowded hours:

For all our pomp and pageantry and powers

We are but fit to delve the common clay,

Seeing this little isle on which we stand,

This England, this sea-lion of the sea,

By ignorant demagogues is held in fee,

Who love her not: Dear God! is this the land

Which bare a triple empire in her hand

When Cromwell spake the word Democracy!

Louis Napoleon

Eagle of Austerlitz! where were thy wings

When far away upon a barbarous strand,

In fight unequal, by an obscure hand,

Fell the last scion of thy brood of Kings!

Poor boy! thou wilt not flaunt thy cloak of red,

Nor ride in state through Paris in the van

Of thy returning legions, but instead

Thy mother France, free and republican,

Shall on thy dead and crownless forehead place

The better laurels of a soldier’s crown,

That not dishonored should thy soul go down

To tell the mighty Sire of thy race

That France hath kissed the mouth of Liberty,

And found it sweeter than his honeyed bees,

And that the giant wave Democracy

Breaks on the shores where Kings lay couched at ease.


On the Massacre of the Christians in Bulgaria.

Christ, dost Thou live indeed? or are Thy bones

Still straightened in their rock-hewn sepulchre?

And was Thy Rising only dreamed by her

Whose love of Thee for all her sin atones?

For here the air is horrid with men’s groans,

The priests who call upon Thy name are slain,

Dost Thou not hear the bitter wail of pain

From those whose children lie upon the stones?

Come down, O Son of God! incestuous gloom

Curtains the land, and through the starless night

Over Thy Cross the Crescent moon I see!

If Thou in very truth didst burst the tomb

Come down, O Son of Man! and show Thy might

Lest Mahomet be crowned instead of Thee!

The massacre referred to took place in May 1876, which would seem to date the sonnet to Wilde's second year at Oxford.

Quantum Mutata

There was a time in Europe long ago,

When no man died for freedom anywhere,

But England’s lion leaping from its lair

Laid hands on the oppressor! it was so

While England could a great Republic show.

Witness the men of Piedmont, chiefest care

Of Cromwell, when with impotent despair

The Pontiff in his painted portico

Trembled before our stern embassadors.

How comes it then that from such high estate

We have thus fallen, save that Luxury

With barren merchandise piles up the gate

Where nobler thoughts and deeds should enter by:

Else might we still be Milton’s heritors.

Libertatis Sacra Fames

Albeit nurtured in democracy,

And liking best that state republican

Where every man is Kinglike and no man

Is crowned above his fellows, yet I see

Spite of this modern fret for Liberty,

Better the rule of One, whom all obey,

Than to let clamorous demagogues betray

Our freedom with the kiss of anarchy.

Wherefore I love them not whose hands profane

Plant the red flag upon the piled-up street

For no right cause, beneath whose ignorant reign

Arts, Culture, Reverence, Honor, all things fade,

Save Treason and the dagger of her trade,

And Murder with his silent bloody feet.

First published in The World, November 10, 1889.


This mighty empire hath but feet of clay;

Of all its ancient chivalry and might

Our little island is forsaken quite:

Some enemy hath stolen its crown of bay,

And from its hills that voice hath passed away

Which spake of Freedom: O come out of it,

Come out of it, my Soul, thou art not fit

For this vile traffic-house, where day by day

Wisdom and reverence are sold at mart,

And the rude people rage with ignorant cries

Against an heritage of centuries.

It mars my calm: wherefore in dreams of Art

And loftiest culture I would stand apart,

Neither for God, nor for His enemies.

Last updated Thursday, October 8, 2015 at 15:21