Open Forum: Wilde’s Poetry

This is your place to share some more thoughts about Wilde’s poetry.  Feel free to add links, pictures, etc., too.

“Phèdre: To Sarah Bernhardt”     

Who was Sarah Bernhardt, and who or what was Phèdre? This poem illustrates Wilde’s connection to the Paris literary and cultural scene by alluding not only to Victorien Sardous popular melodrama dealing with a subject of classical mythology (Phaedra and Hippolytus), but to the famous actress who whom it is dedicated. Sarah Bernhardt was among a pantheon of powerhouse actresses Wilde admired and artistically stalked, and whom he coveted for his own plays. For instance, in 1890 he managed to convince Sarah Bernhardt, a superstar (along with Lillie Langtry, Ellen Terry, and a handful of other actresses whose personae and fashions Wilde loved), to play the title role of his only French-language play, Salome, in London.  (Some scholars even believe he wrote it in French just so that he could ask Bernhardt, who spoke no English, to act it.)  The play was banned before she could ever take the stage, but rehearsals were already under way. This poem stems from the time Wilde was not really famous yet (but Bernhardt was at the height of her fame–Sardou’s Phèdre became one of her signature roles) and may have represented an attempt to flatter and “woo” her.  Note the mix of classical and modern imagery in the poem–it seems to align Bernhardt with the Greeks and set her above the “common” modern world, making her, artistically speaking, an “ancient” aesthetic type.  And we all know how much Wilde valued the Greeks, so in Wilde’s mind, this is probably the highest compliment he could give Bernhardt. But similar to Baudelaire’s conception of Beauty, this revered Jewish woman/icon does not dwell in Christian heavens.  She’s aligned with the Greeks and has fled from boring  … Hell.  (See the last line.)

Hard to imagine a modern-day Sarah Bernhardt.  Maybe a cross between Glenn Close and Meryl Streep?  (Not quite though.  In her later years, Sarah Bernhardt sported a wooden leg.)  -petradt


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