(Written by a Stanford student–LH.)
[I may as well begin this blog entry with a two little things that occurred to me in relation to the Wilde poems–they have no direct relation to the historical backdrop against which Oscar Wilde composed his verses, but are interesting coincidences/tangents nevertheless. The first is a connection between Wilde’s fascination with the idea of automata, as expressed in The Harlot’s House and perhaps other works; it’s interesting that he also wrote a poem entitled The New Helen and the film Metropolis (by Fritz Lang) features a female android named “Hel” who is seen as the second coming of Helen, the perfect (or perfectly adaptable) woman. Just something that I found somewhat interesting. The second tidbit involves the recurring theme of yellowness that permeates his poetic oeuvre. It’s known that this is due to the yellow spines of the so-called decadent French novels, but it’s oddly appropriate to the context of Chinese censorship law, because in legalese and in the common vernacular as well, pornographic materials (and other things/acts otherwise associated with decadent moral dissolution) are referred to as “yellow items”.]
Two poem-scapes (a term I use, in this case, to refer to the mental image conjured up upon reading the text of the relevant poem) that imprinted themselves especially vividly upon my mind were derived from Impressions du Matin and La Dame Jaune. Curiously, they are those English-language poems that have been given French titles, perhaps indicating a sort of preference, homage, or voluntary association. The themes of the two poems (urban life at street-level and sensuous female beauty) are distinctly Baudelairean; this gives some sort of instinctive explanation as to why Wilde would have incorporated the use of the french language in titling poems that were inspired by those of the eminent French poet.
Though the imagery of both poems are equally rich in nature and dense in content, two more different scenes could not be imagined. Impressions du Matin deals with the public realm of a city street-corner, whereas La Dame Jaune is an intimate glimpse within a lady’s private boudoir. Hence, the moods evoked by each poem drastically diverge.
Impressions du Matin is a skilled rendition of a classic urban scenario: the dark night giving away to dawn, and the hustle-bustle of the urban population bestirring itself, leaving peaceful slumber behind. Wilde uses a synesthetic trope to convey this transition; night is represented by a “nocturne of blue and gold”, emanating composure and gentle repose, whereas the dawn arrives with a “Harmony in grey”, with a “yellow fog” creeping down the river. What I find interesting in this description is that the coming of the day is not announced with unambiguous pleasure, as it is in conventional depictions of such a scene. There is something rather melancholy about the way in which the blanket of night falls away to give way to day, even though this sad interlude soon dissolves to give way to brightness and birdsong. However, the ending of the poem does not altogether release the reader into the comfort of daily routines, for our attention is drawn to the lone figure of a pale, frail, woman, with “lips of flame and heart of stone”, who lingers under a gas-lamp that remains lit past its due hour. This mysterious woman arouses an acute sympathy and curiosity in the reader. Why is her heart so heavy, when the rest of world is breaking into lively chatter? Has she been lingering in the streets for the entire night? And why the flame-red lips–does she walk the moonlit streets to oblige the night-stalker’s desires? Does she nurse a secret hurt? Like the daylight, we long to lean down and “[kiss] her wan hair”, to ease her pain–but of course we cannot, and are merely left with questions and sadness.
La Dame Jaune is exempt altogether from this sort of dew-soaked heavy-heartedness. It is a lush portrait of a sensual scene: a woman is conducting her evening toilette in the privacy of her bedroom, removing her amber trinkets and loosening her golden gown. It does not matter that she is not named, such scenes are eternal and such a lady is quite archetypal. It suffices that she is La Dame Jaune; the reader is likely to be more enchanted by this appellation than if the lady had an earthly name. The unspecified identity of this beautiful vision means that the reader can thrust oneself into the point of view occupied by the speaker of the poem, and admire with equal intimacy the luscious honey of the lady’s hair, lovingly comparing each strand to the “gold thread within a Venice glass”. There is no need to be the voyeur peeking in through the keyhole, at the lady and her lover: it is easy to inhabit the lover himself, caressing the yellow lady with our own eyes.