(Written by a Stanford student–MP.)
The first thing that one notices about Oscar Wilde’s poem “Hélas!” is, quite naturally, the title. “Hélas” is a French exclamation that equates to the English “alas!” It seems to have been not uncommon for Wilde to give French titles to his poems; others include “Impression: Le Réveillon” and “La Dame Jaune.” “Hélas” in particular, an expression of some discontent, indicates that the poem will discuss some kind of unhappiness. The speaker makes another French reference when the speaker mentions “virelay,” a medieval French verse and song form usually consisting of stanzas with two rhymes each in which the last line of one stanza rhymes with the first line of the next. This allusion is thus also a reference to the past, a kind of reference that is made several times in the poem, in such phrases as “[m]ine ancient wisdom” and in the mention of a lute, an instrument fairly popular through the 1700s, after which it largely fell out of use. This preoccupation with the past, especially the ancient past and the medieval past, suggests perhaps that the speaker has an unwillingness to look to the present.
Another thread that runs through the poem is that of music, most notably present in the speaker’s current situation as opposed to that of “ancient wisdom, and austere control.” The speaker describes the soul having become a “stringed lute on which all winds can play.” Later, the reference to life as a “twice-written scroll,” scribbled over with “songs for pipe and virelay” is a musical one, since “pipe” can refer to a musical instrument and virelays could be in song form. Finally, the speaker describes once having been able to strike “one clear chord” from life’s dissonance, a gesture that is musical insofar as being sound-based, but with less musical movement than is associated with lute- or pipe-playing.
These three threads, those of French terminology, the past, and music, are in some tension with each other. Especially given Wilde’s other writings and his lifelong interest in and appreciation of the French culture of his day, the use of French words and the musical references indicate a connection to the Decadent movement, which flourished in France and celebrated music and art in general. However, the motif of the past, and especially the speaker’s unwillingness to focus on the present, as is suggested by this motif, is less of a Decadent nature. A large part of the Decadent movement was the idea that we only have so much time to live, and so we must always be present in every moment, even simply for its own sake. This tension can be reconciled, perhaps, by the fact that the speaker is bemoaning the loss of a past when the speaker had more control and more clarity. Though the musical and French references indicate a Decadent nature, they might do so unwillingly. The speaker may have become part of the Decadent culture, but in such a way that the speaker is aware of a loss that this acculturation has brought in terms of “wisdom,” “control,” and the “soul’s inheritance.” These references to the past are thus the product of a desire to escape the search for every moment’s significance, despite the speaker’s apparent difficulty escaping other characteristics of Decadence.