Category Archives: Week 2 Reviews: Wilde’s Poetry and Short Fiction

Toward a Pater-ian Reading of “The Remarkable Rocket”

I would like, in the brief space consented me, to put forth a reading of “The Remarkable Rocket” based upon what was suggested to us earlier in the course about the affinity between Wilde’s ideas and those of the 19th century critic Walter Pater.

It will help to recall Pater’s peculiar theory of aesthetic experience, informed by his perhaps somewhat idiosyncratic empiricist commitments. For Pater, works of art produce powerful and unique sensations of pleasure in the beholder, as though the artwork itself contained in each and every atom some quotient of pleasure that was, as it were, shot in the direction of the beholder who, transfigured, receives that dose of pleasure as sense-data through his or her perceptual apparatus. Since, as Pater thought, this is, as a matter of fact, how art works its magic on us, it is natural enough to think, as he did, that art should strive to become, as he puts it, “a matter of pure perception.” One can see how, misunderstanding this idea and reducing it to mere hedonism, contemporary detractors of Pater’s found in him the sensibility of a wayward aesthete. Setting aside for a moment the validity of his ideas, however, I will try to offer a breathless overview of Wilde’s story “The Remarkable Rocket” around these roughly Pater-inspired lines.

It is amply clear in Wilde’s story that one of the persistent themes in it is, to put it as simply as possible, the way that things can be like other things, and, as would follow, the way that seemingly different things can elicit and provoke similar reactions and effects, at least, similar enough so as to warrant comparison in the first place, often for the sake of establishing distinction.

The examples are various and are scattered throughout the story –  “you are more beautiful than your picture,” “it’s quite clear that they love each other (…) as clear as crystal,” “(fireworks) are like the Aurora Borealis,” “the King’s garden is not the world,” “(romance) is like the moon,” “he actually burst into real tears, which flowed down his stick like rain-drops,” “the moon rose like a wonderful silver shield,” among others. Some of you may not be impressed by this selection of examples; after all, all literary writing is littered with similes and metaphorical language of all sorts. In this story, however, it seems clear to me they play not just a decorative or illustrative role but participate in the story’s chief concern.

To employ a metaphor is always to make up and break down a distinction (philosophers of language, in particular, have argued a great deal over what this distinction amounts to). It is, to put it crudely, both to put two things near one another, often surprising things, and to underscore the extent to which they are and will remain separate. Nonetheless, to see things as close enough, or to see them as warranting being brought closer, requires a kind of sympathetic eye to reality and to those things that are revealed to be less distant to others than they may at first seem.

Sympathy, needless to say, is an important part of Wilde’s story. Some of the characters seem to be lacking it; the one who most explicitly claims to possess it in spades, the titular Rocket, says of himself, “I have imagination, for I never think of things as they really are; I always think of them as being quite different.” This sort of thinking leads to a number of situations that are, for the reader, a source of some humor, such as when Rocket mishears and misinterprets pejorative words at his expense to bear a rather more flattering message.

Of course, thinking of things as being different than what they really are might make one a greater purveyor and appreciator of metaphors, though also a dangerous and potentially alienated individual, depending on the community in which one’s purveying and appreciating takes place. If we think of metaphors along Pater’s lines, being a more “sympathetic” viewer of the world encourages one (and, presumably, those around one) to think of things as being different than what they are, thusly encouraging metaphorical thinking, which, in turn, if one thinks of metaphors as small works of art – and some do – exposes one and others to greater pleasurable pulsations shot from these mini-artworks.

What happens to poor Rocket, after all? Well, for one, his emotion – that is, his crying – rids him of his proper function. Rocket’s use-value, so to speak, is lost. Surely a Paterian reader would look upon this approvingly, for what is the stripping of art to pure perception but the shedding of its ancillary functions, uses, and values?

The Rocket’s persistence in the face of everyone else’s having given upon him and no longer finding him valuable or useful could well be read as emblematic of an aestheticist’s stubborn refusal to accept irrelevance in a world whose fickle trafficking seems to refuse it a place within its folds. Perhaps Wilde is poking a bit of fun, via Rocket, at this stubbornness; after all, Rocket is a bit of a hypocrite, quite a bit of a narcissist, and abides by no one’s rules but his own. As Rocket puts it, “I often have long conversations all by myself, and I am so clever that I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.” Those who have had negative thoughts regarding the insularity of certain forms of avant-garde exploration will no doubt chuckle with satisfaction at Rocket’s disingenuousness. Clearly he refuses all societal cues; “a person of my position is never useful,” he says, adding that he has “no sympathy for industry” and that he is of the opinion that “hard word is simply the refuge of people who have nothing whatever to do.” A true aestheticist inevitably holds attitudes antagonistic to the rest of society and those of which the society is composed. Yet, Wilde seems to suggest, the aestheticist, in the form of Rocket, also cannot do without society altogether, as evidenced by Rocket’s professed need for it.

What the aestheticist risks is total, tragic misunderstanding – Rocket thinks he is being used for what he is, a rocket, while he is actually being mistaken for an utterly banal stick, as good as any other, of secondary importance to the fire to which it contributes. In the face of it, however, Rocket is undeterred. “I shall go on like this for ever. What a success I am!” He flies into the air, finally having become the true Rocket he is. He feels “a curious tingling sensation all over him” (I, for one, find it hard not to think of Pater’s empiricist aesthetics here) and proclaims that he “shall set the whole world on fire.”

In the end, ignored by those who set him ablaze, and picked up by an animal, a Goose, still being mistaken for a stick, Rocket is put to uses he does not recognize in himself and hardly appreciated by those who end up using them. Though it may be a cautionary tale, however, it is hard not to read the ending as, ultimately, the redemptive moment of art gone right, in Pater’s terms, and perhaps Wilde’s terms, too, an art gone right by having created, as Rocket’s last line reads, “a great sensation,” perhaps the only thing that ultimately matters. Rocket may be a fool, but one for whom being a fool requires a kind of perverse courage it is not unthinkable to surmise Wilde admired.

DJM

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Ethereal Nostalgia: Colours in Wilde’s Poetry

DF

When comparing what we could unoriginally call Wilde’s two ‘yellow’ poems, it is very easy to sense an aura of ethereal nostalgia that permeates the two short poems, whose length adds to the sense of a short imprint, a fleeting image rendered to the page by a speaker intent on seeking to recapture memories fading into the pale yellow of the past. While it is true that the connotations of ‘yellow’ at this time referred to the spines of the ‘decadent’ French novels, it is hard not to ascribe a sense of malaise or regret contained within the colour yellow in these two poems. Linguistically, La Dame Jaune is communicated to us in the past tense, an immediate rejection of the traditional presence and grounding given to romantic love, an image not aided by the implications of voyeuristic passion contained throughout the poem, as seen in the almost leering tone of ‘I watched her thick locks, like a mass of honey’. Therefore, it could be argued that the haze of yellow that constantly envelops the poem is equated with the desire to remember every aspect of her ‘curious amber charms’ and ‘jonquil-coloured gown’- here it could be noted that the shade of yellow used continually varies, with each addition serving to jumble the senses of the poem and create a poem heavily reliant on atmosphere and setting to convey the ethereal nature of the scene. Perhaps is could even be argued that in Wilde’s attempts to capture a singular moment in time, he uses colour to bring a uniformity to the sense of memories, a way of preserving this ‘dame jaune’ who seems continually unaware of his presence. Crucially in this poem, all action is initiated by the speaker, who seems to intrude on the peace of the scene, leading to the tonal impermanence of ‘shook’ and ‘flickered’ later on in the poem.

His same sense of nostalgia is carried out almost in reverse in ‘Symphony in Yellow’, as we see the harsh ‘jade’ colour of the Thames intrude on the yellow peace of the speaker, as the yellow is once again made ethereal and impermanent by the intrusion of a force more dominant. Here, we can contrast the verbal softness of the images of the ‘yellow silken scarf’ and the ‘yellow butterfly’ with the rigidity of the ‘rod of rippled jade,’ suggesting that yellow in Wilde’s mind is associated with singularity and the capturing of isolated moments in time-note that in both poems the speaker is essentially cut off from the outside world, either by his own accord (Symphony) or through being ignored (Dame). Therefore, in my mind, what we can establish from these two poems is that Wilde evokes a sense of impermanence by enveloping or submerging his scenes in colour, to the point where a sudden intrusion breaks up the tonal similarities of the piece and represents a return to the harsh realities of the world.

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The Serious and Humorous

In Wilde’s “The Remarkable Rocket” Wilde is able to create humorous interactions between the fireworks that are the show piece display of the royal wedding celebrations. The main firework is the Rocket. Presented as the main attraction, he is obviously narcissistic and vainglorious-ironically in its own ability to empathize with others. He shows this “superior sensitivity” by shedding tears for the foolish reason of potential incidents that are incredibly unlikely to happen and further justifies his own superiority by saying that the other fireworks are too inferior to comprehend his feelings. Wilde chooses to throw in a humorous side bar about a beetle couple that nearly drowns due to his tears. It almost seems that Wilde inserts these humorous bits to emphasize his narcissism, especially highlighting his stubbornness and disdain for others which ultimately leave him alone and his beauty unseen.

In fact, I often found Wilde utilizing epigrams when several animals are critiquing him. The humor in a way accentuates the disconnection between the Rocket and the rest of the world. For example during the Rocket’ s interaction with a passerby frog, the Rocket finds himself unhappy due to the frog’s strong personality shown in his one-sided dialogue. “‘Conversation, indeed!’ said the Rocket. ‘You have talked the whole time yourself. That is not conversation.’ ‘Somebody must listen,’ answered the Frog, ‘and I like to do all the talking myself. It saves time, and prevents arguments.'” Wilde uses humor to depict the serious self-destruction of the rocket whose ultimate fate is to push everyone away with his personality and waste the beauty of his explosion in the climax where the “Remarkable Rocket” manages only to frighten a goose who thinks it is raining sticks. The paradox of this manner of writing seems to make it more memorable. I think this also makes it easier for an audience member to associate these situations with his/her life when they are light-hearted and comedic, therefore realizing its purpose in the effect it has on the reader.

-HJ

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Threads and Tension in Oscar Wilde’s “Hélas!”

(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.

–M.P.

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Oscar Wilde’s Vision of Purity

(Written by a Stanford student–MCR.)

The image of purity in Oscar Wilde is always juxtaposed to that of death, innocence versus corruption, and love as opposed to vice. While observing the character of Virginia in Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost, I was immediately reminded of the narrator’s Love in The Harlot’s House. Although it is impossible to determine whether or not this Love is actually pure, for argument’s sake I would like to assert the woman as such. In this blog post, I propose we draw parallel qualities between the narrator’s Love, and Virginia Otis.

When the reader is first introduced to the young Virginia, she is described as being “lithe and lovely as a fawn, and with a fine freedom in her large blue eyes.” (185) In chapter 5 of The Canterville Ghost, Wilde encroaches upon his comedic style and returns to a more serious tone. It is in this chapter that we are introduced to Virginia as a pure, virginal light. The ghost says to Virginia “You can help me. You can open for me the portals of Death’s house, for Love is always with you, and Love is stronger that Death is.” (198) The ghost goes on to explain the family prophecy which states that “When a golden girl can win/Prayer from out the lips of sin,/When the barren almond bears,/And a little child gives away its tears,/Then shall all the house be still/And peace come to the Canterville.” (ibid) Only she a small girl of 15 can help the ghost transition from a world of horror and eternal haunting to that of peace and a free soul.

Similarly, the narrator’s Love in The Harlot’s House makes a transition “she left [his] side, and entered in: Love passed into the house of lust.” (897) When she enters “suddenly the tune [goes] false.” (867) Maybe the Love is some sort of saving grace, although unclear, we understand that Love and Death do not mix. Love is too pure, and for Wilde often portrayed as a female child. As much as Virginia is Love in The Canterville Ghost, it is “the dawn, with silver-sandaled feet, [who] crept like a frightened girl.” (867) that breaks the inebriating spell of the dancers in The Harlot’s House. Only Virginia, or the narrator’s Love can positively influence those around them to a point of affecting some kind of optimistic change. Without Virginia, the ghost’s true “voice” would not be heard, and the sickening waltz of the harlot’s would degenerate forever. -MCR

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Eudaimonia in “The Remarkable Rocket”

(Written by a Stanford student–Alcibiades.)

Eudaimonia translates to happiness from the Greek. The Aristotelian concept of euidaimonia is fundamentally concerned with seeking the “good life” or the highest pleasure. In his Ethics, Aristotle suggests happiness is achieved through the habituation of the soul; one must practice virtues—courage, temperance, wisdom—in order to reach the highest state of being.

In “The Remarkable Rocket,” Wilde subverts the traditional definitions of common virtues for their exact opposites. After the Rocket’s genealogical speech is interrupted, he criticizes the Cracker for laughing. The Rocket suggests instead that the Cracker should be less concerned with his own happiness, and more so with the others happiness of others—specifically that of the Rocket. The Rocket states, “I am always thinking about myself, and I expect everybody else to do the same” (296).This is “sympathy,” and he possesses this “beautiful virtue” in a “high degree” (296). A true definition of sympathy is far from this one. Next, the Rocket dismisses the value of common sense, arguing that those who possess it lack imagination. The Rocket says, “I never think of things as they really are; I always think of them as being quite different” (297). This definition is more akin to delusion than imagination.

Wilde establishes this inversion for the sake of irony. Wilde purposely presents something as what it is not, and by doing so, creates an aesthetic alternative removed from reality.  Aristotle argues that the highest function of humanity is rational thought, and the furthest logical extension of this is a life of contemplation. This concept is often criticized because it lacks action. This is strikingly similar to the Rocket’s self-conceived purpose; he states, “A person of my position is never useful. We have certain accomplishments, and that is more than sufficient” (300). Thus, the Rocket occupies the role of the dandy, in contrast to Aristotle’s thinker. The Rocket constructs his life as a work of art, however twisted it may seem, and lives for that art; he does not relinquish his views even at his dying breath. The Rocket actually believes that he has served his ultimate purpose; upon explosion, he remarks, “I knew I should create a great sensation” (301). In the Rocket’s terms, he has achieved happiness. Yet, we see the folly in the Rocket’s point of view; even if he believed that he could go “higher than the stars,” he eventually “went out” (301). Wilde ultimately critiques the Rocket, because the Rocket’s conception of reality is not sustainable.

Alcibiades

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Contrasts and the Humor in “the Canterville Ghost”

 

This post was written by Stanford University student- MG

There is a strong sense of contrast between aspects of life and death, English and American culture, and humor and terror in Oscar Wilde’s “the Canterville Ghost”. This heavily satirical short story is laden with references to American consumerism along with English tradition. The contrast becomes apparent when Sir Simon, a symbol of death, loneliness, and English culture, repeatedly tries and fails to understand the Otis family, who serve as symbols of life, gaiety, and American culture. The Otis family in turn (with Virginia as an exception) tries and fails to understand the Canterville ghost. Humorously, the Otis family does not seem to be scared by the idea of a ghost in the house, despite Sir Simon’s most earnest attempts. Rather, Sir Simon seems to be perturbed by the family’s presence himself, when it should really be the other way around. There are no clear sides in the story; Wilde spares no one in his witty merrymaking, though Sir Simon becomes the closest thing to a protagonist as the story progresses.  We as readers see him in a variety of lights; he can be vulnerable, vindictive, grieving, or happy, but he is consistently misunderstood.

While this could cast a serious shadow on the story as a whole, this is definitely not the case. Humor in “the Canterville Ghost” first serves to eliminate some of the dark and scary atmosphere that typically accompanies ghost stories. For example, the persistent bloodstain is treated with detergent briskly and without comment; the twin brothers “scare” the ghost when really that should be his job, and Mr. Otis offers him some lubricant to quiet his clanking chains. Humor is clearly a major tool here, because Wilde also uses it to effectively yet tactfully bring to light some major clashes of the era, namely the one between British and American culture. It was not clear to me whether or not “the Canterville Ghost” carried one universal, specific meaning or lesson, but it at least could help me understand, as the character Virginia said, “what Life is, what Death signifies, and why Love is stronger than both.”

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