A Matter of Style

Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Chelsea 1871 James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903 Bequeathed by Miss Rachel and Miss Jean Alexander 1972 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01571. Used with permission from the Tate under a Creative Commons License.

by Sharon Smulders

During the first phase of his career, Oscar Wilde composed a series of lyric impressions informed by what he subsequently called “the new aesthetics” (Complete Works 4: 102). Involving an erasure of the seer (“I”) so as to illuminate the seen, these curiously impersonal poems demonstrate, above all, the centrality of form within fin-de-siècle art. They also offer some insight into the politics of beauty. The impetus for examining Wilde’s verse, particularly his objective lyrics, came initially from teaching standard anthology pieces like “Symphony in Yellow” and “Impression du Matin.” In the classroom, I found James McNeill Whistler’s paintings useful for helping undergraduate students to understand Wilde’s poems while also introducing them to aesthetic debates like the one ignited by exhibition of Nocturne in Black and Gold—The Falling Rocket and Nocturne in Blue and Gold—Old Battersea Bridge. These two works, among several on display at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, famously provoked John Ruskin to denounce the painter as a fraud. Even Wilde, in a review for The Dublin University Magazine, mocked his sometime friend’s “colour symphonies” as “certainly worth looking at for about as long as one looks at a real rocket, that is, for somewhat less than a quarter of a minute” (Complete Works 6: 8). Wilde’s poetic impressions nonetheless owe much to Whistler’s work.

Although he praised the painter for revealing “the artistic value of dim dawns and dusks” (Complete Works 6: 35), Wilde ultimately defined the poet as “the supreme artist, for he is the master of colour and of form, and the real musician besides” (Complete Works 6: 36). Tellingly, “Impression du Matin,” which is exemplary of the poet’s mastery of form, opens with an ironic nod to Whistler:

The Thames nocturne of blue and gold

Changed to a Harmony in grey:

A barge with ochre-coloured hay

Dropt from the wharf: and chill and cold

 

The yellow fog came creeping down

The bridges, till the houses’ walls

Seemed changed to shadows, and S. Paul’s

Loomed like a bubble o’er the town.

 

Then suddenly arose the clang

Of waking life; the streets were stirred

With country waggons: and a bird

Flew to the glistening roofs and sang.

 

But one pale woman all alone,

The daylight kissing her wan hair,

Loitered beneath the gas lamps’ flare,

With lips of flame and heart of stone. (Complete Works 1: 153)

Deliberately allusive, lyrics like “Impression du Matin” echo a range of intertexts, both visual and verbal, in order to put poetry above painting, art above nature, convention above invention. Skillfully arranged, they aspire to beauty over originality. Their lyric detachment notwithstanding, they function as vehicles for the poet’s subjective impressions. Their formal and conceptual complexity thus reveals the contradictory impulses toward excess and constraint that animate Wilde’s aesthetic theory.

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  • Smulders, Sharon. “‘A Matter of Style’: Form, Colour, and Sound in Oscar Wilde’s Poetic Impressions.” Victorian Review

Work Cited

The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Edited by Ian Small, Oxford UP, 2000-2013. 7 vols.

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