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.