Ephemerality and Perpetuity in “The Artist” (blog post)

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In the poem in prose, “The Artist,” it is difficult to miss the undertones of ephemerality and perpetuity that Wilde wove into the piece. It is also interesting to note that, much like the lines between the artistic and physical worlds are blurred in The Picture of Dorian Gray, so to are the lines between the ephemeral and the eternal blurred in “The Artist.” In the poem, the idea (also reflected in other works by Wilde) that pleasure can come from pain is also explored.

The poem begins with the Artist receiving a desire to make an image of The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. It should be noted that this desire is a capricious one which comes to him out of the blue and which he then sets out to fulfill at all costs. It is this capriciousness and his desire to work in bronze that impels him to deface the tomb of the one he loved as the statute he built to commemorate the love of a “man who dieth not” is the only bronze that is left. In other words, the Artist wishes to deface the statute that was supposed to stay for all eternity on this tomb in the image of The Sorrow that endureth forever, to make a lasting bronze image of the ephemeral concept The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. Here we see the blurring of the lines between the ephemeral and the eternal worlds. An image of an eternal sorrow is sacrificed to create a lasting image of a temporary pleasure. It is also curious to note that the Artist is referred to as a man “that dieth not.” This may mean that he hasn’t died yet, but it could also mean that he is immortal. It is not clear to me at the moment what import this would have for our understanding of the poem but it could be a commentary on the enduring nature of art. 

Most importantly, however, in this poem, the reader is confronted with the malleability of bronze. The whole point of building statues, especially the image of The Sorrow that endureth forever, in bronze is that the statue will also last forever. We have an idea of bronze as a sturdy medium that endures. This understanding of bronze is completely reversed, however, when we see that its sturdy and enduring nature can be changed by throwing it into a fire. Before our very eyes, an enduring element is made ephemeral and malleable. Furthermore, it is in this dramatic climax that the image of The Sorrow that endureth forever becomes an image of The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. The eternal is sacrificed, oxymoronically, for the ephemeral.

It should also be noted, however, that this is also a case in which pleasure is, quite literally, derived from sorrow. This is another example of the inversion of traditional value theories that is also present in other works by Wilde, most notably The Picture of Dorian Gray. In this poem in prose, however, this inversion is done in a very tangible and physical way. A bad thing is literally turned into a good thing. An image representing sorrow is turned into an image representing pleasure. This transformation also throws into questions our beliefs about sorrow, for example. Even though the sorrow was supposed to be eternal, it is sacrificed out of the blue. Is this supposed to map on to our lives? Are we also to understand that when we believe that we will never get over a loss or other traumatizing event, we will, in the future suddenly get over it? Is there the possibility, furthermore, that it could actually become pleasure? It is interesting to note that, at the end of the poem, the image that is cast in bronze and that is supposed to endure for all eternity is The Pleasure that abideth for a moment. But, then again, what type of assurance does that really give us? We never known when it will be thrown into the fire once more.

-MJL

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