In “Helas!” Oscar Wilde laments his generation and its movement’s departure from the ideals and artistic philosophies of the Classical world. The “stringed lute” (2) is the soul of Oscar Wilde and anyone who lives the Aesthetic lifestyle. The mission is to “drift with every passion” (1) and to indulge the desires of the soul and its attraction to beautiful and pleasurable things. This lifestyle is embodied in Des Esseintes’ self-isolation and withdrawal into a world of artistic contemplation as well as Dorian Gray’s hedonistic bender in Wilde’s own novel. In “Helas!” Aestheticism is portrayed as fatuous and non-productive. The movement and its use of the soul is described with phrases like “boyish holiday” (6) and “idle songs” (7) to downplay its gravitas, especially as compared to the more mature philosophical goals of Classical philosophers.
Wilde describes the opportunity he passed up to follow in the path of his Grecian idols and aspire to lofty and noble truths: “Surely there was a time I might have trod/ The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance/ Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God” (9-11). Here, Wilde uses a musical metaphor to juxtapose the material world and the world of Platonic forms. “Dissonance” is the former, a fate of failure that can be transcended by the “one clear chord.” It’s left to the reader what that chord might be, but in context I would guess it is a “Eureka” moment during deep philosophical contemplation or a stroke of artistic genius that captures an otherworldly beauty.
The ancient world, even if you narrow it down to just Greek philosophers in a specific time period, contained a diversity of philosophical voices with endorsements of multitudinous lifestyles and moral choices. It is revealing to see how Wilde characterizes the plethora of ideas in a poetical line or phrase. At the very least it can help the reader guess what philosopher or what school of philosophy Wilde might be referencing. For instance, the phrase “ancient wisdom, and austere control” (4) points to the moral philosophy of virtuous self-restraint or maybe Stoicism. These ideas clash, in Wilde’s mind, with the zeitgeist of his time—a tendency towards luxury, self-indulgence, pleasure, and dabbling.
Are there any positives to the choice that Wilde thinks his movement has made? The overall tone and title imply that the negatives outweigh the positives, but there are hints of the rewards of Aestheticism and Decadence. For example, the poet for a moment seems to reminisce about an experience of sweetness and interpersonal connection that his lifestyle afforded him: “With a little rod/ I did but touch the honey of romance” (12-13). Still, the pessimistic finale upstages the brief mention of benefit: “And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?” (14). Here, Wilde gives a clear nod to his Classical intellectual ancestors with the use of the phrase “soul’s inheritance”. He regrets that the Aesthetic lifestyle seems a slap in the face and rejection of the truths and beauties that were passed down to him when he read the Classics.