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.
In “The Windows,” Mallarmé presents an affinity for a world apart from that of the material, the common man, and the surface meaning of objects. The man in the poem is devoted to a life beyond that of his dying body and nauseating, stupid world. In the opening stanza we see a disregard for and inversion of one of mankind’s favored symbols, the Catholic crucifix: “To the great bored crucifix on the empty wall,/ The crafty dying man his back sets straight” (Mallarmé 3-4). The “crafty dying man” could be the male subject of the poem, the old man in the hospital, or it could be referring to the aforementioned crucifix, and, thus, Christ. It makes sense that the crucifix shows up in a Symbolist poem because it is a powerful religious symbol that stands for an overlap between man and divine, the material and spiritual worlds. The subject of the poem’s salvation into another world, however, does not come from religion but rather the beauty of his own artistic and intellectual vision: “Sees golden galleys, beautiful as swans,/ On a ruddy, perfumed river, cradling to sleep/ The tawny, rich light of their echelons/ In vast nonchalance charged with memories!” (17-20). The ability of the man to see beyond the confines of the ugly, dying hospital and into the beauty of the other world is what justifies his existence. Symbolism is not just a style of poetry, but also the lifestyle of the subject, and, one can imagine, the artist. “The Windows” seems a manifesto of otherworldliness, not without a tirade against those who choose to live more materialistically: “So, filled with disgust for the man whose soul is callous,/ Sprawled in comforts where his hungering/ Is fed…” (21-23). In these lines, the author derides those who exist solely to satisfy the needs of their bodies, rather than their minds. The “soul,” here, is a stand in for the aesthetic sensibilities that the poet so highly values in himself. To me, the anger and bitterness function in an ironic way. While the subject of the poem would claim to live largely in the other world, the world of beauty and forms and the meaning behinds objects and symbols, he spends a good deal of time and emotional energy in the “lower world,” hating and making fun of the people around him. Indeed, the dying man’s disregard for his fellow man and the world that his body inhabits reaches an almost absurd level by the end of the poem. In the second to last stanza, he admits that he is not safe from the influences (such as stupidity and stink) of the world below him, even from an elevated position of tremendous artistic sensibility and appreciation for beauty: “But oh! the World Below is lord: its spell/ Still nauseates me in this safe retreat,/ And the reeking spew of Stupidity compels/ Me to hold my nose…” (33-36). One can not help but feel sorry for the old man, who is tied to the world he hates through that very hatred.