Hélas! Background

Hélas! Background

Oscar Wilde published a volume of verse with the simplest and most direct of all possible titles: Poems. The opening poem of that collection features a title that is anything but simple and direct. In fact, were it not for the exclamation point coming at the end instead of the beginning, one might well assume the title was Spanish rather than French. And even the choice of giving the poem a French title is misleading since translation into English leaves us with a word commonly known, but rarely used in everyday discourse: Alas!

"Hélas" is a short poem comprising a mere 14 lines of the sonnet form in one single stanza. The most famous excerpt is its opening affirmation:

To drift with every passion till my soul

Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play

What follows are a dozen more lines that pits control and austerity against the flight of poetic fancy and a hedonist enjoyment of those things that extend beyond self-control. This theme that places control versus freedom sets the stage for what will become the overarching theme of the entire collection. It is important for understanding the poems that this poem and its collection was published before the world knew of the portrait of a decaying Dorian Gray or of the fan held in the grip of Lady Windermere or how important it is to be earnest. The publication of "Helas" in 1881 introduced a poet to the world who change the world and become without question one of its greatest wits.

The depth (or heights, depending on perspective) to which Oscar Wilde was willing to go to test the limits of his hedonism was yet to play out and would not fully do so for well over decade.

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