A SYMPHONY OF COWARDLY COLORS or Tales of the Thames.
Symphony in Yellow by Oscar Wilde
I do not know whether it is ever appropriate to say a person was ahead of his or her time, so I will risk being inappropriate in order to say that I believe Oscar Wilde would fit right in with today’s society and literary thinking. The biographical information given on page 2066 seems much more like tabloid reading or something that you would find on the shelves of check-out counters nation wide and in the homes of the most proper elderly woman =] On page 2006 we read that Wilde’s father was a surgeon and “was sued by a former patient who claimed he had drugged and raped her” (Page 2066). The text also informs us that his father had “three illegitimate children” and that Wilde’s mother “was a self-dramatizing and unconventional woman whom her son adored” (Page 2066). No doubt his upbringing, schooling, and later relationships would help form this genius of a writer. The one quote that makes him seem so fashionably fitting in our current society is the quote where he was reported “to have told the customs officers, “I have nothing to declare except my genius” (Page 2066). I must admit that I laughed and wonder how peculiar Oscar Wilde must have looked to his generation.
I chose to write on Symphony in Yellow because it immediately strikes me as something relevant and
modern in its approach and structure. Further more, this particular poem reminds me of one of my favorite poets, David St. John. It sounds like something that you would find in his collection of poetry entitled Prism. Prism is an entire book of poetry that focuses on specific colors and textures-it also includes some wonderful photography. Knowing how Wilde was inspired by the art of his day makes the connection that much easier.
An omnibus across the bridge
Crawls like a yellow butterfly,
And, here and there, a passer-by
Shows like a little restless midge.
Big barges full of yellow hay
Are moored against the shadowy wharf,
And, like a yellow silken scarf,
The thick fog hangs along the quay.
The yellow leaves begin to fade
And flutter from the Temple elms,
And at my feet the pale green Thames
Lies like a rod of rippled jade.
Wilde opens the poem with this peculiar line “An omnibus across the bridge/ Crawls like a yellow
butterfly” (Line 1-2). Think of how slow this yellow omnibus must bee moving (pun intended) to be compared with a crawling butterfly! Butterflies are, of course, flying insects and are well known for their prodigious wing strength. Whenever I notice a butterfly, it is usually due to the fact that I see a
brightly colored insect flittering around graciously like a hyperactive leaf that has been caught in a
windstorm. Sure butterflies crawl when they are on the tip of a petal and must move with gentle
dexterity. But, I don’t see the image matching the simile. Perhaps that was the point? Maybe it was
sarcasm? Maybe he was saying that the bus crawled across the bridge much like a butterfly wouldn’t? Or maybe it was exactly that careful dexterity Wilde wanted to call to imagination. The omnibus is moving so slowly and carefully hanging on to the bridge that a pedestrian could easily get off and actually gain speed!
The second stanza is brilliantly written. Usage, but not over-usage, of alliteration places the reader in
this calming state of a rhythmic quality. “Big barges full of yellow hay/ Are moored against the shadowy wharf,” Wilde writes (Line 5-6). Simple lines like this make me so aware of the fact that writers (in general) and poets (specifically) see or hear the world with such acuteness, then translate these sights and sounds for normal people like me. “Moored against the shadowy wharf” is a fantastic line! Moored is a word that sounds the same as the thing it denotes. The piles and piles of yellow hay are anchored to some floating, faint, indistinct wharf off in the distance.
Wilde could not live in England as a writer and not attempt to describe the London fog. He writes “And, like a yellow silken scarf/ The thick fog hangs along the quay” (Line 7-8). The “thick fog” is like a
bright, smooth, silk scarf that hangs around the neck of the harbor. Scarves seem to be intentional don’t they? I mean they are items that you add to what you are wearing-they are accessories (even if they are necessary) because a person is not likely to walk out in the fog wearing nothing but a scarf. A person may intentionally walk out in the fog with her entire wardrobe on and add to it the scarf and it would not seem nearly as strange as seeing someone wearing a singular scarf! I make that point because the harbor wears nothing but this fog, so even though the fog maybe described as a “yellow silken scarf”…it is much more substantial! The fog is what covers the nakedness of the harbor and dresses it in a yellow obscurity.
Wilde closes with the lines “ And at my feet the pale green Thames/ Lies like a rod of rippled jade (Line 11-12). How could he resist describing the river Thames? Now, is he saying that the river lies below his feet etc. or is he saying the Thames is a deceitful river and lies about its true nature? The
Thames was noted for the amount of human corpses and trash that were found below the foggy surface of the water. The Thames was a perfect place to hide many forms of treachery and murder because of its surface obscurity. So perhaps Wilde is saying that below his feet the insipid (pale) immature (green) Thames lies… by showing itself to be like a shaft of rippling emerald water, when in fact it is the grave of many an Englishman (Line 9-10). Perhaps Wilde meant while the Thames lied beneath his feet, the Thames was lying beneath his feet?
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Kyle McNease - Academic and founder and CEO of Prognosis Hope.