Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Her Voice and My Voice by Oscar Wilde

Immediately following "Her Voice" in published collections comes "My Voice". I believe that Wilde intended for the poems to be a dialogue, most likely between either his wife or his former girlfriend, noted beauty Florence Balcombe Stoker (she dumped Wilde and married Bram Stoker) and himself. Whether the conversation is based on something that occurred in actuality or is merely played out in his mind, I think it apparent that "Her Voice" was intended by Wilde to be the words of the woman in a failing relationship, and "My Voice" to be his version of events. First the poems, then the analysis. As always, I hope you can read these aloud wherever you are - they are so much better that way, and the first poem in particular is magnificent.

Her Voice
by Oscar Wilde

The wild bee reels from bough to bough
  With his furry coat and his gauzy wing.
Now in a lily-cup, and now
  Setting a jacinth bell a-swing,
    In his wandering;
Sit closer love: it was here I trow
    I made that vow,

Swore that two lives should be like one
  As long as the sea-gull loved the sea,
As long as the sunflower sought the sun,—
  It shall be, I said, for eternity
    ’Twixt you and me!
Dear friend, those times are over and done,
    Love’s web is spun.

Look upward where the poplar trees
  Sway and sway in the summer air,
Here in the valley never a breeze
  Scatters the thistledown, but there
    Great winds blow fair
From the mighty murmuring mystical seas,
    And the wave-lashed leas.

Look upward where the white gull screams,
  What does it see that we do not see?
Is that a star? or the lamp that gleams
  On some outward voyaging argosy,—
    Ah! can it be
We have lived our lives in a land of dreams!
    How sad it seems.

Sweet, there is nothing left to say
  But this, that love is never lost,
Keen winter stabs the breasts of May
  Whose crimson roses burst his frost,
    Ships tempest-tossed
Will find a harbour in some bay,
    And so we may.

And there is nothing left to do
  But to kiss once again, and part,
Nay, there is nothing we should rue,
  I have my beauty,—you your Art,
    Nay, do not start,
One world was not enough for two
    Like me and you.

My Voice
by Oscar Wilde

Within this restless, hurried, modern world
  We took our hearts’ full pleasure—You and I,
And now the white sails of our ship are furled,
  And spent the lading of our argosy.

Wherefore my cheeks before their time are wan,
  For very weeping is my gladness fled,
Sorrow hath paled my lip’s vermilion,
  And Ruin draws the curtains of my bed.

But all this crowded life has been to thee
  No more than lyre, or lute, or subtle spell
Of viols, or the music of the sea
  That sleeps, a mimic echo, in the shell.

Both poems talk about the end of a relationship, but the voices are very different. Completely intentional, of course - that's why he's made clear that he's presenting things in different voices. He doesn't just mean that he's conveying the words of two different people; he's writing from completely different points of view. In "Her Voice", he's not saying, "look, this is what I heard her say," he's saying "as an author, I am stepping into her shoes, and this is how it is from her point of view."

It's not just the structure of the poems, but the word choices and the viewpoint as well. Both parties speak with regret, but it's clear that their points of regret differ. The woman that Wilde channels in "Her Voice" uses far more words and a more embellished way of making her point (as women are often wont to do); the man's version is shorter, and assumes far more of the weight of responsibility for the relationship's failure. The woman seems to indicate that she loves the man, but just can't stay in the relationship anymore; the man seems to feel crushing sorrow, and may be sickly; further, he notes that "Ruin draws the curtains of my bed". All of this comports with the facts of Wilde's life: Having been sent to jail for "gross indecency", he emerged a sickly, ruined man. His wife, who never divorced him, changed her and their sons' last name to Holland, and terminated Wilde's parental rights. Bram Stoker (husband to Florence) remained friendly with Wilde and visited him on the Continent after he left England.

Discussion of form:
In "Her Voice", the first four lines and the sixth line each have four stressed (or accented syllables), and the fifth and seventh line of each stanza has two stressed syllables. The short lines are mostly iambs (taDUM), but not always. Each of the six stanzas uses the following end-rhyme scheme within it: ABABBAA. The fluidity of the form (with the two shorter lines and the way the end-rhymes mix about) gives the poem a lightness, as well as a more emotional feel due to the ebb and flux of the lines.

In "My Voice", there are only three stanzas (half as many as in "Her Voice"), and they are written in quatrains (four-line stanzas) using a very traditional rhyme and metre: ABAB rhyme in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line, taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). "His" poem sounds more regimented and less emotional as a result of its rigid metre scheme.

In addition to discussing parting and loss, both poems make reference to dreams. In "Her Voice," the speaker talks about how she promised forever (and oh the swoony goodness of those declarations about sunflowers and seagulls!), but now feels that they were living inside a dream. The real world has turned up to burst the bubble: "Ah! can it be/We have lived our lives in a land of dreams! How sad it seems." Now that she's living in reality, she's come to take her leave. "Sweet, there is nothing left to say/But this, that love is never lost". She adds references to nature's cycles (May's roses and winter's frost) and to the idea of ships finding safe harbor, both of which are references to life going on. The final stanza, "And there is nothing left to do/But to kiss once again, and part,/Nay, there is nothing we should rue/I have my beauty,—you your Art" invokes for me echoes of Byron's "When We Two Parted", particularly when I read the two poems together and put together the ideas of ruin and paleness and the sense of wasting that is in "My Voice". (That's just my association, by the way - there's no evidence that Wilde went there himself.)

As a final point, I want to look at the final stanza of "My Voice", where the male speaker (who I will assume is actually Wilde) observes that while he is left wasted and in ruin, the woman is free to move on with her life. The problems that have brought them to the point of parting are a dream-like sort of noise, that she can set aside and move away from. One can, after all, hear the ocean inside a shell, but one can also put the shell down and walk away from it.

But all this crowded life has been to thee
  No more than lyre, or lute, or subtle spell
Of viols, or the music of the sea
  That sleeps, a mimic echo, in the shell.


Nam said...

thank you for giving this good guide for poems!! XDD

Kelly Fineman said...

You are very welcome!

Anonymous said...

Oscar Wilde was homosexual. He was not upset about the failing relationship. But good reading!

Kelly Fineman said...

He was indeed homosexual, but he was also married and the father of several children. It is possible, moreover, that the "female" is a mask for another male and a failing same-sex relationship, or that it refers to his wife.

Anonymous said...

Oscar Wilde fathered two children from the same woman who left him after he went to prison for homosexuality. I do believe that "Her voice" is actually about a man but he once said that he truly did love his wife and that she was his best friend. I don't think that is the case with this because these poems were written before he went to prison and before she left him. I enjoyed this thanks for posting it.

Anonymous said...

Wow, all these people pulling the homosexual card on this poem are VERY wrong. And these poems are not about his wife. These were included in his first volume of poems that were written before he met Constance. The poems are most likely about Florence, and he was devastated when she left him. Wilde was not homosexual; he was bisexual. This is the most common misconception of his life. He was very much aware of his sexuality at an early age (I once heard a story about at the age of 16, his friend, who was a boy, kissed him and he claimed that was his sexual awakening) but he also fell in love with several woman, his wife included. It wasn't until he became sexually estranged from his wife, after the birth of their second child, that he began acting out on his homosexual desires. And finally when he met Lord Alfred Douglas (over a decade after this poem was written) he was led into the homosexual underground world of London. He really was in love Bosie, but the majority of his homosexual encounters were brought on by a longing for excitement, he became obsessed with the senses and was looking for any new sensations. It was dangerous, it was, as he said, "like feasting with panthers, the danger was half the excitement." Our modern obsession with clear distinctions wants to retrospectively put historical figures in categories and thus remembers Wilde as a gay icon. But in reality, his life was much more complicated. In the end, he really just found people, particularly beautiful, fascinating and fell in love with both men and women in his lifetime.

Tine Hreno said...

Lovely post!

I like to think it is about Florence too and that is supported by the fact that he wrote it before he married Constance. He knew a lot of ladies before he married Constance though. When he visited America, he hired a man for his hair because ladies were always writing and asking Wilde for locks of his hair, so he would get this hired man to send locks of hair that looked like his.

I wrote a post about Oscar and Florence too: