Vol. IV

No. 10


Issue no 42: October/November 2007





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‘Oscar Wilde and Music’:

A Lecture by Merlin Holland at the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, 14th October 2007


Tiffany Perala



On the occasion of the much anticipated reopening of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library’s reading room, following a two-year closure for renovations including lighting and technology upgrades, amid the daily business of rare-book acquisitions and cataloguing, Merlin Holland, Oscar Wilde’s grandson, delivered the inaugural lecture on ‘Oscar Wilde and Music’ to a full-house audience of Wilde devotees. The endowment was provided by William A. Zachs, and Bruce Whiteman, Head Librarian at the Clark, introduced Holland.


‘The beginning is not a bad place to start’ commenced Holland, and therewith he transported the audience to Dublin in the 1860’s. It was in Dublin, after all, that Wilde received his first impressions of literature, music, and the intellectual coterie that his mother, Lady Jane Wilde who styled herself ‘Speranza’, exposed him to at her open-house salons at 1 Merrion Square. Oscar no doubt overheard many conversations that most children would not have been allowed to hear, let alone participate in. The unique circumstances of his intellectual-artistic origins and unconventional upbringing likely influenced the development of his ‘sonorous and effective phrases’ and his appreciation for ‘music as a poetic device’, Holland explained.


‘Music, above all, was for Wilde a mood and a metaphor’ most often of love and beauty and to be ‘music-less was the worst tragedy’ of all, Holland suggested. To demonstrate Wilde’s creative use of music, Holland read from various selections of Wilde’s writings beginning with the fairy tale ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ wherein the song of the nightingale serves to express the profound notes of beauty in sadness:


“If you want a red rose,” said the Tree, “you must build it out of music by moonlight, and stain it with your own heart’s-blood. You must sing to me, and the thorn must pierce your heart, and your life-blood must flow into my veins, and become mine.”[1]


The sacrificial nature of the Nightingale’s song elevates the mood and meaning of the most sublime of all sacrifices: love through death:


And when the moon shone in the heavens the Nightingale flew to the Rose-tree, and set her breast against the thorn. All night long she sang, with her breast against the thorn, and the cold crystal Moon leaned down and listened. All night long she sang, and the thorn went deeper and deeper into her breast, and her life-blood ebbed away from her.[2]


Although many of us have read, and perhaps even wept, while realising the Nightingale’s sacrificial desire to facilitate ‘pure’ love for another, a love that is ultimately rejected rather than rewarded, Holland’s own sonorous delivery of the lines emphasised their poignant meaning.


Other examples of Wilde’s use of music as a mood and metaphor, such as his poem to Lily Langtry, also served to punctuate the relationship between love and beauty, sadness and loss, and, then, the ‘worst tragedy’—to be music-less. Again, Holland’s reading of the poem stressed the deep notes and musicality of the verse in a way that visibly affected the audience. Again, Holland’s particular intonation reflected a deep understanding of the verse and he recited the following lines with an ear for caesura and melody:


Could we dig up this long-buried treasure,

Were it worth the pleasure,

We never could learn love’s song,

We are parted too long.

I remember we used to meet

By an ivied seat,

And you warbled each pretty word

With the air of a bird;

And your voice had a quaver in it,

Just like a linnet,

And shook, as the blackbird’s throat

With its last big note;

Well if my heart must break,

Dear love, for your sake,

It will break in music, I know,

Poet’s hearts break so.[3]


Of course, Wilde is not too well known for his poetry, but this excerpt shows that he certainly could produce verse that is melodic. At any rate, the melodic lines to Lily Langtry, however fleeting their real-life affair might have been, express vivid memories and evoke shifting moods, naturalised in the image of a bird. Though Wilde’s verse has received little critical attention in recent years, a simple explication demonstrates the lingering echoes of love and loss and that, at least, cannot be denied.


Holland was careful to include examples of Wilde’s work that address women, women whom he clearly loved and expressed his love for in poems and personal correspondences, such as a letter he wrote to his wife Constance, while away lecturing in Edinburgh on the subject of ‘Dress’, that, once again, uses music as a metaphor for love and beauty:


 Tuesday [Postmark 16 December 1884]                        The Balmoral, Edinburgh


Dear and Beloved, Here am I, and you at the Antipodes. O execrable facts, that keep our lips from kissing, though our souls are one.

What can I tell you by letter? Alas! Nothing that I would tell you. The messages of the gods to each other travel not by pen and ink and indeed your bodily presence here would not make you more real: for I feel your fingers in my hair, and your cheek brushing mine. The air is full of the music of your voice, my soul and body seem no longer mine, but mingled in some exquisite ecstasy with yours. I feel incomplete without you.

Ever and ever yours


Here I stay till Sunday[4]


The lecture was by no means a defense of Wilde’s sexuality; in fact, he carefully included examples that reveal the wide scope of his interest in love, as written, transcends a linear definition. He did explain, in private and in the garden rather appropriately, that the queering of Wilde, or indeed any reading that essentialises him, is fallacious to some extent. This, it seems, cannot be argued either.


Holland followed this letter to Constance with what he sees as the ‘turning point in Oscar’s use of music’—’The Harlot’s House’, which he recited in full. The poem is dense with images of ‘strange mechanical grotesques’, ‘ghostly dancers’, ‘loud musicians’, ‘laughter’ and the notion of love not being true to song, or indeed struggling to sing in phantom arms:


Sometimes a clockwork puppet pressed

A phantom lover to her breast,

Sometimes they tried to sing.

Then turning to my love, I said,

“The dead are dancing with the dead,

The dust is whirling with the dust.”

But she—she heard the violin,

And left my side, and entered in:

Love passed into the house of lust.


Then suddenly the tune went false,

The dancers wearied of the waltz,

The shadows ceased to wheel and whirl.[5]


Stuart Mason (Christopher Millard) dated the only printing of ‘The Harlot’s House’ in The Dramatic Review as of April 11, 1885 (vol. I, no. 11, p. 167)’.[6] However, Robert Harborough Sherard traced the composition of the poem to Paris in 1883. Whether a year before or after his marriage to Constance, Wilde’s tune evidently changed—for better or worse depending on how one reads Wilde’s Decadent works.


The ‘turning point’ in Wilde’s musical treatment of life, love, and death were topics he continued to explore in his only Decadent novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, the first thirteen-chapter edition appeared in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine (1890), later expanded to twenty chapters and published in book form with Ward, Lock & Co. (1891).  In Dorian, the notion of influence penetrates the general atmosphere and Holland selected one passage in particular to demonstrate how Wilde’s use of music as a metaphor conveys mood as well as the idea that influence is distilled in musical refrains:


“Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of some one else’s music, …”[7]


Holland also mentioned other possible uses of music in Dorian, and indeed elsewhere, such as the use of ‘music as a state of grace’, ‘music as a temptation, desire, death’, the use of the ‘musical voice for flattery’, or to signal a ‘shift in meaning—personal and literary development’.


Holland alluded to the ‘curious concerts’ Dorian attends at the height of the fin de siècle, and the ‘strange music’ that ties lust to sin in Wilde’s Tragedy in one Act: Salomé (1894): ‘In the whole world there was nothing so red as thy mouth. Thy voice was a censer that scattered strange perfumes, and when I looked on thee I heard a strange music’.[8] Music, as Holland sees it, is a poetic device that styles several of Wilde’s works and therefore, to some degree, traces or echoes of music can be heard throughout many of his writings. In De Profundis echoes of Wilde’s particular music are realised and metaphorised in the cry of Marsyas to Apollo:


I hear in much modern Art the cry of Marsyas. It is bitter in Baudelaire, sweet and plaintive in Lamartine, mystic in Verlaine. It is in the deferred resolutions of Chopin’s music. […] Expression is as necessary to me as leaf and blossom are to the black branches of the trees that show themselves above the prison wall and are so restless in the wind. Between my art and the world there is now a wide gulf, but between Art and myself there is none.[9]


Perhaps the recognition and reversal of Wilde’s fate in prison, as unjust as the laws of society and justice were to him in his time, served the ultimate purpose of returning Wilde to Art and song—that Love led him there is no surprise.


Holland concluded his lecture on ‘Oscar Wilde and Music’ with one lasting impression: ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ as Wilde’s swan song:

It is sweet to dance to violins

When Love and Life are fair:

To dance to flutes, to dance to lutes

Is delicate and rare:

But it is not sweet with nimble feet

To dance upon the air!

And all the woe that moved him so

That he gave that bitter cry,

And the wild regrets, and the bloody sweats,

None knew so well as I:

For he who lives more lives than one

More deaths than one must die.[10]


You might imagine the powerful end note was not only felt, but resounded into the garden as we applauded then gathered our selves, books, and pens. Before exiting the podium, Holland conceded that he is ‘perhaps guilty of myth myself’ when it comes to reflecting on his family’s tragedy. One could not say, however, that he is disingenuous when it comes to discussing the facts when asked. A gentleman raised his hand and questioned: ‘Was he a homosexual then?’ to which Holland replied, ‘He was without a doubt many things’. His answer stressed the importance of being aware of the complexity of Wilde’s life and career rather than treading the waters of past scholars who have limited their reading of Wilde in order to have him ‘fit in’ or worse—’stand out’ for their sake.


The conversation was carried out into the garden where a lovely champagne reception and hors d’ oeuvres was waiting to be enjoyed on a sunny Los Angeles afternoon. After a couple cocktails, introductions and conversations with fellow gatherers, I approached Holland and handed him an OSCHOLARS card with contact details that he took a sincere interest in and pocketed in his green velvet lecture coat. He in turn introduced me to John B. Thomas III, cataloguer at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin, Texas who was acting as host and LA tour guide during Holland’s stay. 


The crowd came and left in good fashion, which allowed us to take a table and open more bottles and topics. When I asked him about the perhaps dubious authorship of Teleny, an erotic novel published by Leonard Smithers in 1893, that Wilde might have at least had a hand in writing, Holland smiled, and asked me what I thought and ‘when and why do I propose he would have had the time or indeed interest to compose such a work’. I, of course, deferred to Special Professor John McRae’s account of the details of Charles Hirsch’s recollections of the manuscript being deposited and later collected by various young men that he had seen in Wilde’s company on occasion in his bookstore, Librarie Parisienne on Coventry Street. ‘Yes’, Holland said, he was aware of those bits, but believes it is more likely to be a poor translation of a French novel with a fractured plot than the work of Wilde in whole or part. ‘Something in the nature of the Satyricon’, were his exact words.


Either way, Holland jested, ‘Wilde might have been amused and it at very least gives scholars something to do, and no topical inquiry of any sort into his life or work could really do much harm’. He did suggest a way of going about any inquiry into Wilde’s life, art, or publishing history: ‘In order to make any valid claims as to whom Wilde was or on what he wrote you would need to first be a Classical scholar and second you will need to read everything he ever read, everything that has ever been written about him and indeed everything that he ever wrote: including all personal correspondences and biographical material. Having done so, then, I might entertain the validity of the subject proposed’.


Overall, the impressions received from the lecture and reception proved positive and thought provoking. Holland’s challenge to pursue the rational inquiry of Wilde’s work stands to remind us that there is more work to be done on those grounds. The Clark, Whiteman reminded us, has not been mined for two years and there are new discoveries waiting to be found in the archives; Thomas III concurred on behalf of the HRC. It seems that Holland’s inaugural lecture just might have sparked a new curiosity in Wilde research; one can only hope it will resonate into the future.


Tiffany Perala, Merlin Holland



[1]  Oscar Wilde, ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’, in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde (New York: Harper Perennial, 1989), 293.

[2]  Ibid., 294.

[3]  Wilde, ‘To L.L.’, in The Complete Works, 809.

[4]  Oscar Wilde, The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, Ed. Merlin Holland & Rupert Hart-Davis (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2000), 241.

[5]  Wilde, ‘The Harlot’s House’, in The Complete Works, 789-790.

[6]  Stuart Mason, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (London: T. Werner Laurie Ltd., 1914), 54.

[7]  Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, in The Complete Works, 28-29.

[8]  Wilde, Salomé, in The Complete Works, 574.

[9]  Wilde, De Profundis, in The Complete Works, 936.

[10]  Wilde, ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’, The Complete Works, 846-7 & 853.



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