The Catholic Poems of Oscar Wilde

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Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (Source).

As I mentioned in my last post, during the month of August, I am dedicating myself to daily acts of creativity in honor of Mary’s Immaculate and Sophianic Heart. As Providence would have it, the Holy Father’s intentions for August include prayers for artists. Thus, I’m going to make my blog especially aesthetic for the rest of the month.

And what better way to start than examining work by one of the modern era’s great philosophers of art, Oscar Wilde? It is not often remembered today that Oscar Wilde was a Catholic. True, he was only formally received on his death bed. But Wilde maintained a lifelong flirtation with the faith. Catholicism infused his imagination from very early on in his productive career. When he was a student at Oxford, he visited Rome and wrote quasi-Catholic poetry that even Cardinal Newman admired. In some of the work, the influence of Dante is manifest. The aesthetics and romance of Catholicism appealed to Wilde, and he was nearly converted by Fr. Sebastian Bowden of the London Oratory. Only much later did he definitively turn to the Lord, in his last hour. However, many members of his circle also converted…a topic I shall, perhaps, explore some other day.

Ave Maria Gratia Plena

Was this His coming! I had hoped to see
A scene of wondrous glory, as was told
Of some great God who in a rain of gold
Broke open bars and fell on Danae:
Or a dread vision as when Semele
Sickening for love and unappeased desire
Prayed to see God’s clear body, and the fire
Caught her white limbs and slew her utterly:
With such glad dreams I sought this holy place,
And now with wondering eyes and heart I stand
Before this supreme mystery of Love:
A kneeling girl with passionless pale face,
An angel with a lily in his hand,
And over both with outstretched wings the Dove.

Sonnet on Approaching Italy

I reached the Alps: the soul within me burned
Italia, my Italia, at thy name:
And when from out the mountain’s heart I came
And saw the land for which my life had yearned,
I laughed as one who some great prize had earned:
And musing on the story of thy fame
I watched the day, till marked with wounds of flame
The turquoise sky to burnished gold was turned,
The pine-trees waved as waves a woman’s hair,
And in the orchards every twining spray
Was breaking into flakes of blossoming foam:
But when I knew that far away at Rome
In evil bonds a second Peter lay,
I wept to see the land so very fair.

Urbs Sacra Æterna

Rome! what a scroll of History thine has been
In the first days thy sword republican
Ruled the whole world for many an age’s span:
Then of thy peoples thou wert crownèd Queen,
Till in thy streets the bearded Goth was seen;
And now upon thy walls the breezes fan
(Ah, city crowned by God, discrowned by man!)
The hated flag of red and white and green.
When was thy glory! when in search for power
Thine eagles flew to greet the double sun,
And all the nations trembled at thy rod?
Nay, but thy glory tarried for this hour,
When pilgrims kneel before the Holy One,
The prisoned shepherd of the Church of God.

Sonnet on Hearing the Dies Irae Sung in the Sistine Chapel

Nay, Lord, not thus! white lilies in the spring,
Sad olive-groves, or silver-breasted dove,
Teach me more clearly of Thy life and love
Than terrors of red flame and thundering.
The hillside vines dear memories of Thee bring:
A bird at evening flying to its nest
Tells me of One who had no place of rest:
I think it is of Thee the sparrows sing.
Come rather on some autumn afternoon,
When red and brown are burnished on the leaves,
And the fields echo to the gleaner’s song,
Come when the splendid fulness of the moon
Looks down upon the rows of golden sheaves,
And reap Thy harvest: we have waited long.

Holy Week at Genoa

I wandered through Scoglietto’s far retreat,
The oranges on each o’erhanging spray
Burned as bright lamps of gold to shame the day;
Some startled bird with fluttering wings and fleet
Made snow of all the blossoms; at my feet
Like silver moons the pale narcissi lay:
And the curved waves that streaked the great green bay
Laughed i’ the sun, and life seemed very sweet.
Outside the young boy-priest passed singing clear,
‘Jesus the son of Mary has been slain,
O come and fill His sepulchre with flowers.’
Ah, God! Ah, God! those dear Hellenic hours
Had drowned all memory of Thy bitter pain,
The Cross, the Crown, the Soldiers and the Spear.

San Miniato

See, I have climbed the mountain side
Up to this holy house of God,
Where once that Angel-Painter trod
Who saw the heavens opened wide,

And throned upon the crescent moon
The Virginal white Queen of Grace,–
Mary! could I but see thy face
Death could not come at all too soon.

O crowned by God with thorns and pain!
Mother of Christ! O mystic wife!
My heart is weary of this life
And over-sad to sing again.

O crowned by God with love and flame!
O crowned by Christ the Holy One!
O listen ere the searching sun
Show to the world my sin and shame.

Madonna Mia

A lily-girl, not made for this world’s pain,
With brown, soft hair close braided by her ears,
And longing eyes half veiled by slumberous tears
Like bluest water seen through mists of rain:
Pale cheeks whereon no love hath left its stain,
Red underlip drawn in for fear of love,
And white throat, whiter than the silvered dove,
Through whose wan marble creeps one purple vein.
Yet, though my lips shall praise her without cease,
Even to kiss her feet I am not bold,
Being o’ershadowed by the wings of awe.
Like Dante, when he stood with Beatrice
Beneath the flaming Lion’s breast, and saw
The seventh Crystal, and the Stair of Gold.

E Tenebris

Come down, O Christ, and help me! reach thy hand,
For I am drowning in a stormier sea
Than Simon on thy lake of Galilee:
The wine of life is spilt upon the sand,
My heart is as some famine-murdered land,
Whence all good things have perished utterly,
And well I know my soul in Hell must lie
If I this night before God’s throne should stand.
‘He sleeps perchance, or rideth to the chase,
Like Baal, when his prophets howled that name
From morn to noon on Carmel’s smitten height.’
Nay, peace, I shall behold before the night,
The feet of brass, the robe more white than flame,
The wounded hands, the weary human face.

At Verona

How steep the stairs within Kings’ houses are
For exile-wearied feet as mine to tread,
And O how salt and bitter is the bread
Which falls from this Hound’s table,–better far
That I had died in the red ways of war,
Or that the gate of Florence bare my head,
Than to live thus, by all things comraded
Which seek the essence of my soul to mar.

‘Curse God and die: what better hope than this?
He hath forgotten thee in all the bliss
Of his gold city, and eternal day’–
Nay peace: behind my prison’s blinded bars
I do possess what none can take away,
My love, and all the glory of the stars.

On the Massacre of the Christians in Bulgaria

Christ, dost Thou live indeed? or are Thy bones
Still straitened in their rock-hewn sepulchre?
And was Thy Rising only dreamed by her
Whose love of Thee for all her sin atones?
For here the air is horrid with men’s groans,
The priests who call upon Thy name are slain,
Dost Thou not hear the bitter wail of pain
From those whose children lie upon the stones?
Come down, O Son of God! incestuous gloom
Curtains the land, and through the starless night
Over Thy Cross a Crescent moon I see!
If Thou in very truth didst burst the tomb
Come down, O Son of Man! and show Thy might
Lest Mahomet be crowned instead of Thee!

Queen Henrietta Maria

In the lone tent, waiting for victory,
She stands with eyes marred by the mists of pain,
Like some wan lily overdrenched with rain:
The clamorous clang of arms, the ensanguined sky,
War’s ruin, and the wreck of chivalry,
To her proud soul no common fear can bring:
Bravely she tarrieth for her Lord the King,
Her soul a-flame with passionate ecstasy.
O Hair of Gold! O Crimson Lips! O Face
Made for the luring and the love of man!
With thee I do forget the toil and stress,
The loveless road that knows no resting place,
Time’s straitened pulse, the soul’s dread weariness,
My freedom and my life republican!

On Easter Day

The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:
The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome.
Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam,
And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red,
Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head:
In splendor and in light the Pope passed home.
My heart stole back across wide wastes of years
To One who wandered by a lonely sea,
And sought in vain for any place of rest:
“Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest,
I, only I, must wander wearily,
And bruise My feet, and drink wine salt with tears.”

Wilde did just that until he lost his duel with the wallpaper on November 30th, 1900. But having received the last rites of the Church, perhaps he is already in heaven as a saint. One can only imagine what he would think of his portrait bedecked with a golden halo.

The Poetry of St. Philip Neri

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He would be 502 years old today. (Source).

In honor of St. Philip Neri’s birthday today, I reproduce here the translations of two of his three surviving sonnets, taken from the Liturgia Latina collection of Oratorian materials. That site reports that the translations from the original Italian are by Fr Henry Ignatius Dudley Ryder, of the Birmingham Oratory.

I.

The soul derives from God her being high,
In one keen instant out of nothing brought,
Not painfully through second causes wrought;
How should she, then, submit to things that die?

To hope, desire, to joy, to enmity;
To her confusion by these guides mistaught,
Of One confronting her she knoweth naught,
One glimpse of Whom would lift her to the sky.

How should the baser nature dare rebel
Against the higher, nor, as meet, consent
To do its bidding, but essay to quell?

Why prison bars the aspiring soul prevent
From leaving earth, above the stars to dwell,
To die to self, to live to God, intent.

II.

I love, and loving must love ceaselessly,
So whole a conquest in me love hath won;
My love to Thee, Thy love to me doth run,
In Thee I live, and Thou dost live in me.

Surely the day is nigh when I may flee
From this dark gaol, for ever to have done
With vanity and blind oblivion,
Where, exiled from myself, I used to be.

Earth laughs and sky, green branches and soft air,
The winds are quiet, and the water still,
No sun before has shed so bright a day;

The gay birds sing, love’s joy is everywhere;
My heart alone has no responsive thrill,
My powers flag and shrink from joy away.

A Norbertine Poem for the Sacred Heart

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Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us. (Source).

I happened upon this wonderful poem by one Frater Simeon Charles Goodwin, O.Praem., a seminarian at St. Michael’s Abbey. It’s always a delight to find good rhyming verse with a tightly-wound meterand rich theology to boot! Throughout the text, we can detect hints of Chesterton and, in the very last couplet, the sensual, baroque Richard Crashaw. I offer it here for your enjoyment on this solemnity of the Sacred Heart.

The Sacred Heart

    by Simeon Charles Goodwin, O.Praem.

There is a heart that beat with love
When time could mark no beat.
It echoed with a triple-pulse
And surged in thunders sweet.

Too happy not to overflow
It laughed and all was made.
It sighed and angel hosts came forth
In myriad parade.

It sang the seas and skies to be,
Hummed forth the rolling hills.
It beamed out beast and bird in love,
A sweet and mighty will.

It breathed into the mire and muck,
Sweet nothings to the earth;
And clay was made creation’s crown,
Man made with God’s own worth.

And how that heart did pound with peace
When he and man would walk
In silent love in evening winds
Too full of love for talk.

Oh man was glad and God was glad
And all creation too,
But man in madness pierced God’s heart
And rent the world in two.

There is a secret hideaway
Where cosmoi come to cry,
With atrium no bigger than
The needle’s narrow eye.

And there the mighty waters wait
To burst on arid wastes.
Men need but kiss the lance-made lips
To learn how sweet blood tastes.

The Seven Sacraments in Flannery O’Connor

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Flannery O’Connor at her farm, Andalusia, with one of her beloved peacocks. (Source).

Flannery O’Connor’s name is synonymous with the American short story tradition. What sets her apart from her peers, besides her mastery of plot and her succinct, grotesque style, is the deep concern for issues of faith and grace that animates all of her stories. As O’Connor once put it, “All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless, brutal, etc.” There is a certain delicious cruelty to her work. The nasty fates she metes out to children, let alone the adults who deserve what they get, rank her with the best of the gothic writers (and a humorous one at that—we can only imagine the hysterical laughter that something like Der Struwwelpeter would have provoked in her).

Yet O’Connor never show us violence for its own sake, nor for mere moralizing, nor as a ploy for cheap entertainment. Violence is the only outlet for grace in a fallen, “Christ-haunted” world. Her pages are choked and sodden with the precious blood that flows from the Cross.

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The Seven Sacraments, Rogier van der Weyden, c. 1448. O’Connor provides us with a (southern) gothic view of the sacraments. (Source)

It is a commonplace among critics that O’Connor’s writing is deeply sacramental. But to my knowledge, no author who has made that claim has also tried to find the fullness of the sacramental system present in her work.

I maintain that all seven sacraments appear in her fiction under different guises. Very often, we are given only implicit or twisted versions. It is common in O’Connor’s dark narratives to find flashes of grace in the inverse of sacraments; the truth emerges through its own negationhence her heavy use of violence. But all seven are all there, for those who “hath ears to hear” (Matt. 13:9 KJV).

In giving short descriptions of the following stories, my effort is not to justify my choices so much as to provoke further reading. As such, I will keep my descriptions succinct and relatively spoiler-free. Those who have read them may be able to see where I’m coming from. Those who haven’there’s some summer reading for you.

Baptism“The River”

This is one of O’Connor’s more overtly sacramental stories. The young son of irreligious parents accidentally gets himself baptized by a preacher in a Southern riverwith lethal consequences.

Honorable mention: The Violent Bear It Away. O’Connor thought about baptism a lot, probably because, as a rite of initiation, it is so centrally connected with questions of faith.

Confirmation“The Enduring Chill”

A sick and snobbish intellectual. A garrulous Jesuit. An overt reference to “A Simple Life” by Flaubert. Sometimes, the descent of the Holy Spirit doesn’t feel quite the way we expect.

Eucharist“A Temple of the Holy Ghost”

The only short story I know by any author that quotes the Tantum Ergo at length. There’s a good example of the “Red, Eucharistic Sun” motif that O’Connor was so fond of using. And lovers of the weird O’Connor will find her incarnational vision at a particularly grotesque note in this story.

The thinkpiece that uses “Temple” to discuss contemporary gender identity issues, sadly, has yet to be written.

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O’Connor knew how to use a Protestant idiom to communicate Catholic doctrine. (Source).

Confession“The Lame Shall Enter First”

At one point, the liberal main character’s office is compared to a confessional. In confession, however, you hope that a good priest will comfort those who need comfort and afflict those who need affliction, for the edification and sanctification of all. Not so in Sheppard’s benevolently atheist bubble.

Marriage“Parker’s Back”

In this remarkable narrative, one of O’Connor’s most Catholic stories, we read the story of a marriage broken apart by a dramatically visible expression of extraordinary grace. Theological and moral Puritans won’t be pleased by the implications.

Holy OrdersWise Blood

What happens when you really, really, really don’t want to accept your vocation? You end up like Hazel Motes, and chase after a “Holy Church of Christ Without Christ.” The last chapter can be read as a meditation on the Imago Dei.

Unction“A Good Man is Hard to Find”

If only for that incredible, climactic line spoken by the Misfit, “She would of been a good woman…”

I may try to expand this list into a real academic work some day. For now, take this list for what it isa few reading suggestions for those of you who, like me, enjoy O’Connor, Southern Lit generally, and Catholicism.

Also peacocks.

Lots of peacocks.

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Cover of The Complete Stories. (Source).