To drift with every passion till my soul
Is a stringed lute on which all winds can play,
Is it for this that I have given away
Mine ancient wisdom, and austere control?
Methinks my life is a twice-written scroll
Scrawled over on some boyish holiday
With idle songs for pipe and virelay,
Which do but mar the secret of the whole.
Surely there was a time I might have trod
The sunlit heights, and from life’s dissonance
Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God:
Is that time dead? lo! with a little rod
I did but touch the honey of romance —
And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?
“Hélas,” in French, means “unfortunately” or “alas.” Framing the poem’s concept of desired connection and its impression of dramatic ardor, this titled cry of desperation sets up this poem perfectly. The title is not the poem’s only French reference in the piece. “Virelay” is defined as a French lyric poem. The speaker’s self-reflection also creates an introspective lyrical quality. The poet Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) tries to connect with and fuel the theme of love more thoroughly by way of imitation and the use of French, the language of love. I think in many ways it extends the metaphor Wilde is trying to suggest.
The poet layers the poem with introspection, and this introspection is in fact the poem’s narrative. A man ponders his perspective, province, and ambitions in love. By examining himself, the poet speaker makes the audience self-reflect as well. Wilde reflects on a fleeting experience of love: he can’t experience it fully enough, and yet he loses everything to it. The poem, as I said, causes the reader to ponder love as well, inspiring these questions:
· What do we lose in love? “And must I lose a soul’s inheritance?”
· Is love the only way to reach true understanding and pleasure? God? (“Struck one clear chord to reach the ears of God”)
· How do you know when your in love? “Surely there was a time I might have trod the sunlit heights”!
· Does time run out in finding love? “Is that time dead?”
If you read a lot of Oscar Wilde’s poetry, you see recurring themes: depression, suicide, loss of love,… All fairly dark subjects. But throughout his poetry one always finds music, and this is true for “Hélas.” This poem reads like a song and breathes like a song. The rhyme is light and he makes to music—pipe, virelay, dissonance, chord, lute—that counterbalances the otherwise sad tone of the poem.
Beyond the loss of the love, the poem studies our desire and need to reach a divine state in our lives. Whether that is reflected in love and marriage or professional standards, we are constantly trying to conform and figure out the expectations and molds. Sometimes we need to ask if it’s worth it.
I chose this poem because through language and sensual perception Wilde modifies the sonnet’s classic theme of love. Further, I think “Hélas” is very grounded in the ideals in our modern world and in the constant desire to find true connection and love and to understand what that desire means. Also, I think there are some cool poetry prompts and exercises that can come from this piece. As a poet, try to approach your next blank page with these questions:
· Why someone shouldn’t someone fall in love with you?
· Or to contemporarize it: why shouldn’t someone date you?
· If your life were a “twice-written scroll,” what would be written on it?
Margot is a freshman Human Services Major and a theater enthusiast. Poetry inspires her expression, creativity and confidence, and she hopes to read and write as much as she can in the future