Sonnet written in Holy Week at Genoa, by Oscar Wilde

“Shelley’s Tomb in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome” – Painted by Walter Crane, 1873. Actually, it is John Keats‘ gravestone shown here.
Sonnet written in Holy Week at Genoa
by Oscar Wilde 

I wandered in Scoglietto’s green 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 sapphire 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.

In 1877, Wilde travelled to Greece with the Revd Sir John Pentland Mahaffy, his former tutor in Trinity College Dublin. On his return through Italy, Wilde had a private audience with Pope Pius IX in Rome. Afterwards, Wilde locked himself in his room, emerging only after writing a sonnet inspired by and dedicated to the Pope. But hours later, he visited the Protestant Cemetery in Rome where the Romantic poet, John Keats, was buried. Kneeling at his grave, Wilde ostentatiously declared it to be “the holiest place in Rome.” 

Today’s poem, ‘Sonnet written in Holy Week at Genoa,’ is technically an iambic pentameter, it but follows a strict rhyming pattern that has more in common with what is called the Italian sonnet, possibly adopted by Wilde because he was writing in Genoa.

The poem was published in 1881 on Wilde’s return to England, but he probably wrote it in Genoa, where Wilde may have attended the Chiesa Anglicana or Anglican Church.

During his travels in Greece with Mahaffy, Wilde’s interest in Roman Catholicism waned, and he was tinged with a little guilt when he was back in Italy in 1881 and realised in Genoa during Holy Week that he would rather remain an Anglican than become a Roman Catholic, or that he would rather be in Greece than in Rome:

… those dear Hellenic hours
Had drowned all memory of Thy bitter pain,
The Cross, the Crown, the Soldiers, and the Spear.

The sonnet opens with the poet in Scoglietto, the park around Villa Rosazza, near the Di Negro Metro Station. The oranges hanging from the trees are a common feature of Genoa in Via Negro as elsewhere. The imagery here is powerful with the oranges as lamps their brightness shaming the day. The flower blossoms, disturbed by the birds fluttering, fall as snow, an unusual but not uncommon feature of the climate in Genoa.

The sweetness of life in Genoa is underlined with the imagery of the sea and the narcissi and contrasted by the announcement of the death of Christ by the boy-priest, an image that reminds us not only of Wilde’s infatuation with Roman Catholicism but possibly of his troubled sexuality too.

The snows of the fifth line become flowers again to fill the sepulchre, a common practice in Italy and Greece as Christians decorate the churches for Easter.

The Hellenic hours could have various meanings, both to Wilde’s own sexuality but also the Graeco-Roman history of Christianity.

The last line is a kind of poetic shorthand summoning up aspects of the Crucifixion that are part of the common Christian memory.

Seventeen years after this poem was published, Oscar Wilde’s wife, Constance Lloyd, died in Genoa in 1898 and was buried in the Staglieno Cemetery. A year later, he visited her grave in Genoa on 26 February 1899 – a poignant and little-known episode in his life – and spent some more time in Genoa just a year before his own death.

Excerpt taken from PATRICK COMERFORD’S BLOG.  Rev. Patrick Comerford is a priest in the Church of Ireland (Anglican), Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the University of Dublin (Trinity College Dublin) and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. For many years he worked as a journalist with the Lichfield Mercury, the Wexford People and The Irish Times, where he was Foreign Desk Editor until 2002. 

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

3 responses to “Sonnet written in Holy Week at Genoa, by Oscar Wilde

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