Salome and the Sonnet

While reading Salomé, I noticed several themes and techniques that led me to believe that Wilde may have drawn inspiration from the Victorian love sonnet tradition, which I studied in a different class. However, if Wilde borrowed from the sonnet tradition, he also subverted it.

First, I noticed the theme of the beloved as “looked upon,” which is very characteristic of the love sonnet tradition. Usually, a male lover looks upon an unaware female beloved. Both Salomé and Jokanaan function in the role of the beloved. Salomé is looked at by others constantly from the very beginning of the play. “The Young Syrian” cannot help himself from staring. Later, Herod is scolded by his wife for the same excessive staring. In dancing, Salomé puts herself explicitly on display, stressing her role as looked upon. Jokanaan is also looked upon by Salomé, who observes his preaching from afar before approaching him. Wilde subverts this trope by putting men and women in the role of both the lover and beloved. Furthermore, the beloved is aware that they are looked upon. Salomé even uses this knowledge to her advantage. Finally, Wilde subverts this trope by warning about the danger of looking at the beloved.

Another common theme in love sonnets is for the beloved to be pure, good, and leading the lover to the divine. This is also a component in Salomé. Salomé is continuously described as extremely pale, suggesting purity. Meanwhile, Jokanaan is described to be “as chaste as the moon is.” Furthermore, his role as a prophet suggests his connection to the divine. Wilde subverts this trope by undermining Salomé’s innocent exterior with her desire for revenge. She dances on the blood, allowing the whiteness of her feet to touch a staining substance.

In looking at their beloved, the lovers use blazons to describe what they see, which is also common in the love sonnet tradition. Salomé’s lovers speak of her “little white hands like fluttering doves” and “feet like little white flowers.” Meanwhile, Salomé looks upon Jokanaan and notes eyes “like black holes burned by torches in a Tyrian tapestry” a body “like the lilies of a field that the mower hath never moved” or “like a plastered wall where vipers have crawled,” hair “like clusters of grapes” or “like a crown of thorns” and a mouth “like a pomegranate cut with a knife of ivory.” Though blazons are usually amorous, Salomé’s blazon becomes hateful as Jokanaan rejects her over and over. Wilde subverts this literary device by changing its connotation.

Finally, I saw a theme of power-play which struck me as very Petrarchan. Often in love sonnets, the beloved holds power over their lover, who is helpless to resist them yet cannot access them. The tension between lover and beloved is evident in Salomé as Salomé refuses to dance, agonizing Herod, Jokanaan refuses the kiss, agonizing Salomé, and Salomé seeks revenge against both Herod and Jokanaan. Wilde subverts this trope by making the beloved both aware of their power and having Salomé use it for her own means. Wilde gives the beloved much more agency than the typical sonnet. 

Overall, I could see a link between Wilde and love sonnets, though Wilde puts his spin on convention. Salomé especially reminded me of Christina Rossetti’s sonnet series Monna Innominata. These sonnets also reverse gender roles and give the beloved more agency while working within the tradition.

2 thoughts on “Salome and the Sonnet”

  1. I also noticed that Salomé took the role of the pursuer in her relationship with Jokanaan, which is an considering how she’s the “beloved” of other male characters in the play. Although Salomé does have more agency as the “beloved” than what’s usually present in sonnets, I also noticed that power reverts back to the “lover” Herod by the end when he kills her. Wilde does play with gender roles in a lot of his works, but everything always seems to revert to the status quo by the end.

  2. In the Declan Kiberd reading for Monday, he mentions Wilde’s dislike of the strictness of gender binaries in the case of behavior and dress. Your discussion of gaze — who looks on and who is looked at as the “beloved”— and the way Wilde changes up gaze to subvert tropes reminded me of his discussion. We talked a little bit in class, when discussing Foucault, about how powerful gaze is in reinforcing tropes, norms, and expected behavior — particularly on functioning identity binaries, like gender. Wilde’s awareness of gaze in this play is then really interesting and it opens a way of reading Salome as participating in some of Wilde’s dislike of gender expectations and such a strict binary, as Kiberd suggests.

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