As I was reading the selection of poems for this week’s class, I found myself intrigued by how many darker poems were woven into the collection. With all the talk of beauty and art for art’s sake, it is interesting how many of these poems have more sinister undertones. “The Ballad of a Barber” ends with a murder and the subsequent hanging, “The Masquerade” imagines a world where people are forced to dance, and “Candlelight” contains “delicate flowers of death” (4). But the two poems that struck me the most were “The Dead Poet” and “Nihilism.”
“The Dead Poet” was written by Lord Alfred Douglas about the death of Oscar Wilde. I the thing that stood out to me about this poem is even though the language of the poem itself is describing the beauty of Wilde’s life, there is no part of the poem that doesn’t feel sad. Because of the title, and to some extent because of the last line (“And so I woke and knew that he was dead” (14)), the poems normally cheerful language takes on a somber, more desperate tone.
On the other hand, “Nihilism,” written by Lionel Johnson, does not use the same language strategies. Instead, this poem’s language is very abstract, and comes together in short lines, marked frequently by commas. This makes the lines really powerful, despite their abstractness (“of life I am afraid” or “The pausing from all thought!” (4, 10)).
Thought these two poems use different techniques, they both thematically touch upon the theme of death and our reactions to it. They are interesting to read write after the Happy Prince stories because while those stories have a certain playfulness to them that we read as the closest we had come to pure decadence, these poems do not have that same feeling. Death is a pretty strong opposite to playfulness, but it is also something all human beings, decadent or not, have to face.