1 November 2019 Susannah

Oscar Wilde & Symphony in Yellow

Claude Monet, The Thames Below Westminster

Symphony in Yellow by Oscar Wilde

An omnibus across the bridge
Crawls like a yellow butterfly
And, here and there, a passer-by
Shows like a little restless midge.

Big barges full of yellow hay
Are moored against the shadowy wharf,
And, like a yellow silken scarf,
The thick fog hangs along the quay.

The yellow leaves begin to fade
And flutter from the Temple elms,
And at my feet the pale green Thames
Lies like a rod of rippled jade.

I’ve always been an Oscar Wilde fan, especially of his plays and his remarkable fairy stories. My favourite of his poems is the memorable The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written after he left prison and published under his prison number C.33, but that great poem is too long for me to include here. So, I’ve given you one of his short poems instead.

Oscar always loved colour – vermillion, deep purples and rich golds and works such as The Birthday of the Infanta and The Happy Prince are full of references to different vivid hues. This poem was written in 1889, when Oscar was much involved in the Aesthetic Movement (a movement which stressed the importance of beauty and aestheticism in literature, art, house decoration etc, in preference to a stress on social and political ideas). Connected with that movement was the artist James McNeill Whistler – he was for a while a close friend of Oscar Wilde’s – and you can see that Wilde is here creating a painting as well as a poem. As you read, you can see that yellow butterfly, the pale green river sluggishly moving along, while the London fog could be straight out of one of Monet’s London paintings (done at almost exactly the same time this poem was written).

There is no action in Symphony in Yellow, it is entirely descriptive and aims to transport the reader for a few moments into a world of beauty and sensuality. The title of the poem references Whistler, who created the famous ‘Symphony in White’ series of paintings in the 1860s. In spite of the ‘symphony’ title of Wilde’s poem, there are no adjectives indicating sounds within the lines. Yet every element of the poem (the bus, river, the shadowy wharf) are all in perfect harmony, which is what should happen in a good symphony and a good poem.

Colours are important to all of us, and yellow is generally considered to be a colour of happiness, freshness and sunshine. Yet this is an autumnal poem – the yellow leaves are fading. Perhaps the poet is reminding us of the fleeting nature of happiness?

The poem has been set to music. You can listen to the poem being read here.


Have you enjoyed this poem? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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Body image credit- Claude Monet, The Thames Below Westminster, The National Gallery, UK, https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/claude-monet-the-thames-below-westminster
Body image credit- Oscar Wilde, photo by Napoleon Sarony, c.1882, http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3g07096/

Comments (4)

  1. Annabel

    I too love Oscar and The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Some of his other poetry I find difficult, full of literary allusions. But he wrote a really sweet poem for his sister who died at ten years old when Oscar was twelve. It’s called Requiescat and I think he was 19 when he wrote it? Thanks Susannah I enjoy your literary updates.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      On a literary tour of Ireland I once stood at the grave of Isola Wilde and read ‘Requiescat’, a poem I’ve always loved. I also saw the room where she died – she was still so young.
      I’m glad you enjoy my literary newsletter.

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