Requiescat, Oscar Wilde’s tribute to his sister Isola

An envelope containing strands of Isola Wilde's hair, found among Oscar Wilde's possessions when he died
An envelope containing strands of Isola Wilde’s hair, found among Oscar Wilde’s possessions when he died – Photograph: Merlin Holland Picture Archive

Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde was born on October 16, 1854 in Dublin, the second son of William Robert Wills Wilde, a famous otolaryngologist and ophthalmologist, and Jane Francesca Agnes Elgee, a poet and supporter of the Irish nationalist movement. His mother wanted a daughter, and as a toddler, Oscar was raised and clothed as a little girl. The feminine and intellectual way in which she educated him must have contributed to his sensitive and aesthetic temperament, quite opposed to that of his father.

On April 2, 1857, Isola Francesca Emily Wilde, the longed for daughter, was born at last. The whole family doted on her. A strong bond developed between Oscar and Isola. In adulthood, he would recall her as “a golden ray of sunshine dancing about our home” (according to Eleanor Fitzsimons), or “dancing like a golden sunbeam about the house” (according to Angela Kingston).

Isola suddenly died on February 23, 1867, less than two months from her 10th birthday. She had been ill with fever, then was recovering with her aunt and uncle in Edgeworthstown; according to her mother, she got “a sudden effusion on the brain,” probably meningitis. The 12-year-old Oscar was devastated. He would frequently visit Isola’s grave. He was forever haunted by her memory, and it would have a lasting influence on his writings. After Oscar’s death (on November 30, 1900), friends found among his possessions a hand-decorated envelope containing a few golden strands of Isola’s hair, with the inscription “My Isola’s Hair” next to the linked initials O and I (above, on the left and the right), see the image at the top of this article.

Wilde’s famous poem “Requiescat,” most likely written during his years as student in Oxford (from 1874 to 1878), is devoted to the memory of Isola.

REQUIESCAT.
by Oscar Wilde

Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.

All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.

Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.

Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.

Peace, Peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life’s buried here,
Heap earth upon it.

AVIGNON.

In late 2014, a previously unknown 142-page notebook of Oscar Wilde was discovered at the Free Library of Philadelphia. This autograph manuscript of many poems, available in PDF, was studied by Angela Kingston in her article “The Mystery of the Poet’s Heart” published in January 2017 in The Wildean.

Page 119 of the notebook contains a draft of the 3th, 4th and 5th stanzas, but the following additional stanza appears between the 3rd and 4th:

Had we not loved so well
Not loved at all
None would have tolled the bell
None borne the pall

Then page 131 of notebook gives the 1st stanza, and the following variant of the 2nd:

All that was bright and fair
Fallen to dust
Red mouth and golden hair: —
Can God be just.

The “golden hair” and “red mouth” seem recurrent in many love poems written by Oscar Wilde, for instance “In the Gold Room: A Harmony,” where one reads “Her gold hair fell on the wall of gold” and “And her sweet red lips on these lips of mine.” Kingston considers this as a reference to Isola. Many scholars have also seen allusions to Isola in several works by Wilde, such as his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, his short story “The Canterville Ghost,” or his collection of fairy stories A House of Pomegranates. For instance, a girl with golden hair, a close relation between a brother and a sister, or the death of a loved girl, will suggest such an interpretation.

The additional stanza on page 119 seems to hint at a feeling of guilt, that the love between Oscar and Isola caused her death. Had something inappropriate happened between them? On page 130, preceding the draft, one reads:

O bitter fate
When some long strangled memory of sin
Strikes with its poisoned knife into a heart
While she has slept at peace

Then underneath something like “the boy strangling the thing it loves” adds more strangeness to this page. Oscar Wilde seems to be haunted by the guilt of having killed his love. Kingston sees a reminiscence of this in Wilde’s last and most famous poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written after his two years spent in jail, which centres on a prison inmate who is hanged for having murdered his wife:

Yet each man kills the thing he loves,
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Some kill their love when they are young,
And some when they are old;
Some strangle with the hands of Lust,
Some with the hands of Gold:
The kindest use a knife, because
The dead so soon grow cold.

Every man who loves is guilty of murder, not only the one who is hanged, but all other prisoners, in particular Wilde.

But there were those amongst us all
Who walked with downcast head,
And knew that, had each got his due,
They should have died instead:
He had but killed a thing that lived,
Whilst they had killed the dead.

For he who sins a second time
Wakes a dead soul to pain,
And draws it from its spotted shroud,
And makes it bleed again,
And makes it bleed great gouts of blood,
And makes it bleed in vain!

Kingston suggests that Wilde’s second sin was his homosexuality (for which he was sentenced to jail), while his first had been with Isola.

Another famous poem by Wilde is “Charmides.” It tells of a young sailor who sexually profanes the statue of the virgin goddess Athena in her temple; but then she has her revenge and drowns him in the sea. The waves carry his corpses ashore, and a dryad falls in love with him, trying to awake him. Then she is killed by another virgin goddess, Artemis. Finally, Aphrodite pleads to have the two reunited in the land of the dead, where they indeed become lovers. Kingston sees an allusion to Isola in the dryad loving the dead boy. On the other hand, Robert Merle, in his book Oscar Wilde, ou la “destinée” de l’homosexuel, sees Isola in the profaned marble statue of the virgin goddess.

Oscar Wilde remains mysterious in his complexity, a homosexual who wrote erotic love poems devoted to girls, a free mind who seemed ridden with guilt, and an atheist who converted to Catholicism on his deathbed.

At some point, the headstone erected by the Wilde family in memory of Isola disappeared from St John’s Graveyard in Edgeworthstown, and its location was never discovered. A new headstone for Isola Wilde was erected on July 4th, 2013, carved with the first stanza of Requiescat. It is situated just inside the gate of St John’s Churchyard.

Isola Wilde Memorial, St John’s Churchyard, Edgeworthstown
Isola Wilde Memorial, St John’s Churchyard, Edgeworthstown

References:

The writings of Oscar Wilde, Vol. 1, Poems, A. R. Keller Co., London, New York (1907).

Samantha M., “Oscar Wilde Manuscripts,” Free Library of Philadelphia Blog, Nov. 25, 2014. See also “Autograph manuscript of many poems, in a notebook illustrated with numerous sketches, 140 pages.”

Angela Kingston, “‘The Mystery of the Poet’s Heart’ — Philadelphia Discovery Casts New Light on Oscar and Isola Wilde,” The Wildean: A Journal of Oscar Wilde Studies, Issue 50, Jan. 2017, pp. 3–40.

Angela Kingston, “Oscar Wilde and the sister’s death that haunted his life and work,” The Irish Times, Feb. 15, 2017.

Eleanor Fitzsimons, “Isola Wilde,” Women’s Museum of Ireland, 2013.

Isola Francesca Emily Wilde Memorial, Find A Grave.

John McGerr, “Isola Wilde Memorial,” Edgeworthstown Blog, Feb. 24, 2017.

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