In 1882 the fourth and fifth editions of Oscar Wilde's Poems were published by David Bogue, the first three editions having been published the preceding year. For the fourth and fifth editions some two or three dozen minor changes were made which were for the most part clearly authorial rephrasings of single lines or substitutions of single words. The one exception to this is the change made to the poem "Charmides" from which the two following stanzas, the nineteenth and twenty-third, were cancelled:
Those who have never known a lover's sin
Let them not read my ditty, it will be
To their dull ears so musicless and thin
That they will have no joy of it, but ye
To whose wan cheeks now creeps the lingering smile,
Ye who have learned who Eros is, — O listen yet a-while
They who have never seen the daylight peer
Into a darkened room, and drawn the curtain,
And with dull eyes and wearied from some dear
And worshipped body risen, they for certain
Will never know of what I try to sing,
How long the last kiss was, how fond and late his lingering. [Works, IX, 124-5]
The removal of these stanzas, which were reinstated by Robert Ross in the Methuen edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde in 1908, and by virtually all subsequent editors, was possibly prompted by public reaction to the poem rather than by any aesthetic consideration. In "Charmides" Wilde pushes Victorian tolerance to the limit by telling the story of a young Greek sailor who stole into Athena's shrine and ravished her image. He compounds the provocation by addressing his readers in stanzas 19 and 23, dividing them into sinners and innocents, and rejecting the latter as unsuitable readers of the poem. Richard Ellman points out that on at least one occasion "Charmides" was probably the focal point of the considerable moral outrage caused by the publication of Poems (141).
From the artistic point of view the damage done to the poem by the cancellations is considerable. Stanzas 19 and 23, which are the only stanzas in which the speaker of the poem breaks off from the narrative to use the first person and to address, indirectly and directly, the reader, together with stanza 21 in which the speaker also uses the first person, form a unit which immediately anticipates and emphasizes the narrative's first climax. The removal of two of these stanzas leave the phrase, in stanza 21, "Never I ween did lover hold such tryst" isolated and vestigial. A subsidiary but significant theme, the difficulty of communicating the intensity of erotic experience through poetry, is also weakened by the loss of stanza 23. In stanza 5 of Part III the speaker breaks off from the narrative again to exclaim: "O why essay/ To pipe again of love, too venturous reed?" and in stanza 6: "Too venturous poesy O why essay/ To pipe again of passion?" The theme of literary overreaching (in which Wilde perhaps alludes to his violations of the norms of Victorian morality) first appears in stanza 23:
of what I try to sing,
How long the last kiss was, ...'
Wilde, rather than proposing the cancellations himself, may have been advised that the two stanzas were too provocative to stand, or Bogue may have insisted on the omissions having come under pressure from a third party or parties. In either case it seems unlikely that Wilde would have unprotestingly agreed to the changes since, according to Ellman, he considered "Charmides" his best poem (134), and on more than one occasion replied to his critics that he did not admit to moral judgements of art:
A poem is well written or badly written. In art there should be no reference to a standard of good or evil. The presence of such a reference implies incompleteness of vision. [...] Art must be loved for its own sake, and not criticised by a standard of morality. . . . The Greeks understood this principle, and with perfect serenity enjoyed works of art, which, I suppose, some of my critics would never allow their families to look at. The enjoyment of poetry does not come from the subject, but from the language and rhythm. [Quoted in Mason, 325]
Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde. London, 1987.
Mason, Stuart. Bibliography of Oscar Wilde. London, 1967.
Wilde, Oscar. The Works of Oscar Wilde. Ed. Robert Ross. 14 vols. London, 1908.
Last modified 7 March 2002