Oscar Wilde's "Les Ballons" contemplates the fragility of beauty through descriptions of balloons. From the poem's opening, Wilde focuses on the balloons' delicateness and beauty, highlighting these characteristics by contrasting them to characteristics of the surrounding environment.

Against these turbid turquoise skies
The light and luminous balloons
Dip and drift like satin moons,
Drift like silken butterflies.

The skies are cloudy, thick, and dark; the balloons are "light" and "luminous", particularly bright against such a gloomy setting. The image of butterflies, however, evokes a sense of fleetingness — these delicate balloons will exist only for a brief time in the world. The words "satin" and "silken" further illustrate the balloons' soft beauty, and they also perhaps refer to the cloth of women's dresses, a suggestion supported by the simile in the next stanza:

Reel with every windy gust,
Rise and reel like dancing girls,
Float like strange transparent pearls,
Fall and float like silver dust.

The image of "dancing girls" sums up the balloons' fragile, impermanent beauty, as girls mature and see their beauty fade with age. The images of "transparent pearls" and "silver dust" again accentuate the balloons' beautiful delicateness.

Now to the low leaves they cling,
Each with coy fantastic pose,
Each a petal of a rose
Straining at a gossamer string.

Although the image of a rose petal attached to a "gossamer string" illustrates beauty at its most fragile, the balloons' actions in this stanza begin to surmount their delicate descriptions. At the stanza's start, the balloons are clinging to the "low leaves", but in the last line of the stanza they are "straining", struggling to rise higher — which they achieve in the next, and final, stanza.

Then to the tall trees they climb,
Like thin globes of amethyst,
Wandering opals keeping tryst
With the rubies of the lime.

Here, the balloons are compared to jewels — objects of beauty that last forever. The idea of "wandering" accentuates this sense of perpetuity; the balloons' journey continues, for they must keep "tryst / With the rubies of the lime." This conclusion implies that the balloons are heading toward some sort of eternal existence, in contrast to the poem's earlier images, which portray the balloons' beauty as fleeting.

Discussion Questions

1. Why does Wilde choose to illustrate ideas of beauty through balloons? What, other than beauty, might balloons represent?

2. Early in the poem, Wilde compares balloons to butterflies, girls, and dust — images suggesting the balloons' impermanence. Yet the poem ends with a comparison to gems. Why might Wilde have chosen to end the poem in this way, with images of lasting beauty?

3. How does nature interact with the balloons throughout this poem? What could this suggest about the relationship between natural forces and man-made objects?

4. What is the effect of Wilde's repetition of words in this poem — for example, the word "reel" in the second stanza?

5. "Symphony in Yellow," another poem by Wilde, also features heavily descriptive images. How do these two poems compare?


Victorian Web Overview Decadents and Aesthetes Overview Oscar Wilde Leading Questions

Last modified 27 November 2006