decorated initial 'O'scar Wilde's "Helas!" spills the thoughts of the narrator's decadent mind questioning the decadence he has chosen. The narrator clearly finds immense pleasure indulging in many passions, but he is stricken by an inconvenient doubt which disrupts his sensory bliss. It points his floundering finger, flavored with pleasures but easily prone to discontent, to the possibilities of life he has abandoned. It prompts him to reevaluate the life he once had and the life he now has. Though he doesn't outright say his yearning for the "ancient wisdom" and "austere control" that he gave up, he does put these virtues up for comparison with decadence. By the end of the poem, his thinking leans more toward a condemnation of decadence — how it has perhaps marred his life to the point that certain walks of life are now forever shut off from him.

The narrator is caught at an unfortunate psychological crossroads. He is beginning to see what decadence has cost him, and the implications that will surely follow. The last statement illuminates the stark reality of choosing decadence:

lo! with a little rod
I did but touch the honey of romance — And must I lose a soul's inheritance?

Just the slightest taste of decadence has removed the narrator from engaging in society. However, there comes a point where decadent eccentricities can no longer mask the need to engage in society. The narrator is well on his way to this point — though the last line tells us that he still holds on to the decadence he loves.

Questions

1. Wilde's narrator thinks of his life as a "twice-written scroll scrawled over on some boyish holiday." He's saying that decadence is a sort of graffiti covering up the secrets of the societal life so they cannot be read. Do you think that this is an accurate depiction of decadence? Would a fervent decadent agree?

2. Music is mentioned three times in this poem to describe the soul (as a stringed lute for the wind to play), the effect of decadence (idle songs for pipe and virelay scrawled upon the narrator's life-scroll), and the power of religion (a clear chord to God through the dissonance of life). What is Wilde saying about how these three are related?

3. The narrator says that he might have once "struck a clear chord to reach the ears of God," but those times are probably dead. How does he view religion? What do decadents have to say about religion?

4. In Huysmans' Against Nature we can see the gradual disintegration of the decadent Des Essientes. Did Des Essientes pass through a similar point in the decline that Wilde's narrator describes?

5. After these lines of deliberation, how do you think the narrator feels about his decadence? Does he come to a conclusion or make a decision?


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Last modified 21 April 2008