'Our Soul is Like a Kite': A poem misattributed to Oscar Wilde

This article has been published in Notes & Queries, by Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/notesj/gjac023

In 1979 Bobby Fong described ‘five fugitive poems’ that had circulated during Wilde’s lifetime but were not well known because they had not been included in the 1908 Collected Edition.1 One of these ‘fugitives’ is an untitled poem of fifteen lines that begins:

Our soul is like a kite,
That soars with ease to heavenly height,
Held by a thread invisible.                             [read the whole poem here - see column 2]

The poem was originally published and attributed to Wilde in the New York Tribune on 23 January 1882,2 at which time Wilde was in the United States at the start of an almost year-long lecture tour. Fong and his co-editor Karl Beckson included ‘Our soul is like a kite’ in the Oxford English Texts edition of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.3 In this note I attempt to establish that the poem was not written by Wilde.

Fong and Beckson do not discuss the poem’s authenticity. In his 1979 paper Fong notes that the rhythm of the poem suggests that it ‘aspires to the condition of music’. Walter Pater, one of the few writers Wilde acknowledged had influenced him,4 asserted that ‘[a]ll art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,’5 and, in Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry praises Gray’s piano playing, remarking: ‘What a blessing it is that there is one art left to us that is not imitative!’6 Nevertheless, this is hardly evidence that the poem was written by Wilde. Fong detects a resemblance of the poem to ‘My soul is like an enchanted boat’ in Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound; although Wilde is known to have drawn inspiration from Shelley,7 he is far from the only poet so indebted, so this cannot be counted as evidence in support of Wilde’s authorship either.

Other characteristics of the poem argue against Wilde’s authorship. Wilde was an unrepentant self-plagiariser,8 and his poetry is replete with recycled lines and imagery; ‘Our soul is like a kite’ echoes none of his other poems. That the poem is untitled is also relevant: Fong and Beckson reprint other untitled poems, but all are taken from manuscript drafts unpublished in Wilde’s lifetime. Wilde often changed the titles of his poems and it is clear that he thought the title an important component of a poem; it would be highly unusual for him to offer a poem for publication without a title. Fong, to his credit, recognised that ‘“Our soul is like a kite” seems to have been a unique departure on Wilde’s part from metric conventionality. There is nothing else in his work quite like it.’ Despite this insight, Fong evidently maintained a belief that the attribution to Wilde was sound.

Wilde as he appeared on the lecture platform in New York in 1882. Image: LOC

An analysis of the poem itself can only take us so far. Fortunately there is a good deal of relevant contextual information that can speak to the poem’s authenticity or lack thereof. Wilde’s advent in America was the inspiration for much mock-aesthetic poetry. Newspapers published many of these poems anonymously, but some were attributed to Wilde. Wilde did not see fit to disclaim authorship, and even judged the four poems that were printed in New York’s The World in January 1882 over his initials to be ‘admirable parodies’.9 Given that The World parodies feature elements that are suggestive of Wilde’s poetry, such as an ornate vocabulary and characteristic subject matter (actresses, nature), it seems clear that no contemporary attribution of a poem to Wilde, particularly those dating from January 1882, should be accepted without supporting evidence.

John Howson as a Wilde-like Bunthorne in Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic opera, Patience.

Press coverage of Wilde’s North American tour was not universally positive. Journalists were aware that Wilde had been contracted by Richard D’Oyly Carte, the producer of Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operas, to act as a form of advertisement for Patience; or, Bunthorne’s Bride, the duo’s satire on aestheticism. Wilde was associated in the popular imagination with the character of Bunthorne, a sham-aesthete who confesses to the audience that he has adopted the craze because of his ‘morbid love of admiration’. Journalists often alleged that Wilde was equally duplicitous, and that his aim in coming to America was less to educate the masses on art matters than to make money. Newspapers varied in their sympathy for Wilde but the Tribune was, as Wilde’s most recent biographer Matthew Sturgis has put it, ‘unrelentingly hostile.’10 Wilde himself thought the paper’s account of his second New York lecture was ‘badly reported’,11 and he complained to the society lawyer George Lewis that: ‘Your friend Whitelaw Reid [editor of the Tribune] to whom I brought two letters of introduction, has not been very civil – in fact has not helped me in any way at all.’12 Articles about Wilde in the Tribune should therefore be treated with extra caution.

Our soul is like a kite’ was printed in the Tribune beneath an interview formatted as a letter to the editor. This interview has every appearance of being fabricated, and therefore must call into question the authenticity of the poem. Wilde gave many interviews in America in 1882, particularly during January when interest in the so-called ‘Apostle of Aestheticism’ was at its peak. Journalists did not scruple at embellishing these interviews. Wilde told one: ‘You American newspaper men are wonderful fellows. I talk a moment to you and you go off and write two column interviews’.13 To another he said: ‘I am always glad to see you [...] when you don’t misrepresent the movement, you know.’14 In St. Louis in February he claimed that ‘In New York [...] they wrote entirely fictitious interviews with me after having called on me. I think that they might at least have spared me the trouble of talking to them.’15 Many did spare him the trouble. Only the most credulous readers will have been taken in by the comic interviews in which Wilde was made to talk in the supposed argot of the aesthetes (e.g. ‘This is sweetly utter’16) or to admit that he was a tobacco-chomping, beefsteak-eating charlatan.17 Aesthetes were also thought to speak in a rarefied and impenetrable style, and fictitious interviews that sought to imitate this style, while eschewing slang and other humorous elements, are perhaps more convincing. This is the type of interview that was printed in the Tribune.18

Whitelaw Reid, the editor of the New York Tribune. Image: Wikimedia

The interviewer, who gives his name as W. T. Mercer, begins by explaining that, ‘[w]hen in London, through the kindness of William Morris I was introduced to our present guest Oscar Wilde, and on calling upon him, the following dialogue occurred, which may be of interest to your readers’. Wilde exaggerated his acquaintance with Morris but it must be conceded that it is not impossible that such an introduction could have been made.19 Mercer asks Wilde if he intends to give more lectures in New York (he had first lectured on 9 January), to which Wilde replies: ‘Well, that question I can hardly answer, as it depends largely on the receptive nature of the Americans, and their desire to understand our unwritten philosophy.’ Again, this may not seem especially dubious; it echoes Wilde’s responses to similar questions reported elsewhere. For example, when Wilde was asked by a representative of The World – one of a contingent of at least five reporters who chartered a steamer to meet the SS Arizona in New York Harbour – if he intended to lecture in America, he responded: ‘That will depend considerably upon the encouragement with which my philosophy meets.’20 However, suspicions should be raised by the remainder of the Tribune interview. Mercer asks: ‘Do you mean that you have no particular laws or tenets of your philosophy?’ Wilde replies:

Oh, no. We have a positive, special, independent metaphysical science; but the mind of the average Philistine Briton is incapable of understanding it. Consequently we have never published it, but transmit it orally to the members of our society. But if I thought the American people desired, I would gladly give a few of them, as they have treated me so kindly and seem to welcome all advanced ideas on religion, art, philosophy or aestheticism.

Mercer requests ‘a few condensed ideas’, and Wilde proceeds to give him ‘merely an outline of our metaphysical science’. This ‘outline’ includes such ideas as ‘we believe there is no actual difference between the world of matter and space’, and ‘[f]orm is the manifestation of God to us.’ Wilde’s ideas as presented do not correspond with those he espoused elsewhere, including in other interviews that appear to be genuine. To The World interviewer he defined aestheticism as

a search after the signs of the beautiful. It is the science through which men look after the correlation which exists in the arts. It is, to speak more exactly, the search after the secret of life.

This answer is corroborated by the accounts of other interviewers who accompanied The World representative,21 and by the closing lines of Wilde’s first New York lecture: ‘We spend our days, each of us, looking for the secret of life. Well, my friends, the secret of life is in art.’22 Wilde’s description of aestheticism as ‘the science through which men look after the correlation which exists in the arts’ was one that he returned to in later interviews, including one for the Tribune published on 8 January: ‘I believe myself [...] in the correlation of the arts; that painting, poetry, and sculpture are only different forms of the same truth.’23 It was a belief he stuck by. In an 1885 review of James Whistler’s 10 o’clock lecture Wilde would state that

there are not many arts, but one art merely: poem, picture, and Parthenon, sonnet and statue—all are in their essence the same, and he who knows one, knows all.24

Mercer’s interview cannot be corroborated in the same way. Nowhere else is Wilde represented as speaking of a ‘metaphysical science’, of ‘matter and space’, or of similar esoteric concepts. It is therefore extremely unlikely that Mercer’s interview is genuine.

The interview ends with Wilde saying: ‘as I must bring our interview to a close, I will give you one of my unpublished poems, which partly illustrates my views on the longing of the soul for the beautiful and unattainable’. The text of ‘Our soul is like a kite’ follows. I am aware of no other instances of Wilde giving an unpublished poem to an interviewer. He brought copies of his 1881 collection Poems to America and presented them to several people, including interviewers.25 When called upon to sign autographs or guest books, he tended to inscribe lines from Poems.26 If Mercer had received any poetry from Wilde, it would most likely have been a copy of, or transcript from, Poems. It is worth noting that Wilde was notoriously exacting about how his poetry and other writings were printed,27 and to relinquish control over the publication of a poem would have been out of character. Also, before setting sail for New York, Wilde had been commissioned by the American publisher Joseph M. Stoddart to write a twenty line poem for the generous fee of a guinea a line.28 He had written Le Jardin and La Mer (twelve lines each) on the journey over from England, and they duly appeared in the first number of Our Continent over a facsimile of his signature.29 For a number of years Wilde had been seeking to establish a literary career, and it does not seem likely that, at the moment when his poetry was beginning to pay, he would have given away a poem from which he might have profited.

It appears that Mercer – presumably not his real name30 – wrote ‘Our soul is like a kite’ and that his attribution of the poem to Wilde has been incorrectly perpetuated by the editors of Wilde’s Complete Works.

  1. Bobby Fong, ‘Oscar Wilde: five fugitive poems’, ELT, xxii (1979), 7–16.
  2. ‘The Aesthetic Gospel’, New York Tribune, 23 January 1882, 5. (view source)
  3. Bobby Fong and Karl Beckson (eds), The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Vol. 1: Poems and Poems in Prose (Oxford, 2000), No. 93.
  4. The others were Keats and Flaubert. [Robert Ross], ‘Mr. Oscar Wilde on Mr. Oscar Wilde’, St. James’s Gazette (London, UK), 18 January 1895, 4–5.
  5. Water H. Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry (London, 1897), 140.
  6. Joseph Bristow (ed), The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Vol. 3: The Picture of Dorian Gray: The 1890 and 1891 Texts (Oxford, 2005), 158.5–7.
  7. For echoes of Shelley in Wilde’s poetry see e.g. Lotus Leaves (Fong and Beckson, No. 23, line 35), Charmides (Fong and Beckson, No. 55, line 455); and Panthea (Fong and Beckson, No. 62, lines 97–102).
  8. Josephine M. Guy, ‘Self-plagiarism, creativity and craftsmanship in Oscar Wilde’, ELT, xli (1998), 6–23.
  9. Oscar Wilde to Walter Hamilton, [postmark 29 January 1889], in Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis (eds.), The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde (London, 2000), 390. The New York World, Semi-Weekly Edition, 10 January 1882, 5–6; 13 January, 6.
  10. Matthew Sturgis, Oscar: A Life (London, 2018), 227.
  11. Oscar Wilde to Charles Godfrey Leland, [c. 15 May 1882], Complete Letters, 170–1.
  12. Oscar Wilde to George Lewis, [9 February 1882], Complete Letters, 134–6.
  13. ‘Oscar Wilde’, The Daily Sentinel (Fort Wayne, IN), 16 February 1882, 3.
  14. ‘The Aesthetic Apostle’, The Boston Sunday Globe, 29 January 1882, 5.
  15. ‘Oscar Wilde’, The Republican (St. Louis, MO), 26 February 1882, 13.
  16. ‘Oscar Wilde’, The Denver Republican, 13 April 1882, 4.
  17. E.g. ‘Oscar Wilde in Atchison’, The Atchison Globe, 22 April 1882, 1.
  18. Another example is ‘Our New York Letter’, Philadelphia Inquirer, 4 Jan. 1882, 7, which ascribes to Wilde such uncharacteristic remarks as ‘I have always loved nature in its wild, magnificent beauty. When I can meet her in the wilderness amid towering cliffs and hanging cataracts, then I love her and become her slave.’ Despite this, the article was reprinted in Matthew Hofer and Gary Scharnhorst, Oscar Wilde in America: The Interviews (Urbana and Chicago, 2010), 17–18.
  19. ‘A Talk with Wilde’, Philadelphia Press, 17 January 1882, 2; Sturgis, 180.
  20. ‘Oscar Wilde’s Arrival’, The New York World, Semi-Weekly Edition (New York, NY), 3 January 1882, 4.
  21. ‘Arrival of Oscar Wilde’, New York Tribune, 3 January 1882, 5; ‘Oscar Wilde’, The New York Herald, 3 January 1882, 6.
  22. ‘Oscar Wilde’s Art Gospel’, The Sun (New York, NY), 10 January 1881, 1.
  23. ‘The Theories of a Poet’, New York Tribune, 8 January 1882, 7.
  24. Stokes and Turner, No. 10.
  25. E.g. ‘Oscar Wilde’, The Daily Sentinel (Fort Wayne, IN), 16 February 1882, 3; ‘Oscar Wilde’, The Republican (St. Louis, MO), 26 February 1882, 13.
  26. ‘Wilde Sees the Falls’, Buffalo Morning Express, 10 February. 1882, 4; ‘Oscar Wilde’, The Republican (St. Louis, MO), 26 February 1882, 13; Mary Watson, ‘Oscar Wilde at Home’, The Daily Examiner (San Francisco, CA), 9 April 1882, 1.
  27. See e.g. Oscar Wilde to Keningale Cook, [May–June 1877], Complete Letters, 51–2; Oscar Wilde to the Rev. Matthew Russell SJ, [15 or 16 June 1877], Complete Letters, 53.
  28. Stuart Mason (ed.), The Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (London, 1914), 125. Fong and Beckson, 295, state that the commission, which specially requests a poem about the sunflower or lily, ‘seems to be’ for the poems printed in Our Continent. This is confirmed beyond doubt by two interviews with Stoddart in which he describes the commission in greater detail: ‘Oscar Wilde’s Visit’, The Scranton Republican, 3 January 1882, 2; and ‘Oscar, The Aesthete’, Philadelphia Press, 7 January 1882, 8.
  29. Fong and Beckson, Nos. 94, 95.
  30. The most prominent person by the name of W. T. Mercer in the late nineteenth-century was a British colonial administrator. He died in 1879. The New York City directories for 1881/1882 and 1882/1883 do not list anyone with the name.
UPDATE (17 May 2022): “W. T. Mercer” is William Tomkins Mersereau (1839–1907), an American manufacturer of metal beds. A revised version of Mersereau’s article, including the poem, was reprinted in his 1899 collection of poetry and other writings, Tones and Undertones (46–9). The later version, titled The Aesthetic Gospel, does not refer to Wilde by name but only as “the returned Mahatma of a distinguished modern philosopher”. I am grateful to John Cooper of oscarwildeinamerica.org for identifying Mersereau and alerting me to Tones and Undertones.