Years ago, when I read ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’ by Oscar Wilde, I don’t remember how I felt mostly, except that the story ended in a moral which was undoubtedly the saddest part because it was too fantastically karmic. Given that Wilde was wild in his days, wrote only this one novel published in 1890, which got censored for indecency despite the moral ending and that he went to prison for sodomy, then died at 46 of meningitis, makes me feel terrible for him. Yet, it was George Bernard Shaw who said about Wilde, that he possessed “an unconquerable gaiety of soul.” That is an exculpation of sorts from otherwise tragic circumstances.
The poem was inspired by the character of Sibyl in ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’, the actress in love with the hedonist Dorian Gray, who can fake no more her love on stage, ever since she finds out what true love is. Dorian Gray sells his soul, so that he may remain youthful forever while his picture bears the marks of his debauched existence, his various sins, the first being the sneer after he rejects Sibyl for her melodramatic display of woundedness. An eventual dialogue between Gray and Lord Henry upon learning of Sibyl’s death is as follows:
“So I have murdered Sibyl Vane,” said Dorian Gray, half to himself, “murdered her as surely as if I had cut her little throat with a knife. Yet the roses are not less lovely for all that. The birds sing just as happily in my garden. And to-night I am to dine with you, and then go on to the opera, and sup somewhere, I suppose, afterwards. How extraordinarily dramatic life is! If I had read all this in a book, Harry, I think I would have wept over it. Somehow, now that it has happened actually, and to me, it seems far too wonderful for tears. Here is the first passionate love-letter I have ever written in my life. Strange, that my first passionate love-letter should have been addressed to a dead girl. Can they feel, I wonder, those white silent people we call the dead? Sibyl! Can she feel, or know, or listen? Oh, Harry, how I loved her once! It seems years ago to me now. She was everything to me. Then came that dreadful night—was it really only last night?—when she played so badly, and my heart almost broke. She explained it all to me. It was terribly pathetic. But I was not moved a bit. I thought her shallow. Suddenly something happened that made me afraid. I can’t tell you what it was, but it was terrible. I said I would go back to her. I felt I had done wrong. And now she is dead. My God! My God! Harry, what shall I do? You don’t know the danger I am in, and there is nothing to keep me straight. She would have done that for me. She had no right to kill herself. It was selfish of her.” (Chapter VIII)
I wanted to juxtapose this with our constant vacillations between what we think is authentic in us and the performative authenticity we are driven towards by our social mores, that we deem precious and true. Gray was very conflicted in his appreciation for an assumed ideal that he feels Sibyl does not live up to, so in a way I also wanted the poem to stand for Sibyl deserving of her own social-effacing picture in contrast to Gray’s self effacing one. I felt this portrait of a mannequin takes on the bloodletting of society in its perpetual quest for various contrivances to imitate youth and/or health. The photo I took at the Macy’s flower show in Manhattan this month. It was what triggered the thought for the poem and then, Dorian Gray.
Skin sheathed in the colour of warmth, she is
a portrait that sparks a thousand poems to life,
in furtive blush strokes of plum that court
her lips, like candied corruptions .
Piquant pulse gurgles through the venous
in rough timbre, at ceaseless pitch ...
black onyx or brown amber eyes, contrails
of hair mark the wind like a flag in happy tatters
until Sibyl learns of the sibilant in an undergrowth,
a yearning snaking forth a thousand fold in desire
for the effervescence of youth or is it the ephemeral
in heart beats, the colour of borrowed time,
rendered to elixirs of hue on a pristine counter
drained from her as she takes on an ashen tint.
Her sweet scent blossoms into frangipani, all musk
and bloom, the apothecary delights in bottling them all
as the gilded vines of gold harness her to a lily fate
in a valley of echoes, impersonating life
while she remains a cold absence of herself on
a marble floor, dead chalk, like bone in a barrenness.
Here is this remarkable book in the public domain, for those who may wish to read it. The Project Gutenberg eBook of The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde