West Chester University
An Explication of "Impression du Matin"
Wilde’s Impressions of Society
Oscar Wilde’s "Impression du Matin" indeed seems like a romantic poem, using beautiful imagery to describe the Thames River; however, Wilde is not of the "stop to smell the roses" school. It becomes clear that "Impression"is not a plea to the reader to take advantage of nature; it is, perhaps, the opposite. The mere fact that the nature being described is the Thames is a clue, a river stuck in the middle of London, a capital of business and chaos, which Wilde recognizes with the "barge with ocher-colored hay." This is confusing to me--why then, did Wilde write the poem? It could not be just a simple description of a scene on the Thames, could it? Of course not. I found the answers using a very small amount of information I found on the life of Oscar Wilde.
In reading Oscar Wilde’s "Impression du Matin," I was at first interested in the descriptive use of colors in the first stanza: "The Thames nocturne of blue and gold,/ Changed to a harmony in gray;/ A barge with ocher-colored hay/ Dropped from the wharf..."(Abrams 1747). Any basic biography of Wilde notes that he had had a very publicized (platonic) love/hate relationship with James A. MacNeill Whistler, brought on by Wilde’s appreciation of Whistler’s work (Ellmann 59). Whistler had done a series of nighttime scenes (called "Nocturnes"), one of which was entitled Nocturne in the Blue and Gold: Old Battersea Bridge, and another painting called Harmony in Gray, images used in the first and second lines. Obviously there is no question of Whistler’s influence on Wilde’s poem.
I then skipped to the fourth stanza and examined the description of a prostitute. This is a confusing shift in subject matter, as at first Wilde describes a painting, but a prostitute, or any human figure, for that matter, is found in the painting. This assists the clarity of the poem, confirming the poem is indeed a commentary on society. Her description is a striking contrast to the colorful imagery of her surroundings. Her description is beige, a dull white against a bright background: "But one pale woman all alone,/ The daylight kissing her wan hair,/ Loitered beneath the gas lamp’s flare,/ With lips of flame and heart of stone." I was curious as to the use of "wan." In literature, one usually sees "wan and pale," or "pale and wan," which is redundant, but regardless, the words are generally used as one unit. Wilde separates them by a full line. I looked up "wan" in the Oxford English Dictionary and found that in every definition, almost every usage, "wan" is used to describe skin, generally on the face. Because one does generally think of the face when "wan" is the adjective, the object "hair" allows for the imagery of a hair color not found in nature, almost transparent. Wilde uses this imagery effectively, conveying society’s view of prostitution as almost transparent, not seeing the poor, those who are forced to do what they would not otherwise do in order to survive. Also in the fourth stanza is the questionable use of "loitered" as opposed to the grammatically correct "loitering," possibly implying she is not loitering of her own accord, it is something society has forced upon her.
"Impression du Matin" is a deceiving poem, sucking the reader in with a lovely description of a river, something that most of us are familiar with, and ending surprisingly with social commentary regarding prostitution, a sometimes taboo subject. I believe this adds to the effectiveness of the poem, as the subject matter of the last stanza is so abrupt, it stands out-not only in the poem itself, but in the lingering thoughts of the readers.
Abrams, M.H., ed. "Impression du Matin" The Norton Anthology of English Literature, vol.2. New York: Norton and Co., 2000
Ellmann, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Vintage Books, 1988.