"Symphony in Yellow," written in 1889, was a manifestation of Oscar Wilde's interest in the decadent and aesthetic movement. Wilde was greatly influenced by John Ruskin and Walter Pater, who emphasized the importance of art in life. In fact, Wilde is associated with the phrase, "art for art's sake", although it appears nowhere in his works, indicating the influence he had on the culture of his time. As much as Wilde was acclaimed for his work, he was equally disparaged for being homosexual, resulting in him becoming a somewhat enigmatic and notorious public figure. "Symphony in Yellow", is a poem of no action. Instead, it is a descriptive work that allows the reader to feel as though he or she is viewing a painting instead of a poem. Phases such as, "Crawls like a yellow butterfly" and "Lies like a rod of rippled jade" is reminiscent of the decadent and aesthetic notion that life should be lived intensely, following an ideal of beauty. Wilde's ability to allow the reader to be so intimately involved with the details of the poem that he or she morphs from the reader into a viewer, resulted in him being an iconographical figure in the Aesthetic movement. Many historians even claim that the Aesthetic movement's demise came about with the end of Wilde's career.

Discussion Questions

1. What does Wilde's attention to detail and rhyme scheme say about the poem? Why do you suppose he chose such a simplified style for "Symphony in Yellow"?

2. Do you suppose Wilde's personal life played a role in the content or theme of his poetry?

3. Why was Wilde an influential leader in the aesthetic movement? What made him unique as compared to other aesthetics and decadents?

4. Wilde attributes much of his interest in the aesthetic and decadent movement to Ruskin and Walter Pater, however, while Wilde is known for creating art for art's sake, Ruskin is known for his earnest perspectives on painting — that art should be moral or useful. How can one reconcile these two notions? Where can you see Ruskin's influence in Wilde's works?

Last modified 21 November 2006