Ian Small (ed.), The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Vol. 8: The Short Fiction
pg 13The Happy Prince
- High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue of the Happy Prince. He was gilded all over with thin leaves of fine gold, for eyes he had two Editor’s Notebright sapphires, and a large red ruby glowed on his sword-hilt.
- Editor’s Note5He was very much admired indeed. 'He is as beautiful as a weathercock,' remarked one of the Town Councillors who wished to gain a reputation for having artistic tastes; 'only not quite so useful,' he added, fearing lest people should think him unpractical, which he really was not.
- 'Why can't you be like the Happy Prince?' asked a sensible mother of her 10little boy who was crying for the moon. 'The Happy Prince never dreams of crying for anything.'
- 'I am glad there is some one in the world who is quite happy,' muttered a disappointed man as he gazed at the wonderful statue.
- Editor’s Note'He looks just like an angel,' said the Charity Children as they came out of Editor’s Note15the cathedral in their bright scarlet cloaks, and their clean white pinafores.
- 'How do you know?' said the Mathematical Master, 'you have never seen one.'
- 'Ah! but we have, in our dreams,' answered the children; and the Mathematical Master frowned and looked very severe, for he did not approve 20of children dreaming.
- Editor’s NoteOne night there flew over the city a little Swallow. His friends had gone away to Egypt six weeks before, but he had stayed behind, for he was in love with the most beautiful Reed. He had met her early in the spring as he was flying down the river after a big yellow moth, and had been so attracted 25by her slender waist that he had stopped to talk to her.
- 'Shall I love you?' said the Swallow, who liked to come to the point at once, and the Reed made him a low bow. So he flew round and round her, touching the water with his wings, and making silver ripples. This was his courtship, and it lasted all through the summer.
- 30'It is a ridiculous attachment,' twittered the other Swallows, 'she has Editor’s Noteno money, and far too many relations;' and indeed the river was quite full Editor’s Noteof Reeds. Then, when the autumn came, they all flew away.
- After they had gone he felt lonely, and began to tire of his lady-love. Editor’s Note'She has no conversation,' he said, 'and I am afraid that she is a coquette, 35for she is always flirting with the wind.' And certainly, whenever the wind blew, the Reed made the most graceful curtsies. 'I admit that she is domestic,' he continued, 'but I love travelling, and my wife, consequently, should love travelling also.'
- pg 14'Will you come away with me?' he said finally to her; but the Reed shook 40her head, she was so attached to her home.
- 'You have been trifling with me,' he cried, 'I am off to the Pyramids. Good-bye!' and he flew away.
- All day long he flew, and at night-time he arrived at the city. 'Where shall I put up?' he said; 'I hope the town has made preparations.'
- 45Then he saw the statue on the tall column. 'I will put up there,' he cried; 'it is a fine position with plenty of fresh air.' So he alighted just between the feet of the Happy Prince.
- 'I have a golden bedroom,' he said softly to himself as he looked round, and he prepared to go to sleep; but just as he was putting his head under 50his wing a large drop of water fell on him. 'What a curious thing!' he cried; 'there is not a single cloud in the sky, the stars are quite clear and bright, Editor’s Noteand yet it is raining. The climate in the north of Europe is really dreadful. The Reed used to like the rain, but that was merely her selfishness.'
- Then another drop fell.
- 55'What is the use of a statue if it cannot keep the rain off?' he said; 'I must look for a good chimney-pot,' and he determined to fly away.
- But before he had opened his wings, a third drop fell, and he looked up, and saw—Ah! what did he see?
- The eyes of the Happy Prince were filled with tears, and tears were run-60ning down his golden cheeks. His face was so beautiful in the moonlight that the little Swallow was filled with pity.
- 'Who are you?' he said.
- 'I am the Happy Prince.'
- 'Why are you weeping then?' asked the Swallow; 'you have quite 65drenched me.'
- 'When I was alive and had a human heart,' answered the statue, 'I did Editor’s Notenot know what tears were, for I lived in the Palace of Sans-Souci, where sorrow is not allowed to enter. In the daytime I played with my companions in the garden, and in the evening I led the dance in the Great Hall. Round Editor’s Note70the garden ran a very lofty wall, but I never cared to ask what lay beyond it, everything about me was so beautiful. My courtiers called me the Happy Prince, and happy indeed I was, if pleasure be happiness. So I lived, and so Editor’s NoteI died. And now that I am dead they have set me up here so high that I can see all the ugliness and all the misery of my city, and though my heart is 75made of lead yet I cannot choose but weep.'
- 'What, is he not solid gold?' said the Swallow to himself. He was too polite to make any personal remarks out loud.
- 'Far away,' continued the statue in a low musical voice, 'far away in a Editor’s Notelittle street there is a poor house. One of the windows is open, and through 80it I can see a woman seated at a table. Her face is thin and worn, and she Editor’s Notehas coarse, red hands, all pricked by the needle, for she is a seamstress. Editor’s NoteShe is embroidering passion-flowers on a satin gown for the loveliest of the pg 15Editor’s NoteQueen's maids-of-honour to wear at the next Court-ball. In a bed in the corner of the room her little boy is lying ill. He has a fever, and is asking 85for oranges. His mother has nothing to give him but river water, so he is Editor’s Notecrying. Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow, will you not bring her the ruby out of my sword-hilt? My feet are fastened to this pedestal and I cannot move.'
- 'I am waited for in Egypt,' said the Swallow. 'My friends are flying up 90and down the Nile, and talking to the large lotus-flowers. Soon they will go to sleep in the tomb of the great King. The King is there himself in his painted coffin. He is wrapped in yellow linen, and embalmed with spices. Round his neck is a chain of pale green jade, and his hands are like with-ered leaves.'
- 95'Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,' said the Prince, 'will you not stay with me for one night, and be my messenger? The boy is so thirsty, and the mother so sad.'
- 'I don't think I like boys,' answered the Swallow. 'Last summer, when I was staying on the river, there were two rude boys, the miller's sons, who 100were always throwing stones at me. They never hit me, of course; we swal-lows fly far too well for that, and besides, I come of a family famous for its agility; but still, it was a mark of disrespect.'
- But the Happy Prince looked so sad that the little Swallow was sorry. 'It is very cold here,' he said; 'but I will stay with you for one night, and be 105your messenger.'
- 'Thank you, little Swallow,' said the Prince.
- So the Swallow picked out the great ruby from the Prince's sword, and flew away with it in his beak over the roofs of the town.
- He passed by the cathedral tower, where the white marble angels were 110sculptured. He passed by the palace and heard the sound of dancing. A beau-tiful girl came out on the balcony with her lover. 'How wonderful the stars are,' he said to her, 'and how wonderful is the power of love!' 'I hope my dress will be ready in time for the State-ball,' she answered; 'I have ordered passion-flowers to be embroidered on it; but seamstresses are so lazy.'
- 115He passed over the river, and saw the lanterns hanging to the masts of Editor’s Notethe ships. He passed over the Ghetto, and saw the old Jews bargaining with each other, and weighing out money in copper scales. At last he came to the poor house and looked in. The boy was tossing feverishly on his bed, and the mother had fallen asleep, she was so tired. In he hopped, and laid 120the great ruby on the table beside the woman's thimble. Then he flew gen-tly round the bed, fanning the boy's forehead with his wings. 'How cool I feel,' said the boy, 'I must be getting better;' and he sank into a delicious slumber.
- Then the Swallow flew back to the Happy Prince, and told him what he 125had done. 'It is curious,' he remarked, 'but I feel quite warm now, although it is so cold.'
- pg 16'That is because you have done a good action,' said the Prince. And the little Swallow began to think, and then he fell asleep. Thinking always made him sleepy.
- 130When day broke he flew down to the river and had a bath. 'What a Editor’s Noteremarkable phenomenon,' said the Professor of Ornithology as he was passing over the bridge. 'A swallow in winter!' And he wrote a long letter about it to the local newspaper. Every one quoted it, it was full of so many words that they could not understand.
- 135'To-night I go to Egypt,' said the Swallow, and he was in high spirits at the prospect. He visited all the public monuments, and sat a long time on top of the church steeple. Wherever he went the Sparrows chirruped, and said to each other, 'What a distinguished stranger!' so he enjoyed himself very much.
- 140When the moon rose he flew back to the Happy Prince. 'Have you any commissions for Egypt?' he cried; 'I am just starting.'
- 'Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,' said the Prince, 'will you not stay with me one night longer?'
- 'I am waited for in Egypt,' answered the Swallow. 'Tomorrow my friends 145will fly up to the Second Cataract. The river-horse couches there among the bulrushes, and on a great granite throne sits the God Memnon. All night long he watches the stars, and when the morning star shines he utters one cry of joy, and then he is silent. At noon the yellow lions come down to the water's edge to drink. They have eyes like green beryls, and their roar 150is louder than the roar of the cataract.'
- 'Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,' said the Prince, 'far away across the city I see a young man in a garret. He is leaning over a desk covered with papers, and in a tumbler by his side there is a bunch of withered violets. Editor’s NoteHis hair is brown and crisp, and his lips are red as a pomegranate, and he 155has large and dreamy eyes. He is trying to finish a play for the Director of the Theatre, but he is too cold to write any more. There is no fire in the grate, and hunger has made him faint.'
- 'I will wait with you one night longer,' said the Swallow, who really had a good heart. 'Shall I take him another ruby?'
- 160'Alas! I have no ruby now,' said the Prince; 'my eyes are all that I have left. They are made of rare sapphires, which were brought out of India a thousand years ago. Pluck out one of them and take it to him. He will sell it to the jeweller, and buy food and firewood, and finish his play.'
- 'Dear Prince,' said the Swallow, 'I cannot do that;' and he began 165to weep.
- 'Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,' said the Prince, 'do as I command you.'
- So the Swallow plucked out the Prince's eye, and flew away to the stu-dent's garret. It was easy enough to get in, as there was a hole in the roof. Through this he darted, and came into the room. The young man had his 170head buried in his hands, so he did not hear the flutter of the bird's wings, pg 17and when he looked up he found the beautiful sapphire lying on the withered violets.
- 'I am beginning to be appreciated,' he cried; 'this is from some great admirer. Now I can finish my play,' and he looked quite happy.
- 175The next day the Swallow flew down to the harbour. He sat on the mast of a large vessel and watched the sailors hauling big chests out of the hold with ropes. 'Heave a-hoy!' they shouted as each chest came up. 'I am going to Egypt!' cried the Swallow, but nobody minded, and when the moon rose he flew back to the Happy Prince.
- 180'I am come to bid you good-bye,' he cried.
- 'Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,' said the Prince, 'will you not stay with me one night longer?'
- 'It is winter,' answered the Swallow, 'and the chill snow will soon be here. In Egypt the sun is warm on the green palm-trees, and the crocodiles 185lie in the mud and look lazily about them. My companions are building a nest in the Temple of Baalbec, and the pink and white doves are watching them, and cooing to each other. Dear Prince, I must leave you, but I will never forget you, and next spring I will bring you back two beautiful jewels in place of those you have given away. The ruby shall be redder than a red 190rose, and the sapphires shall be as blue as the great sea.'
- Editor’s Note'In the square below,' said the Happy Prince, 'there stands a little match-girl. She has let her matches fall in the gutter, and they are all spoiled. Her father will beat her if she does not bring home some money, and she is crying. She has no shoes or stockings, and her little head is bare. Pluck out 195my other eye, and give it to her, and her father will not beat her.'
- 'I will stay with you one night longer,' said the Swallow, 'but I cannot pluck out your eye. You would be quite blind then.'
- 'Swallow, Swallow, little Swallow,' said the Prince, 'do as I command you.'
- So he plucked out the Prince's other eye, and darted down with it. He 200swooped past the match-girl, and slipped the jewel into the palm of her hand. 'What a lovely bit of glass,' cried the little girl; and she ran home, laughing.
- Then the Swallow came back to the Prince. 'You are blind now,' he said, 'so I will stay with you always.'
- 205'No, little Swallow,' said the poor Prince, 'you must go away to Egypt.'
- 'I will stay with you always,' said the Swallow, and he slept at the Prince's feet.
- All the next day he sat on the Prince's shoulder, and told him stories of what he had seen in strange lands. He told him of the red ibises, who stand 210in long rows on the banks of the Nile, and catch gold fish in their beaks; of the Sphinx, who is as old as the world itself, and lives in the desert, and knows everything; of the merchants, who walk slowly by the side of their camels, and carry amber beads in their hands; of the King of the Mountains of the Moon, who is as black as ebony, and worships a large crystal; of the pg 18215great green snake that sleeps in a palm-tree, and has twenty priests to feed it with honey-cakes; and of the pygmies who sail over a big lake on large flat leaves, and are always at war with the butterflies.
- 'Dear little Swallow,' said the Prince, 'you tell me of marvellous things, but more marvellous than anything is the suffering of men and of women. Editor’s Note220There is no Mystery so great as Misery. Fly over my city, little Swallow, and tell me what you see there.'
- So the Swallow flew over the great city, and saw the rich making merry in their beautiful houses, while the beggars were sitting at the gates. He Editor’s Noteflew into dark lanes, and saw the white faces of starving children looking 225out listlessly at the black streets. Under the archway of a bridge two little boys were lying in one another's arms to try and keep themselves warm. 'How hungry we are!' they said. 'You must not lie here,' shouted the Editor’s NoteWatchman, and they wandered out into the rain.
- Then he flew back and told the Prince what he had seen.
- 230'I am covered with fine gold,' said the Prince, 'you must take it off, leaf by leaf, and give it to my poor; the living always think that gold can make them happy.'
- Leaf after leaf of the fine gold the Swallow picked off, till the Happy Prince looked quite dull and grey. Leaf after leaf of the fine gold he brought 235to the poor, and the children's faces grew rosier, and they laughed and played games in the street. 'We have bread now!' they cried.
- Editor’s NoteThen the snow came, and after the snow came the frost. The streets looked as if they were made of silver, they were so bright and glistening; long icicles like crystal daggers hung down from the eaves of the houses, 240everybody went about in furs, and the little boys wore scarlet caps and skated on the ice.
- The poor little Swallow grew colder and colder, but he would not leave the Prince, he loved him too well. He picked up crumbs outside the baker's door when the baker was not looking, and tried to keep himself warm by 245flapping his wings.
- But at last he knew that he was going to die. He had just strength to fly up to the Prince's shoulder once more. 'Good-bye, dear Prince!' he mur-mured, 'will you let me kiss your hand?'
- 'I am glad that you are going to Egypt at last, little Swallow,' said the 250Prince, 'you have stayed too long here; but you must kiss me on the lips, for I love you.'
- 'It is not to Egypt that I am going,' said the Swallow. 'I am going to Editor’s Notethe House of Death. Death is the brother of Sleep, is he not?'
- And he kissed the Happy Prince on the lips, and fell down dead at 255his feet.
- At that moment a curious crack sounded inside the statue, as if some-thing had broken. The fact is that the leaden heart had snapped right in two. It certainly was a dreadfully hard frost.
- pg 19Early the next morning the Mayor was walking in the square below in 260company with the Town Councillors. As they passed the column he looked up at the statue: 'Dear me! how shabby the Happy Prince looks!' he said.
- 'How shabby indeed!' cried the Town Councillors, who always agreed with the Mayor; and they went up to look at it.
- 'The ruby has fallen out of his sword, his eyes are gone, and he is golden 265no longer,' said the Mayor; 'in fact, he is little better than a beggar!'
- 'Little better than a beggar,' said the Town Councillors.
- 'And here is actually a dead bird at his feet!' continued the Mayor. 'We must really issue a proclamation that birds are not to be allowed to die here.' And the Town Clerk made a note of the suggestion.
- Editor’s Note270So they pulled down the statue of the Happy Prince. 'As he is no longer beautiful he is no longer useful,' said the Art Professor at the University.
- Then they melted the statue in a furnace, and the Mayor held a meeting of the Corporation to decide what was to be done with the metal. 'We must have another statue, of course,' he said, 'and it shall be a statue of myself.'
- 275'Of myself,' said each of the Town Councillors, and they quarrelled. When I last heard of them they were quarrelling still.
- 'What a strange thing!' said the overseer of the workmen at the foundry. 'This broken lead heart will not melt in the furnace. We must throw it away.' So they threw it on a dust-heap where the dead Swallow was also 280lying.
- 'Bring me the two most precious things in the city,' said God to one of Editor’s NoteHis Angels; and the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird.
- Editor’s Note'You have rightly chosen,' said God, 'for in my garden of Paradise this 285little bird shall sing for evermore, and in my city of gold the Happy Prince shall praise me.'
4. sapphires … ruby: precious stones find a mention in much of W's fiction. The resolution of 'The Canterville Ghost' turns on the legitimacy of a gift of jewels, and the exoticism and opulence associated with rare stones figure in 'The Fisherman and his Soul'. Precious stones also figure significantly in Salomé. Moreover W devoted large sections of chapter 9 of the book version of Dorian Gray to a description of the qualities of rare stones, one which he derived almost verbatim from two studies: William Jones, History and Mystery of Precious Stones (London, 1880), and A. H. Church, Precious Stones Considered in their Scientific and Artistic Relations (London, 1886). W's reading of the sources for the later works also informs his accounts of precious stones in the short fiction. In addition there is a surviving but unfinished scenario by W about the relationship between decadence (especially its associations with precious stones) and asceticism entitled La Sainte Courtisane; Or, The Woman Covered With Jewels (for a version of this scenario, see Miscellanies, 231–9). Precious stones also figure prominently as images of luxury and beauty in Salomé.
5. beautiful as a weathercock … so useful: there was a wide-ranging debate in the last half of the nineteenth century about the utility of art, and therefore about the relationship between beauty and its functions. The one extreme of this debate was represented by the views of the socialist, writer, artist, and designer William Morris, who held that beauty and utility should be coterminous. At the other—certainly in the popular imagination in the 1880s and 1890s—there were the views of W, who was to put the case for art for art's sake most memorably if most formulaically in the 'Preface' to the book version of Dorian Gray, where he claimed that 'all art is quite useless' (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 168). The reference here is complicated by the fact that the choice of a weathercock by W to illustrate this debate might have been suggested by his reading of William Carew Hazlitt's 1880 edition of Essays and Criticisms by Thomas Griffiths Wainewright (the work which was to become a source for W's essay 'Pen, Pencil, and Poison', reprinted with revisions in Intentions in 1891). There Hazlitt discusses Wainewright's essays which were written under the pseudonym 'Janus Weathercock' and which had been published in the London Magazine in Jan. 1823. The reference to a weathercock (and Weathercock) suggests instability, or the mere following of current fashions.
14. Charity Children: these were pupils of Charity Schools, institutions supported by endowments and bequests for the education of children of the poor (they were later superseded by Board Schools which were funded by local rates). W's deep distrust of charity and philanthropy can be seen in the speeches he gives to his various dandies in the society comedies. His most forthright criticism of charity and philanthropy is to be found in his essay 'The Soul of Man under Socialism'. A manuscript collection of aphorisms held in the Clark Library contains an entry which perhaps sums up that attitude: 'Philanthropic people lose all sense of humanity. It is always their distinguishing characteristic' (Wilde W6721M3.E64).
15. pinafores: i.e. a child's garment: 'a covering of washable material worn by children, over the frock or gown, to protect it from being soiled' (OED).
21–217: Egypt … lotus-flowers … painted coffin … Second Cataract … river-horse … God Memnon … Temple of Baalbec … red ibises … Sphinx, who is as old as the world itself, and lives in the desert … Mountains of the Moon … great green snake … twenty priests to feed it with honey-cakes … pygmies . . . on large flat leaves: these references to Egypt are the first published example of a number of similar allusions in W's work. At one level, they work for the naive (or child-like) reader in that they represent a fairly conventional Victorian Orientalism in which the 'otherness' of Egypt—its colours, its flora and fauna, and its exotic elements—stand in a straightforward opposition to the squalor and ugliness of a recognizably Victorian British or Irish city. W's references to the natural world are usually accurate, as indeed they are here. Swallows migrate in late Aug. or early Sept., and the fact that the birds have departed 'six weeks before' places the action of the story in the beginning to the middle of Oct. In fact swallows which over-summer in Britain and Ireland tend to go to the north African coast and thence over the Sahara, and not to middle-eastern countries such as the Lebanon. W's description at this point, however, depends not upon zoological accuracy but on literary sources—principally the description of Egypt in Théophile Gautier's collection of poems, Emaux et camées (1852), and in particular 'Ce que disent les hirondelles' ('What the swallows say'). (It is perhaps worth noting that Gautier's poem does not mention the pyramids as the swallow does in W's story.) W's later use of Gautier's work in Dorian Gray and in The Sphinx exploits its decadent overtones in ways not appropriate for a fairy story for children. So in chapter 14 of the book version of Dorian Gray, W has a passage that is reminiscent of the description of Egypt here, although it develops the erotic themes of Gautier's poems. There Dorian takes up Emaux et camées immediately after he has killed Basil Hallward: 'He read of the swallows that fly in and out of the little café at Smyrna … He read of the Obelisk in the Place de la Concorde that … longs to be back by the hot lotus-covered Nile, where there are Sphinxes, and rose-red ibises, and white vultures with gilded claws, and crocodiles, with small beryl eyes, that crawl over the green steaming mud; he began to brood over those verses which, drawing music from kiss-stained marble, tell of that curious statue which Gautier compares to a contralto voice, the "monstre charmant" that couches in the porphyry-room of the Louvre' (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 305).
It is clear that both here and in Dorian Gray W's accounts of Egypt are heavily fictionalized, but there was a considerable body of more factual information on Egypt available in the late nineteenth century. Perhaps the most famous contemporary British Egyptologist was William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853–1942) who was responsible for the excavation of many important archaeological sites. He was the friend of the journalist, novelist, and fellow Egyptologist, Amelia B. Edwards (1831–1892), the author of perhaps the best-known popular account of Egypt, the best-selling A Thousand Miles up the Nile (1876). W may also have had access to reports of Egyptian culture from the direct experience of some contemporaries as well as from travel firms such as Thomas Cook, who by the late nineteenth century were advertising organized trips to Egypt. (It is also worth noting that, according to Neil McKenna in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (London: Century, 2003), north Africa was well-known in French gay circles as an ideal destination for sex tourism in part because 'the supply of boys seemed unending' (324).)
The references to 'painted coffin', 'yellow linen', and embalming spices are to the excavation of Egyptian tombs which had become systematically documented from the middle years of the nineteenth century onwards. The most usual method of interment of a mummified corpse, however, was in a stone sarcophagus, although these sometimes also contained wooden coffins. W could have seen any number of Egyptian antiquities, including brightly decorated sarcophagi, in the British Museum, which had been collecting them since its foundation in the mid-eighteenth century.
The phrase 'large lotus-flowers' is a reference to pure white lotus flowers, an important symbol of the sun and creation in ancient Egyptian religion and art.
The Nile was traditionally thought to have six major Cataracts or non-navigable shallows where the river passes over rocks. The second Cataract (in Sudan) is about nine miles long and at this point in its course the river descends some sixty feet as it passes over granite ledges; it is a considerable distance to the south of the sites of Egyptian civilization which W mentions. The detail derives in part from 'Ce que disent les hirondelles', where one of the swallows mentions the second Cataract: 'Et mes quartiers d'hiver sont prêts. | A la seconde cataracte, | Faite la dernière, j'ai mon nid; | J'en au note la place exacte, | Dans le pschent d'un roi du granit.'
The 'river-horse' is the hippopotamus: 'a pachydermatous quadruped, the African river-horse, Hippopotamus amphibius, a very large beast … inhabiting the African rivers' (OED). In fact hippopotamus had not been found in the Egyptian Nile for many years prior to the nineteenth century (nor had lions).
The 'God Memnon' refers to the statue of Memnon at Thebes; the phrase 'one cry of joy' is an allusion to the legend that it emits musical notes when struck by rays of the sun. W first refers to it in The Rise of Historical Criticism, where he may have been thinking of a comment in Hegel's Lectures on the Philosophy of History: 'The colossal statue of Memnon resounds at the first glance of the young morning Sun; though it is not yet the free light of the Spirit with which it vibrates' (Lectures on the Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree (London: Bell and Daldy, 1872), 208; quoted in Criticism, 4). W later referred to the 'granite throne' of the 'God Memnon' in The Sphinx, 133–4: 'Still from his chair of porphyry gaunt Memnon strains his lidless eyes | Across the empty land, and cries each yellow morning unto Thee' (Poems and Poems in Prose, 192). Keats, a poet whose work W valued highly throughout the 1870s and 1880s, uses the same image in Hyperion, ii, 373–7: 'like the bulk | Of Memnon's image at the set of sun | To one who travels from the dusking East: | Signs, too, as mournful as that Memnon's harp | He utter'd'.
The Temple of Baalbec (or Baalbek) is a reference to the Temple of Jupiter in Baalbek in what is now Lebanon. It was the subject of a famous series of lithographs made by David Roberts in the late 1830s. In 'Ce que disent les hirondelles' one of the swallows goes to Smyrna, another to Athens, a third to Malta. Yet another goes to Baalbek, announcing: 'J'habite un triglyphe | Au fronton d'un temple, à Balbeck. | Je m'y suspends avec ma griffe | Sur mes petits au large bec.'
The red ibis (which is also mentioned in W's poem The Sphinx) is a large long-beaked wading bird. Isobel Murray observes that the ibis was the 'sacred bird of ancient Egypt, the manifestation of the god Thoth. For Egyptians its white plumage symbolized the sun, and its black plumage the moon. Britannica notes that it is a popular error, especially among painters, that the scarlet ibis (found in tropical and sub-tropical America) was the sacred ibis of the Egyptians' (Murray, Major Works, 629).
The Mountains of the Moon or the Rwenzori mountains are in Ethiopia; in a tradition beginning with ancient Greek geographers they were thought to contain the source of the Nile, an error corrected by a series of British geographical expeditions to sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-nineteenth century, principally those undertaken by Sir Richard Burton and John Speke in the 1860s.
W's description of the 'merchants, who walk slowly by the side of their camels, and carry amber beads in their hand' is a detail which also derives in part from Gautier's 'Ce que disent les hirondelles': 'Les Hadjis comptent leurs grains d'ambre | Sur le seuil, d'un rayon chauffé.' By contrast, W's reference to 'great green snake … [and] twenty priests to feed it with honey-cakes' seems to derive from classical sources rather than Egyptian mythology or nineteenth-century French poetry, and in particular from a passage from Virgil (Aeneid, 6.417ff.), one to which W would later allude in 'The Soul of Man under Socialism': 'These realms huge Cerberus makes ring with his triple-throated braying, his monstrous bulk crouching in a cavern opposite. To him, seeing the snake now bristling on his necks, the seer flung a morsel drowsy with honey and drugged meal [melle soporatem et medicatis frugibus offam]' (Virgil, Eclogues, Georgics, Aeneid I–VI, trans. H. Rushton Fairclough, 535).
'Pygmy' is the name given to a number of tribes of people of very small size in central and west Africa. They are not Nilotic, nor do they inhabit Egypt, nor of course did they use 'large flat leaves' as a means of transport (although Thumbelina, in Hans Christian Andersen's fairy story of the same name, is transported on a leaf pulled by a butterfly, and in addition she is rescued by a swallow). Ending as it does with the 'King of the Mountains of the Moon, who is as black as ebony, and worships a large crystal' and pygmies 'always at war with the butterflies', W's description of Egypt moves away from its French and classical literary sources to a rehearsal of comfortable and popular British cultural stereotypes of Africa.
31. money … many relations: in common with other such passages in W's fiction, there is a social seriousness underlying the description of a character's flippancy. The relations involved in any prospective marriage in late nineteenth-century London (or 'best') Society had two roles. On the one hand they could act as guarantors of status and thus of social acceptability. So in Act I of The Importance of Being Earnest, when she discovers that he has 'no assured basis for a recognised position in good society', Lady Bracknell advises Jack Worthing to 'try and acquire some relations as soon as possible' (The Importance of Being Earnest, 47–8). On the other hand—as the Swallows imply here—poor relations could require financial support, and thus become a burden for any prospective male suitor.
32. Reeds: W's detail is, ornithologically speaking, quite accurate, for swallows (Hirundo rustica) habitually feed and roost over and on reed-beds in rivers and lakes.
34. no conversation: an observation that W used again on a number of later occasions. One of the bitterest complaints that W made against Lord Alfred Douglas in De Profundis concerned the way Douglas lacked 'the charm of pleasant conversation, that τερπον καλον as the Greeks called it, and all those gentle humanities that make life lovely, and are an accompaniment to life as music might be, keeping things in tune and filling with melody the harsh or silent place' (De Profundis, 42). Moreover in Act II of A Woman of No Importance Mrs Allonby says of her husband: 'It is only fair to tell you beforehand he has got no conversation at all. Lady Stutfield: I adore silent men. Mrs Allonby: Oh, Ernest isn't silent. He talks the whole time. But he has got no conversation. What he talks about I don't know. I haven't listened to him for years' (A Woman of No Importance, 55). In Act III of An Ideal Husband, Lord Goring warns his father Lord Caversham, who wants 'a serious conversation' with him, that 'my doctor says I must not have any serious conversation after seven' (An Ideal Husband, 143–4).
34. coquette: 'a woman who uses arts to gain the admiration and affection of men without any intention of responding to the feelings aroused; a flirt' (OED).
52. The climate … dreadful: another sentiment that W was to give to characters in later works. So in Act IV of Lady Windermere's Fan when Lord Augustus announces in the final scene that Mrs Erlynne and he are to be married and 'live entirely out of England', he attributes his decision to the country's '[d]emmed clubs, demmed climate, demmed cooks, demmed everything' (Lady Windermere's Fan, 183).
67–9. Palace of Sans-Souci … companions in the garden: 'Sanssouci' (from 'sans souci', the French for 'without care') was the name given to the eighteenth-century baroque summer palace, park, and gardens of Frederick the Great in Potsdam in Brandenburg in what was then Prussia (begun in 1715, work on the gardens took place almost continuously until 1913, with the major period of development occurring between 1826 and 1860). Beginning as a kitchen garden which was also used for recreation, the park was developed into a summer recreational area which overlooked a vineyard with elaborate parabolic terraces, as well as fountains, hedged paths, and parterres, extending in all to almost 700 acres. Walled gardens, however, come from a different gardening tradition. Jarlath Killen, in an explicitly political reading of the fairy stories, connects W's use of the walled garden to mid-nineteenth-century Irish politics. He suggests that the contrast between the ease of the Prince's life in Sans-Souci and the poverty which the Prince sees in urban life reflects W's own experience of a comfortable life in Dublin and the life of the deprived which he witnessed in 'the poor districts in the west of Ireland'. He goes on: 'Even the exotic-sounding Sans-Souci was, in fact, locally inspired. Wilde most likely took it from the name of a mansion in Booterstown, to the east of Dublin city, a mansion as geographically cut-off as his own idyll in Merrion Square' (Killeen, 28).
70. garden ran a very lofty wall: W uses the motif of gardens throughout his oeuvre, often, as here, with primarily secular overtones—as in e.g. Lady Windermere's request in Act iv of Lady Windermere's Fan that she and her husband 'go to Selby. In the Rose Garden at Selby the roses are white and red' (Lady Windermere's Fan, 182). In his letters of 1876 W also writes of a visit to an actual garden, that belonging to the Revd. Robert Miles, a trip which he made in the company of Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower. In some works, however, gardens also have specifically biblical overtones, as in the Giant's garden in 'The Selfish Giant', which makes allusions to Christ in Gethsemane. Relevant too is also Lord Illingworth's comment made to Mrs Allonby at the end of Act i of A Woman of No Importance that 'the book of life begins with a man and a woman in a garden' (A Woman of No Importance, 44). (See also note to 'The Selfish Giant', line 4.) Killeen emphasizes the fact that the house of W's parents was in Merrion Square, 'one of the most fashionable squares in Dublin' (Killeen, 28). He quotes Davis Coakley's comment that 'one of the advantages of living in Merrion Square was that residents had a key to the private gardens that formed the centre of the square … This was a fine park where the young Wildes, Willie, Oscar and Isola, could run and explore without encountering children from the lower classes' (Coakley, Oscar Wilde: The Importance of Being Irish (Dublin: Town House, 1994), 109; quoted in Killen, 28). It ought perhaps to be noted, however, that gated gardens, private parks, and private squares were also a familiar feature in many British Victorian cities or parts of cities (particularly so in London), and that these, as well as the grounds of Oxford colleges, were protected by high walls and offered very restricted public access, and so also represented sites of privilege to which W himself of course had access.
73. if pleasure be happiness: the relationship between pleasure and happiness was defined in a number of complex ways during the course of the nineteenth century, and the Happy Prince's observation in part alludes to these debates. Jeremy Bentham, in his Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), had tended to conflate the concepts of pleasure and happiness, and John Stuart Mill's critique of Bentham, made in Utilitarianism (which appeared as a series of periodical essays in 1861 and as a book in 1863) had undertaken the task of distinguishing them. Walter Pater, a critic nearer to W both chronologically and temperamentally, used the concept of pleasure in a particularly loaded way: in his novel Marius the Epicurean (1885) he attempted to discriminate types of pleasure; he had suggested in his famous 'Conclusion' to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (1873) that the pursuit of pleasure, especially of pleasure to be found in the experience of art, was the key to a successful life. (The Renaissance was a work which W knew well, and from which he often quoted.) In 'The Critic as Artist' Wilde later specifically alludes to Pater's discussion of the Cyrenaic understanding of the relationship between pleasure and the good life, but he did so in a satirical or flippant manner by equating the 'μονοχρονος ηδονη' (or the 'momentary pleasure' of Aristippus, quoted by Pater in Chapter 9 of Marius the Epicurean (i, 154)) with smoking. From his undergraduate education at both Trinity College, Dublin and the university of Oxford, W would of course have been aware of the complexity of the discussion of the good life in ancient Greek philosophy, not only in Aristippus, but more importantly in the opposition between Aristotelian and Epicurean thought. For Epicurus, happiness tended to be identified with pleasure; by contrast in the Nicomachean Ethics (which W specifically discusses in both De Profundis and in Historical Criticism), Aristotle suggested that it was the pursuit of the good life (eudaimonia) which produced pleasure; the pursuit of pleasure as an end, however, did not conduce to the good life. The Happy Prince's hesitation over equating pleasure with happiness suggests that this source was uppermost in W's thoughts here.
79. poor house: the reference to the poor house seems to indicate a generalized (and by the mid-1880s, perhaps anachronistic) sense of those dependent on charitable or parochial relief, rather than the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century social institutions which had been the subject of considerable reforming legislation during the course of the nineteenth century.
81. seamstress: in mid-nineteenth-century fiction, the figure of the seamstress was a common way of troping the exploited female worker; see e.g. Elizabeth Gaskell's novel Mary Barton (1848) where an important contrast is drawn between seamstresses, who typically worked at home or in small domestic establishments, and factory girls who were often considered to be less virtuous.
82. passion-flowers: passion-flowers (Passiflora), a large genus of spectacularly exotic flowers not native to Britain or Europe, were extensively cultivated and hybridized in Britain in the nineteenth century. Often their blooms last for only a day, hence they can symbolize the transience of beauty.
83. maids-of-honour: a maid of honour is 'an unmarried lady who attends upon a queen or a princess' (OED). W was to mention them again in relation to Elizabeth I in 'The Portrait of Mr. W. H.'.
86. ruby out of my sword-hilt: Sloan sees a source in Flaubert's La Tentation de Saint Antoine which 'Wilde was at work translating in the 1880s' and where 'the Buddha loses all peace of mind and gives away his gold and diamonds to the poor' (Sloan, 239). (Flaubert's novel was an important source for W in Salomé.)
116. the Ghetto … old Jews bargaining: 'ghetto' refers to the area of cities, initially in Italy, to which Jews were restricted; it was also one traditionally associated with money-lending. The most famous such quarter is the Ghetto in Venice, although here the reference is not specific. Amy Levy, the poet and novelist, wrote an essay entitled 'Ghetto Life' in the 1880s in which she depicted the life of Jews in London. W admired Levy's work, had corresponded with her in 1887, publishing some of her essays in WW.
131. Professor of Ornithology: in spite of his early ambition for an academic career (after graduating, he sought a fellowship at Oxford) W's attitude towards academic life became increasingly critical. Indeed in the early 1880s, he was sarcastically called a 'professor of aesthetics' by some elements of the press. His most famous joke about academic knowledge was made in Act i of The Importance of Being Earnest, when Algernon tells Jack: 'Literary criticism is not your forte, my dear fellow. … You should leave that to people who haven't been at a University' (The Importance of Being Earnest, 19). Ornithology is 'the branch of zoology which deals with birds, their nature, and habits' (OED), but there were no chairs in ornithology in British universities.
154–5. hair … lips … pomegranate … dreamy eyes: a description of the features of the beautiful male face which was to become familiar in later works. So in Dorian Gray, the shape of Dorian's lips are often described, and in De Profundis W connects these details of physiognomy with those who possess 'the artistic temperament … [They have] read the story of the passion of some dead man for some dead woman whose hair was like threads of fine gold, and whose mouth was as a pomegranate' (De Profundis, 114). See also note to 'The Nightingale and the Rose', lines 12–13.
191. match-girl: i.e. a girl who makes a living by selling matches, and so in popular literature of the last half of the nineteenth century one way of indicating a subsistence occupation. Unlike historically non-specific details earlier in the story (e.g. the Ghetto and the poor house), match-girls and the matches they sold were specifically a nineteenth-century phenomenon.
220. no Mystery so great as Misery: the Happy Prince's sentiment is one which W himself was to modify later in De Profundis, when he observed: 'But so has my portion been meted out to me; and during the last few months I have, after terrible difficulties and struggles, been able to comprehend some of the lessons hidden in the heart of pain. Clergymen and people who use phrases without wisdom sometimes talk of suffering as a mystery. It is really a revelation' (De Profundis, 104).
224–6. dark lanes … themselves warm: a trope which was to figure repeatedly in W's later works. Cf. a passage in W's original manuscript draft of Act ii of A Woman of No Importance (now held in the British Library: MS Add. 37944), where Hester Worsley exclaims: 'You cultivated people in England don't know why you are living. You never think of that. Think of it sometime. What does your wealth give you but weariness? What do your pleasures bring you but ennui and pain? There are more haggard faces in a London Drawing room than you will find in the most sunless lane in your great, unjust city, more haggard faces and more aching hearts.' (Quoted in Ian Small, ed., Oscar Wilde: A Woman of No Importance (London: A & C Black, 1993), 44n.)
228. Watchman: the figure of the watchman was an anachronism by the late nineteenth century, for he was 'one of a body of men formerly appointed to keep watch and ward in all towns from sunset to sunrise; later a constable of the watch who, before the Police Act of 1839, patrolled the streets by night to safeguard life and property' (OED).
237. the snow came … came the frost: the scene in 'Ce que disent les hirondelles' is also set in late autumn or in early winter: 'Voici l'hiver, voici le froid!'.
253. House of Death … Sleep: the phrase 'the house of … ' followed by an abstract noun is a common rhetorical device throughout W's work, and occurs in 'The Canterville Ghost' in the present volume. In Robert Ross's reconstruction of W's lecture 'The English Renaissance of Art', given in Chickering Hall in New York in Jan. 1882, W talks of 'that secure house of beauty' (Miscellanies, 271). Similarly phrases such as 'House of Pain', 'house of bondage', 'house of mourning', and 'house of detention' occur frequently in De Profundis. These phrases always possess a biblical cadence or resonance, but often—as here—they do not have a biblical source.
282. the Angel brought Him the leaden heart and the dead bird: an echo of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale 'The Angel', where the body of a child who has died and a withered flower are taken to heaven by an angel. The child is transformed by God into an angel, and the flower is given a voice.
284–5. garden in Paradise … city of gold: W specifically connects paradise, the garden, and Christ in 'The Selfish Giant' (see note to line 132), but the conjunction of heaven, paradise, and the garden would have been available from a long and complex tradition of literary and theological sources. W's 'City of gold', while it is syntactically reminiscent of a number of other phrases in W's oeuvre such as the 'City of God' (in De Profundis, 107) or 'città divina' (in 'The Critic as Artist' in Intentions (Criticism, 175)), does not have a biblical source.