‘A Vision’ by Oscar Wilde is a fourteen line sonnet that does not follow a standard pattern of rhyme. Wilde has chosen to conform his text to a rhyme scheme of abbaabbacdcdcc. The first eight lines, or octave, resemble a Petrarchan or Italian sonnet. In the concluding sestet the pattens diverges, following a distinct pattern that brings to mind Shakespearean sonnet, through the utilization of the concluding couplet. On the other hand, the alternating cdcd section also returns the next to the realm of the Petrarchan sonnet.
While the text might not follow a specific pattern the metrical pattern is more regular. Each line is structured in accordance with iambic pentameter, one of the most popular rhythmic form a poem can take. This means that the lines are made up of five sets of two beats, or iambs. The iambs contain one unstressed syllable and one stressed.
There is a great deal of background information which is important to take note of before beginning this piece. Wilde’s speaker begins by referencing the “Two crownèd Kings, and One.” This is a vague allusion that will bring to mind a range of different people and characters depending on the reader. The mystery is increased with the mention of a “green weight of laurels.”
It is not until the last two lines the speaker reveals he has been referring to Æschylos, Sophokles, and Euripides, three Greek playwrights whose works have survived. Æschylos is known as the “father of tragedy,” and Sophokles wrote over 120 plays and was the most celebrated playwright of Athens during his lifetime. Finally Wilde’s speaker comes to Euripides who was far less celebrated in his life but has more surviving works than the other two combined.
There is also a reference to “Beatricé” in the text of ‘A Vision.’ While it is not entirely clear who this person is, she is likely meant to be the great love of Dante Alighieri who was partially cast as his guide in his series of epic poems, The Divine Comedy.
Summary of A Vision
‘A Vision’ by Oscar Wilde describes a speaker’s encounter with the personas of Æschylos, Sophokles, and Euripides the three Greek playwrights whose works survive.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that he can see two kings and one man without any laurels. It is this person who catches his attention the most. In the following lines he describes what feelings he gets from this man and the sights which surround his broken tombstone.
In the final couplet it is revealed that the men are the greek playwrights Æschylos, Sophokles, and Euripides. It is Euripides with whom the speaker is so taken. He is deeply interested in the writer’s disappointing reception by the public during his lifetime. It is not until after death he is recognized.
Analysis of A Vision
Two crownèd Kings, and One that stood alone
With no green weight of laurels round his head,
But with sad eyes as one uncomforted
And wearied with man’s never-ceasing moan
In the first four lines of this piece the speaker begins with a reference to, “Two crownèd Kings, and One.” As mentioned above, at first a reader will be confused who the speaker is referring to. It is not made clear until the final rhyming couplet that Wilde is thinking of Æschylos, Sophokles, and Euripides. One thing is clear from this first line, one of the three is valued less than the other two.
With minimal background information one can determine this “One” was meant to be Euripides. He was not popular during his lifetime or directly after his death. A reader might also determine that Wilde, or at least the voice with which he is speaking, does not feel the same way. He has capitalized “One” as if to convey the importance of this outside position.
In the second line the speaker states that of the two, only one does not have a “weight of laurels round his head.” This refers to the crown of laurel leaves that was used in Greek society to convey triumph. The “One” is not happy with his lot in life. Rather than glory, he has “sad eyes” that are “as uncomforted” as any man in misery. Wilde’s speaker sees Euripides as suffering for the way he was treated. He feels wearied by the “moans” of others over his work and those pulled from his own body over his treatment.
For sins no bleating victim can atone,
And sweet long lips with tears and kisses fed.
Girt was he in a garment black and red,
And at his feet I marked a broken stone
The description continues into the next four lines. Wilde’s speaker states that the moans came in part for “sins” that can not be “atone[d].” Euripides plays the role of sinner and victim in these lines while his audience stands in, from a different perspective, as the victims. Depending on one’s view of the writer’s works, he sinned in his output making the readers his “victim[s].” On the other hand, he is the victim of the reader’s misplaced distaste.
The next two lines describe Euripides as being “Girt” or encircled in a “garment black and red.” He has long since died and at his feet the speaker looks at a “broken stone.” This is a reference to the myth that God struck Euripides grave marker with lightening to show his distaste for the writer’s work. Wilde’s speaker is looking on at all the markers of this person’s life and feeling sorry for the way his work was received.
Which sent up lilies, dove-like, to his knees.
Now at their sight, my heart being lit with flame
I cried to Beatricé, “Who are these?”
And she made answer, knowing well each name,
In the next set of four lines the speaker concludes his description of the “One” by noting the “lilies” at Euripides knees. They represent death, but in this moment are “dove-like,” a symbol of peace and rebirth. The “One” is surrounded by peace he never knew in his life. Death has brought him rest, as well as acclaim. It is Euripides works that are the best-known and most celebrated among the three writers.
The next line returns to the speaker who is looking over all three men. They are so striking in appearance that his heart is “lit with flame.” He feels passionately about them and their contributions. In this moment he cries out to “Beatricé.” As mentioned in the introduction, it is likely Beatricé refers to Dante Alighieri’s lifelong love. She appears in his Divine Comedy. The speaker asks her who these three are and she replies knowingly, without hesitation.
“Æschylos first, the second Sophokles,
And last (wide stream of tears!) Euripides.”
The final three lines reveal to a reader that the two crowned Kings are Æschylos and Sophokles. They are followed, alongside a “wide stream of tears,” by Euripides.
Beatricé fulfills her role as muse once more. She informs the reader of the information that is completely necessary to an accurate interpretation of the text.