‘On the Massacre of Christians in Bulgaria’ by Oscar Wilde is a variation of an Italian, or Petrarchan sonnet. The traditional rhyme scheme of an Italian sonnet follows the pattern, ABBAABBA, followed by a sestet rhyming CDECDE or, CDCDCD.
In this case, Wilde has diverged slightly from the original formatting and rhymes his octave, ABBAACCA and his sestet DEFDEF. While different, the pattern is close enough to be considered Petrarchan or Italian.
This piece is based on real historical events, the Batak massacre in Bulgaria. In the spring of 1876 in the Bulgarian town of Batak 5,000 men, women and children were brutally murdered by Turkish Ottoman irregulars. These Ottoman soldiers were under the religious assumption that they would be granted a place Paradise if they killed as many infidels, non-Muslims, as possible. Their sins would be forgiven and they would have a place beside Mohammad, or “Mohamut.”
Summary of On the Massacre of Christians in Bulgaria
“On the Massacre of the Christians in Bulgaria” by Oscar Wilde is a sonnet that questions the divinity of God after a massacre of Christians in Batak, Bulgaria.
The poem begins with the speaker calling out God for not defending the Christians that were slaughtered in the Batak Massacre in Bulgaria. He asks Christ if he does “live indeed?” Or if his bones are still entombed behind the rocky “sepulchre.” He tries to describe the scene in Batak that he is witness to. The groans of dying men are filling the air and young children are dead “upon the stones.”
The poem concludes with the speaker informing God that a dark curtain has been pulled over the world and that if He does not come down from heaven and do something to save his people that “Mahomet” or Mohammad will be “crowned” and usurp him.
Analysis of On the Massacre of Christians in Bulgaria
Christ, dost Thou live indeed? or are Thy bones
Still straitened in their rock-hewn sepulchre?
And was Thy Rising only dreamed by her
Whose love of Thee for all her sin atones?
The poet begins this piece by having his speaker directly address “Christ.” He is distraught, confused, and angry and through his inability to understand the “massacre,” he demands an answer of Christ. He asks him, “does Thou life indeed?” The situation is so appalling to the narrator that he is empowered to question the divinity of Jesus Christ. He does not want to think that if Jesus was indeed a God among men, that he would ever have allowed Christians to be harmed in such a way.
The reader will find out more about the massacre as the poem continues, but the poet is setting the scene for what is to come.
Wilde has crafted a preamble that is also a cliffhanger. The reader will be compelled to hear more about what happened and determine for themselves if it is really as awful as the speaker declares it to be.
He continues, he doubts the divinity of Christ by questioning whether he ever even rose from the grave. He asks if Christs bones are still “straintened in their rock-hewn sepulchre,” or tomb. No God, he thinks, would allow this to happen. Jesus must never have risen on the third day at all, as the Bible states.
The speaker wants to know if “She,” Mary Magdalene did not in fact see Jesus rise from he grave, but only dreamed “Thy Rising,” as her love for “you” was so strong. Her love had atoned for “all her sins” and she did not want to truly believe that Christ was dead.
For here the air is horrid with men’s groans,
The priests who call upon Thy name are slain,
Dost Thou not hear the bitter wail of pain
From those whose children lie upon the stones?
The next lines of the poem address the “massacre” on which this piece is based. It seems as if the speaker is present in Bulgaria, viewing first hand the tragedy. “Here” where the speaker is located, “the air is worried with men’s groans.” The sounds of dying men are filling the air, so much so that the air itself is being “worried,” or disrupted.
The situation is so horrifying that even priests who are there to give last rites “are slain.” The speaker specifically mentions these holy men as he believes that above anyone else, God should care about them the most. If they are not saved, who will be?
The poet’s speaker once more directly speaks to God asking “Him” if he cannot “hear the bitter wail[s] of pain” coming from the children who are dying “upon the stones.”
It is noted in accounts of this atrocity that the number of children among the dead was extraordinarily high. The Turkish soldiers had no regard for the age of those they killed.
Come down, O Son of God! incestuous gloom
Curtains the land, and through the starless night
Over Thy Cross a Crescent moon I see!
If Thou in very truth didst burst the tomb
In the concluding portion of this piece the narrator calls upon God to come down from heaven and lift the “incestuous gloom” that has “Curtain[ed] the land.” The violence and depravity that was seen in Batak, and similar places, has darkened the earth. The speaker demands God to come down before all light is extinguished.
He refers to the moon and the fact that it is in a “Crescent,” “Over Thy Cross.” This fading of one of God’s great creations marks the end of the earth. If divine power is not applied to the planet then it’s suffering people all will face the end.
In the final lines the speaker returns once more to the tomb of Jesus. He tells God that if “Thou” did break free from the tomb, then come down.
Come down, O Son of Man! and show Thy might
Lest Mahomet be crowned instead of Thee!
God must now leave heaven and “Come down” and show true “His” might. If he does not then “Mahomet,” or Mohammad, the main prophet of Islam, will be “crowned instead of Thee!”
The narrator believes that this is the worst of all possible situations. If change of power was to occur there would be nothing to stop further massacres like the one that occurred in Batak. He is taunting God, hoping to, by offending his pride, force him into action. The narrator is in fact risking his own life, putting himself in danger from the wrath of a God who does not like to be questioned.
About Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde in Dublin, Ireland in October of 1854. As a young child Wilde attended Portora Royal School where he was first introduced to Greek and Roman studies, a passion that would stay with him his entire life. He was a bright child and often won awards.
After graduating, Wilde attended Trinity College in Dublin and while there received the Foundation Scholarship, the highest award given to undergraduate students. He would continue to receive awards during his schooling and upon his graduation. One of which, the Demyship Scholarship, allowed him to study at Magdalen College in Oxford.
After graduating from Magdalen, Wilde moved permanently to London. In 1881 he published his first collection, Poems.The next year Wilde toured America giving a total of 140 lectures in nine months. He met with a number of notable figures while traveling, including, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman. After returning home he continued to lecture, traveling through England and Ireland until 1884. It was during this time that Wilde established himself as a leader of the “aesthetic movement,” or the philosophy that one should live by a set of beliefs advocating beauty as having it’s own worth, rather than as a tool of promotion for other viewpoints.
That same year Wilde married Constance Lloyd with whom he would have two sons.
In 1888 Wilde entered his most creative and productive years. He published The Happy Prince and Other Tales, as well as his only novel The Picture of Dorian Grey. At the time of it’s publication critics and readers were outraged by it’s content and apparent homosexual undertones. While his novel was not received well, he was enjoying success from several plays, such as An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.
During this same time period Wilde was deeply involved in an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, more commonly known as “Bosie.” Bosie’s father, outraged by the affair, wrote a note to Wilde addressed, “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite” (an accidental misspelling of “sodomite”). Wilde’s choice to sue Bosie’s father for libel ruined his life.
In 1895, after a trial and conviction for “gross indecency,” Wilde spent two years in prison under forced labor conditions. This sentence took a great toll on the writer and in 1897, after being released, Wilde moved to London. His last great work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was completed in 1898. Oscar Wilde died in 1900 of an ear infection that had been contracted, and untreated, in prison.