‘Apologia’ by Oscar Wilde is a nine stanza poem that is divided into sets of three and four lines, known as tercets and quatrains. The second and fourth stanzas have three and the remaining seven have four. The tercets follow a consistent rhyme scheme of ABA and the quatrains follow a pattern of ABAB.
In regards to the rhythm, the lines are also fairly consistent. The four lines of the longer stanzas are written in iambic pentameter. This means that each line contains five sets of two beats, known as metrical feet. The first is unstressed and the second stressed. It sounds something like da-DUM, da-DUM. The three-line stanzas are a little different. The first line is significantly longer, at fourteen or seventeen syllables, but the second and third lines jump back to iambic pentameter.
It is also important to consider the title, ‘Apologia’. The word is in reference to a formal defense of one’s opinions. A reader should keep this in mind throughout the poem and consider exactly what it is the speaker is defending.
Summary of Apologia
In the first lines of the poem, the speaker directs a question to his lover. It is one of two long questions and is meant rhetorically. He asks them if they are going to make him give up the things he loves, like his gold clothes, and trade them for something worse. Will they, he wonders, force him to suffer from sorrow in his heart?
As the speaker goes on, he admits that in the end, it doesn’t matter. He’s going to do whatever he needs to to make this person happy and he’s completely okay with that. He has lived a long and free life that was better than most people ever get to have. The next stanzas are devoted to explaining how different people experience the world. Some look up and see the birds in the sky, and down and see the flowers under their feet, but others never do. He is among the former, making his sacrifice all the more poignant.
In the final stanza, with passion, the speaker exclaims over the way that his heart has been spent by the “gorged asp of passion”. He has been drained of much of who he was before by his love, but that’s not a bad thing. The speaker is willing to give even more of himself up. He has “known indeed / the love that moves the sun and all the stars!” This makes any sacrifice worth it.
Analysis of Apologia
Is it thy will that I should wax and wane,
Barter my cloth of gold for hodden grey,
And at thy pleasure weave that web of pain
Whose brightest threads are each a wasted day?
In the first stanza of ‘Apologia’ the speaker begins by asking a long, four-line question. The question is directed toward his lover and refers to what this person wants of him. He asks if they want him to “wax and wane” and give away his “cloth of gold,” or fancy pieces of clothing, for “hodden grey”. The speaker wonders if it would be pleasurable for this person if he wove a “web of pain”. His web would be made out of wasted days, if the listener wanted him to.
It is interesting to consider in these first lines what it is the speaker values. He obviously cares about the listener most of all, but the first things that he thinks of, when describing the complexity of their relationship and what he metaphorically might have to give up, are his clothes and his full days.
Is it thy will That my Soul’s House should be a tortured spot
Wherein, like evil paramours, must dwell
The quenchless flame, the worm that dieth not?
The second stanza of ‘Apologia’ is another long question. With a different metrical pattern in the first line, the speaker asks the listener if it is their will that his “Soul’s House” turns into a “tortured spot”. It would there that the “worm that dieth not” would dwell, without ever being quenched.
In simpler words, the speaker is interested in knowing whether the listener, whom he loves, wants to make him suffer for that love. The references to “paramours”, or people with whom he is in love, as well as fire and evil, create an image of devotion as something deadly and distractive.
Nay, if it be thy will I shall endure,
And sell ambition at the common mart,
And let dull failure be my vestiture,
sorrow dig its grave within my heart.
In the third stanza of ‘Apologia’ the speaker continues speaking as passionately as he did in the first two lines. Here, he concedes to any demands his lover might have. They have not responded to his first two questions, but he knows that if it be “thy will” then he “shall endure”.
The next lines are meant to show the listener that he really is willing to do anything mean if that person can remain theirs. Just as with the first stanza, the next three lines reveal to the reader something about the speaker. They tell the reader that they would be willing to sell off their ambition “at the common mart,” or, at a simple market, to someone who probably wouldn’t pay a very high price.
Obviously, it is impossible to physically buy someone’s ambition, but, the speaker is making a larger point. He is letting his listener know that he will set aside his goals for himself, likely to do with his career if they want him to. The speaker would accept “dull failure” and allow it to be his vestiture or clothing. He would be swathed in it.
Going on, the speaker concludes the stanza by saying that he would allow sorrow and unhappiness to worm its way into his heart and dig a grave there. It would be entombed at the center of his body, without the possibility of removal.
Perchance it may be better so I have not made my heart a heart of stone,
Nor starved my boyhood of its goodly feast,
Nor walked where Beauty is a thing unknown.
The fourth stanza is again three lines. In these lines, the speaker starts a series of statements that build onto one another as he considers the way he has lived his life up until this point. He thinks that possibly it is better that he has not “made his heart a heart of stone“. When he looks back on his youth, he knows that he did not start himself of pleasure. Through these lines, he is also considering what it would be not to do these things. To not have walked by her beauty did, and now it pressures. He knows that there are people who live their lives this way.
Many a man hath done so; sought to fence
In straitened bonds the soul that should be free,
Trodden the dusty road of common sense,
While all the forest sang of liberty,
The fifth stanza of ‘Apologia’ continues his description of his very different kind of life you could’ve learned. It could be one, as other than that, that is spent trying to rain in the soul of that “should be free“. He could’ve, walked the “dusty road of commonsense“ and ignored the forest which “sang of liberty“. The fact that he is aware of a life lived differently from his own, makes it all the more possible that he also understands what it might take to devote himself to the listener to whom he is speaking. That being said, it also means that he knows what kind of sacrifice he’s going to have to make for this person, if they ask him for it.
Not marking how the spotted hawk in flight
Passed on wide pinion through the lofty air,
To where the steep untrodden mountain height
Caught the last tresses of the Sun God’s hair.
Wilde’s speaker describes how someone who is not living their life to its fullest would not look up into the sky and see the “spotted hawk in flight”. They could not, as he is able to, take note of the “wide pinion,” or the outer part of a bird’s wings, as it moves through the “lofty air”.
He also describes how others might not take the time to follow it and see how it lands on a mountain and catches the last bits of the light from the sun. In these lines, he speaks of the “Sun God” and of lofty elevation. This is part of his argument that he has lived his life on a higher plane than that which other people reside on.
Or how the little flower he trod upon,
The daisy, that white-feathered shield of gold,
Followed with wistful eyes the wandering sun
Content if once its leaves were aureoled.
In the seventh of ‘Apologia’ he continues as he had on the first, discussing the things that he could have, or could not have done while living his life. He speaks of a daisy, “white father she would’ve called“ that was trot upon by the boring, passionless man used as his example of someone who did not live their life to the full list. This person would of course not notice the small Daisy under his feet. They also would not have ever looked up with “list for eyes“ at the “wondering son“.
But surely it is something to have been
The best belovèd for a little while,
To have walked hand in hand with Love, and seen
His purple wings flit once across thy smile.
In the eighth stanza, the speaker comes along to the realization that yes, he may have to give up how he lived in the past. But, if you want to start “it is something to offend“ the most loved by this one specific person “for a little while“. The speaker believes that giving up his days of freedom and liberty is worth it to have “walked hand-in-hand with love“ and to have seen the way that his “purple wings flit across [the listener’s] smile.”
Wilde uses personification here to embody the force of love into a being with brightly colored wings that is capable of moving around like a bird.
Ay! though the gorgèd asp of passion feed
On my boy’s heart, yet have I burst the bars,
Stood face to face with Beauty, known indeed
The Love which moves the Sun and all the stars!
In the final stanza of ‘Apologia’, with passion, the speaker exclaims over the way that his heart has been spent by the “gorged ass of passion“. He uses a metaphor in this line to compare feelings of passion to a snakebite. In this case though, rather than poisoning him, the ASP has felt on him slowly and steadily. And to make it even more deadly, the area in which the asp sunk its fangs was his “boys heart“.
Finally, in the last two lines, Watts makes use of the phrase that is become quite popular and familiar with lovers of his writing and poetry in general. He says that no matter how painful moments of this relationship I’ve been, and despite the loss, what he right now feels and the sacrifice he might have to make in the future, he’s willing to accept it. He has “stood face-to-face with beauty”. This speaker has “known indeed he love that moves the sun and all the stars!” This makes any sacrifice worth it, and brings him beyond the mundane physical world. He goes into a more spiritual and even divine one, governments by the rules of love.