‘Madonna Mia‘ is filled with examples of figurative language that compare the “lily-girl” to a flower, dove, and more. The poet uses clear and interesting language in order to craft these comparisons. Then, concludes with a compelling allusion to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
Madonna Mia by Oscar Wilde
A lily-girl, not made for this world’s pain, With brown, soft hair close braided by her ears, And longing eyes half veiled by slumberous tears Like bluest water seen through mists of rain: Pale cheeks whereon no love hath left its stain, Red underlip drawn in for fear of love, And white throat, whiter than the silvered dove, Through whose wan marble creeps one purple vein. Yet, though my lips shall praise her without cease, Even to kiss her feet I am not bold, Being o’ershadowed by the wings of awe, Like Dante, when he stood with Beatrice Beneath the flaming Lion’s breast, and saw The seventh Crystal, and the Stair of Gold.
Explore Madonna Mia
‘Madonna Mia’ by Oscar Wilde is a thoughtful poem about a woman’s appearance.
The first lines of the poem set out the woman’s appearance and how she’s so pure, she shouldn’t have to suffer from the pains of the world. Her skin is white, as is her soul and heart. She’s pure in a way that is awe-inspiring for the speaker. She’s compared to a dove, the bluest waters “seen through mists of rain” and more.
Throughout this piece, Wilde engages with themes of beauty and purity. The speaker is overwhelmed by the girl’s beauty and what she represents to him. She’s pure to her soul in a way that surprises and entrances him. It’s almost impossible for him to find the right words to depict her. This is seen through the series of similes and metaphors he includes in the poem. Each tries to accomplish something different.
Structure and Form
‘Madonna Mia’ by Oscar Wilde is a fourteen-line Petrarchan sonnet. This means that in addition to being separated into one set of eight lines, known as an octave, and one set of six lines, known as a sestet, the poem follows a rhyme scheme of ABBAABBA. The following six lines can follow one of several different patterns. IN this case, Wilde chose to go with CDECED. This is a slightly unusual pattern for the sestet. Often, writers go with CDCDCD or CDECDE.
Throughout ‘Madonna Mia,’ Wilde makes use of several literary devices. These include but are not limited to:
- Imagery: occurs when the poet uses especially vibrant imagery. For example, “With brown, soft hair close braided by her ears, / And longing eyes half veiled by slumberous tears.”
- Alliteration: occurs when the poet repeats the same consonant sound at the beginning of words. For example, “brown” and “braided” in line two and “white” and “whiter” in line seven.
- Allusion: a reference to something that’s only mentioned briefly in a literary work. In this case, towards the end of the poem, the poet references “Dante” and “Beatrice.” These names belong to Dante Alighieri the famed Italian author of The Divine Comedy and Beatrice, the woman he loved throughout his life and who features in the epic poem. Someone who isn’t aware of this is going to have to research the names and how they relate to what the writer is exploring.
A lily-girl, not made for this world’s pain,
With brown, soft hair close braided by her ears,
And longing eyes half veiled by slumberous tears
Like bluest water seen through mists of rain:
In the first lines of ‘Madonna Mia,’ the speaker begins by referring to a “lily-girl.” This is a metaphor, relating a specific girl or woman to the lily flower. She’s beautiful, delicate, and perhaps, related in some way to loss or death. These are the traditional experiences connected to the lily flower.
She is “not made for this world’s pain.” Here, the speaker is telling the reader that the girl is so special, kind, innocent, etc, that she’s not made to deal with the harsh realities of the world. Words like “soft” and “longing” define her.
There is a good metaphor in the next lines, where the speaker compares the girl’s eyes to “bluest water seen through mists of rain.” This is a beautiful comparison and one that furthers the reader’s understanding of what she looks like but more importantly, how the speaker views her.
Pale cheeks whereon no love hath left its stain,
Red underlip drawn in for fear of love,
And white throat, whiter than the silvered dove,
Through whose wan marble creeps one purple vein.
The next quatrain, or set of four lines, adds that the woman’s pale cheeks reveal her innocence. No love has left “its stain” on her. Her skin represents her purity. In part, the speaker says, this is due to “fear of love.” Words like “white” and “white”, as well as “dove”, reemphasize the importance of innocence and purity in this woman’s image. There is “one purple vein” creeping through her “white” throat, a throat that’s whiter than “the silvered dove,” another smile.
Yet, though my lips shall praise her without cease,
Even to kiss her feet I am not bold,
Being o’ershadowed by the wings of awe,
Like Dante, when he stood with Beatrice
Beneath the flaming Lion’s breast, and saw
The seventh Crystal, and the Stair of Gold.
There is a turn between the eighth line and the ninth line. This is known, in Italian, as the volta. The speaker starts using first-person pronouns like “I” and “my.” The speaker’s lips praise or worship her in language alone, “without cease.” There are no kisses for the speaker is “not bold.” His appreciation for her is “o’ershadowed by the wings of awe.” It’s in the next lines that the allusion and comparison to Dante come into play. The poet references Dante’s Divine Comedy and the role that Beatrice plays within the epic poem. He stood with her, looking out at what was set out before him in awe. The poet’s speaker compares this to the way that he looks at the “lily-girl.”
The tone is awe-inspired and amazed. The speaker is incredibly appreciative of what he sees in the girl’s appearance and in her heart. He can’t find enough elaborate words to say about her.
The meaning is that some people are so pure and evoke such awe that it’s impossible to bold approach them. Some might interpret this poem religiously or stick to the clearest, secular meaning.
The mood is appreciative and contemplative. Readers might find themselves wishing they too had seen what the speaker saw in the young girl or what Dante saw alongside Beatrice.
Wilde wrote this poem in order to celebrate his, someone else’s, or a persona’s vision of a “lily girl.” He makes broad similes that are quite meaningful and centered around purity and beauty. One might interpret this piece religiously or secularly.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Madonna Mia’ should also consider reading other Oscar Wilde poems. For example:
- ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ – a heartbreaking depiction of the losses, betrayals, and tragedies that all ‘men’ suffer in their lifetime.
- ‘The Garden of Eros’ – describes a metaphorical garden of England that plays host to varied flowers and the memories of some of the greatest English poets.
- ‘The Grave of Keats’ – describes the physical state of the dead poet’s grave and the emotional impact that his short life had on England.