‘Magdalen Walks’ by Oscar Wilde is a five stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains conforms to a specific and structured pattern of rhyme. Wilde has chosen to structure the poem with a rhyme scheme of abba cddc, and so on, through the five stanzas.
A reader should also take note of the use of indention. The choice to line up the rhyming lines at different margins adds an element of visual interest to the page and helps the reader relate the first line to the fourth, and the second to the third.
In addition to being a poem simple about the beginning of spring, it is interesting to note that Wilde attended Magdalen College, Oxford. It has been suggested that the “walk” mentioned in this piece is in fact a walk through the gardens of the school. Therefore, the spring will be one which Wilde observed himself.
Summary of Magdalen Walks
The poem begins with the speaker describing the movement of clouds in the sky. This is matched by the speaker’s own moment as he walks through a field of “gold…flowers.” He knows these flowers, as seen in March, mean that spring is coming. There is also a smell in the air. It is that of grass and upturned soil, additional signs winter is over.
The speaker makes particular note of the way the different elements of this scene, from the trees to the birds and flowers work with one another. They all improve upon the land and seem to communicate via their various activities. ‘Magdalen Walks’ concludes with the speaker sighting a thrush and kingfisher showing their power as they dive and fly through the air, disrupting winter for good.
Analysis of Magdalen Walks
The little white clouds are racing over the sky,
And the fields are strewn with the gold of the flower of March,
The daffodil breaks under foot, and the tasselled larch
Sways and swings as the thrush goes hurrying by.
In the first stanza of ‘Magdalen Walks, the speaker begins with peaceful action, the movement of “white clouds” through the sky. They are spoken as both “little” and “racing.” The clouds are moving quickly above the speaker’s head allowing him to catch sight of them for only a few moments before they move on out of view.
Looking down from the sky, the speaker makes note of the fields around him. They are covered, or “strewn” with “gold” flowers. These flowers are ones which only appear in “March.” A fact that will allow a reader to place this scene at the beginning of spring. While it is not explicitly stated, the next line alludes to the fact that the gold flowers might be daffodils. Either way, a “daffodil breaks under foot” as one moves through the landscape. It is impossible to avoid them, they are so numerous.
The speaker continues to increase the feeling of movement and life that the first line began. He speaks of the “sway” of the larch as a “thrush goes hurrying by.” These simple actions bring the environment to life and as the gold flowers did, predict a change in season.
A delicate odour is borne on the wings of the morning breeze,
The odour of leaves, and of grass, and of newly upturned earth,
The birds are singing for joy of the Spring’s glad birth,
Hopping from branch to branch on the rocking trees.
While the first stanza was devoted to sight, the second introduces a few elements of smell. This allows a reader a fuller picture of the landscape and what it would actually be like to walk there. There is an “odour” on the “morning breeze” which is spoken of as being “delicate.” It is not easy to detect, but when it is noticed it is joyful.
The “odour” consists of the smell of “leaves, and of grass” as well as the new earth which is being “upturned” by all the digging, burrowing, and searching animals. These are pure, untouched smells that should be relatable to most, and appealing to anyone reading ‘Magdalen Walks’.
In the second half of the second stanza, the speaker describes a sound that also comes from pure and pristine nature, that of singing birds. They do not sing for any reason other than that they are “joy[ful]” about the change of season. It is the “birth” of Spring that compels them to fill the air with sound. They celebrate, just as the speaker does by praising the beauty of the land. The birds make other sounds as they hop around the trees, “rocking” them back and forth.
And all the woods are alive with the murmur and sound of Spring,
And the rose-bud breaks into pink on the climbing briar,
And the crocus-bed is a quivering moon of fire
Girdled round with the belt of an amethyst ring.
At the beginning of this stanza, it is clear the Wilde means to emphasizes the movement of the scene further. His speaker is excited by the change in season and is taking careful note of everything he sees. The woods are so active they appear to be “alive.” They are filled with the “murmur and sound of Spring.” It is as if the season has become embodied in this landscape.
A few further elements the speaker takes note of are the flowers. There are “rose-bud[s]” and “crocus-bud[s]” which are “climbing” and “quivering” with new life. In the last line of this stanza Wilde crafts a metaphor for his speaker which adds to the already high importance placed on the land.
The “crocus-bed” is said to resemble a “moon of fire / Girdled round with the belt of an amethyst ring.” This a complicated way to describes a purple flower with a brilliant red and white center.
And the plane to the pine-tree is whispering some tale of love
Till it rustles with laughter and tosses its mantle of green,
And the gloom of the wych-elm’s hollow is lit with the iris sheen
Of the burnished rainbow throat and the silver breast of a dove.
The fourth stanza takes the landscape to its furthest point. Unsatisfied with a surface level description of the land, Wilde has chosen to utilize personification to enhance the reader’s understanding of the scene.
The “pine-tree” is spoken of as listening to “whispered” stories about love. The tales make it “rustle with laughter” until it “tosses” its green leaves around. Even the darker place is lit by the coming of spring. In the “gloom of the wych-elm” the “iris” flower creates a sheen of rainbows against the “silver breast of a dove.” All the elements of the landscape are working together to improve one another and brighten the entirety of the scene.
See! the lark starts up from his bed in the meadow there,
Breaking the gossamer threads and the nets of dew,
And flashing adown the river, a flame of blue!
The kingfisher flies like an arrow, and wounds the air.
In the final stanza, the speaker begins by exclaiming over a “lark” which flies up from its “bed in the meadow there.” He is pointing across the fields to the “Breaking” of “gossamer threads.” The perfect patterns of dew created during the night are broken by the bird’s movement. This symbolizes the true changing of seasons from winter to spring. There is no going back at this point.
The bird continues its powerful path through the air and down the “river” like a “flame of blue.” It is only matched by the “kingfisher” that “flies like an arrow” and is so strong it seems to “wound the air.” The bird breaks through the air around the scene, disrupting, but also improving the landscape.