‘On the Sale By Auction of Keats’ Love Letters’ by Oscar Wilde is a two stanza Italian, or Petrarchan, sonnet that is separated into one set of eight lines and anther of six. The lines follow a consistent rhyme scheme that conforms to the pattern of ABBAABBA CDDCDC.
Within Petrarchan sonnets there are two halves, the first eight lines, or octet, which is followed by the sestet, a set of six lines. The octet always follows the rhyming pattern of ABBAABBA, as seen in this piece, but the sestet is open to change. It usually makes use of some combination of two or three new rhyming endings, such as CDCDCD or CDEEDC.
Another element that marks ‘On the Sale By Auction of Keats’ Love Letters’ as a Petrarchan sonnet is the turn, or volta. This is a shift in the poem that can be seen through a change in narrator, belief or setting. It can even consistent of an answer to a question posed in the first half. In the case of this particular poem the first half is devoted to the events surrounding the auction of Keats’ letters. The second is an extended metaphor comparing the events to the seizure of Christ’s clothes by Roman soldiers.
Summary of On the Sale By Auction of Keats’ Love Letters
The poem begins with the speaker referring to Keats as “Endymion,” a beautiful young man from Greek mythology, and the subject of one of Keats’ best-known works. Wilde speaks about the love that Keats and Fanny Brawne shared in secret and how all their private words are about to be put out into the open and sold to those who care nothing for art. The merchants are going to prosper from Keats’ passionate pulses.
The second half of ‘On the Sale By Auction of Keats’ Love Letters’ uses the story of the Roman soldiers who gambled over Christ’s clothes as a comparison to how Keats is being treated.
Analysis of On the Sale By Auction of Keats’ Love Letters
These are the letters which Endymion wrote
To one he loved in secret, and apart.
In the first stanza of ‘On the Sale By Auction of Keats’ Love Letters’, the initial quatrain, or set of four lines begins with the speaker referring to letters written by “Endymion”. To a lover of poetry, especially that of John Keats, or of Greek mythology (Wilde was both), this reference is straight forward. It refers to a beautiful young man from Greek mythology. She was loved by the moon, Selene. Keats wrote his story in his long poem titled ‘Endymion’.
With the additional information provided by the title, the main subject of the poem is obvious. Wilde is going to be discussing the 1821 auction of John Keats’ and Fanny Brawne’s love letters. These were sold at a public auction, a fact that sat very poorly with other writers and lovers of the arts at the time. Wilde was amongst those who thought it was a serious invasion of privacy. As well as clearly disrespectful that Keats’ personal words would be available for everyone to read.
In the second line, he refers to Fanny Brawne, the woman dearly loved “in secret, and apart” by Keats. Her mother disapproved of the match, as she saw Keats as a man without prospects. The two were forced to correspond in secret, trading numerous impassioned letters.
And now the brawlers of the auction mart
Bargain and bid for each poor blotted note,
Wilde speaks about the auction in the third line of ‘On the Sale By Auction of Keats’ Love Letters’ and of the violent, tasteless “brawlers” who “Bargain and bid for each blotted note”. These lines are given greater impact through his use of alliteration (through the repetition of the letter “b”) with “brawlers,” “Bargain,” “bid” and “blotted”. He spits the words out, disgusted by those who would put a price on Keats’ love.
An interesting side note, Wilde himself attended the auction and bought one of the letters. This was done with the intention of keeping at least one away from the eye of the larger public.
Ay! for each separate pulse of passion quote
The merchant’s price. I think they love not art
Who break the crystal of a poet’s heart
That small and sickly eyes may glare and gloat.
With clear anger, Wilde speaks about the “passion” within Keats letters. He is upset about the way that Keats’ “pulse[s] pf passion” are each labeled with a price. To make it worse, it is the “merchant’s price,” not the artist’s or historians.
His disdain for the proceedings in elaborated on in the second line when he says that those who want to make money off the letters have no love for art. Instead, it is only money they are after.
The last two lines of this octave of ‘On the Sale By Auction of Keats’ Love Letters’ compare the opening of the letters in public to the breaking of Keats’ “crystal…heart”. It is something sacrosanct and heathen-like. The crystal is penetrated by the “small and sickly eyes” of the merchants and their customers. They are allowed to “glare” at the words and “gloat” about their ownership over them.
Is it not said that many years ago,
In a far Eastern town, some soldiers ran
With torches through the midnight, and began
To wrangel for mean raiment, and to throw
Dice for the garments of a wretched man,
Not knowing the God’s wonder, or His woe?
There is a transition between the first and second stanza of ‘On the Sale By Auction of Keats’ Love Letters’, known as the turn or volta. In the next six lines Wilde moves away from the exact events of the auction to a larger metaphor. He asks the reader if it is not true that a long time ago a series of events happened in “a far Eastern town”. They included “some solider” who ran with “torches through the midnight”. As well as argued over “mean raiment,” or poor items of clothing.
These garments belonged to Christ, and the soldiers were Romans who gambled, through a game of dice, over who was going to get them as a prize. These godless men, as Wilde describes them, did not know the “wonders” of heaven or of “His woe”. They were violating something holy and bringing great shame upon themselves.
Clearly, Wilde meant this example from Biblical history to stand as a metaphor for the auction of Keats’ letters. The metaphor also gives the reader some idea of how important Keats was to Wilde.