Oscar Wilde

‘Ravenna’ by Oscar Wilde is the poet’s recollection of a trip to the culturally and historically important Italian city of Ravenna.


Oscar Wilde

Nationality: Irish

Oscar Wilde is remembered today as the author of 'The Picture of Dorian Gray.'

He also wrote many other works, mostly plays, which were crafted to challenge and entertain.

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Wilde loves Ravenna for its beauty, grand history, and connection to great poets

Themes: Beauty, Journey

Speaker: Oscar Wilde

Emotions Evoked: Excitement, Passion

Poetic Form: Couplets

Time Period: 19th Century

'Ravenna' is not generally considered one of Oscar Wilde's best poems. Nor is Wilde primarily known for his poetry, but rather for his plays, his brilliant wit, and his single novel, 'The Picture of Dorian Gray.'

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Ravenna‘ by Oscar Wilde is the youthful poet’s evocative reflection on the city of Ravenna’s glorious history and, in particular, on the great poets associated with Ravenna, Byron, and Dante. This poem is not regarded as one of Wilde’s best, but it does provide invaluable insight into his youthful approach to poetry and may help fans of his literature better understand the man himself.


In this long poem, Oscar Wilde reflects on the grand history of the Italian city of Ravenna, a city of great historical and cultural importance.

Wilde evokes the great poets associated with Ravenna, Byron, and Dante and explores the faded glory of Ravenna’s past from Roman through medieval times up to the then-current era of Italian reunification. Through the poem, Wilde situates himself in the historical and literary tradition of Western civilization.

This evocative poem looks back to the past in two ways. First, it looks back to the great figures and grand events that have played a role in the history of Ravenna. Second, the poet is looking back at the event of his trip to Ravenna of the previous year, which has become profoundly meaningful to him.

Wilde uses passionate, beautiful poetic language to evoke his love for Ravenna. In this, the poem is an example of aestheticism. The poem is of interest to anyone interested in Oscar Wilde himself, the history of Western civilization, or the tradition of Western poetry — especially Lord Byron and Dante. This lengthy, digressive poem touches many themes, but more than anything else, is concerned with poetic, artistic beauty and meaning.

Structure and Form

The poem is broken into seven irregular sections with a varying number of stanzas within each section. The first, second, and fifth sections have just two stanzas, while there are nine stanzas in the sixth section. The stanzas vary widely in length as well, from just three lines at the shortest to 36 at the longest.

In terms of rhyme, the poem follows a more regular, steadier pattern. The poem is made up of rhyming couplets in iambic pentameter. While Oscar Wilde is famous for his rejection of social convention in the unusual clothing he wore and his flamboyant manner, in this poem, he adhered to the most common metrical form in English poetry.

Literary Devices

One of the literary devices seen in ‘Ravenna‘ is a metaphor. In a metaphor, an object or idea is used in place of another thing it literally is not. For example, in the second stanza of the seventh section, the season autumn is described as “the summer’s conqueror” and “the season’s usurer.” These metaphors are also examples of personification since autumn is an aspect of a natural process while being a military conqueror or a usurer is something that only a human can literally do.

There are also many interesting similes in the poem. Similes are comparisons using the words like or as. One example is found in these lines in the section on Byron: “No longer now shall Slander’s venomed spite/ Crawl like a snake across his perfect name.” Again, Slander here is functioning as a personification as well. Another simile is when Wilde says that his walk in the wood has “whelmed my heart like some encroaching sea.”

Yet personification may be the most important literary device in the poem because the entire poem is an example of personification in the way that Wilde discusses the city of Ravenna. Ravenna is not just a location on a map or a city to Wilde in the poem, but seemingly a living being. When Wilde declares his love for Ravenna, it is as if he is talking to a person. Wilde also ascribes agency to Ravenna many times, such as when he says that Ravenna “hast caught no flambeau in the race.”

Finally, anaphora is a term for when the same word or phrase is used at the beginning of consecutive lines. Anaphora occurs in the first stanza of the fourth section of ‘Ravenna,’ where it is employed to heighten emotion in these lines:

O Salamis! O lone Plataean plain!
O tossing waves of wild Euboean sea!
O wind-swept heights of lone Thermopylae

Detailed Analysis

Section I

A year ago I breathed the Italian air,–
And yet, methinks this northern Spring is fair,-
These fields made golden with the flower of March,
The throstle singing on the feathered larch,
The cawing rooks, the wood-doves fluttering by,
The little clouds that race across the sky;
And fair the violet’s gentle drooping head,
The primrose, pale for love uncomforted,
The rose that burgeons on the climbing briar,
The crocus-bed, (that seems a moon of fire
Round-girdled with a purple marriage-ring);
And all the flowers of our English Spring,
Fond snowdrops, and the bright-starred daffodil.
Up starts the lark beside the murmuring mill,
And breaks the gossamer-threads of early dew;
And down the river, like a flame of blue,
Keen as an arrow flies the water-king,
While the brown linnets in the greenwood sing.
A year ago!–it seems a little time
Since last I saw that lordly southern clime,
Where flower and fruit to purple radiance blow,
And like bright lamps the fabled apples glow.
Full Spring it was–and by rich flowering vines,
Dark olive-groves and noble forest-pines,
I rode at will; the moist glad air was sweet,
The white road rang beneath my horse’s feet,
And musing on Ravenna’s ancient name,
I watched the day till, marked with wounds of flame,
The turquoise sky to burnished gold was turned.

O how my heart with boyish passion burned,
When far away across the sedge and mere
I saw that Holy City rising clear,
Crowned with her crown of towers!–On and on
I galloped, racing with the setting sun,
And ere the crimson after-glow was passed,
I stood within Ravenna’s walls at last!

Without yet naming the city of Ravenna, Wilde introduces the subject of his poem in the first line of his poem. The reader learns that the poet is looking back at a trip from the previous year. Then he reflects at length on the beauty of the English spring before returning to describe the beauty of the Italian spring he had seen a year earlier. Wilde begins to describe his travel experience. Riding on a horse, he mused on Ravenna and watched a beautiful sunset. In the short second stanza Wilde describes the high enthusiasm he felt when he finally came within view of Ravenna and then entered the city.

The long first stanza contrasts the differing beauties of spring in England and Italy. Vegetation that could only grow in Italy, not England, such as “flowering vines” and “olive groves,” is implicitly compared with the English flowers that contemporary readers of the poem would be familiar with. A focus on natural beauty and the use of elevated language marks this section, both patterns which will continue throughout the poem.

The description of Ravenna as a “Holy City” is interesting and significant. While Wilde considered converting to Catholicism as a young man and would later be admitted into the church shortly before dying, he was certainly not a conventionally religious Christian. Nor is Ravenna a particularly holy place to religious believers anyway.

It is likely that to Wilde, Ravenna is a holy city because of its beauty and its place in Western culture. The city is also holy because of Wilde’s poetic act of the imagination — throughout the poem, he invests a real place with meaning that transcends concrete reality. An idealizing tone that will continue throughout the poem is introduced in these first lines about the city of Ravenna.

Section II

How strangely still! no sound of life or joy
Startles the air; no laughing shepherd-boy
Pipes on his reed, nor ever through the day
Comes the glad sound of children at their play:
O sad, and sweet, and silent! surely here
A man might dwell apart from troublous fear,
Watching the tide of seasons as they flow
From amorous Spring to Winter’s rain and snow,
And have no thought of sorrow;–here, indeed,
Are Lethe’s waters, and that fatal weed
Which makes a man forget his fatherland.

Ay! amid lotus-meadows dost thou stand,
Like Proserpine, with poppy-laden head,
Guarding the holy ashes of the dead.
For though thy brood of warrior sons hath ceased,
Thy noble dead are with thee!–they at least
Are faithful to thine honour:- guard them well,
O childless city! for a mighty spell,
To wake men’s hearts to dreams of things sublime,
Are the lone tombs where rest the Great of Time.

In the first stanza of this short section, Wilde describes Ravenna as a quiet, almost dead place without the sound of life or children playing. However, in such a place, a man could escape from the trouble and sorrows of life. “Lethe’s waters” refers to a river in the underworld (Hades) in Greek mythology. Drinking from Lethe would cause the dead to forget their past life. “Fatal weed” and “lotus meadows” refers to the lotus, a plant in Greek mythology.

Eating the lotus would cause forgetfulness and apathy, resulting in a loss of any desire to do anything besides sit in idleness. Proserpine is the Latin name for Persephone, the goddess of the underworld. Persephone was said to grow a garden of poppies in the underworld that would cause a waking sleep in any traveler that touched them. However, though Ravenna is now in a state similar to being in the underworld, the great dead of its past still serve the purpose of making people dream of better things.

The two stanzas of this short section create the sense that Ravenna is a beautiful but melancholy place. Ravenna has a glorious past but, apparently, no future, as it is a “childless city,” which leaves it only able to inspire sublime thoughts in visitors. The classical references connect both Wilde himself and the city of Ravenna back to the foundation of Western civilization in ancient Greece, a theme that will continue to be explored in the poem.

Section III

Yon lonely pillar, rising on the plain,
Marks where the bravest knight of France was slain,–
The Prince of chivalry, the Lord of war,
Gaston de Foix: for some untimely star
Led him against thy city, and he fell,
As falls some forest-lion fighting well.
Taken from life while life and love were new,
He lies beneath God’s seamless veil of blue;
Tall lance-like reeds wave sadly o’er his head,
And oleanders bloom to deeper red,
Where his bright youth flowed crimson on the ground.

Look farther north unto that broken mound,–
There, prisoned now within a lordly tomb
Raised by a daughter’s hand, in lonely gloom,
Huge-limbed Theodoric, the Gothic king,
Sleeps after all his weary conquering.
Time hath not spared his ruin,–wind and rain
Have broken down his stronghold; and again
We see that Death is mighty lord of all,
And king and clown to ashen dust must fall

Mighty indeed THEIR glory! yet to me
Barbaric king, or knight of chivalry,
Or the great queen herself, were poor and vain,
Beside the grave where Dante rests from pain.
His gilded shrine lies open to the air;
And cunning sculptor’s hands have carven there
The calm white brow, as calm as earliest morn,
The eyes that flashed with passionate love and scorn,
The lips that sang of Heaven and of Hell,
The almond-face which Giotto drew so well,
The weary face of Dante;–to this day,
Here in his place of resting, far away
From Arno’s yellow waters, rushing down
Through the wide bridges of that fairy town,
Where the tall tower of Giotto seems to rise
A marble lily under sapphire skies!

Alas! my Dante! thou hast known the pain
Of meaner lives,–the exile’s galling chain,
How steep the stairs within kings’ houses are,
And all the petty miseries which mar
Man’s nobler nature with the sense of wrong.
Yet this dull world is grateful for thy song;
Our nations do thee homage,–even she,
That cruel queen of vine-clad Tuscany,
Who bound with crown of thorns thy living brow,
Hath decked thine empty tomb with laurels now,
And begs in vain the ashes of her son.

O mightiest exile! all thy grief is done:
Thy soul walks now beside thy Beatrice;
Ravenna guards thine ashes: sleep in peace.

In the three stanzas of the third section of the poem, Wilde delves into the historical past of Ravenna, exploring the lives of three great figures who died in Ravenna: the warriors Gaston de Foix and King Theodoric and the great poet Dante. Gaston de Foix was a great military leader for the French during the Renaissance who fell, as Wilde describes while attacking Ravenna. Wilde meditates on the sorrow of Gaston’s early death while looking at the field where he died.

Next, Wilde contemplates the tomb of Theodoric, a great Gothic warrior king who died in Ravenna in the 6th century. While Wilde describes the tomb as still containing the king’s body, in fact, his body was removed shortly after his death. In any case, the ruined state of the tomb inspires Wilde to meditate on how everyone, whether king or clown, will succumb to death.

But it is Dante’s tomb that attracts Wilde’s chief attention. Dante was a great Italian poet of the late Middle Ages who wrote the Divine Comedy, an epic poem describing his imagined trip through, as Wilde describes it, “heaven and of hell” (with purgatory in between). Dante was a native of Florence, a city in Tuscany through which the Arno flows. He is depicted in a famous work by the painter Giotto.

Wilde evokes the turbulent life of Dante, who was exiled from his native city over a political dispute and had to endure many “petty miseries.” However, through his great works, Dante has earned the gratitude of the world. Even Florence, the city that had rejected him, came to regret its decision and tried to have his remains returned. Yet the tomb erected for Dante in Florence remains empty. The brief lines of the third stanza reference Beatrice, a girl who Dante fell in love with at first sight at age nine. Dante wrote love poems to Beatrice and made her his guide through heaven in The Divine Comedy.

Though Oscar Wilde would, in fact, become famous for work in other literary genres, he thought of himself as primarily a poet. It is clear from these stanzas that Dante was one of Wilde’s great heroes. Dante is one of the greatest figures in the literary history of Western civilization, and Wilde’s purpose in this third section of his poem is to pay tribute to Dante. The two warriors described, Gaston de Foix and Theodoric, are not nearly as important to Wilde.

Instead, they are used, respectively, to evoke ideas of the tragic beauty of death in youth and time’s destruction of even the achievements of the great. Notably, Dante, though also a figure from the past, is not described as having suffered the ravages of times. Poetry apparently survives better than the monuments of kings. When discussing Dante, both the trials Dante had to endure and the incredible glory he achieved are emphasized, creating a strong contrast between the mundane and glorious aspects of human existence.

Section IV

How lone this palace is; how grey the walls!
No minstrel now wakes echoes in these halls.
The broken chain lies rusting on the door,
And noisome weeds have split the marble floor:
Here lurks the snake, and here the lizards run
By the stone lions blinking in the sun.
Byron dwelt here in love and revelry
For two long years–a second Anthony,
Who of the world another Actium made!
Yet suffered not his royal soul to fade,
Or lyre to break, or lance to grow less keen,
‘Neath any wiles of an Egyptian queen.
For from the East there came a mighty cry,
And Greece stood up to fight for Liberty,
And called him from Ravenna: never knight
Rode forth more nobly to wild scenes of fight!
None fell more bravely on ensanguined field,
Borne like a Spartan back upon his shield!
O Hellas! Hellas! in thine hour of pride,
Thy day of might, remember him who died
To wrest from off thy limbs the trammelling chain:
O Salamis! O lone Plataean plain!
O tossing waves of wild Euboean sea!
O wind-swept heights of lone Thermopylae!
He loved you well–ay, not alone in word,
Who freely gave to thee his lyre and sword,
Like AEschylos at well-fought Marathon:

And England, too, shall glory in her son,
Her warrior-poet, first in song and fight.
No longer now shall Slander’s venomed spite
Crawl like a snake across his perfect name,
Or mar the lordly scutcheon of his fame.

For as the olive-garland of the race,
Which lights with joy each eager runner’s face,
As the red cross which saveth men in war,
As a flame-bearded beacon seen from far
By mariners upon a storm-tossed sea,–
Such was his love for Greece and Liberty!

Byron, thy crowns are ever fresh and green:
Red leaves of rose from Sapphic Mitylene
Shall bind thy brows; the myrtle blooms for thee,
In hidden glades by lonely Castaly;
The laurels wait thy coming: all are thine,
And round thy head one perfect wreath will twine.

In the fourth section of the poem, Wilde devotes his attention to another legendary poet associated with Ravenna: Lord Byron, the English nobleman who was one of the great romantic poets of the early 19th century. Wilde contemplates the palace (the Palazzo Giuccioli) in Ravenna in which Byron lived, which now lies in ruin.

Wilde identifies Byron with Mark Antony, a legendary Roman general of the first century BC who was defeated by his rival for the rule of Rome, Octavian, at the Battle of Actium. The Egyptian queen mentioned is Cleopatra, who was first Julius Caesar’s lover and then seduced Mark Antony.

Cleopatra is popularly blamed for ruining Mark Antony, reducing him from a great Roman leader to a weak, enervated man who wasted his chance to be Roman emperor for her. Byron, as Wilde explains, answered the call to fight for Greek liberty, leaving Italy for Greece, where he would die as bravely as a Spartan.

Wilde encourages Hellas (Greece) to remember Byron’s sacrifice. The lines mentioning Salamis, the Plataean plain, Thermopylae, and Marathon reference four legendary battles in ancient Greek history where the Greeks fought for their freedom against the invading Persians. Aeschylus was a famous Greek dramatist known as the father of tragedy who fought at Marathon.

In the three short stanzas that make up the rest of the fourth section, Wilde praises Byron against those who criticize him. England shall celebrate Byron rather than besmirch his name. Byron’s love for Greece and liberty was a shining glory that will be celebrated, as both poets and warriors were in the ancient world, with the crowning of a laurel wreath on his head. “Sapphic Mitylene” refers to the ancient Greek poet Sappho, while Castaly refers to a spring in Greek mythology that was a source of poetic inspiration.

Byron lived in Ravenna from 1819 to 1821 with his lover, the young, recently married Countess Teresa Guiccioli. After staying in a few other places in Italy, Byron would depart for Greece to support the cause of Greek independence in 1823. Thus Wilde was following in the footsteps of Byron on his own trip to Greece by way of Ravenna.

Byron would die of fever in Greece, where he is still remembered as a national hero. Wilde himself would suffer an early death as well. The cause of liberty and national self-determination for which Byron gave his life is celebrated by Wilde in ‘Ravenna‘ in the later passages in the poem discussing Italian reunification.

A further connection between Wilde and Byron is that despite being acclaimed as literary geniuses, both became scandalous figures who were exiled from polite English society for their sexual predilections. At the time of writing ‘Ravenna,’ Wilde had not yet, of course, experienced either the rise or fall that lay in his future.

However, the fact that he marks the controversial, infamous Byron as one of his heroes is significant. Wilde did not see the rejection of conventional social rules around morality as a bad thing. Against Byron’s many foes, Wilde celebrated the great poet.

The lines referencing Mark Antony and Cleopatra in this section are initially confusing since while Byron gave his life for liberty, Mark Antony fought essentially only for his own glory. However, one connection is that the Battle of Actium took place off the coast of Greece, the same land where Byron died. Both the Roman Mark Antony and Byron left Italy to fight in Greece.

The other purpose of this reference is to draw a contrast between Mark Antony’s affair with Cleopatra and Byron’s dalliance with Teresa Guiccioli. While Mark Antony allowed Cleopatra to waylay and eventually ruin him, Byron left Teresa Guiccioli weeping for him to stay when he sailed away from Italy. Wilde intends the reader to understand that, unlike Mark Antony, Byron chose duty and noble action over love.

Section V

The pine-tops rocked before the evening breeze
With the hoarse murmur of the wintry seas,
And the tall stems were streaked with amber bright;–
I wandered through the wood in wild delight,
Some startled bird, with fluttering wings and fleet,
Made snow of all the blossoms; at my feet,
Like silver crowns, the pale narcissi lay,
And small birds sang on every twining spray.
O waving trees, O forest liberty!
Within your haunts at least a man is free,
And half forgets the weary world of strife:
The blood flows hotter, and a sense of life
Wakes i’ the quickening veins, while once again
The woods are filled with gods we fancied slain.
Long time I watched, and surely hoped to see
Some goat-foot Pan make merry minstrelsy
Amid the reeds! some startled Dryad-maid
In girlish flight! or lurking in the glade,
The soft brown limbs, the wanton treacherous face
Of woodland god! Queen Dian in the chase,
White-limbed and terrible, with look of pride,
And leash of boar-hounds leaping at her side!
Or Hylas mirrored in the perfect stream.

O idle heart! O fond Hellenic dream!
Ere long, with melancholy rise and swell,
The evening chimes, the convent’s vesper bell,
Struck on mine ears amid the amorous flowers.
Alas! alas! these sweet and honied hours
Had whelmed my heart like some encroaching sea,
And drowned all thoughts of black Gethsemane.

In this section of the poem, Wilde celebrates nature and the gods of Greek mythology against Christianity. Wilde wanders delightedly through a wood of pine trees where birds sing. Wilde identifies the wood as being a forest of liberty, where a man is free and can forget strife. There it seems that the slain gods of the Greek pantheon return.

The gods and spirits Wilde hopes to see are Pan (the woodland god), a dryad (a female tree spirit), Diana, the goddess of the hunt, and Hylas, a beautiful youth who was abducted by naiads (female water spirits). But in the short second stanza, Wilde’s walk in the wood is disturbed by the sounds of a convent’s bells. To Wilde’s sorrow, his sweet yet also melancholic reverie is ended, as he is reminded of Gethsemane, the garden in which Jesus Christ spent the night in agony the night before his crucifixion.

While Wilde assuredly did not believe that the gods of ancient Greece actually existed, his preference for the Greek pantheon over Christianity is significant both in the context of this poem and his larger life.

In ‘Ravenna‘ Wilde celebrates art, poetry, and the poetic imagination rather than religion. This is the meaning of this section of the poem, rather than being a literal declaration of allegiance to the ancient Greek religion. Wilde has a romantic preference for the stories and legends of Greek mythology over the apparently depressing story of Christ’s death. In his actual life, Wilde spent nearly all his life devoting himself to beauty and art. Those were his ideals, rather than any drawn from Christianity (or any other religion).

As seen earlier, even Dante, a great Christian poet who wrote of heaven and hell, was to Wilde a poetic hero whose religious focus is not treated as being especially significant.

Section VI

O lone Ravenna! many a tale is told
Of thy great glories in the days of old:
Two thousand years have passed since thou didst see
Caesar ride forth to royal victory.
Mighty thy name when Rome’s lean eagles flew
From Britain’s isles to far Euphrates blue;
And of the peoples thou wast noble queen,
Till in thy streets the Goth and Hun were seen.
Discrowned by man, deserted by the sea,
Thou sleepest, rocked in lonely misery!
No longer now upon thy swelling tide,
Pine-forest-like, thy myriad galleys ride!
For where the brass-beaked ships were wont to float,
The weary shepherd pipes his mournful note;
And the white sheep are free to come and go
Where Adria’s purple waters used to flow.

O fair! O sad! O Queen uncomforted!
In ruined loveliness thou liest dead,
Alone of all thy sisters; for at last
Italia’s royal warrior hath passed
Rome’s lordliest entrance, and hath worn his crown
In the high temples of the Eternal Town!
The Palatine hath welcomed back her king,
And with his name the seven mountains ring!

And Naples hath outlived her dream of pain,
And mocks her tyrant! Venice lives again,
New risen from the waters! and the cry
Of Light and Truth, of Love and Liberty,
Is heard in lordly Genoa, and where
The marble spires of Milan wound the air,
Rings from the Alps to the Sicilian shore,
And Dante’s dream is now a dream no more.

But thou, Ravenna, better loved than all,
Thy ruined palaces are but a pall
That hides thy fallen greatness! and thy name
Burns like a grey and flickering candle-flame
Beneath the noonday splendour of the sun
Of new Italia! for the night is done,
The night of dark oppression, and the day
Hath dawned in passionate splendour: far away
The Austrian hounds are hunted from the land,
Beyond those ice-crowned citadels which stand
Girdling the plain of royal Lombardy,
From the far West unto the Eastern sea.

I know, indeed, that sons of thine have died
In Lissa’s waters, by the mountain-side
Of Aspromonte, on Novara’s plain,–
Nor have thy children died for thee in vain:
And yet, methinks, thou hast not drunk this wine
From grapes new-crushed of Liberty divine,
Thou hast not followed that immortal Star
Which leads the people forth to deeds of war.
Weary of life, thou liest in silent sleep,
As one who marks the lengthening shadows creep,
Careless of all the hurrying hours that run,
Mourning some day of glory, for the sun
Of Freedom hath not shewn to thee his face,
And thou hast caught no flambeau in the race.

Yet wake not from thy slumbers,–rest thee well,
Amidst thy fields of amber asphodel,
Thy lily-sprinkled meadows,–rest thee there,
To mock all human greatness: who would dare
To vent the paltry sorrows of his life
Before thy ruins, or to praise the strife
Of kings’ ambition, and the barren pride
Of warring nations! wert not thou the Bride
Of the wild Lord of Adria’s stormy sea!
The Queen of double Empires! and to thee
Were not the nations given as thy prey!
And now–thy gates lie open night and day,
The grass grows green on every tower and hall,
The ghastly fig hath cleft thy bastioned wall;
And where thy mailed warriors stood at rest
The midnight owl hath made her secret nest.
O fallen! fallen! from thy high estate,
O city trammelled in the toils of Fate,
Doth nought remain of all thy glorious days,
But a dull shield, a crown of withered bays!

Yet who beneath this night of wars and fears,
From tranquil tower can watch the coming years;
Who can foretell what joys the day shall bring,
Or why before the dawn the linnets sing?
Thou, even thou, mayst wake, as wakes the rose
To crimson splendour from its grave of snows;
As the rich corn-fields rise to red and gold
From these brown lands, now stiff with Winter’s cold;
As from the storm-rack comes a perfect star!

O much-loved city! I have wandered far
From the wave-circled islands of my home;
Have seen the gloomy mystery of the Dome
Rise slowly from the drear Campagna’s way,
Clothed in the royal purple of the day:
I from the city of the violet crown
Have watched the sun by Corinth’s hill go down,
And marked the ‘myriad laughter’ of the sea
From starlit hills of flower-starred Arcady;
Yet back to thee returns my perfect love,
As to its forest-nest the evening dove.

O poet’s city! one who scarce has seen
Some twenty summers cast their doublets green
For Autumn’s livery, would seek in vain
To wake his lyre to sing a louder strain,
Or tell thy days of glory;–poor indeed
Is the low murmur of the shepherd’s reed,
Where the loud clarion’s blast should shake the sky,
And flame across the heavens! and to try
Such lofty themes were folly: yet I know
That never felt my heart a nobler glow
Than when I woke the silence of thy street
With clamorous trampling of my horse’s feet,
And saw the city which now I try to sing,
After long days of weary travelling.

After sections of the poem on great poets and historical events of the past, in the long sixth section, Wilde discusses the contemporary political scene in Italy. But first, he returns to the past again to evoke the lost glory of Ravenna in ancient Roman times. It was from Ravenna that Caesar rode forth to cross the Rubicon River in 49 BC, signaling his intention to end the Roman Republic. Ravenna was a great Roman city until being captured by the barbaric Goths and Huns. Once, the brass-beaked ships of Rome sailed from Ravenna, but now shepherds and sheep have replaced them.

But, Wilde says, it is only Ravenna that remains in such a state, as other great Italian cities have now been revived as Italy has become united in truth, love, and liberty, as Dante dreamed it would. The Eternal City (or town) of Rome, with its seven hills (or mountains), has become the capital of the unified Kingdom of Italy.

Ravenna remains a place of fallen greatness, even though the Austrians who opposed Italian reunification have been defeated. While the sons of Ravenna have given their lives fighting in various places in Italy, Wilde argues that Ravenna remains weary and asleep, unrevived by the spirit of liberty.

However, he tells Ravenna to remain asleep (asphodel being a flower associated with the underworld in Greek mythology) and embarks on an evocative, romantic description of the contrast between the past glory of Ravenna and its current fallen state, where grass and fig trees grow among ruins.

The line about “double Empires” likely references the fact that Ravenna was briefly a capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century and was later the capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in the 6th century.

In the seventh stanza, Wilde uses various metaphors drawn from nature to argue that no one can see the future and that even Ravenna may yet wake. Wilde reflects on all the places he has traveled to from England, including Rome (the dome mentioned is Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome) and various places in Greece (Arcady being a region of Greece). Yet, the poet’s city of Ravenna remains his great love.

In the final stanza, Wilde says that it is vain folly for someone as young as him (hardly more than 20) to hope to give Ravenna the poetry it deserves (the lyre being a symbol of poetry and song). In the closing lines, Wilde returns to the moment he rode into Ravenna, explaining that his heart was never filled with nobler sentiments than when he first saw the city he now tries to sing of.

Historically, Italy spent centuries divided among small kingdoms and other principalities, which were often ruled by foreign powers. Over a period of decades in the 19th century, the parts of Italy were slowly brought together, culminating in the capture of Rome in 1871. It is these events that are the backdrop to the sixth section of ‘Ravenna.

Wilde establishes himself as being firmly on the side of the liberals who supported national self-determination in the 19th century. While nationalism is often seen in a different light today, in Wilde’s day, it was closely associated with liberty and freedom.

However, this section, the longest of the poem, is as much concerned with evoking the melancholic beauty of faded glory as it is with Italian reunification. Wilde’s contention that Ravenna alone among Italian cities has not been revived by being freed from oppression is more a poetic imagining than a historical reality.

As throughout the poem, Wilde is preoccupied with ideas of poetic beauty and artistic meaning. The Ravenna of his poem is largely a product of a creative, passionate mind much interested in the history of art and poetry rather than a rational assessment of everyday historical or political reality.

Section VII

Adieu, Ravenna! but a year ago,
I stood and watched the crimson sunset glow
From the lone chapel on thy marshy plain:
The sky was as a shield that caught the stain
Of blood and battle from the dying sun,
And in the west the circling clouds had spun
A royal robe, which some great God might wear,
While into ocean-seas of purple air
Sank the gold galley of the Lord of Light.

Yet here the gentle stillness of the night
Brings back the swelling tide of memory,
And wakes again my passionate love for thee:
Now is the Spring of Love, yet soon will come
On meadow and tree the Summer’s lordly bloom;
And soon the grass with brighter flowers will blow,
And send up lilies for some boy to mow.
Then before long the Summer’s conqueror,
Rich Autumn-time, the season’s usurer,
Will lend his hoarded gold to all the trees,
And see it scattered by the spendthrift breeze;
And after that the Winter cold and drear.
So runs the perfect cycle of the year.
And so from youth to manhood do we go,
And fall to weary days and locks of snow.
Love only knows no winter; never dies:
Nor cares for frowning storms or leaden skies
And mine for thee shall never pass away,
Though my weak lips may falter in my lay.

Adieu! Adieu! yon silent evening star,
The night’s ambassador, doth gleam afar,
And bid the shepherd bring his flocks to fold.
Perchance before our inland seas of gold
Are garnered by the reapers into sheaves,
Perchance before I see the Autumn leaves,
I may behold thy city; and lay down
Low at thy feet the poet’s laurel crown.

Adieu! Adieu! yon silver lamp, the moon,
Which turns our midnight into perfect noon,
Doth surely light thy towers, guarding well
Where Dante sleeps, where Byron loved to dwell.

In the final section of the poem, Wilde makes a long goodbye to the city of Ravenna. As in the first section, he remembers what it was like to watch a sunset a year earlier in Ravenna. His memory is stirred, which awakens again in him a love for the city. From there, Wilde describes the passages of the season over the course of the year.

Summer will come, which will be conquered by autumn, which will be followed by winter, a pattern that is similar to the passage from youth to age. In fact, only love, such as Wilde feels for Ravenna, avoids the winter of life. As Wilde looks at a star in the night sky, he wonders if he might see Ravenna again before the next autumn. In the final lines of the poem, Wilde reflects that the same moon he sees shines on Ravenna’s towers as well.

In this melodramatic last section of ‘Ravenna,’ Wilde describes his love for the subject of his poem. In this section, he is returning from the poetic vision he has embarked on. While in the middle five sections of the poem, Wilde is in the world of his journey to Ravenna, from which he further travels in his imagination into the legendary past and into mythological stories; now he returns to the present day, where he is looking up at the sky on an English springtime night.

That the very final line of the poem mentions Dante and Byron again brings home the fact that the association of the poetic giants with Ravenna is the most important part of the city’s rich history to Wilde. In other words, as much as Wilde may love Ravenna, it is the city’s connection to poetry and art that is the underlying source of his love. As a follower of aestheticism, Wilde believed art was of the highest importance. Thus it is no surprise that his own work of poetic art focuses so deeply on the two great poets, Byron and Dante.


What were the circumstances of Wilde’s choosing to write about Ravenna?

While in the poem, Oscar Wilde ascribes great meaning to his experience in Ravenna, the subject of ‘Ravenna’ was not of his own choice. The poem was Wilde’s entry for the Newdigate Prize, a prestigious poetry competition at Oxford University. The assigned topic for entrants into the competition in 1878 was Ravenna. That was good fortune for Wilde, as he had seen Ravenna on the way to Greece the year before. Wilde could thus claim to have actually seen Ravenna, unlike his rivals for the prize. Indeed, in the text of the poem, Wilde greatly emphasizes his personal experience with the city. Wilde would make good on his advantage, winning the 1878 Newdigate Prize. Winning the Newdigate Prize provided the first touch of public renown Wilde achieved in his life.

What happened to Oscar Wilde after he wrote ‘Ravenna?’

Wilde moved to London, where he became famous for the outlandish clothing he wore and his witty epigrams. He gave speaking tours in America and wrote poetry, but achieved the greatest acclaim for his stage works, particularly The Importance of Being Earnest and the novel The Picture of Dorian Grey. Wilde fell from grace when he was convicted of breaking a law against homosexual activity after suing his lover’s father for libel when the man accused Wilde of being a sodomite. Two years in jail left Wilde in poor health. He died in France in 1900.

What is aestheticism?

Aestheticism was an important literary movement associated with the critic Walter Pater and the poet Algernon Charles Swinburne, among others, that was current when Wilde composed ‘Ravenna‘ in the late 1870s. Later, in the 1890s, Wilde would be associated with decadence, a sort of variation on aestheticism that emphasized perversity, corruption, and degradation, but that lay in the future when ‘Ravenna‘ was written. Aestheticism valued the beauty of art over any other function or purpose. Art, in other words, existed for the sake of the beauty it created. The credo of aestheticism is found in the phrase “art for art’s sake.” When Wilde moved to London, he quickly became known as practically the living embodiment of the principles of aestheticism.

How is ‘Ravenna‘ an example of aestheticism?

The influence of the ideas of aestheticism can be seen in both the subject and style of
Ravenna.’ While Wilde’s poem discusses the history of Ravenna, it pays particular attention to the great poets associated with the city and the beauty of the natural surroundings. The poem itself exhibits a lush, sensual style. Rich, strikingly beautiful language is seen throughout the poem. High, elevated language is a constant as well. The beauty of the world is heavily emphasized. Beautiful flowers — lilies, snowdrops, violets, narcissus, and roses, among others — are mentioned many times. In his own life, Wilde was famously associated with flowers. He became known for wearing a green carnation in his buttonhole in London. When, as a young man, Wilde decided not to enter the Catholic church, he sent a box of lilies to the church in his place.

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed this poem should also consider reading some related poems. For example:

  • W.B. Yeats‘ ‘Sailing To Byzantium‘ is another famous poem involving the glorious history of the city of Ravenna. While the poem has its primary focus on Byzantium itself, the line “as in the gold mosaic of the wall” refers to beautiful Byzantine mosaics in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare in Ravenna. Ravenna spent centuries as one of the major cities of the Byzantine Empire.
  • Oscar Wilde’sThe Ballad of Reading Gaol‘ is the author’s most famous poetic work and is generally acknowledged as his finest as well. This long poem is on Wilde’s time in jail. Written near the end of Wilde’s life, when he was a man broken both physically and mentally, its tone serves in strong contrast with the passionate, idealistic, youthful spirit evinced in ‘Ravenna.’
  • Lord Byron’sThe Vision of Judgment‘ is one of the major poems the poet wrote while living in Ravenna. It adopts the Italian stanza form known as ottava rima. In the poem, Byron satirizes the English poet Robert Southey, who had recently written a poem celebrating the arrival of George III in heaven. While the tone of the poem is very different from Wilde’s style, the high opinion of the importance of poetry and the wit displayed are certainly similar to Wilde’s.
  • Algernon Charles Swinburne’sA Leave-Taking‘ is a poem by one of the poets most associated with Aestheticism. ‘A Leave-Taking’ is a passionate exploration of the poet’s melancholic emotions about a woman he loved who has rejected him.

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Anton Platt Poetry Expert
Anton is a seasoned poetry expert, having completed a Junior Poet Project specializing in John Keats and the requirements of an English Major. He is an enthusiast for poetry, philosophy, and great literature. Anton believes that in poetry, some of the wisest thoughts and most sublime beauty humanity has created can be found.

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