‘Requiescat‘ by Oscar Wilde is a short five stanza poem made out of quatrains, or four-line verses. The verse lines alternate in length with the first and third of each stanza containing six syllables and the second and fourth having four. Additionally, the poem is given form by its consistently unwavering rhyme scheme of ABAB.
Summary of Requiescat
The poem begins with the speaker warning the listeners to be careful where they step as “she” is lying in the earth beneath them. He is worried that loud speech or heavy footfalls will disturb her. The woman that has passed away used to be entirely beautiful but now her “golden hair” is rotting and becoming tarnished in the earth. She was as perfect and pale as a lily and this was only increased as she grew into a woman. She did not lose her innocence or kindness as she aged.
This unnamed woman is trapped in the earth beneath coffin boards and a “heavy stone” that lies on her chest. Luckily though, the speaker thinks, she does not have to feel what he feels. She can only experience “Peace” from now on.
In the last lines of ‘Requiescat’, the speaker concedes that she cannot in fact hear anything going on above the earth. She has been buried, and with her, his entire life.
It is important to take note of the title of this piece before reading. The word, “Requiescat” refers to something that is spoken for the dead to hear. This is suiting to this piece as the speaker is initially under the impression that she will be able to hear him. Additionally, he proclaims that she holds within her his entire life. All he is, is for her.
Analysis of Requiescat
Tread lightly, she is near
Under the snow,
Speak gently, she can hear
The daisies grow.
Wilde’s speaker begins this piece by cautioning the listener to “Tread lightly,” as an unnamed woman is “near.” If the reader did not have access to the title of this piece, “Requiesant,” it would yet be unknown that the woman in question has died and is “Under the snow.” See the introduction for more.
Not only does the speaker want the listener to be cautious in where steps are taken, but also in how loudly one speaks. He is worried that the dead woman might be disturbed. Only “gentl[e]” words should be spoken as her hearing is so strong she can “hear / The daisies grow.”
All her bright golden hair
Tarnished with rust,
She that was young and fair
Fallen to dust.
In the second stanza of four lines, the speaker is remembering what the woman looked like before she died and what she must be now that she is dead. During her life, she had “bright golden hair.” Now that she is buried the speaker is imagining her beautiful hair being degraded by the elements around her. He thinks it has started to be “Tarnished with rust.”
Just like her hair, her physical body is starting to fall apart. He remembers how she was when she was “young and fair.” Now all of that has “Fallen to dust.” She has lost all familiar physicality.
Lily-like, white as snow,
She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
Sweetly she grew.
When this woman, whose name the reader will never know, was alive, she was like a “lily” in her beauty. Her skin was as “white as snow.” This image of her is one of vulnerability and perfection. The speaker is relishing his memories of her and perhaps enhancing them in his nostalgia.
As this woman aged there was hardly any difference. She did not become jaded to the world, or newly cruel as some might be. She grew up “Sweetly.”
Coffin-board, heavy stone,
Lie on her breast,
I vex my heart alone,
She is at rest.
All this beauty is now long past. She is contained with a boarded-up “Coffin” and pressed down by a “heavy stone” that lies “on her breast.” These things are mentioned to act as a contrast to the image that the speaker painted before. She has none of the freedom she used to. It is almost as if he is blaming these elements for her being dead.
The speaker stands alone at her grave in his grief, his heart is “vex[ed]” or troubled by her passing. She though, is at rest. At least she does not have to feel as he does.
Peace, peace, she cannot hear
Lyre or sonnet,
All my life’s buried here,
Heap earth upon it.
By the conclusion of ‘Requiescat’, in the last quatrain, the speaker has come to terms with the fact that the woman cannot hear what is going on above her. The sounds of “Lyre or sonnet” cannot reach her. The only thing she knows is “Peace.”
In the final lines, the speaker shares the full extent of his sadness. He feels as if his entire life, everything he was, is now buried in the earth at his feet. It has been “Heap[ed]” upon and entombed where it will decay and waste away.
About Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde was born Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde in Dublin, Ireland in October of 1854. As a young child, Wilde attended Portora Royal School where he was first introduced to Greek and Roman studies, a passion which would stay with him his entire life. He was a bright child and often won awards. After graduating, Wilde attended Trinity College in Dublin and while there received the Foundation Scholarship, the highest award given to undergraduate students. He would continue to receive awards during his schooling and upon his graduation. One of which, the Demyship Scholarship, allowed him to study at Magdalen College in Oxford.
After graduating from Magdalen, Wilde moved permanently to London. In 1881 he published his first collection, Poems. The next year Wilde toured America giving a total of 140 lectures in nine months. He met with a number of notable literary figures while traveling, including, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Walt Whitman. After returning home he continued to lecture, traveling through England and Ireland until 1884. It was during this time that Wilde established himself as a leader of the “aesthetic movement,” or the idea that one should live by a set of beliefs advocating beauty as having its own worth, rather than as a tool of promotion for other viewpoints.
That same year Wilde married Constance Lloyd with whom he would have two sons.
In 1888 Wilde entered his most creative and productive years. He published The Happy Prince and Other Tales, as well as his only novel The Picture of Dorian Grey. At the time of its publication critics and readers were outraged by its content and apparent homosexual undertones. While his novel was not received well, he was enjoying success from several plays, such as An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest.
During this same time period, Wilde was deeply involved in an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, more commonly known as Bosie. Bosie’s father, outraged by the affair, wrote a note to Wilde addressed, “Oscar Wilde: Posing Somdomite” (an accidental misspelling of “sodomite”). Wilde’s choice to sue Bosie’s father for libel ruined his life.
In 1895, after a trial and conviction for “gross indecency,” Wilde spent two years in prison under forced labor conditions. This sentence took a great toll on the writer and in 1897, after being released, Wilde moved to London. His last great work, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” was completed in 1898. Oscar Wilde died in 1900 of an ear infection that had been contracted, and untreated, in prison.