Wilde, Roman Catholicism & ‘Easter Day’

‘I am not a Catholic,’ quipped Oscar Wilde. ‘I am simply a violent Papist.’ Although raised a Protestant, Wilde’s flirtation with Catholicism waxed and waned throughout his life and culminated in his famous deathbed conversion. This fascination, in keeping with his determination to be recognised as a poet, appears to have been inherited from his formidable mother, Jane, the foremost of Wilde’s Women. In 1905  Father Lawrence Fox, an elderly priest, insisted that, five decades earlier, he had baptised a young Oscar, aged about four, and his brother Willie, aged six or seven, into the Catholic faith at Jane’s instance.

Several of Wilde’s earliest poems explore distinctly Catholic themes. As an undergraduate at Oxford University he traveled to Rome where his great friend David Hunter Blair, himself a convert to Catholicism, had organised a private audience with Pope Pius IX. Wilde was much affected by this meeting and it inspired further poetry. Yet, in ‘Easter Day’, published in his collection Poems (1881), Wilde juxtaposes the splendor of the papacy  with the humble origins of the faith in a way that appears critical of church authorities who had, to use an Irish phrase, lost the run of themselves.

Pope Pius IX

EASTER DAY
The silver trumpets rang across the Dome:
The people knelt upon the ground with awe:
And borne upon the necks of men I saw,
Like some great God, the Holy Lord of Rome.
Priest-like, he wore a robe more white than foam,
And, king-like, swathed himself in royal red,
Three crowns of gold rose high upon his head:
In splendor and in light the Pope passed home.
My heart stole back across wide wastes of years
To One who wandered by a lonely sea,
And sought in vain for any place of rest:
“Foxes have holes, and every bird its nest,
I, only I, must wander wearily,
And bruise My feet, and drink wine salt with tears.”
Notwithstanding this, on Easter Day 1900, months before his death, Wilde positioned himself in the front row among the pilgrims at the Vatican to receive a blessing from Pope Leo XIII. He told his friend Robbie Ross:
‘When I saw the old white Pontiff, successor of the Apostles and Father of Christendom pass, carried high above the throng, and in passing turn and bless me where I knelt, I felt my sickness of body and soul fall from me like a worn garment, and I was made whole.’
Like everything else in Wilde’s life, his relationship with the Catholic Church was complex but compelling. Understandable considering he believed that Roman Catholicism was:
‘for saints and sinners alone – for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do’.
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