Over a century after his death, Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) continues to fascinate, delight, and move audiences, readers, scholars, and even politicians. His play The Importance of Being Earnest is one of the most performed plays in the English language. Salome, as set by Richard Strauss, regularly receives over 500 performances a year. His proto-Freudian novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray has never been out of print since its first publication in 1890. His life has been the subject of films, plays, both an opera and a musical, and, just in English, at least eleven biographies. His tomb in Paris' Père Lachaise Cemetery is a site of pilgrimage. Although composers have set Wilde's stage works, they have for the most part —and inexplicably—ignored his poetry. Yet it is in his poems that we perhaps find Wilde at his most intimate and self-revelatory. This omission is corrected by Michael Linton's Wilde Songs, a cycle of 16 of Wilde's poems written for bass-baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer and pianist Jason Peterson.
Throughout his life, Wilde was torn between a pagan sensuality and a Roman Catholic asceticism, a discord exemplified by his gleeful introduction of André Gide to sex with local Arab youths when Wilde and Gide met in Algiers in 1895 and his deathbed conversion to Roman Catholicism in Paris five years later. This dissonance shapes the cycle, the first part beginning with Wilde's "Santa Decca", a howl lamenting the death of Pan (". . .Great Pan is dead, and Mary's son is King."), while the second part opens with his "Easter Day", a poem ridiculing the pomp of the Pope's procession and comparing it with Christ's poverty. "In the Forest" (". . . Ivory limbed and brown-eyed, Flashes my Faun!") and "Theocritus" ("O singer of Persephone!") are thoroughly pagan while "Tristitiae" is almost a caricature of Victorian moralism set with an appropriately salonish tune. "Le Jardin des Tuileries," set to a melody reminiscent of Irish folk songs, echoes Wilde's children tales . "Requiescat,"which Wilde wrote as a memorial to his sister, ends with a bitter denunciation of death while "Traedium Vitae" is a denunciation of erotic love, Catullus-like in its vehemence. "La Fuite de le Lune" is Wilde at his most impressionistic while "Beauty's Taste" (attributed to Wilde) breathes the same heavily erotic and occult air as does Salome.
The pagan/Catholic dichotomy is startling addressed in "Quia Multum Amavi" where Wilde compares his erotic thrill upon seeing his beloved to the awe a new priest feels upon celebrating his first Eucharist. "Phêdre" and "Silentium Amoris" are both love songs. In the second, the piano 'sings' of Wilde's love since Wilde cannot (". . . And I to nurse the barren memory / Of unkissed kisses, and songs never sung.")—a work in which it is impossible not to hear a whisper of the 'love that bare not speak its name' that will be so prominent in Wilde's trials. "The Silent Spring" (again attributed to Wilde) is the story of Julian the Apostate's embassy to the oracle at Delphi. Having denounced the Christianity of his youth, Emperor Julian re-opens the ancient temples and sends an embassy to the oracle. In an echo of the cycles' first movement, Pythia pronounces her final prophecy: "the stream is dry that had so much to say." The old world is dead. But most dramatically revealing is the cycle's final movement. Here, fully fifteen years before the trials that lead to his imprisonment, exile, disgrace, and death, we find Wilde delivering his most eloquent apologia: "I have made my choice, I've lived my poems / and youth's gone in wasted days, I have found the lover's crown of myrtle / better than the poet's crown of bays."