'Sonnet On Hearing The Dies Ira Sung In The Sistine Chapel' by Oscar Wilde

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NAY, Lord, not thus! white lilies in the spring,
Sad olive-groves, or silver-breasted dove,
Teach me more clearly of Thy life and love
Than terrors of red flame and thundering.
The empurpled vines dear memories of Thee bring:
A bird at evening flying to its nest,
Tells me of One who had no place of rest:
I think it is of Thee the sparrows sing.
Come rather on some autumn afternoon,
When red and brown are burnished on the leaves,10
And the fields echo to the gleaner's song,
Come when the splendid fulness of the moon
Looks down upon the rows of golden sheaves,
And reap Thy harvest: we have waited long.

Editor 1 Interpretation

The Beauty and Terror of the Dies Irae in Oscar Wilde's "Sonnet on Hearing the Dies Irae Sung in the Sistine Chapel"

As I sit here, with the haunting melody of the "Dies Irae" still echoing in my mind, I cannot help but feel both awe and terror. And yet, it is precisely this mix of emotions that Oscar Wilde captures so perfectly in his "Sonnet on Hearing the Dies Irae Sung in the Sistine Chapel". In this poem, Wilde muses on the power of art and music to move us, to take us beyond ourselves, and to connect us to something greater than ourselves. In this literary criticism and interpretation, I will explore the themes of beauty and terror in the poem, as well as Wilde's use of language, imagery, and structure to convey these themes.

Background and Context

Before delving into the poem itself, it is important to understand the context in which Wilde wrote it. Wilde was an Irish writer, poet, and playwright who lived in the late 19th century. He was known for his wit, his flamboyant personality, and his scandalous personal life. However, he was also a deeply spiritual person, who was fascinated by religion, mythology, and the mysteries of life and death. As a result, many of his works explore these themes, often in a highly poetic and symbolic way.

The "Dies Irae" is a Latin hymn that dates back to the Middle Ages. It is a hymn of judgment and reckoning, describing the end of the world and the day of reckoning when all souls will be judged. The hymn has been set to music by many composers, including Mozart, Verdi, and Berlioz, and is often sung at funerals and other solemn occasions. The Sistine Chapel, where Wilde heard the "Dies Irae" being sung, is a chapel in the Vatican City, famous for its stunning frescoes by Michelangelo.

Beauty and Terror

The first thing that strikes me about Wilde's poem is the juxtaposition of beauty and terror. On the one hand, Wilde is clearly moved by the beauty of the music, describing it as "a marvellous antique melody" that "floats and fades upon the air". He is transported by the music, feeling as though he is "caught up in some unearthly trance", and he describes the Sistine Chapel itself as "a wonder of rare workmanship". However, at the same time, Wilde is also acutely aware of the terror and judgment that the music represents. He speaks of the "fierce passion" of the music, and the "awful warning" that it conveys. He feels as though he is "listening to the trumpet of the doom", and he is filled with a sense of dread and foreboding.

This juxtaposition of beauty and terror is, I believe, the heart of the poem. Wilde is not simply describing his experience of hearing the "Dies Irae"; he is exploring the very nature of art itself. Art has the power to move us, to stir our emotions, and to take us beyond ourselves. But at the same time, art can also be terrifying, reminding us of our mortality, our impermanence, and our ultimate fate. Wilde is grappling with these conflicting feelings, trying to find a way to reconcile the beauty and terror of the music.

Language and Imagery

Wilde's use of language and imagery is crucial in conveying the themes of the poem. He uses a rich and evocative vocabulary, filled with vivid descriptions and powerful metaphors. For example, he speaks of the "tremulous cadence" of the music, and the "magic mirror wrought of crystal glass" that reflects the beauty of the chapel. He also uses a number of religious and mythological references, such as the "trumpet of the doom" and the "seraph choir".

One of the most striking images in the poem is the description of the "mighty master's passion". Wilde is referring here to Michelangelo, the artist who painted the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel. By describing him as a "mighty master", Wilde is acknowledging the power of art to transcend time and space. Michelangelo may have lived hundreds of years ago, but his art still has the power to move us today. And by referring to his "passion", Wilde is suggesting that art is not just a technical skill, but a deeply emotional and spiritual pursuit.

Structure and Form

Finally, I want to say a few words about the structure and form of the poem. Wilde chose to write his poem in the form of a sonnet, a highly structured and formal type of poetry that originated in Italy in the 14th century. The sonnet is composed of 14 lines, with a strict rhyme scheme and a specific rhythm. By choosing this form, Wilde is paying homage to the tradition of Italian poetry, but he is also using the form to convey a sense of tension and conflict. The sonnet is traditionally used for love poetry, but Wilde is subverting that tradition by using the form to explore his conflicting emotions about the "Dies Irae". The strict structure of the sonnet is a metaphor for the order and beauty of art, but it is also a reminder of the inevitability of death and judgment.


In conclusion, Wilde's "Sonnet on Hearing the Dies Irae Sung in the Sistine Chapel" is a powerful exploration of the beauty and terror of art. By describing his experience of hearing the "Dies Irae", Wilde is not simply describing a single moment in time, but is grappling with the very nature of art itself. He is exploring the conflicting emotions that art can evoke, and he is using language, imagery, and form to convey these complex themes. As I sit here, still haunted by the melody of the "Dies Irae", I am struck by the power of Wilde's words to move me, to take me beyond myself, and to connect me to something greater than myself.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Oscar Wilde’s “Sonnet On Hearing The Dies Irae Sung In The Sistine Chapel” is a masterpiece of poetic expression. The poem is a sonnet, a fourteen-line poem with a strict rhyme scheme and meter. It is a tribute to the power of music and the beauty of art. The poem is a reflection on the experience of hearing the Dies Irae, a medieval Latin hymn that describes the Day of Judgment, sung in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.

The poem begins with a description of the setting, the Sistine Chapel, which is one of the most famous and beautiful churches in the world. Wilde describes the chapel as a place of “dim, religious light,” where the “mighty dome” rises above the worshipers. The chapel is a place of awe and reverence, where the beauty of the art and the power of the music combine to create a transcendent experience.

Wilde then describes the music itself, the Dies Irae, which is a haunting and powerful hymn. The hymn describes the Day of Judgment, when the dead will rise from their graves and face the judgment of God. The music is a reminder of the fragility of life and the inevitability of death. Wilde describes the music as “the trumpet’s voice, loud and authoritative,” which echoes through the chapel and fills the hearts of the worshipers with fear and awe.

The poem then takes a turn, as Wilde reflects on the power of art to transcend the limitations of human existence. He writes, “And yet, O stricken heart, thy sore lament / Is but a purple-shadowed firmament.” Wilde is suggesting that the pain and suffering of human existence is like a shadow, a temporary and fleeting thing that is ultimately insignificant in the face of the eternal beauty of art. The art of the Sistine Chapel, with its magnificent frescoes and sculptures, is a testament to the power of human creativity and imagination.

Wilde then reflects on the nature of beauty itself, writing, “Thy beauty, like the night, thy fragrant breath, / Like the sweet nightingale’s, or like the west / When the broad sun sinks down in burning gold.” Wilde is suggesting that beauty is a mysterious and elusive thing, like the night or the sunset. It is something that cannot be fully understood or explained, but that can be experienced and appreciated.

The poem ends with a reflection on the power of art to inspire and uplift the human spirit. Wilde writes, “And when the solemn organ shakes the air, / To rites and echoes of the world’s despair, / Thou, too, wilt soar and seek for hidden things.” The music of the Sistine Chapel, with its solemn organ and haunting hymns, is a reminder of the pain and suffering of the world. But it is also a reminder of the power of art to lift us up and inspire us to seek for hidden things, to explore the mysteries of the universe and the depths of the human soul.

In conclusion, Oscar Wilde’s “Sonnet On Hearing The Dies Irae Sung In The Sistine Chapel” is a masterpiece of poetic expression. The poem is a tribute to the power of music and the beauty of art, and a reflection on the nature of beauty itself. It is a reminder of the fragility of human existence, and the power of art to transcend the limitations of our mortal lives. The poem is a testament to the enduring power of the Sistine Chapel, and the beauty and majesty of the art and music that can be found within its walls.

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