Oscar Wilde is best known for the novel The Picture of Dorian Gray and the play The Importance of Being Earnest, as well as for his infamous arrest and imprisonment for being gay. However, he started his literary career with poetry.
A brilliant student, his first efforts at poetry were made while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. In 1878, the year of his graduation, his poem “Ravenna” won the Newdigate Prize for the best English verse composition by an Oxford undergraduate.
Wilde’s first collection of poetry entitled Poems was published in 1881. The next year, Wilde embarked on an American lecture tour, for which he delivered a staggering 140 lectures in just nine months. Through his lectures and his early poetry, Wilde established himself as a leading proponent of the aesthetic movement, a theory of art and literature that emphasized the pursuit of beauty for its own sake, rather than to promote any political or social viewpoint.
“Madonna Mia” is one such early poem. It is a sonnet, and hence it consists of 14 lines. These 14 lines are not divided into an octave (an 8-line unit) and a sestet (a 6-line unit) as they are in certain other sonnets. For the purposes of this summary, these 14 lines are divided into meaningful segments in order to make the poem easier to follow and understand.
Lines 1 – 4: In these lines, the poet begins describing his subject – the Virgin Mary. He imagines her to be as delicate as a lily. He says she does not deserve to bear the kind of pain that this world inflicts on human beings. He sees her as a young woman with brown hair that is tied in braids on both sides of her ears. Her eyes are expressive of an unfulfilled desire and tears cover the view of those eyes as they fall lazily down her face. He compares her face with a lake of still and blue water that you cannot see clearly since a heavy downpour of rain is obscuring your vision.
Lines 5 – 8: In these lines, the poet describes how the Virgin Mary’s cheeks are pale and have never been kissed by a man. He compares the kiss that could have been there with a stain, and therefore, indicates her innocent status as one of purity. The poet also says that her bottom lip is pulled slightly inward, as if she is afraid of the kind of love that can lead a man to kiss her and spoil her purity. Her throat is whiter than the feathers of a dove. The only tinge of colour you see in that marble-like whiteness is that of a blood vain that appears to be purple in colour.
Lines 9 – 11: In these lines, the poet says that he will never stop praising the Virgin Mary. However, he still cannot muster up the courage to kiss her feet. That is because he is completely in awe of her. In other words, he is filled with religious fervour.
Lines 12 – 14: In these lines, the poet makes a pointed reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy. In this work, Dante travels through Inferno (that is, hell), Purgatorio and Paradiso (that is, heaven). The poet compares his admiration for the Virgin Mary with Dante’s admiration for the God who has created heaven. At the moment that Dante arrives at Paradiso, his deceased wife Beatrice leads him by the hand past such sights as the Lion’s Breast and the Seventh Crystal to the now-famous stairway made of gold that is said to lead right up to God.