Oscar Wilde was a great believer in knowing thyself. Some people spend a lifetime trying to know and understand themselves. For others, they appear to have it all worked out, with a finite understanding of just what makes them tick. As for me, I suppose I would class myself as someone who is still on the journey of understanding. I don’t know myself completely, but one thing I do know, is that whenever I become pensive, it’s usually about something important, something that means a great deal to me.
Several years ago, my husband surprised me on my birthday by taking me to Paris. While the thronging tourists queued for hours to delight in the artistic wonders of the Louvre, he knew that for me, there was only one place I wanted to visit: Pére Lachaise Cemetery. Specifically, I wanted to visit the tomb of Oscar Wilde.
Oscar Wilde is my all encompassing literary hero. I adore his work, even though I have to admit that there are some poems which make me wonder whether he was in a rush when he wrote them. I was first introduced to Wilde’s work when I read the poem “Quantum Mutata”, which is Latin for “How much has changed”. In the poem, Wilde laments the fact that England is not the superpower it once was, criticizing how the country is now concerned only with luxury and comfort. He is scornful of the materialistic products that England produces, arguing that such items are meaningless when they are not accompanied by moral principles, ideals and deeds.
It is a poem that I find myself coming back to time and again, even more so now, when images of Syrian refugees flash up on our news screens. The fact that Britain can be so xenophobic as to refuse entry to 3000 unaccompanied Syrian children, who have already be registered in Europe, is to me unconscionable. They are children! Who knows what horrors their innocent eyes have already witnessed. What childhood scars, both physical and psychological, they will carry through into adulthood.
Today, a memorial service will be held at London’s Guildhall for Sir Nicholas Winton, the British man who rescued hundreds of children from the Holocaust in the months before WWII. Sir Nicholas organised the “Kindertransport” which rescued 669 mainly Jewish children, who came to Britain by train from Czechoslovakia in 1939. Fast forward to the modern day, and what does Britain do when faced with children who are in need of rescue? It turn its head and pretends that it just doesn’t see.
I am continually so moved by Quantum Mutata, that I took the liberty of penning a response. I am not trying to be compared to Wilde (I couldn’t even dare!); rather I am attempting some form of catharsis of my rage, my disappointment and my sorrow in the only way I know how: through words.
I have copied Wilde’s original “Quantum Mutata” below, for those of you who are not familiar with the poem, followed by my response.
There was a time in Europe long ago
When no man died for freedom anywhere,
But England’s lion leaping from its lair
Laid hands on the oppressor! it was so
While England could a great Republic show.
Witness the men of Piedmont, chiefest care
Of Cromwell, when with impotent despair
The Pontiff in his painted portico
Trembled before our stern ambassadors.
How comes it then that from such high estate
We have thus fallen, save that Luxury
With barren merchandise piles up the gate
Where nobler thoughts and deeds should enter by:
Else might we still be Milton’s heritors.
Oscar Wilde 1854- 1900
Response to Wilde’s Quantum Mutata
The once proud Lion of England
That would leap from its lair without pause
For question, is now maddened, like some wild and rabid beast
Caring not for the broken lives washed up on foreign shores.
The slaughter of the innocents while satyrs and hellhounds feast
Matters not. England averts her gaze, pulls up her drawbridge
And sanctuary to the lost and hopeless deprives.
Dear Oscar, though your heart would ache
For those whose souls are held in abatement
Your Quantum Mutata is, alas,
A tragically lamenting understatement.
Let your heart rejoice that it does not dwell
In this, the modern world’s nadir;
For how much has changed?
Very little, I fear.
Eleanor Parks 2016