AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF HIS POEM ['LES BALLONS'] (untitled herein), comprising 16 lines in four-line stanzas, preserving some otherwise unrecorded readings, 1 page, small quarto, watermarked 'B.O. LV. ye Antient Roman Writing Paper', loose in a paperbook (no watermarks) bound in olive green morocco gilt by Wood, London, with Wilde's signature reproduced on the front cover, bookplate of John B. Stetson Jr., [Paris?, no date, but c. 1883-1887]
Against the shifting agate skies
The light and luminous balloons
Dip and drift like satin moons,
Drift like silken butterflies,
Reel with every windy gust,
Rise and reel like setting girls,
Float like strange transparent pearls,
Fall and float like silken dust.
Now to the green leaves they cling,
Each with coy fantastic pose,
Each a petal of a rose
Straining at a gossamer string.
Then to the tall trees they climb
Like thin globes of amethyst,
Wandering opals keeping tryst
With the rubies of the lime.
ONE OF OSCAR WILDE'S 'MOST ORIGINAL' POEMS, dating from his mature years.
'Les Ballons' was among 'Wilde's most original verse' (Buckley) reflecting as it does the Aesthetic Movement and Literary Decadence, trends with which he was most closely associated. It was first printed with 'Le Panneau' as 'Fantasies Décoratives' in The Lady's Pictorial in 1887, a journal for which his wife Constance wrote reviews. He is known to have written drafts of it in 1883 during his stay then in Paris. The poem is written in the metre of Tennyson's In Memoriam, which Wilde considered a masterpiece on the same level as Hamlet. When sending the poems to the artist and book illustrator Bernard Partridge (1862-1945), Wilde wrote in an accompanying letter, postmarked 24 September 1887, that 'Les Ballons' was 'a description of children flying balloons in the Tuileries Gardens in Paris...the children who are playing with the balloons should be Japanese also...the balloons should float, the children holding the strings from the side of the page.' Japan and things Japanese were, of course, prime inspirations of the Aesthetic Movement.
Jerome H. Buckley groups 'Les Ballons' and 'Le Panneau' with similar poems under the general title of Wilde's 'Impressions', all rigorously pictorial, linking some of them with Monet of whom Wilde was a great admirer. Buckley writes that Wilde's 'Impressions' 'are pure designs, cool, impersonal arrangements in line and color, presented with immediacy' and notes that much of the imagery draws on gorgeous man-made fabrics, textures and facettd gems, specifically in 'Les Ballons': 'satin moon', 'silken butterflies', 'strange transparent pearls', 'thin globes of amethyst', and 'wandering opals.'
Only one other manuscript of this poem (of the first two stanzas only) is known (Huntington HM 467). The present manuscript preserves a number of readings different from the received and published text, including 'shifting agate' for 'turbid turquoise' and 'setting girls' for 'dancing girls', which are not recorded by Barry Fong and Karl Beckson.
PROVENANCE: John B. Stetson Jr, sale of his Oscar Wilde Collection at Anderson Galleries, April 1920, lot 212. John Stetson Jr (1884-1952), of Elkins Park, Pennsylvania, was the son of his namesake, the inventor of the Stetson hat; he was Ambassador to Poland from 1925 to 1929.
REFERENCE: Jerome H. Buckley, 'Echo and Artifice: The Poetry of Oscar Wilde', Victorian Poetry, volume 28, no. 3/4, 1990; The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, The Poems, edited by Barry Fong and Karl Beckson, 2000.