Context : “Vita nuova” means ‘new life’ in Latin.1 Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was very well-versed in Classical mythology and he learned Classical Greek at Oxford. Motifs from Greek and Roman literature are visible in his poetry. The poem was first published in 1881.
Themes : Despair, crisis and new hope returned. The sea is often described as a symbol of man’s inner feelings. Sometimes we are calm and harmonious; sometimes we are upset and unbalanced. In the poem we meet the narrator who’s standing in front of a sea. The sea is described as unvintageable. This adjective is a bit special. It’s a classical allusion to Homer, who described the sea as “wine-dark”, but then called it what has been translated as “unvintageable” – that it, it’s like a wine that you can’t drink. The scene is not peaceful in the poem. There are winds from sea, wet waves and the narrator feels life’s despair! He cries: “my life is full of pain,” he’s thinking of going into the sea; but then changes his mind. He sees something in the water which makes him forget all his troubles and “tortured past”. Hope is restored! And he feels joy instead of sorrow!
I stood by the unvintageable sea
Till the wet waves drenched face and hair with spray;
The long red fires of the dying day
Burned in the west; the wind piped drearily;
And to the land the clamorous gulls did flee:
Alas! I cried, my life is full of pain,
And who can garner fruit or golden grain
From these waste fields which travail ceaselessly!
My nets gaped wide with many a break and flaw
Nathless I threw them as my final cast
Into the sea, and waited for the end.
When lo! a sudden glory! and I saw
The argent splendour of white limbs ascend,
And in that joy forgot my tortured past.
- ‘Vita Nuova’ is also a famous poem written in 1293 by Dante Alighieri. In the poem Dante expresses his love for Beatrice. ↩