Natural vs. Unnatural Corruption in Symonds’s “The Valley of Vain Desires” and Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray

John Addington Symonds’s poem “The Valley of Vain Desires” uses natural imagery and metaphors to describe the process of descending into sin, a condition that is figured as a physical location, the “valley of vain desires.” When we look at Symonds’s poem through the lens of Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, we see that there is a striking contrast between the way that descent into sin is described. While Dorian is corrupted by the influence of Lord Henry and by the ideas of the book that Lord Henry gives to him, Symonds’s poem depicts temptation and the act of sinning as a natural event. I want to suggest that the two different depictions of descent into sin in Dorian Gray versus “The Valley of Vain Desires” relate to the outcome of each text. In Dorian Gray, Dorian’s corruption by human influence manifests itself in a desire to collect material objects and in the harm that he does to others, and he is undone by his own desire to destroy his soul.  In Symonds’s poem, the speaker and the beautiful youth are drawn down into the valley by the lure of strange fruit and are held captive by its seductive poison, but are then spiritually resurrected. What I think the contrast between the depictions of descent into sin and the outcome of descent suggests is that while being seduced by natural forces, as in Symonds’s poem, is a redeemable offence, falling prey to corruption brought about by other humans and material objects, as in Dorian Gray, is not.

There are several striking parallels between The Picture of Dorian Gray and “The Valley of Vain Desires.” In both the poem and the novel, a beautiful youth is corrupted, and the two youths are both described as possessing classical beauty. In the first chapter of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry likens Dorian to two Greek gods in one sentence. Comparing Dorian to Basil, he says, “I really can’t see any resemblance between you, with your rugged strong face and your coal-black hair, and this young Adonis, who looks as if he was made out of ivory and rose-leaves. Why, my dear Basil, he is a Narcissus” (ch. 1). Symonds’s also likens the beautiful youth of the poem to a figure from Greek mythology. The speaker states,

I saw– yea, even now my cheeks are blenched

With thinking of the sorrow of that sight–

A youth Phoebean, whose fair brows, entrenched

With scars untimely, bore the branded blight

Of shame ‘neath withered bay-leaves: his long hair

Once crisped in curls that mocked the morning light

By calling the youth “Phoebean,” the speaker likens him to Phoebus, also known as Apollo, the god sun, light, and knowledge, among other things. The reference to the “withered bay-leaves” on the youth’s head solidify the comparison; in ancient Greece, bay leaves were seen as a symbol of glory and achievement. In both Symonds’s poem and Wilde’s novel, beautiful youths are described as possessing classical beauty.

Symonds’s description of the effects of the fruit is similar to the descriptions of Dorian’s use of opium in Wilde’s novel. The speaker of Symonds’s poem describes eating the “corpse-cold clusters” of the fruit as a kind of oblivion: once one eats the “Flesh-parching poison,” one experiences “pain that was pleasure,” a temporary oblivion. Similarly, when Dorian travels to the opium dens, he is driven by a “hideous hunger,” and the desire to “cure the soul by means of the senses” (ch. 16). Although the effects of both agents of corruption are similar, however, Symonds’s poem describes temptation as a natural force, while Dorian is driven to consume the opium by an idea that he received from human sources.

In Symonds’s poem, the speaker claims that his “feed were led,/ Down the slow spirals of those deadly stairs:/ And I too in my inmost spirit bred/ Desire of that fell fruit.” The speaker’s claim that he was “led” down into the valley by desire for the “fell fruit” indicates that the force of temptation is natural, not generated by humans. In Dorian Gray, by contrast, Dorian is corrupted the ideas in a book that Lord Henry lends him: “The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music… produced in the mind of the lad… a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and the creeping shadows” (ch. 10). Although Dorian also has no control over the effect of the book on his mind, the effect is generated by an object produced by humans, rather than the fruit of mysterious origins in Symonds’s poem.

The difference between the sources of corruption in Dorian Gray and “The Valley of Vain Desires” is the reason for the vastly different outcomes of the novel and poem. While Dorian’s belief in his ability to save his soul by awakening his senses eventually drives him to stab the painting of himself, thus killing himself, the speaker and the beautiful youth in Symons’s poem are absolved by a divine force. The final stanza of Symond’s poem suggests that corruption by natural forces is a forgivable transgression:

From the first fount of Thy felicity,

Through all the ocean where those myriad streams

Commingle, ‘twere an easy task to see

Concorde above the discord of our dreams.

The image of commingled streams suggests that the corrupting fruit springs from the same sources as the divine “felicity” that has intervened on behalf of the corrupted speaker and youth. The words concorde and discord form a syllabic and aural parallel, emphasizing that the two forces that the words represent (sin and virtue) exist in balance with one another. In the universe that the Symonds poem creates, benevolent divine forces stand by to intervene should one fall prey to corruption by natural forces. In Dorian Gray, however, the characters are at the mercy of the corrupting forces of the novel, as they have all been created by themselves.