A silver cigarette case that Lord Alfred Douglas gave to Oscar Wilde when they were reunited after Wilde got out of prison is coming up for auction again. I knew about this gift from Bosie to Oscar from a description of it from the last time it was sold.
Etched into the case is a piece of a poem by John Donne:
The Phoenix riddle hath more wit
By us, we two being one are it
So to one neutral thing both sexes fit
We die and rise the same and prove
Mysterious by this love.
What I don’t think I realized (or assimilated) when I first read about this object was that it was one of the things left behind at the hotel where Oscar Wilde died. (Others being some shirts that were at the laundry, some books, and a set of false teeth.) That Oscar carried this object with him until he died, rather than, say pawning it, re-gifting it, or using it to pay a prostitute, is at least a little bit telling.
The subject of Wilde and prison got me to thinking about a bit of Oscar’s Ghost that didn’t make it into the final cut. While Wilde was in prison both Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross wrote defenses of him that were not published at the time. In the outtake that follows, I compared their approaches:
To correct the prevailing narrative, Bosie would have to make the world understand the depth of Wilde’s love for him, and the sacrifices he was willing to make for it. He wrote impassioned pleas in Wilde’s defense and bold declarations of the beauty of same sex love. His tone was idealistic, romantic and often melodramatic.
Douglas had, for some time, lived in such a protected world of like-minded people he had little sense of how his professions of devotion to Oscar Wilde, and excerpts from his love letters, would sound to the general public. To Douglas they were pure beauty. To the world they were either humorous or sickening. Because Douglas was seen either as Wilde’s unwitting victim, or as a fellow deviant who had escaped jail only because of his title, no one was inclined to listen to what he had to say.
Bosie was not the only one to write a spirited defense of Wilde. Early in 1896, Ross read a report on the New Year’s sermon of Rev. John Clifford, a prominent Baptist preacher who had used the opportunity to pronounce the death of aestheticism which he said had been exposed and condemned by the imprisonment of Wilde.
The two then-unpublished arguments are remarkable both for what they have in common, and how they differ. Like Douglas, Ross made a point of expressing pride in his relationship with Wilde. Douglas had written “While I am still young and bold, let me put myself once and for all on the side of honesty and declare that I am proud to be what I am, proud to have been so much loved by a great man, and proud to have suffered so much for him.”
In his letter to Rev. John Clifford, Ross wrote: “I rejoice to say that I am one of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s greatest friends.”
Douglas never learned the skill that Wilde had in spades, that of tailoring a message to a particular audience. Wilde once famously said, “give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.” The masks he put on for the press, for the parlor, for the theater audience, for the reader did a better job of expressing the truth than they would have if they were unmitigated. Bosie was always unmasked. (“Unpoliced” as Shaw would write.) He did not self-censor. He did not consider context. His truth was his truth and he would speak it.
So Bosie’s article contains all of the arguments he had pent up inside– in addition to a bold defense of same sex love came his unvarnished bitterness for his father, his outspoken criticism of the trials, and an indictment of the hypocrisy of the English people. The result was an article that argued both that Wilde was innocent of the charges against him and that anyway there was nothing wrong with love between men.
Ross, on the other hand, was well aware of the biases of his audience. Instead of trying to justify homosexuality, he made a case for charity for the condemned, pointing out that Christ came to save the sinners not “to redeem the moral from the contamination of wicked people” adding that it was very uncharitable of a minister to attack someone who was suffering during the holiday season. (Bosie, incidentally, had also published an article for the British public that used this “fair play” line. Wilde would criticize it as insincere and formal in De Profundis.)
Ross had been moved to write by the minister’s condemnation of Wilde’s art. In answer to Clifford’s statement that “art for art’s sake was exposed and condemned by the imprisonment of the high priest of aestheticism” Ross listed Christian martyrs whose ideas had not been “exposed and condemned” by their prosecution and deaths. He then offered to send Clifford copies of Wilde’s works.
Some years ago after the appearance of Mr. Oscar Wilde’s novel Dorian Gray in Protestant and puritan Scotland it was my good fortune to hear a Presbyterian minister preach on the moral of that wonderful story. More than one Non-conformist paper praised the novel on moral grounds…At all events I would ask you to judge for yourself & then give your unbiased opinion not on Mr. Wilde but on his works.
Where Ross wrote as an admirer of the artist, Douglas wrote as one who loved the man:
I, for my part, love him for the uniform sweetness of his character, the extraordinary goodness of his heart, and his eternal and inexhaustible tenderness for me. I love him for his magnificent intellect, his genius and his verve. He had taught me everything that is worth knowing. He has given me a little of the secret of his infallible instinct, which never overlooked what was fine and which was never taken in by what was bad (I am speaking of art and not of morals, of course). He diverted my attention from what was vulgar and tedious in life, to lead it towards what was beautiful. He showed me the strength and might of the intellect, its superior emotive force, he taught me to know the good works form the bad. He armed me against cant, gave me a philosophy of life, he made my life worth living…
Ross’s editorial was the earliest example of what would become his main technique in his life-long quest to get Oscar’s works accepted again in society. He would separate the artist from the man, promote the art, and try to downplay and conceal the more “unsavory” aspects of the Wilde story. In order to do this successfully, it became increasingly important for him to conceal his own sexuality. If he did not, his efforts on Wilde’s behalf would be seen as special pleading.
Whether he had made a conscious decision or not, Ross’s own literary ambitions were put on hold when Wilde was arrested. Wilde’s fate had been sealed as much by his writings and his literary success as by his sexual peccadillos and this had a profound effect on the friend whose conversations had shaped The Portrait of Mr. W.H. He had become wary of revealing the erotic energy that had been behind his youthful creativity, but he found that he had trouble writing anything “in which the heroine is not a beautiful boy.”
“I do not write now,” he told Max Beerbohm. When he finally did return to writing, he focused almost entirely on satire and criticism, forms that revealed little about their authors. Although he would gain some prominence in this field, most of his real creative energy would be devoted to advancing the careers of other artists.