Bosie’s “Hopeless Debt”

Oscar Wilde died on November 30, 1900. In commemoration of the anniversary, some people have posted Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas’s best-known poem to Wilde. It’s called “The Dead Poet,” recited here by a weirdly animated photo of its author.

 

This was not the only poem Douglas wrote as he tried to come to terms with what he described, in 1940, as “the strange posture of affairs which forced me into the cruel position of being, just because I was as God made me, the innocent cause of the ruin of my friend…”

My personal favorite poem that Douglas wrote for Wilde was one that was intended to be the dedication of his first book of poetry, but Wilde, then in prison refused to allow it:

TO OSCAR WILDE

What shall I say, what word, what cry recall,
What god invoke, what charm, what amulet,
To make a sonnet pay a hopeless debt,
Or heal a bruised soul with a madrigal?
O vanity of words! my cup of gall
O’erflows with this, I have no phrase to set,
And all my agony and bloody sweat
Comes to this issue of no words at all.

This is my book, and in my book my soul
With its two woven threads of joy and pain,
And both were yours before they were begun.
Oh! that this dream would like a mist unroll,
That I might look upon your face again,
And hear your kind voice say: ‘This was well done.’

Although he would for years shout down (or sue for libel) anyone who claimed Wilde’s downfall was his fault, letters he wrote to friends and family at the time reveal that he did feel responsible. It is one thing to blame yourself, quite another to have others blame you.

Three months after Oscar went to prison, Bosie wrote a poem called Rondeau:

If he were here, this glorious sky,
This sweet blue sea, these ships that lie
On the bay’s bosom, like white sheep
On English fields, these hours that creep
Golden in summer’s panoply,
This wind that seems a lover’s sigh,
Would make a heaven of peace as high
As God’s great love, a bliss as deep,
If he were here.

This great peace does but magnify
My great unrest that will not die,
My deep despair that may not reap
One poppy, one poor hour of sleep,
Nor aught but pain to wake and cry,
‘If he were here!’

“Perhaps if I were in prison myself I should be infinitely happier,” he wrote to the journalist W.T. Stead that November. “What makes me more unhappy than anything else is the feeling that my friend is bearing nearly all the burden and I so comparatively little. People look upon me as the victim of his superior age and wisdom and therefore an object of pity, while they reserve their execration for him. All this is so utterly wide of the real truth. So far from his leading me astray it was I that (unwittingly) pushed him over the precipice. He lived 36 years without seeing me and then I came and dragged into his life all the influences of our morbid half insane heritage which reaches its highest point in that terrible father of mine…”

A few years later, when his mother was intent on separating Douglas from Wilde after their post-prison reunion, he wrote to her asking if she expected him to say of Oscar “I cannot come and live with you now. I lived with you before and stayed with you and lived on you, but that was when you were rich, famous, honoured and at the summit of your position as an artist, now I am very sorry of course, but you are ruined, you have no money, you have hardly any friends, you have been in prison (chiefly, I admit, on my account and through my fault), you are an ex-convict, it will do me a great deal of harm to be seen about with you, and besides that my mother naturally object to it very strongly, and so I’m afraid I must leave you to get on as best you can by yourself… Sincerely and frankly, is this what you would have had me write?”

In 1900, shortly after Oscar Wilde’s death, Douglas wrote to his brother, Percy, “I was afraid you might think I had changed my mind about him in later life. I never did and he was the same to me, always my dearest and best friend, although I found it absolutely impossible to see him as much as formerly in the face of the avalanche of slander and grief of relations etc. both on his side and mine.”

Bosie said he remained in love with Oscar until well after his death when he read the unpublished parts of De Profundis in 1912. He did not start looking for a bride until after Wilde’s death, which suggests he could not move on while Wilde was alive.

Years later, after a falling out with his friend and co-editor T.W.S. Crosland, Douglas would write that Crosland had no excuse for treating him as he did because unlike Wilde, Douglas had done no harm to him. He really had, he said, unintentionally caused Wilde to suffer.

The Dead Poet was not Douglas’s favorite.  He preferred a sonnet he wrote three years after Wilde’s death on the subject of emerging from grief.

Forgetfulness

Alas! that Time should war against Distress,
And numb the sweet ache of remembered loss,
And give for sorrow’s gold the indifferent dross
Of calm regret or stark forgetfulness.
I should have worn eternal mourning dress
And nailed my soul to some perennial cross.
And made my thoughts like restless waves that toss
On the wild sea’s intemperate wilderness.

But lo! came Life, and with its painted toys
Lured me to play again like any child.
O pardon me this weak inconstancy.
May my soul die if in all present joys,
Lapped in forgetfulness or sense-beguiled
Yea, in my mirth, if I prefer not thee.

3 comments

  1. Quote from the review of Nicholas Frankel’s ‘Annotated Prison Writings of Oscar Wilde’ from the TLS, which you posted recently: ‘Frankel’s reading of “De Profundis” as a performative act, transcending the personal letter to speak self-consciously to History, is very persuasive. Among other things, it demands that we question Wilde’s vainglorious denigration of his lover; a portrayal that has made Bosie one of the fin de siècle’s great pantomime villains.’

    Maybe there’ll be a reassessment in a hundred years time, when the current protectors of Oscar’s ‘legacy’ are long gone. It seems unlikely, as the narrative arc of ‘destructive passion’ and ‘poor Oscar’ described in De Profundis is way too compelling; in the same way that Yeats’s ‘glittering libels’ (to quote Professor Ian Fletcher) now define our view of the lives of the poets he deems ‘The Tragic Generation’. The vivid and beautifully fashioned words of great artists are the ones that will be listened to (precisely for the reason that they are vivid and beautifully fashioned) and obliterate all others, however murky the motives.

    1. I wrote this last night after reading a tweet from someone who posted Douglas’s “The Dead Poet” and described it as the only expression of remorse in his life. My book, certainly, will not be widely read enough to make a dent in this view.

      Frankel allowed me to read the introductory chapter of his prison writings before it went to press. The one thing that struck me was remembering how much Oscar always spoke and wrote for an audience, and how his audience shaped the story he told. The prison warden was tasked with reading everything Wilde wrote, and was the first audience of De Profundis. He was kind to Oscar, and I realized reading Frankel’s introduction how much knowledge of that particular audience must have colored what he wrote– along with his artistic fascination with love that destroys its object and his sense of Robbie Ross– who enjoyed Wilde’s artistic fascinations–as an audience. Artistically, Ross liked a lot of dark material. I think he and Oscar had a good intellectual, artist relationship and that sense of audience colored his creation too.

  2. Wilde made a theatre of his life that is for sure … and all the others were ‘merely players’ in service of that. In the case of Ross … to continue the metaphor … it seems he functioned as actor, audience and stage manager.

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