Poetry

A Lean Knife Between the Ribs of Time

To Hugo, the cathedral, with its heavy towers and its soaring spire leaping weightlessly heavenwards, was a book in which, over the course of two centuries of construction, builders and masons and architects and worshipers had inscribed their thoughts. Passersby and worshipers could read their hopes and see the spots that marked their transit from birth to oblivion. Their labor wrote sentences in the stone, paragraphs; it built a cathedral. It was not merely a sermon in stone; it was a symphony, made up of innumerable voices. Yet, as it turned out, it was not simply the act of building it that consecrated it, but that people continued to read it and inscribe stories in it…

bosieThis article, from Alexandra Petri in The Washington Post, on Notre Dame de Paris as “a great stone book” had me thinking again about art as a desire to speak across time.

It reminded me of Lord Alfred Douglas’s City of the Soul, written while Douglas was living with Oscar Wilde in Naples.

Each new hour’s passage is the acolyte

Of inarticulate song and syllable,

And every passing moment is a bell,

To mourn the death of undiscerned delight.

Where is the sun that made the noon-day bright,

And where the midnight moon? O let us tell,

In long carved line and painted parable,

How the white road curves down into the night.

Only to build one crystal barrier

Against this sea which beats upon our days ;

To ransom one lost moment with a rhyme

Or if fate cries and grudging gods demur,

To clutch Life’s hair, and thrust one naked phrase

Like a lean knife between the ribs of Time.

Naples, 1897.

Christmas 1895: An Outtake from Oscar’s Ghost

I was looking back through some of the material that was cut from the final version of Oscar’s Ghost and discovered this timely fragment: a look back at Christmas 1895, the first Christmas that Oscar Wilde was in jail.

The Douglas family Christmas in 1895 was not a shining example of peace on earth, goodwill to men. Bosie’s gift to his father was a copy of a poem he had written about him the previous year and published anonymously in the Pall Mall Gazette. It was called “A Ballad of Hate” and began:

Here’s short life t the man I hate!
(Never a shroud or a coffin board)
Wait and watch and watch and wait
He shall pay the half and the whole
Now or then or soon or late
(Steel or lead or hempen cord
And the devil take his soul!)

The cover letter said “I hated you then I hate you a thousand times more now & will be even with you some day wishing you every curse & misery & speedy death with eternal damnation.”

Queensberry made a copy of the poem, scribbled his own comments on it and sent it not to Bosie but to [his brother] Percy. His letter promised that if Bosie came back to England he would “instantly get him put under restraint this last letter will be quite sufficient to get this done as I have already shown it to a doctor anyone will see it is the letter of a lunatic.”


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.

Pressure of Concealment

If you don’t already, I recommend following Lit Hub. Today they featured an interview with Dani Shapiro in which the author muses on whether or not she would have written her memoir if she’d had the instant gratification of social media at the time.

Most interesting to me was her theory on the origin of powerful writing:

Dani Shapiro: “Adrienne Rich once said that it is that which is under the pressure of concealment that explodes into poetry. So if you’re on Twitter and Facebook and sharing there, there’s no pressure of concealment. And I think good memoir comes out of that place, it comes out of it can’t be said, it can’t be said, it can’t be said, so now I want to try to say it.”

Adrienne Rich’s observation struck me as another version of Oscar Wilde’s famous aphorism “Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.”

Does the pressure of concealment fuel all art? Probably not, but it can be a powerful engine.

“Mother of Exiles”

 

amd-statue-liberty-jpgNot like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

-The New Colossus, Emma Lazarus

Identity and Poetry

This poetry performance won the 2015 College Unions Poetry Slam Invitational.  In “Lost Voices” Scout Bostley and Darius Simpson change places and speak in the voice of the other.

Michigan Radio reported:

The main message of their performance, Simpson says, is to show the audience that “this is what you look like when you’re speaking for someone.”

…putting this piece together taught them a lot about how to be supportive of people struggling through situations different from their own and that there is inherently a limit to the depth of their own understanding.

…Simpson explains that the two aren’t suggesting that people shouldn’t speak out for one another, but that in doing so there is the danger of losing sight of an individual’s experiences.