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A Short Analysis of Wilfred Owen’s ‘Strange Meeting’

Wilfred Owen is a minor character in Oscar’s Ghost’s third act (a bit more minor than he would have been had I not had to tighten the book as much as I did). He was one of many artists supported, encouraged and promoted by Robert Baldwin Ross, Oscar Wilde’s champion and literary executor.

Interesting Literature

A reading of a classic war poem

‘Strange Meeting’ is one of Wilfred Owen’s greatest poems. After ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ and ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ it is one of his most popular and widely studied and analysed. Siegfried Sassoon called ‘Strange Meeting’ Owen’s passport to immortality; it’s certainly true that it’s poems like this that helped to make Owen the definitive English poet of the First World War. As Owen himself put it, the poetry is in the pity.

Strange Meeting

It seemed that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.

Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands, as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that…

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See You There?

Oscar Wilde NYC

Getting in my little orange Kia and driving to New York City. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll come see me tomorrow at the Oscar Wilde bar in NYC. A bit far? I’m also on my way to Cleveland and Pittsburgh:

November 4: New York, NY: Oscar Wilde NYC. 2-4 PM. Book signing. [Learn more!]

November 6: Cleveland, OH: Cuyahoga Public Library Beachwood Branch. 7:00-8:00 PM. Discussion of Oscar’s Ghost and book signing. Free but advance registration is required.

November 7: Swickey, PA: Penguin Books. 7:00-8:00 PM. Discussion of Oscar’s Ghost. Short talk and book signing.

Also Detroit Metro Area friends, don’t forget the upcoming Oscar Wilde Tea. Be sure to make a reservation for that one, as space is limited, and you want to get in before the cucumber sandwiches are gone:

November 12: Rochester, MI: Tonia’s Victorian Rose Tea Room. 2 PM. Discussion of Oscar’s Ghost and a lovely tea. This is a ticketed event. Here are all the details.

Lord Alfred Douglas: Happy? Birthday

alfreddouglas_cropYesterday was the anniversary of the birth of Lord Alfred Douglas.

I looked up some of what was written on social media to commemorate the auspicious event. Some highlights:

“remembered as Oscar Wilde’s downfall…”

a “mean spirited mincing queen intent on self-destruction.”  In the end it was Wilde who was destroyed.

Lord Alfred Douglas will go down in gay history as the original “evil queen”.

On days like this it seems clear who the loser of the war over the Wilde narrative was.

Happy birthday, Bosie.

 

The Jury Vote from Oscar Wilde’s First Criminal Trial

The original version of Oscar’s Ghost was 100,000 words longer than its final incarnation. To put that into perspective, that is about two De Profundises (De Profundi?) worth of material researched, written and left on the cutting room floor.

So this blog will have to serve as the literary version of the DVD extras. Tune in regularly for Oscar’s Ghost outtakes.

Today’s little nugget is the results of the voting of the jury in Wilde’s fist criminal trial.

After the case ended in a hung jury The Morning published what purported to be the actual results of their voting. This story was picked up by regional newspapers throughout Britain. According to The Morning the results were:

1. Did Wilde commit indecent acts with Shelley- 10 for, 2 against; with Wood– 8 for, 4 against; two persons at the Savoy– 10 for, 2 against; Charlie Parker – 10 for, 2 against.

2. Did Taylor procure, or attempt to procure, the commission of the acts, or any of them?– 10 for, 2 against.

3. Did Wilde or Taylor, or either of them, attempt to get Atkins to commit indecency with Wilde?–Agreed, not guilty.

4. Did Taylor commit indecent acts, first, with Charles Parker; secondly with W. Parker? 2 for, 10 against.

If a newspaper today were to print such results, showing that the majority of the jurors found Wilde guilty, it would be considered so prejudicial it would lead to a change of venue if not an abandonment of the case.

One newspaper more sympathetic to Wilde recoiled at the printing of the jury results while Wilde was still waiting to stand trial. “Anything more cruel, heartless, and reckless than the publications of these details we are happy to say is rare in the journalism of to-day.”

 

The source of these results is “The Wilde Case: Voting in the Jury Room.” Portsmouth Evening News, May 9, 1895. The critical response was quoted in Oscar Wilde Three Times Tried written by Christopher Millard under the pen name Stuart Mason.

Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy – Laura Lee (Amberley Publishing)

Thank you to Out in Print for the first review of Oscar’s Ghost.

Out in Print: Queer Book Reviews

Buy from Amberley Publishing

This is a story about stories. On its most basic level, Oscar’s Ghost is about Oscar Wilde’s life and how its telling affected the lives of two people whom fate had cast as characters in it. But it is also about other stories: the stories told in courtrooms masquerading as the `whole truth’; the stories we tell ourselves to create an identity; stories we tell others to carve out a place in the community; stories that marginalized groups tell themselves to make sense of their difference; and the stories society relies upon to explain a moment in history. Oscar’s Ghost explores how all these stories interact and what happens when contradictory narratives collide.

So begins Oscar’s Ghost by Laura Lee. Ostensibly, Lee’s book is about how Oscar Wilde came to write De Profundis, and the subsequent feud between Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. While…

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Just One More Fact…

I can relate to this from the Chronicle of Higher Education:

“And then there’s the reference manual on amphibians and reptiles that first crossed her desk in 1994, during an earlier stretch of her career at the Kentucky press. The author in that case, Ms. Salisbury wrote, had spent more than 30 years collecting data for the book. But every time publication seemed imminent, the author would discover a new data point — say, a new span of territory that a lizard might inhabit in the state.”

At some point you just have to declare a book done.

Oscar Wilde and the Invention of Spin

In his 2014 book Wilde in America, David M. Friedman argued that Oscar Wilde invented modern celebrity.  He was the first of what is now a familiar type: the person who seeks fame in order to enable a career rather than as the result of a career. As he put it:

It is a mind-set where everyone thinks they could be famous and, even more to the point, should be. It is a belief system in which “celebrity,” a word that once referred exclusively to persons of achievement—artists, athletes, politicians, and so on, even criminals, who left their mark on history through their deeds—has expanded its meaning to include persons famous merely for being famous, a status won by manipulating the media. It is a worldview where fame isn’t the end product of a career but the beginning of one. It is the part of modern life we call celebrity culture.

Wilde’s greatest creation was arguably the persona of Oscar Wilde. After suffering the public shame of a trial for gross indecency, the document he wrote in prison De Profundis can be read as the author’s mourning process for the loss of that persona.

When he came out of jail he faced what we might today call a serious branding problem. Enter Robert Baldwin Ross. If Wilde was the first modern celebrity then his trusted friend, business advisor and later literary executor was something else. He was the first modern crisis PR manager.

Ross had a great challenge ahead of him. He had to overcome the popular notion that Wilde was a Svengali who lured young men to immoral practices. He had to convince the public at large that Wilde was not dangerous to read. At the same time, he wanted to keep the symbol of Oscar Wilde available to the counter-cultural community of homosexual men, while keeping that aspect from interfering with his goal of a wider market for Wilde’s works. As a crisis PR manager, Ross was incredibly successful. Ross achieved something no one thought possible– he brought the Wilde estate out of bankruptcy, created a growing market for his works, and with the release of an edited version of De Profundis, the British public started to reassess the man and the artist. If it weren’t for Ross’s efforts, it is entirely possible that Wilde would be a much more obscure figure than he is today.

But as a PR manager, Ross was not acting as an archivist or historian, he was practicing spin. Ross edited Wilde’s works in places to remove lines that might be read as dangerous innuendo. As he painstakingly compiled and edited works whose copyrights had been sold and scattered, he created a more unified Wildean literary style in the process.  Beyond that, he crafted a mythology about Wilde. The mythology of Wilde persists to this day.

One of the interesting documents I came across while researching Oscar’s Ghost was a dissertation on the artist Simeon Solomon by Carolyn Conroy.  (Conroy, Carolyn. He Hath Mingled with the Ungoldly: The Life of Simeon Solomon After 1873, With a Survey of the Extant Works. PH.D. Dissertation. University of York, December, 2009.)

Simeon Solomon was an artist whose work, which featured beautiful androgynous youths, was much admired in the Wlde circle. In 1873, at the height of his artistic career Solomon was arrested in a public urinal for attempting “feloniously to commit the abominable crime of buggery.”

Robert Ross wrote the most influential obituary of Solomon. As he told it, Solomon’s arrest was the beginning of a sad decline. After these events the artist was shunned by polite society, his work suffered until he was producing worthless copies of the subjects of his glory days. He ended his life as a poor, friendless alcoholic. If this tragic tale of the brilliant homosexual artist destroyed by the Philistines calls to mind the tragic last years of Oscar Wilde it is no coincidence.
The Ross obituary contains stories of Solomon breaking into a house to rob it while drunk and being admitted to an asylum by friends. Conroy investigated these claims and found that “much of this information is, simply either incorrect or unlikely.” In fact, Conroy found that Solomon was enjoying great popularity in America at the time Ross described him as a shadow of his former self.

The tragic narrative of society destroying its artists in a quest for moral purity served a purpose. It asked the public to consider whether such laws and policies were in the public interest. What is more, it created a compelling narrative at a time when the most popular fiction ended not with happy endings but with tragedy.

But to criticize Ross as a bad historian is to assume he intended to act as a historian. Ross agreed with Wilde that what was important about a story was not its basis in fact, but how it affected the reader. Oscar Wilde wrote in The Critic as Artist, “The one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it.” By crafting an enduring mythology, he was acting as a consummate and pioneering spin master, perhaps one of the finest ever to work in the field.

Interestingly, even Lord Alfred Douglas, at a time when he was at odds with Ross, wrote that he believed such mythologizing had probably been necessary.

But mythologizing does not exist in a vaccuum. In crafting the narrative to the best effect for Wilde, Ross was also impacting Douglas. In my next article, I will talk about that aspect of the story.