Lord Alfred Douglas

Oscar’s Wife

ImageI recently finished reading Franny Moyle’s book Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde.  Constance Wilde is generally given short shrift in biographies of her husband. This book provided a much different perspective on the playwright’s life, and an important one. One of the things I took away from this book was just how many demands were being placed on Wilde in the years before his trials.

He was trying to capitalize on his new success as a playwright, he was courting the emotionally demanding Lord Alfred Douglas,  taking part in dinners and social events not to mention a notorious secret night life (seriously, don’t mention it), all the while maintaining his domestic role as a husband and father.  The domestic vantage point adds new dimensions to other, more well known, parts of his biography.

For example, in 1893, Wilde and Douglas had a series of arguments over Douglas’s translation of Wilde’s play Salome.  Wilde’s memory of the events were recorded in De Profundis.

“After a series of scenes culminating in one more than usually revolting, when you came one Monday evening to my rooms accompanied by two male friends, I found myself actually flying abroad next morning to escape from you, giving my wife some absurd reason for my departure, and leaving a false address with my servant for fear you might follow me by the next train.”

Most of the biographies I have read of Wilde or Douglas which deal with this episode go on to describe the tensions in the relationship between the two men. After these rows (and the threat of a scandal involving some indiscretions by Wilde, Ross and Douglas) Wilde determined that Bosie should take a trip to Egypt and he wrote to Lady Douglas asking her to send him abroad.  Without the perspective of Constance, Wilde’s reasons for wanting some space from Douglas seem to be entirely about the young man’s character.

What Moyle makes clear is that Wilde was being pulled in two directions. The demands placed on him by family life were just as strong as those placed on him by his lover.  His quarrel with Douglas was followed hard upon by an equally draining quarrel with his wife. When Oscar flew off to Paris to escape Bosie, he bailed on a wedding he was supposed to attend.  Constance was furious.  This is when Oscar decided he could not live this double life any more. He refused to see Bosie, arranged for him to be sent away, and for a while he tried to be the “ideal husband” he had seemed to be early in their marriage.

It didn’t last long, of course.

The beginning of the book contained a bit more background on Constance, and especially  on her wardrobe, than my level of interest supported. As the book reached its climax and tragic end, though, it is riveting.  After society had torn the family apart in the name of protecting the nation’s morals by sending Wilde to prison, they did it again with a severe penal system. Prisoners were allowed few visitors and only one letter a month. Friends and family had to compete for available slots. Because of this, Wilde’s well-meaning friends and Constance’s well-meaning advisors could only guess as to Wilde’s true wishes. Each tried to act on his behalf, and at cross purposes.  It would be comic if the consequences were not so tragic.

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What Monica Lewinsky Can Learn from Lord Alfred Douglas

ImageMonica Lewinsky is in the news again. I have always had empathy for her.

I think about myself in my 20s, that reckless vulnerable age, when everything is new and confusing and you believe there will always be time to undo your mistakes. There are e-mails and love letters of mine that I am grateful never appeared on the six o’clock news. Are there many people who could not say the same?

Michelle Goldberg wrote of Lewinsky in The Nation: “Imagine, at 40, being defined by a blowjob you gave at 22.”

That sentence, forgive me, brought to mind Lord Alfred Douglas.

He had much in common with Monica Lewinsky. Both were bright young people with promising futures when they met the much older, and more prominent men who would change the trajectories of their lives. Lewinsky was 22 years old when she met the president. Douglas was 21 when he met the 36 year-old Oscar Wilde. Monica Lewinsky’s relationship with the president lasted two years. The time Douglas knew Wilde, including the two years Wilde was in prison, were nine years of a 75-year life.

Neither relationship was entirely clear cut. According to Douglas– and there is no reason not to believe him– his relationship with Wilde was not especially physical consisting of a few occasions of doing, well, the types of things that were reported to have happened between Clinton and Lewinsky. (There was no “is” between Wilde and Douglas either.)

Both Lewinsky and Douglas were barely out of school when their respective sex scandals broke. So while President Clinton and Oscar Wilde had reputations and resumes before their scandals, their younger partners had no public images to speak of. Their reputations were formed by the scandals.

So as Monica Lewinsky has put herself back in our consciousness for the moment, I wonder if there is anything she could learn from the example of Lord Alfred Douglas. For the most part, Douglas serves as a negative example. In his middle years Douglas was bitter, argumentative, and had a persecution complex that was all the more fierce for having some basis in fact. (Even paranoid people have real enemies.)

As with Clinton/Lewinsky defenders of Wilde had sought to revitalize the playwright’s image by making Douglas the driving force in the relationship. He was the seducer, he was the mad one, he was the one who courted danger. The much older man just went along for the ride.

Wilde and Douglas lived in an era when they simply could not speak about their relationship or expect to have it understood. It was, as Douglas so famously wrote, “the love that dared not speak its name.” That did not prevent others from trying to define it for him. First it was his furious father, then the courts, then the newspapers. Later it was Wilde himself. Wilde was trying to set the record straight when he wrote his prison manuscript De Profundis in the form of a painful letter to Douglas. At 50,000 words De Profundis is as long as the original version of The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and could be said to be the first biography of Lord Alfred Douglas, and the least objective. It would not be the last.  By the time Douglas was able to speak freely, many other biographers had gotten there before him and a narrative about the relationship and his role in it had already been created. It was not flattering.

The sad consequence is that Douglas spent most of his later years striking down what he saw as libels like a kid at a Whack-A-Mole machine. And even though Douglas wrote four autobiographical works, he never gave a straight-forward account of his life. Everything he wrote was framed as an argument against what had come before.

The moral of this for Monica Lewinsky is to give up the notion that you can set the record straight. People who have no idea what happened between you and Bill Clinton will have opinions and theories and there is nothing you can do about it. You will make yourself crazy.

Back in February, before the Vanity Fair article, CNN reported on rumors that Lewinsky was shopping a $12 million book deal. The Vanity Fair piece may be a trial balloon meant to prove to potential publishers that she can still capture an audience.  Otherwise the whole thing is quite inexplicable. Here is Monica, courting the press, for no particular reason. It is not to announce a great new Lewinsky project, a product to sell, a new cause she wants to take on. Given that, its message seems to be “I am in the public spotlight to say that it is time to stop talking about me.” Weird, right?

One of the best moves Lord Alfred Douglas ever made was one dictated by necessity. It could not have come naturally to a narcissistic aristocrat who was desperate to tell his story to the world. (While Wilde was in prison, Douglas was quite idealistically and romantically, but entirely unhelpfully, determined to print a long argument in defense of love between men and to declare his ever lasting devotion to Wilde.)

Douglas’s career had not yet begun, but he was determined to become a great poet. No publisher, however, would touch a Lord Alfred Douglas book with a ten foot pole. So Douglas released his first collection of sonnets anonymously. It received highly favorable reviews. It was only after his work had been praised that he revealed he was the author. This allowed him to build a reputation in his own right, beyond the stench of scandal.

He is always contrasted with Wilde. In Wilde’s shadow he looks small, but so do all but a rare few writers. In his lifetime, Douglas published more than a dozen collections of poetry, satire and nonsense verse and The True History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. When his writings for publications such as The Academy are counted, he was by any fair reckoning quite prolific and generally well regarded literary figure in his time.

So here is the final lesson for Lewinsky from the poet’s life:  If you are shopping that memoir, hold off a while, not because of politics or the presumed Hillary Clinton campaign, not because of the critics. Don’t put out another book until you have another story to tell. Do something amazing! Make a difference, make a fortune, write a sonnet set– whatever it is, do something that is entirely yours entirely unrelated to Bill Clinton. Do that first. The hard truth is this: there is no reason for us to care about a former White House intern. There is nothing we know about you besides the scandal.  Ralph Waldo Emerson once described a particular orator by saying, “he is a spectacle instead of being an engine; a fine show at which we look, instead of an agent that moves us.”  Don’t be a spectacle instead of an engine. Don’t talk about how we misunderstand you– show us. Don’t say it’s time to burn the beret– make us forget.

Then write a tell-all, if you still feel you must. But make it the story of what you overcame, the trial by fire that made you who you are. Make that trial your triumph.

A Universalist Talks Sin

There is an article in today’s Huffington Post “Pope Francis, You Had Me at Hello, and Lost Me at Sinner” written by Rea Nolan Martin.  Martin expresses her admiration for Pope Francis with the exception of one thing.   She does not like it when the pope refers to himself as “a sinner.”

“…I ask him to think twice before he identifies himself or really any of us, as sinners first…So if not sinners, then who are we really? We are noble creatures endowed with a wealth of holy spiritual gifts that we are charged to develop and share generously with each other, the animal kingdom and the earth. If we see ourselves that way, maybe we’ll behave that way. Who we tell ourselves we are, matters.”

As a Universalist (Universalists believe in universal salvation) you would probably expect me to agree with this statement.  As a Unitarian Universalist, a partial outsider to the Christian faith, I had good reason to have a fully negative reaction to the entire concept of sin. Growing up in my pre-teen and early teen years in a fairly conservative, largely evangelical, community  the notion of sin was often directed toward people like me.  It took me a long time to find value in the concept of “sin.”

Martin’s article is founded on a number of unquestioned assumptions.  The first is that thinking positively about ourselves is, by definition, a positive and better for us and society.  The second is a dualistic view of our nature as human beings.  Western people, Americans in particular, tend to think of the self as largely separate from society and consistent no matter what the context. It is dualistic, binary.  If you are a sinner you cannot also be a saint.  If you are noble you cannot also be a sinner.

When the pope says he is a sinner, he is not necessarily making “sinner” is his identity.  Saying you are a sinner does not mean you are only a sinner.

My view on sin and the self is this: In our essential nature we are neither saints nor sinners. We are saint-sinners, people who, to put it in Christian theological terms, were created in the image of God, who retain sparks of something divine and who also have the capacity to do terrible wrongs. Being blind to either aspect of our human natures causes problems. Believing you are only noble is as unbalanced, unhealthy and potentially dangerous as believing you are only sinful.  To sin literally means “to fall short.” A sinner is not a category of person. A sinner is any person given the right (wrong) circumstances.

As St. Paul said in Romans, “I do not understand the things I do, for I do the very thing I hate.”

The Gospel of Mark, while not placed first in most Bibles, was the first of the Gospels to be written. When you read the gospels in this order the first thing Jesus is quoted as saying is:

“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” (“The Gospel” here, of course, is not the Bible which didn’t exist yet.  Gospel means “good news.”  Repent and hear the word of God.)

So the first time we hear the voice of Jesus he is saying, “repent.”

This is probably not the first thing liberal religious folk would like to hear him say.  We would like him to open with “Do unto others…” or “What you do to the least of these…”  He says “repent.”

Nowhere does he say, “Feel good about yourself because having good self-esteem makes you a better person.”

The idea that we have one nature– good or bad– leads us to all kinds of crazy behavior in order to bolster and preserve our images of ourselves as the “good people” we want ourselves to be.  The things we do to preserve our self-esteem are not always the healthiest for society.  Just to be clear, I am not saying that self-esteem is bad, I am saying that it should be realistic and based on real behavior and achievement. There is no great moral value in  feeling good about yourself when you have done a wrong.

A few days ago I happen to have been reading the book The Myth of Moral justice by Thane Rosenbaum.  In this critique of the moral dimensions of the legal system, Rosenbaum includes two chapters on apology.  “One of the dirty little secrets of the legal system is that if people could simply learn how to apologize, lawyers and judges would be out of work,” he wrote. “…The healing power of an apology is morally vital, but seldom seen. In his essay in the New York Times, Bill Keller observed how Americans have ‘refined the art of the apologetic-sounding non-apology to near perfection. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.’.. In the United States, apologies are cynically applied, given as an excuse or justification for less than exemplary conduct, and not as sincere gestures of contrition.”

This is overstating the state of affairs in America a bit, and yet there is a ring of truth to it. In a culture that attributes most behaviors to inner qualities and makes them one’s unchanging identity, the stakes are very high to think of yourself as a good person and to get to work explaining away your misdeeds– as much for your own sense of self as for the other person.

Maybe it would not hurt, though, for more secular and liberal religious folk to embrace the language of sin.  I think of that rung on AA’s 12 steps:  the fearless moral inventory.  How often do we allow ourselves to do this?  More often people get to work covering up their faults, making excuses and justifications for them or pointing at other people and telling them to repent.

This past year I did a lot of reading on the life of Lord Alfred Douglas, the poet and lover of Oscar Wilde.  He was one of many of the gay men in Wilde’s circle who converted to Catholicism.  This was initially hard for me to understand.  The Catholic church then, as now, considered sexual activity between males to be a sin. Why would homosexuals be attracted to such a religion?

What was different in Christianity, and Catholicism, then and now was a matter of focus.

The authors of Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes (E. Randolph Richards;Brandon J. O’Brien) explain the cultural shift within the church this way: “…at least since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, majority Western culture insists that sex is always good. Christians naturally desire to resolve the tension. Marriage gives us a way to do that. We can affirm that sex is bad-in the wrong context. We can affirm, too, that God wants us to have a gratifying sex life, albeit in the right context: marriage. In this way we are able to affirm both statements. It could be that American Christians privilege marriage over singleness and celibacy because it eases the tension that exists between traditional Christian and secular views of human sexuality.”

In the 19th Century Catholic church any sexual activity besides reproductive sex (in its most extreme form, even this was limited to the missionary position) was sinful. Those who sinned , whether with their own sex or another were not types of people. There was sin and people transgressed it or did not. Thus the homosexual was not alone in wanting to purge himself of this body and all of its lusts and the pain that came with them. Outside the church walls this was an isolating feeling, inside, it was a collective one.

I am not suggesting that this is the way we should approach “sins of the flesh” now. My point is only that the sense that we are all sinners, that we all fall short, can be unifying.

The question is not whether we sin, but what is “sin” and who gets to define it?  The problem is when people (and these tend to be people who are determined they are the good people) are bold enough to speak for God.  There is a video that Stephen Fry made for Proud2Be which sums this idea up fairly well.  Fry is an atheist and does not use the language of sin, but speaks of “pride” and “shame.”

“Part of life is learning what to be ashamed of and what to be proud of.”

So who are we in our natures? What does it mean to be human?  We are people who strive to be mirrors of the divine.  We are flawed. We fall short. We try to be better. That is beautiful.

Money’s Invisible Influence: The Cases of Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas

There is something strange about money.  The need for it is one of the main drivers in most people’s lives.  With the exception of the incredibly wealthy, a very small minority, people need to do things in order to make a living.  During their lifetimes most working artists struggle constantly to keep money coming in. Yet when we look at the works of artists of the past, money and marketplace concerns tend to fade from the picture.

This is why I enjoyed reading Guy and Small’s Oscar Wilde’s Profession which presented him as a working writer.

“Wilde never formed a permanent association with any theatre or company,” the authors wrote.  “His basic problem, at least during the early part of his career, was that his books did not sell particularly well, and that successive publishers were understandably unwilling to continue to invest in an unsuccessful author. His problems with the theater were more basic: he found plays difficult to write, and some of the refusals he experienced were caused by his constitutional inability to meet contractual deadlines… Moreover, there is evidence that he was happy to tailor publications to the requirements of particular markets; Wilde was remarkably willing to take account of ‘public opinion,’ even if he was not always successful in pleasing it… Most importantly, we confirm the suspicions of some critics and theatre historians that Wilde’s career was substantially shaped by the hands of other professionals, from theatre managers, book designers and publishers to the new phenomenon of the literary agent.”

Although Wilde’s output was shaped by the need to make a living, when readers, biographers and scholars talk about his work, they discuss it as if he was entirely in charge of his literary destiny.  He expressed what he wanted to as a writer and a thinker.  The truth is more complex.  He expressed what he wanted to and was able to as a writer within the context of what was possible in his world both culturally and financially.

Now let’s consider his younger friend Lord Alfred Douglas. There is a common perception that the tragedy of Douglas’s life was that he cheated the world out of his poetry because he became so obsessed with setting the record straight about his relationship with Oscar Wilde. Lord Alfred Douglas wrote four autobiographical works, all of which focused to one degree or another on his ill-fated relationship with the playwright.

Even Douglas’s published correspondence with George Bernard Shaw has an undercurrent of Wilde, but this is partly because they were working on revising an Oscar Wilde biography during the correspondence. All of this creates an impression, especially so many years later, that Douglas never focused on anything else.

Indeed, he did spend a great deal of energy fighting what he saw as misconceptions about this formative experience, and he might have been able to put that energy to better literary use. But the sense that Douglas had no life outside the memory of Wilde is created, in part, by our own focus as an audience.

Douglas didn’t need an insane obsession to inspire him to write about Wilde. He wrote four books that dealt with his relationship with Oscar Wilde for a straightforward reason– it was what the public wanted to hear from him and what he could sell. He was a lord without money. He needed to make a living. These books got more attention than the others he wrote, celebrity memoir always sells better than sonnets.

Although we may encounter them all at once, the various books Douglas wrote about the relationship with Wilde spanned a thirty year period. The first was written when he was in his early forties. The last when he was 70 years old. Over time the poetry faded away, as most poetry does, but the juicy gossip still interests readers.

In his lifetime, Douglas published more than a dozen collections of poetry, satire and nonsense verse and The True History of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. When his writings for publications such as The Academy are counted, he was by any fair reckoning quite prolific.

Oscar Wilde wrote “The Importance of Being Earnest” in an attempt to get some fast cash to fund his expensive habits and to give him enough leisure to produce a serious, edgy work that he thought was more artistic.  (It was never finished.)

Lord Alfred Douglas thought he would be remembered to future generations for his poetry long after the scandals of his life were forgotten.

“A Disreputable Person”

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I’ve been thinking about the expression “disreputable person.”  It has come up in my reading about Lord Alfred Douglas and Oscar Wilde.  After Wilde was released from prison, he wished to be reunited with Alfred Douglas, but when the lawyer for his wife got wind of it they cut off Wilde’s allowance.  A term of his divorce agreement was that she would pay him some support as long as he did not associate with “disreputable persons.”

“I do not deny that Alfred Douglas is a gilded pillar of infamy,” Wilde wrote to his agent, “but I do deny that he can be properly described in a legal document as a disreputable person.”

It struck me what a strange expression this is.  It implies that being “disreputable” is a quality inherent to a person.  In fact, it is other people’s gossip that gives someone a reputation.  The person himself has little control over that. Only the people who accuse and judge have the ability to determine if someone is “disreputable” or not.  By claiming Douglas was a disreputable person, they made him so.  There was only one thing necessary for Douglas to stop being “disreputable” and that was for other people to shut up.

By the way, if you’d like to read some of my past posts where I mused on the words we use try this one about the word “lovers,” this one about the expression “struggling with” and this one about “the lifestyle.”

Oh, and another “by the way,” according to my word press logs, my most popular posts are the ones I’ve done that mention Lord Alfred Douglas.  Not sure why.

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Today’s National Poetry Month Poem

To Olive V

When we were Pleasure’s minions, you and I,
When we mocked grief and held disaster cheap,
And shepherded all joys like willing sheep
That love their shepherd; when a passing sigh
Was all the cloud that flecked our April sky,
I floated on an unimagined deep,
I loved you as a tired child loves sleep,
I lived and laughed and loved, and knew not why.

Now have I known the uttermost rose of love;
The years are very long, but love is longer;
I love you so, I have no time to hate
Even those wolves without.  The great winds move
All their dark batteries to our fragile gate:
The world is very strong, but love is stronger.

-Lord Alfred Douglas

Nakedness and Terror: On Publishing Poetry

Halfway through I discover that April is National Poetry Month.  I thought it appropriate, then, to reprint this guest post Nakedness and Terror which I originally wrote for Parvati K. Tyler.  It appeared on her blog on January 11, 2013.  I still feel naked and terrified about it.  By the way there is a four letter word (with ing at the end) in this article.  If you are offended by such things, skip to another article.

There is a certain nervousness with which people approach a poem, an assumption of horribleness that must be overcome before enjoyment kicks in.  I think this is especially true of poems written by women.  Men, as I see it, have a little more latitude when it comes to writing love poems.   Love poems are dangerous territory for a woman if she doesn’t want to be written off as sounding like a lovesick teenage girl.

There is little that is quite as humiliating to contemplate as the notion of being exposed as a bad poet.  The fear of humiliation extends to readers as well.  No one wants it to be known that she loves a poem that those in the know, the ones with English degrees, think is appalling.  Loving bad poetry can put you into the lovesick teenage girl category too.

Ode to a Minor Poet

O, minor poet,
In the dusty journal beside T.S. Eliot,
I have never heard your name.
I don’t know if scholars respect you
Should I open myself to you, O author long gone?
Might I discover I have fallen in love
With someone unworthy?
Forgive me, O ancient bard,
That I don’t trust my soul.

That is one of mine.

Poetry has never earned money for its writers and it has often had to be put out in flimsy chapbooks, by vanity presses and in tiny print runs funded by single admirers (sometimes by poet’s lovers).  This makes them automatically suspect.

If you’re working outside the supportive environment of academia, it is hard to know how your works might be ranked in the official scheme of things.  I write, generally, in free verse, which means that I have a certain doubt when I have finished that it is even a poem I have written.  Every one is a leap of faith.

I have admiration for those who master rigid forms and find creativity from constraints.  I just can’t do it.  It makes me want to tear my hair out when I have what seems the perfect combination of sound and thought and I cannot use it because of a poem’s convention.

Compare and contrast:

Sonnet on the Sonnet

To see the moment holds a madrigal,
To find some cloistered place, some hermitage
For free devices, some deliberate cage
Wherein to keep wild thoughts like birds in thrall;
To eat sweet honey and to taste black gall,
To fight with form, to wrestle and to rage,
Till at the last upon the conquered page
The shadows of created Beauty fall.

This is the sonnet, this is all delight
Of every flower that blows in every Spring,
And all desire of every desert place;
This is the joy that fills a cloudy night
When bursting from her misty following,
A perfect moon wins to an empty space.

-Lord Alfred Douglas

This is what it sounds like when I try to express the same sentiment in sonnet form:

My Sonnet

It’s fucking hard to write a sonnet
Rhyme scheme A and Rhyme scheme B.
How can this so fully stump me?
I will get this damn thing done yet.
I will take that poet’s bet.
That old Italian shan’t defeat me.
I have a rhyming dictionary
Dinette, hair net, Yes  Regret!

How can I write a classic form
When I never learned it in school?
Nor Latin, myths nor classic Greek?
The masters make my heart go warm,
Yet when I write, my pen goes cool.
You must build on bedrock in order to speak.

It’s not in pentameter because I suck.

So I don’t write these.  I revel in the luxury of not writing sonnets.

This, incidentally,  is my favorite limerick.  (Author unknown)

There once was a man from Japan
who wrote verse that never would scan.
When they said that the thing
didn’t go with the swing
he said, “Yes, but I always like to fit as many words into the last line as I possibly can.”

The themes of poems are often highly personal.  They invite readers to glimpse the poet’s view of the world without the comforting mediation of a fictional character to provide plausible deniability.  Publishing a poem is like running into a public space joyful and naked and shouting, “This is me!”  Most people offer blank, indifferent stares and then there are one or two who say, “You know, you could stand to lose a few pounds.”

I don’t have to publish poetry.  I am a reasonably accomplished author.  I’ve written more than a dozen highly commercial non-fiction books, a children’s book, and a novel that, although it has sold abysmally, has been very well reviewed.  I don’t have anything to prove.  I don’t have to risk literary humiliation by doing something as foolish as putting out a self-published book of poetry.  So why would I chose to?

It’s a form of madness.  I hope it means something.