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.

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”


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.


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.

That Which is the Man Left Unrecorded

img_5085After Oscar Wilde was released from prison, he lamented the loss of his library, and relied on friends to give him books as gifts.  His friend Vincent O’Sullivan gave him a copy of Baudelaire’s letters, but Wilde didn’t like them: “They are all about publishers and money.  His real self was in his poetry.”

The same could be said for Oscar Wilde’s Complete Letters, which I also finished reading recently.  Most of the writer’s correspondence was taken up with quite mundane and often depressingly familiar matters for anyone trying to make a literary living.

Was Wilde’s real life made up of his writings and the dramatic episodes have become part of his mythology or was his real life the one that is too dull to read about?

To get an idea of what he might have thought was his “essence” here is an excerpt of Wilde reviewing a biography of Coleridge.  This from the article Great Writers by Little Men from the Pall Mall Gazette March 28, 1877.

“The real events of Coleridge’s life are not his gig excursions and his walking tours; they are his thoughts, dreams and passions, his moments of creative impulse, their source and secret, his moods of imaginative joy, their marvel and their meaning, and not his moods merely but the music and the melancholy that they brought him; the lyric loveliness of his voice when he sang, the sterile sorrow of the years when he was silent. It is said that every man’s life is a Soul’s Tragedy. Coleridge’s certainly was so, and though we may not be able to pluck out the heart of his mystery, still let us recognize that mystery is there; and that the goings-out and comings-in of a man, his places of sojourn and his roads of travel are but idle things to chronicle, if that which is the man be left unrecorded.”

I have been reading a lot of biographies lately, mostly of Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas.  They have left me wondering if “that which is the man” can ever be captured in a biography.

In life you never experience a person the way you do in a biography.  You never get an overview of a whole life– the same person in his context as a worker, a family man, a lover, a friend, a debtor, in all of his moods: when he is up, when he is down.  You have impressions of people.  You know parts of them.  A biographer tries to harmonize all of the impressions he or she can collect from people who caught these glimpses, who knew the person in part.

Who has the truth? Is the opinion of a person who dislikes you, colored by the memory of a bad experience less “true” than the memory of the person who was delighted by you? Is the truth the middle ground of these two poles or are you actually both things at the same time– a thoughtless person and a thoughtful person, depending on the context?

A biographer has the question of memory to contend with, of course.  As I learned when I was writing the book Arlo, Alice and Anglicans, if you interview one person about an event from the past you know what happened.  If you interview two you start to doubt and once you’ve interviewed five you no longer have any idea what went down.

After Oscar Wilde died, a number of friends from his circle of poets and writers put out biographies, and many of them spent years arguing with one another about the truth of their accounts.  I suspect that “true” and “not true” is not quite the right way to look at these early biographies written by Wilde’s contemporaries.   I would rather say that each of them tried in his own way to capture “that which was the man” based on what he was able to glimpse, what Wilde was willing to show him.

Numerous biographers have said that Wilde’s real talent in conversation was not that he could hold forth on any topic, but that he brought out the other people in a conversation.  He was interested in the topics that interested them.  His wife called him “a great actor.”  Reading the Complete Letters it becomes clear that he often had edited versions of the truth for different friends.

In particular, Wilde tried to downplay his interest in reuniting with Lord Alfred Douglas in his letters to his literary executor Robert Ross who would go on to assist many of the early biographers.  Ross believed that Douglas had always been the pursuer, because this was the impression Wilde wanted to give him.  He told the truth about what he knew.  It happens to have been quite different from Lord Alfred Douglas’s truth, because Douglas knew what Ross could not:  That at the same time Wilde was writing to Ross about how Douglas was bothering him with letters and requests to meet, Wilde was encouraging him, and could not resist writing to Douglas every day and expressing his love, as some of he few surviving letters between Wilde and Douglas testify.

(The fact that few letters between Wilde and Douglas have survived skews the picture of the Wilde/Douglas relationship for present day of biographers of both men. Douglas burned about 150 letters of Wilde’s.  I suspect that if they survived, they would be full of Wilde’s thoughts on art, books he thought Douglas should read, and a lot of every day observations along with the at that time incriminating articulation of romantic feeling.)

“[Wilde] had all the gifts necessary: an imposing presence, a pleasant voice, a control of language, charm, and an extraordinary tact in choosing subjects which would suit his listeners, and in judging his effects,” O’Sullivan wrote. “He did not try to enforce his moods; he gave the impression of adapting himself to the moods of others.”

He was a different Wilde to different people (as we all are to some extent).  This means that when one biographer tells his truth he belies someone else’s memory.

Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde’s “intimate friend,” spent the better part of his life writing responses to other people’s versions of the story of his life with Oscar Wilde.   He even wrote one biography that he later came to repudiate entirely.  Oscar Wilde and Myself was written (largely ghost written) at a time when Douglas felt great bitterness about Wilde’s prison letter De Profundis and the prison-tainted version of their story it presented. So you have the strange spectacle of Douglas arguing against his own biography of another biography.  Because of his changing moods, memories and versions of the history, many people consider him to be at best unreliable, at worst a damned liar.

Is it reasonable to expect that Douglas could give a “true” account of what his relationship with Wilde had been? Was he ever really in a position to formulate some kind of overriding “truth” about that?  Was his mellowed perspective of the later years the most true?  Or was his anger the truth?  Did they love each other as they did in their most passionate moments, or hate each other as they did in their most combative, did they bore one another as no doubt they did from time to time? What did they want their future to be? Surely that changed from day to day, mood to mood.

The 1997 edition of Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde was published with an introduction by Merlin Holland.  Harris’s early Wilde biography has long been considered unreliable and largely made up.  Holland suggests that besides Harris’s literary style, which bolsters his own importance, and his habit of telling the story by inventing direct quotes, the picture Harris paints is essentially truthful.  “His sin would appear to be embellishment rather than outright fabrication.”

Lord Alfred Douglas hated Harris’s biography.  He fought to keep it from being published in England, and he worked with Harris and later George Bernard Shaw as the writers tried to come up with a version Douglas would find satisfactory.

Holland considers Douglas’s attempts to get the Harris book edited in his favor “devious” and underhanded.  I don’t believe this is fair. I believe Douglas felt his version of the past was the truth.  He was not trying to cheat, he was, from his perspective, trying to get justice.

One particular incident in the book offended Douglas the most.  Shaw could not understand why Douglas objected to it.  Shaw was certain (though he had not been there) that the facts of the episode Harris recounted had to be essentially what happened.  Even though they had opposite positions on the scene, I believe that both Shaw and Douglas were right about it.  It happened, but it is still not true.

To make it as simple as possible, Douglas and Wilde had a falling out over money and both complained to Harris about it.  The basic recounting of this is probably not that far from what happened.  On the other hand, his direct quotes of what Wilde, Douglas and he said were “embellished.”  Only a few surface details and matters of interpretation are added.  Embellishments?  Or does it fundamentally change the meaning of the events?

If you’ve ever had an argument with someone and heard them say “All I said was” and repeat the same words in a new tone you will have an understanding of how reported events can be true, and the overall effect can still be a lie.  As it appears in the book, Wilde generally says kind things about Douglas, and comes across as entirely reasonable, while Douglas says fairly horrible things, and comes across as unreasonable.  Harris also contextualizes the argument so it is framed with what had to be his own point of view (which he attributes to Wilde)– that Douglas, as an English Lord, could always get more money.

The events become part of a narrative about sweet Oscar Wilde, who was utterly reasonable to request a small thing from a spoiled rich Lord.  Harris didn’t much like Douglas, and this was no doubt the truth as he saw it.   It was a complete smear as far as Douglas was concerned.  This was what Douglas found objectionable– the tone, not the song.

More than a century later, it hardly matters who was right and who was wrong, who was reasonable and who was not.  Unless, that is, you want to use the episode as a metaphor for a bigger point you want to make about someone’s character.

If I could sit down with Oscar Wilde and ask him myself what he thought the meaning of his life had been, would he have an answer?  And would it be the same one he would give if you asked him a week later?

In spite of all of the biographies of Wilde available today, I still have the feeling that “that which was the man” has been left unrecorded and that is the only way it can possibly be.

The Cry of a Living Soul: Literary Quote of the Day

“Dear Childe Alfred, The preface is all right. It has your extraordinary quality of being what Shakespeare called unpoliced. Every sentence I write is policed to the last comma; but what you write is the cry of a living soul, with the result that people wonder what is behind my writing and must sometimes doubt– I do myself occasionally–whether there is anything behind it. They know you and love or hate you as the case may be; but they cannot make me out clearly enough for that. I am an invented, histrionic figure, mostly quite impossible; but you are a human being for them.”

-Gorge Bernard Shaw to Lord Alfred Douglas, 1942

Comedy and Tragedy


Someone really ought to tell the life story of Lord Alfred Douglas as a comedy.  The poet is remembered as a player in that grand drama, the downfall of Oscar Wilde.  It would be a dark comedy, of course, comedy and tragedy are closely linked.  I have been reading some contemporary newspaper accounts of the Lord’s life following Wilde’s imprisonment and it is tremendously entertaining.  We find Lord Alfred, an aristocrat just a bit out of his time, living in the dawning of the best age to be an English Lord.  He struts into every story, impeccably dressed, sometimes in a top hat.  Justices address him as “your lordship” while telling him off for believing himself to be above court rules.  He is haughty, entitled, sharp tongued when angered, and perfectly well mannered and charming when he is not.  So often, when reading contemporary accounts of him, one cannot help but laugh.

His life was full of the most insane episodes.  His marriage was reported this way:


Then there was the time in 1907, as editor of a literary journal called The Academy, he managed to offend the American literary establishment by implying– well, saying really, he was not the type to make subtle implications– that the United States had no literary taste.  This led to a flurry of rebuttal articles on this side of the Atlantic.

top hatAn article from The Atlanta Constitution July 7, 1907 has the blaring headline: “Titled English Editor Sneers at American Literary Tastes.”

The article describes The Academy prior to Douglas’s arrival as a journal with “an unblemished record of respectability and dullness.”  It goes on to pillory Douglas for daring to act as a moralizer given his rather dubious history.:

“Lord Alfred enjoys the unassailable position of the man who has no reputation to lose.  He can’t hurt himself by anything he says or writes.”

There was the time, in 1909, when he appeared in court to bring charges against a “turf agent” who had assaulted his lordship in his office “by kicking him on the legs.”  The issue at hand was an unpaid gambling debt.

Prisoner: “He owed £25 for six months. I sent the account for thirteen weeks to his club-White’s Club-where he went for the cheque when he won. When he lost, he never went there for the losing account”

Lord Alfred Douglas: “I paid him before I had this bet, and he said he would accept further commissions.”

Prisoner: “True-after thirteen applications. On the fourteenth week he backed a winner, and he then left off,and applied for his cheque.  I pointed out that he had kept me waiting thirteen weeks for my money.”

Lord Alfred Douglas: “I told him I had been frightfully busy, and had not been to the club.”

Prisoner : “No, he doesn’t go there when he has a losing account… I tried for thirteen weeks to collect £25 from this so-called swell.”

Much later a newspaper printed Douglas’s obituary summing up his life essentially by saying that he had squandered his good name and would be remembered, if at all, for nothing but scandal.  The only problem was Douglas wasn’t quite dead yet.  Instead of issuing a big, fat apology, the newspaper decided to plead justification.  That is, “OK, so you’re not really dead.  Our bad.  But we stand by our assessment that you’ve lead a lousy life and should be quickly forgotten after you die. Have a nice day.”

Finally I came to an interview with his lordship as he was promoting his soon to be released book Oscar Wilde and Myself.  The large feature assured readers that the truth about Douglas’s relationship with Wilde would be told for the first time!  Oops.  Oscar Wilde and Myself, largely ghostwritten, was the product of a period in which Douglas felt betrayed by Wilde.  This came after he had sued an author for libel over a biography of Wilde that painted him in a negative light.  The author had claimed that Douglas had been responsible for Wilde’s downfall and that the younger man had abandoned the playwright after he was released from prison.   In court, the defense produced the full text of Wilde’s prison letter, now known as “De Profundis.”  It was the first time Douglas had heard his former lover’s painful criticisms of him.  This episode led to a brief period in which a wounded Douglas hated Wilde.  It was in this state that Oscar Wilde was written.  The book was not only rough and angry in its treatment of Wilde, it was full of lies. Its author would later say that he regretted it had ever been written.

“Lord Alfred has been mixed up in one litigation another—generally in connection with the Wilde scandal and one confidently expected to find him an embodiment of fussiness and petulance with the most insecurely balanced chip on his shoulder.  He proved however, to be just a tall, clean-shaven, well-dressed, pink-skinned, simple and good-humored ‘ boy,’ who looks the runner and skillful : horseman that  he was before he took to literary work and who generally gives the impression of having lived  out-of doors most of his life and of having less than his share of the worries of this existence… Lord Alfred s forthcoming book will not be a confession, he declares that he has nothing to confess. ‘When
questioned as to his motive, after so many years of silence, of at last making public the story of his association with Wilde, he lost his expression of tolerant good humor, and there -was a hard look in his eyes and bitterness in his tone as he replied: ‘To clear my name.”

Douglas insisted that he had known nothing of Wilde’s proclivities and would not have approved had he known.  The two were good friends who collaborated as fellow writers.

This version of the “facts” served two purposes.   The first, of course, was that at the time Douglas could not admit to having engaged in any homosexual activities himself.  But the lie served a second purpose.  One of the great accusations against Douglas was that he had abandoned Oscar Wilde after the latter left prison.  (Which was, in any case, not true)

This charge may have offended him more than any other.  As I read the interview about his later discredited book,  I wondered what it would mean if this version of things had been true, if Douglas had only been Wilde’s good friend, student and fellow writer.  If you imagine this to be true, a certain expectation vanishes about Douglas’s post-prison responsibility to care for his friend.  As a purely platonic friend, you would expect kindness and visits, if such a friend chose to support him and help him financially it would be a plus, but the idea that he would have any moral obligation to be sure Wilde was cared for the rest of his years would vanish.   That is beyond what would be expected of a simple friendship.

Which leads me to this:  The attitude of outrage towards Lord Alfred Douglas for abandoning Wilde depends on the premise that the men were lovers.  What interests me about this the most is that the very society that would call such a union perverse and do everything in its power to separate and condemn them also seemed to paradoxically expect that two such men would have the same obligations to one another as other couples.  It was an abomination if they stayed together and an affront if they abandoned one another.

That is a crazy tightrope to have to walk.  A farce really.  Someone ought to tell Lord Alfred Douglas’s story as a comedy.