Oscar Wilde

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.

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.


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.

WWW Wednesdays: The W is for Wilde.

ImageIt is time for WWW Wednesdays hosted by Should Be Reading (and indeed you should).

To play along, just answer the following three (3) questions…

• What are you currently reading?
• What did you recently finish reading?
• What do you think you’ll read next?

ImageWhat am I reading?

I am very much enjoying Josephine Guy and Ian Small’s Studying Oscar Wilde: History, Criticism and Myth.  I identify very much with the figure of Wilde these authors present– Wilde the writer as opposed to Wilde the mythical figure.  Between this book and the book by the same authors that I will mention next Wilde emerges as someone who was successful at branding himself as a social figure but less successful, until his society comedies became relative hits, at branding himself in the literary world.  His work was too eclectic, and he straddled the worlds of popular fiction and elite artistry for the highly educated.  He was a working writer, looking to make a living, writing in any genre that paid.  Although Dorian Gray is now thought of as a classic, the book edition did not sell well.  Publishers didn’t know what to make of him, and didn’t see him as particularly bankable.  (I am an un-marketably eclectic writer myself and I sympathize with this.)

What Did I Recently Finish Reading? 

ImageI just finished this insanely green book.  Oscar Wilde’s Profession, by the same authors.  It covers a lot of the same territory but is more academic and less for a general readership.

9780375703683What do I think I’ll read next?

I’m very excited that my copy of The Decline and Fall of The British Aristocracy by David Cannadine has come in through inter-library loan.  You can read the New York Times review here, if you like.

Teaser Tuesdays: The Uncollected Oscar Wilde

ImageIt seems that Tuesday has come again.  And so I will pick up the book that is nearest to my left hand and tell you a bit about it.  Here’s how Teaser Tuesdays works:

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along! Just do the following:

• Grab your current read
• Open to a random page
• Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
• BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
• Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!

Today I was reading The Uncollected Oscar Wilde edited by John Wyse Jackson.Image

The selection is from a lecture to art students delivered in June 1883.

“To begin with, such an expression as English art is a meaningless expression.  One might just as well talk of English mathematics.”

If you would like a couple of bonus lines (the conclusion of this paragraph):

“Nor is there any such thing as a school of art even.  There are merely artists, that is all.”

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.

Things Forgotten and the Personal Lives of Poets

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.


There is a time in the grieving process when you begin to heal.  You return to life and happiness.  Days go by, then a week, when you have not thought about the lost one.  And then, from time to time, you’re pulled back.  You remember that you have forgotten.  You feel a twinge of guilt for feeling so well.  Could it be so easy to survive without someone who had once been so important?  But you go on living, and healing, as nature intended, as it was supposed to be.


Recently I came across a CD of the poems of Lord Alfred Douglas recited by Lord Gawain Douglas, who has been highly active in trying to restore the literary reputation of his great uncle.  He has an uphill battle.  Not because the poems are mediocre, but because of the march of time and things that refuse to be forgotten.


There is, of course, the inherently quixotic nature of trying to restore the reputation of a poet in an era when poets do not have reputations.


There is also the not-so-small question of changing tastes in poetry.  The formal forms that Alfred Douglas championed are not the favorites of young people today.


But these problems pale in comparison to another problem.  The life of Lord Alfred Douglas is just so darned distracting.  He will always be best known as the “intimate friend” of Oscar Wilde.  The addressee of Wilde’s prison letter De Profundis, the character around whom the trial that sent the playwright to jail swirled. Whether you detest Alfred Douglas, as many do, or you are sympathetic to him (probably with certain reservations), chances are you will read his poems with the Wilde affair in mind.


That is not how poetry is meant to be read.  Poems should touch on universal themes.  We don’t read poems in order to discover their authors, but to discover ourselves.


The poem I included at the beginning of this post is about the mourning process, but knowing that it was written by Lord Alfred Douglas after the death of his lover Oscar Wilde means that it inevitably will be read biographically.

A “Destructive” Love Affair: Empathy for Lord Alfred Douglas

ImageLately I find I am  fascinated by Lord Alfred Douglas.  (This may be the only thing I will ever have in common with Oscar Wilde.)

It began when I read his correspondence with George Bernard Shaw.  Douglas was in his 60s at the time, his beauty faded, his infamous temper cooled a bit.  Yet I have rarely encountered a personality that asserts itself with such force from beyond the grave.

Bosie (as he was called) has a Peter Pan quality which Shaw dubs his “infantile complex,” a term that Bosie embraced.

He has tantrums, he flatters, he is vain and easily hurt, he begs to be loved and appreciated as much as he appreciates his own worth.  Although he is self-aggrandizing, he is also witty and self-aware.  He has a sense of humor about his prodigious character flaws.

What I loved most about the correspondence between the far right Douglas and the far left Shaw is that it is a story you don’t hear much these days, the story of two people who disagree on everything and who continue to hold great affection for one another.  I found the correspondence to be uplifting for this reason.

Recently I was driving, and in front of me was an SUV covered in bumper stickers espousing the opposite of everything I believe to be moral and good.  My first thought was “I hate that person.”  After a moment’s reflection I realized that I probably would really like the person if I met him.  There are a lot of people who I love who have views that oppose my own.

Arlo Guthrie put it this way: “I came out of that whole time (the 1960s) thinking I’d only met two kinds of people, that’s people who give a damn and people that don’t.  And the truth is you could find both of those kinds of people on every side of every issue, and in the long run I thought you might even have more in common with people who care about stuff than you have with people who side with you on an issue or two as they’re going through time.”

Douglas and Shaw were two people who were bonded in affection as a pair of souls who gave a damn about stuff.

Without falling into complete fuzzy moral relativism, the triumph of love over ideology is an important and compelling story, as compelling as the triumph of the right over the wrong.  If we were reminded of this more often, maybe the world would be a better place.

After I wolfed down the Shaw/Douglas book like a bag of cookies, I wanted to know more about Bosie.  As I read more I found myself in a love/hate relationship with him.  There are sides of him that are distasteful and sides that are noble, romantic and beautiful.  He seems to be everything at once and all of it in the extreme.

He had a fierce judgmental streak which is easier to recognize when he is arguing from the conservative side, but it was always there even in his youth when he was proclaiming, to the extent that Victorian society allowed, the beauty of same sex love and carnal pleasure.

His most notable flaws are his vanity and arrogance.  It was easy to get on his good side, just complement his poetry and he would be impressed by your wisdom.  I can’t tell you why, but I find his arrogance amusing and charming.

In his day, there were those who detested Oscar Wilde for his pretension, vanity and arrogance.  We love him for saying “I have nothing to declare but my genius.”

Bosie does not get off so easy.

Wilde must have had a certain wink, a certain tone, that made these boasts seem charming.  Contemporary accounts before the trial that brought Wilde down seem to suggest that Bosie had a similar vain charm.  Many people describe them as being mirror images of each other.

This is from The Green Carnation, a novel that satirized Bosie as Lord Reggie and Wilde as Mr. Amarinth:

“I want you to tell me which is original, Mr. Amarinth or Lord Reggie?” “Oh! they both are.” “No, they are too much alike. When we meet with the Tweedledum and Tweedledee in mind, one of them is always a copy, an echo of the other.” “Do you think so? Well, of course Mr. Amarinth has been original longer than Lord Reggie, because he is nearly twenty years older.”

Together the two men partook of the illicit pleasures of London’s seamy underworld of male prostitutes. If it was Douglas who introduced Wilde to this risky pass time, there is no reason to suppose Wilde went kicking and screaming.

Wilde often wrote about how he wanted to experience everything in life, that all experiences were material for his art.  If Bosie was more reckless and bold (all evidence suggests he was, as he was protected by his social class) that had to be a big part of the attraction.

I have to admit that the more I read, the more of a love/hate relationship I have with Oscar Wilde as well.  His character flaws are dismissed much more easily because of his literary ability.  Every artist may be driven, on some level, to become appreciated enough for his art that his sins are forgiven in time.

In case you are not familiar with what happened to Oscar Wilde, here is a quick summation.  Lord Alfred Douglas’s father was known for his violent temper and his vindictiveness.  He was so incensed at the relationship between his son and Oscar Wilde, who had long been whispered to be a sodomite, that he made it his mission to keep Bosie away from the playwright.  He basically stalked Wilde and his son until Wilde made the disastrous decision to sue him for libel for calling him a sodomite, something that in this time was considered a horrible crime punishable by a long prison term.  It seems obvious in retrospect that it was insane to sue him for libel over something that was true.  But this was the only thing they thought would get him to leave them alone, and they seem to have believed that Wilde’s wit and charm could win over any jury and that social class would protect them.  Nothing could be proven about Douglas and Wilde’s relationship and the prostitutes were without power and status and speaking about what they did would implicate themselves.  They counted on a code of silence, and underestimated Bosie’s father’s determination to turn up evidence.  The Douglas family squabble set this all in motion, but Wilde was not imprisoned for his relationship with Bosie but for his activities with prostitutes.

People always describe the relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas as a “destructive love affair.”  The implication is that the love affair itself was at fault.  That it was Wilde’s weakness for his young lover, an obsession, that led him into this snare.  I don’t believe this is a fair way of looking at things.

It is certainly possible to believe that Bosie was not a good match for Wilde and that he could have done much better for himself.  They fought and broke up and came back together time and time again, but many couples relate this way.

It would have been the easiest thing in the world for Wilde to say, “Your father is making my life hell and this relationship is not worth it.”  He wasn’t willing to do that.  Through all sorts of external pressure and private conflicts of their own, they were determined to stick together.  With Oscar Wilde and Bosie Douglas we call this destructive obsession.  Yet in a straight couple wouldn’t we call it something else?  Wouldn’t we call that commitment?