Thursday, 30 January 2014


I read that Reading gaol - where Oscar Wilde served most of his dreadful sentence of two years' hard labour for 'gross indecency' - is to be closed, having reached the end of its 170-year life. But first, amateur photographers were let in to take some pictures, including photographs of the cell in which Oscar was held. You can read about it, and see the resulting images, here...
  No one really knows what drove the suicidal bravado that landed Wilde in gaol, having turned down all sound advice and all offers of an escape route - it would have been easy, even at the eleventh hour, to take the next steam packet to Dieppe and live out his life in comfortable exile. But no - Reading gaol it was, an experience that effectively broke him, even if his invincible spirits appeared to bounce back as soon as he was a free man again. The literary products of his incarceration were the painful long letter to 'Bosie', De Profundis, and the mawkish long poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol (no, Oscar, each man does not kill the thing he loves). But the occasion of Wilde's arrest inspired what is certainly one of John Betjeman's best poems...

The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel

He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
As he gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
Or was it his bees-winged eyes?

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed,

“I want some more hock in my seltzer,
And Robbie, please give me your hand —
Is this the end or beginning?
How can I understand?

“So you’ve brought me the latest Yellow Book:
And Buchan has got in it now:
Approval of what is approved of
Is as false as a well-kept vow.

“More hock, Robbie — where is the seltzer?
Dear boy, pull again at the bell!
They are all little better than cretins,
Though this is the Cadogan Hotel.

“One astrakhan coat is at Willis’s —
Another one’s at the Savoy:
Do fetch my morocco portmanteau,
And bring them on later, dear boy.”

A thump, and a murmur of voices —
(”Oh why must they make such a din?”)
As the door of the bedroom swung open

“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

He rose, and he put down The Yellow Book.
He staggered — and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the plants on the staircase
And was helped to a hansom outside.

 The switch of mood in the final stanza is brilliantly done, I think. 'Terrible-eyed' does it. Wilde's 'bees-winged eyes' in the first stanza, by the way, are the veinous, gauzy eyes of a heavy drinker. 

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