Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 407
With its mixture of melodrama, farce, and tragedy, the poem projects an ambiguity that implies a moral neutrality. On the one hand, the piece is pure artistic self-indulgence—the work of a clever craftsman parading that cleverness. On the other hand, the poem evokes a sense of poignancy with its carefully crafted realistic detail and vivid depiction of what in all likelihood happened when Wilde was arrested.
That same kind of ambiguity prevails in terms of Betjeman’s own attitudes about the aesthetic movement of which Wilde was so central a part. Betjeman wrote the poem while he was at Oxford, where he deliberately and openly cultivated a public profile laden with aestheticism. The poem, however, seems to run counter to that image. Much of his portrait of Wilde in the ballad is ironically negative—basically comic with hints of the absurd. In addition, the portrayals of both Wilde and the policeman border on the stereotypical.
The duality in Betjeman’s recounting of Wilde’s arrest is reflective of the emotional state of the central figure in the ballad. Warned of the pending arrest, Wilde seems Hamlet-like, torn between flight and standing his ground—fortified both by aesthetic precepts and, maybe, a vision of himself making one more, perhaps final, grand gesture befitting the “apostle of beauty.”
The poem in its dialectical playoff between Wilde and the policeman matches two forces: the voice of individuality, even eccentricity, against the voice of civil authority—communal conformity. In another sense, it is the clash of art and the law, the artist and society. Betjeman’s use of the palms image in the closing stanza makes a nod toward this point. As Wilde leaves the Cadogan Hotel, he brushes “past the palms on the staircase.” The palms are emblematic of the world Wilde is leaving—the artist is being extracted from his aesthetic domain—assisted, indeed, marshalled from it on the arm of societal order.
For all of its farcical, absurd surface, the poem’s undercurrent carries within it something hauntingly autobiographical. Betjeman was born into a wealthy family headed by a strong-willed father who wanted his son, an only child, to follow in his footsteps. Betjeman, who heard the call of the muse early in his life, struggled long and determinedly to practice his vocation against the paternally voiced pressures of the commercial world. Among Betjeman’s best poems are those defending individuality against the crushing power of conformity.
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