The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel Themes

John Betjeman

Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 407 words.)