The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” is a mock ballad of nine quatrains. As the title indicates, the narrative recounts the arrest of the Irish writer and aesthete Oscar Wilde on April 6, 1895, on various charges of indecency. Wilde was convicted and jailed for two years.

John Betjeman had developed an early interest in Wilde, his lifestyle, and his theories of art. At Marlborough school, as a teenager, Betjeman had read of the Wildean theme that there can be no morality in art. Wilde, as spokesman for the aesthetic school (he was the so-called apostle of beauty), voiced views compatible with those of Betjeman, who flaunted his own dilettantism and anti-athletics position while at the University of Oxford.

The circumstances of Wilde’s arrest were, for the most part, as Betjeman depicts them in the poem. Betjeman’s account echoes particulars from the news accounts of the event. The first two stanzas describe Wilde as he awaits the pending arrest, although he has been forewarned by friends, who had urged him to flee the country. Here at the Cadogan, a place of highest respectability in Sloane Street, Wilde faces the ignominy of arrest, sipping Rhine wine and gazing through lace curtains at the “London skies.”

The next four stanzas, reproducing Wilde’s dialogue, reveal his immediate needs and concerns and, more important, his mental state. He requests additional wine from his close friend Robert Ross, pleads with Robbie for some understanding of the situation, and acknowledges Robbie’s gift of the latest issue of The Yellow Book, the periodical of the aesthetic movement.

Furthermore, he voices his displeasure with what he perceives to be cretinlike service by the hotel personnel. He laments that neither of two lambskin coats is here, and orders that his leather suitcase be brought around later. In the seventh stanza, a thumping at the door, accompanied by a murmuring of voices, causes Wilde to complain of such din. Two plainclothes policemen enter. In the next quatrain, one of the policemen asks Wilde to accompany them quietly as they leave the Cadogan for the police station. The poem closes as Wilde rises, puts down The Yellow Book, staggers to the staircase, and is helped to the horse-drawn cab outside. He is described as being “terrible-eyed.”