The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel

by John Betjeman
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The Poem

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 380

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“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.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 479

Typical of the ballad form, much of the action is developed through dialogue. Four stanzas plus one additional line (in parentheses) re-create Wilde’s conversation. One stanza reproduces the policeman’s statement of arrest—rendered in a dialect clearly less cultured than Wilde’s. The speech of each—in content and manner—is antithetical to that of the other. Wilde exudes social status; the policeman acknowledges and bends to that status as he asks Wilde “tew leave with us quoietly/ For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

The effect is reminiscent of Robert Browning’s dialectics. Wilde’s dialogue reveals a “soul in action” that is at least suggestive of those in Browning’s dramatic monologues. Betjeman’s poem also calls to mind the sixteenth century broadside ballads. Betjeman demonstrates here, as in so many of his poems, his fascination with particulars—details that capture the essence of a person or the atmosphere of a place. Betjeman’s poem, in one sense, is a “period” piece—with its fastidious cataloging of turn-of-the-century details: hock and seltzer, Nottingham lace, The Yellow Book, the astrakhan coat, the morocco portmanteau, and a hansom.

Most of these period phrases are voiced by Wilde, however, so the effect may be more to characterize Wilde and his mind-set than to create a period piece. The same holds for the Wildean epigram in the fourth stanza: “Approval of what is approved of/ Is as false as a well-kept vow.” Then, too, the subtitle of the collection in which this poem first appeared is “A Little Book of Bourgeois Verse.” Its typography was highly stylized, and it had an ornate cover with imitation gilt-clasps.

Two striking details—especially in their stark contrast—are those describing Wilde’s eyes. In the opening stanza, Wilde gazes “Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains/ Or was it his bees-winged eyes?” “Bees-winged” refers to the gauzy film that forms on old wine. It is as if his vision is hindered by his consumption of hock and seltzer, or perhaps his awareness is blurred by (or filtered through) aesthetics-tempered lenses. In the closing stanza, as Wilde staggers to the hansom cab, assisted by others, he is described as “terrible-eyed.” Is he beginning to see through the haze of his temporal mind-set? Perhaps the description is an implicit answer to the question Wilde addressed to his friend Robert Ross in the third stanza: “Is this the end or beginning?/ How can I understand?”

Betjeman, who was interested in the typography of both the landscape and printing, employs a striking typographical design to heighten the dramatic and abrupt arrival of the police. Wilde’s response to the pounding at the door is set in parentheses: “(‘Oh why must they make such a din?’).” The intrusion of the police is boldly stated: “And Two Plain Clothes POLICEMEN came in.” In its excess the technique is farcical.