I was lecturing on Oscar Wilde recently and was reminded of this poem by Sir John Betjeman.
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
And TWO PLAIN CLOTHES POLICEMEN came in:
“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 poem was written in 1937.
In April 1895 London was fascinated and shocked by the trial where Oscar Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensberry (father of Bosie, Oscar’s lover) for libel. There was so much evidence against him that Wilde had to drop the prosecution and the Marquess was acquitted. Oscar had to pay the expenses, which left him bankrupt, but more importantly he was in danger of arrest. In fact, as he left the court, a warrant for his arrest was applied for on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. Wilde did have time to catch the boat train to France, where he could have lived out his life comfortably and safely. However, the man who had accepted all the good that society could give him, now felt he also had to accept the bad. He went to the Cadogan Hotel and dithered there, with his friend Robert Ross. Soon police arrived, he was arrested, and of course after another trial he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour. The Cadogan Hotel was built in 1887 and was a new building when Wilde was arrested there, in Room 118, on 6th April, 1895.
Betjeman had long been fascinated by Wilde and his aesthetic theories. His poem depicts this crucial moment in Wilde’s life as he sips wine and looks at The Yellow Book (the magazine of the aesthetic movement). His mental state is clearly revealed – he complains of the hotel service, orders that his suitcase be brought round, and worries about where his coats are.
The poem is an ambiguous one. There is a sense of poignancy, and yet much of the depiction of Wilde is ironically negative. At first the poem appears to assassinate his character, but by subtle implication it ends by condemning a society that could hold a man like Wilde up to public shame and punishment (it is important to note that the policemen come in plain clothes, so that the hotel reputation might not be damaged, or its wealthy clientele offended, and that they ask him to leave quietly so that nobody is disturbed). Betjeman makes his reader aware of the oppression of the individual by society and the hypocrisy of a society that can try to hide what it deems ‘nasty’ or ‘criminal’ away from the eyes of the rich public. The policeman seems highly stereotypical – his bad grammar is an effective contrast to Wilde’s rather effete drawl – but the word POLICEMEN is in capitals to emphasise the power represented by the two men.
The poem is a mock ballad in 9 quatrains.
The Cadogan Hotel is still open for business and Room 118 has on display a replica of Wilde’s smoking jacket, while some of his favourite drinks are still served there.
Here is a delightful recording of the poem read by Tom O’Bedlam. Please enjoy.
Share your thoughts on this poem by leaving a comment.
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