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The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, Not Quite Redeemed

National Post, 5 August 2000

Book Review
Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas, by Douglas Murray
Hodder and Stoughton, 374 pages

Bosie : The Man, The Poet, The Lover of Oscar WildeHistory’s verdicts can be cruel. Consider the petulant, sulky, and ravishingly beautiful Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas, best remembered (if remembered at all) as Oscar Wilde’s lover. Douglas is a historical footnote, a minor poet with a pretty face. Worse, he is blamed for coaxing Wilde into launching a disastrous libel suit against Douglas’ father, the Marquess of Queensberry, which resulted in Wilde’s social disgrace and imprisonment in 1895 for acts of “gross indecency.” Richard Ellmann, in his magisterial biography of Wilde, calls Douglas “spoiled, reckless, insolent and, when thwarted, fiercely vindictive.” It is an ugly portrait that springs unforgettably to life in Moisés Kaufman’s 1997 play, “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde.”

Over half a century after his death, Lord Douglas has finally found a defender. Douglas Murray, a twenty-year-old undergraduate at Magdalen College, Oxford, has taken on the thankless task of rescuing Lord Douglas’ blackened historical reputation. His loving biography throbs with a deep sense of grievance. While visiting Douglas’ modest grave in the English town of Crawley several years ago, Murray had to scrape away the “grime of years” from the neglected gravestone. “I had been to Père Lachaise in Paris and seen Oscar Wilde’s grave,” he writes bitterly, and “found the contrast upsetting.”

Upsetting, perhaps — but unjustified? Wilde, after all, was a world-renowned poet, dramatist, and coiner of immortal witticisms. “I hope you have not been leading a double life, pretending to be wicked and being really good all the time,” a character exclaims in The Importance of Being Earnest. “That would be hypocrisy.” Wilde might have earned his place in Père Lachaise on his quips alone.

Douglas, on the other hand, though he lived much longer than Wilde, wrote only a modest quantity of traditional verse. Most readers will be familiar with his 1892 poem “Two Loves,” made famous by its use against Wilde at his trial. Like most of Douglas’ verse at the time, it was deeply influenced by the poet’s confident homosexuality, ending with the famous line, “I am the Love that dare not speak its name.” It was a strange assertion to make. For if his love was reticent, Douglas decidedly was not. He not only dared speak love’s name, he declaimed it loudly and published it brazenly. Why, he demanded angrily in a famous 1896 article in the Mercure de France, was Wilde being “punished for being a man who preferred the physical beauty of man to that of a woman.” In fact, he claimed, “amid all the heroes of humanity twenty-five per cent at least were sodomites.” In later years, eager to renounce his homosexuality, he just as loudly denounced “buggery.”

But there was far more to Douglas’ poetry than “Two Loves,” and Murray has done an admirable job of unearthing and explaining a broad selection of unfamiliar poems. Perhaps the most impressive of Murray’s research coups was to win access to the manuscript of Douglas’s magnum opus, the 1924 sonnet sequence entitled “In Excelsis,” written while Douglas was serving time in jail for libel. It is the poetic equivalent of Murray’s biography, a desperate cry for vindication and redemption, and a bitter attack on his critics: “Folly imputed by the mouths of fools / Is wisdom’s ensign to a child of light,” writes Douglas. And just who were these fools who persisted in attacking Douglas unjustly? “The leprous spawn of scattered Israel.”

To Murray’s credit, he does not shrink from reprinting such vile lines; nor does he try to defend Douglas’ character. But he seems to think that Douglas’ bigotry should have little impact on our assessment of his poetic achievement. For most artists, this is certainly true; but for Douglas, whose antisemitism, paranoia, and vindictiveness infected much of his “greatest” poetry, it is next to impossible. Oscar Wilde himself brilliantly identified this flaw in Douglas’ character when he wrote in De Profundis that bitterness had destroyed Douglas’ creative gift. “That faculty in you which Love would have fostered, Hate poisoned and paralyzed.” In perhaps the only serious misjudgement in this book, Murray claims that Wilde’s insight provoked the very hatred he merely recognized and deplored in Douglas.

Lord Douglas probably doesn’t deserve the fine book that Murray has created in his honour. It is filled with fascinating anecdote, judicious opinion, and confident scholarly prose in the best English tradition. This is a startling achievement for such a young man. Even so, it’s doubtful that Murray has successfully challenged the harsh judgement of history — there’s simply too much filth on Douglas’ grime-encrusted tombstone.