‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ by John Betjeman is a nine stanza poem that is divide into sets of four lines, or quatrains. Each of these quatrains follows a specific rhyme scheme. They conform to the pattern of ABCB CDED, and so on, alternating end sounds as the poet saw fit.
Due to this rhyme scheme, and the use of quatrains, ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ is considered to be a ballad. The ballad form stands out due to the relative simplicity of the lines. The style, diction and structure are straightforward and easy for the reader to comprehend. Another element of the ballad that Betjeman makes use of is dialogue. The poem is divided into sections that allow time to hear from Wilde and the arresting police officer.
This leads to the use of dialect. It is something which is usually seen more prominently within prose or prose-poetry. In this case Betjeman uses it to show the difference between Wilde, whose speech is cultured, and the policeman’s words, which are not.
There is a lot of content to take into consideration before, and while, reading ’The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel.’ The title flushes a lot of it out. The poem is concerned with the events leading up to the arrest of English playwright, novelist and poet, Oscar Wilde. The year was 1985 and Wilde was on the verge of being arrested on charges of indecency. He would go on to be convicted and serve two years hard labor.
An amalgam of illnesses contracted in prison and a burgeoning alcoholism lead to his death in Paris in 1999, only a few years after his release. Often the main cause of death is noted as meningitis or syphilis. There are number a references within this piece to objects, places and people which are not readily understood without some background knowledge. Those will be addressed within the text of the analysis.
You can read the full poem here.
Summary of The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel
‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ by John Betjeman tells of the moments before the arrest of Wilde and the surrounding details of his hotel room.
The poem begins with the speaker describing how the poet and playwright Oscar Wilde was spending his last moments before being arrested for his homosexuality. He was in the Cadogan Hotel with his close friend, Robbie Ross. Wilde was continuously drinking and contemplating the future. He knew that everything was about to change irreparable.
As the poem progresses Wilde gets more irritated. He is angry at the hotel and at Robbie for not acting fast enough. Eventually Wilde starts wondering over the location of two of his expensive coats. He asks Robbie to bring him his suitcase “later.” He knows something is about to happen, and it does.
There are some noises outside the door and two policemen come in. They declare their intention of arresting Wilde and he is taken, without fuss, down to the hansom. The poem ends abruptly, leaving the reader to mourn over Wilde’s fate.
Analysis of The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel
In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by describing what Oscar Wilde was doing only a short time before his arrest. He was drinking a “weak hock,” or a particular kind of white wine from Germany, that was mixed with seltzer. The writer was in a contemplative mood and was looking out “at the London skies.” London was a city that Wilde generally loved, after his arrest, he felt as though it had turned its back on him. This lead to his move to Paris where the laws against homosexuality were not as strict.
The curtains of the hotel he was staying in are made of “Nottingham lace.” The speaker, who is really an omniscient narrator, wonders if what was obscuring his vision was not lace, but his long eyelashes. He compares them to “bees-wing[s].”
The first, second and third stanzas are calm moments before Wilde’s situation begins to get tense.To his right, outside the window is “Pont Street.” This is a series of buildings that are bright red, and were new at the time that Wilde was living in London. Wilde looks at the buildings and feels that they compare to the vivid color of the sun shining in on “his unmade bed.”
The bed can be taken as a symbol of Wilde’s mental state at this point in his life. He knew that things were starting to cascade against him. The man who is at the centre of Wilde’s arrest, trial and imprisonment is the Marquess of Queensbury, the father of his longtime lover, Sir Alfred Douglas.
Queensberry was known for his cruelty, and deeply hated Wilde for the relationship he maintained wth his son. After a build up of various events, Wilde sued Queensbury for defamation. This lead to a court case in which Wilde’s homosexuality was all but proven for the court. The lawsuit was eventually withdrawn. This was seen as an admission of guilt on the part of Wilde and he was arrested soon after.
In the third stanza Wilde’s dialogue is central. He speaks to a close friend in the room, Robbie Ross. The two had been in a relationship at one point, and Ross worked as Wilde’s literary executor after his death. Ross’s own ashes are within the headstone of Wilde’s grave in Paris.
The last two lines of this stanza clearly show that Wilde has a lot on his mind. He knows that something dramatic is about to shift in his life. He likely is aware of what’s going to come next, but is still hopeful.
The fourth stanza begins with a reference to The Yellow Book. This was a book that featured in Wilde’s novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, and was thought to be in his possession when he was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel. It was in reality a literary periodical that was published in London in the mid-to-late 1890s.
It was in part associated with Wilde’s own movement, that of Aestheticism, and it contained a wide range of stories and illustrations. The book is part of Wilde’s life due only to a tangential connection with the art director, Audrey Beardsley who did illustrations for one of Wilde’s plays. The book referred to as “the yellow book” is seen as a corrupting force in The Picture of Dorian Gray but is not the same publication as mentioned above. It is thought this novel was actually À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans.
“Buchan” is mentioned in the next lines. This is a reference to John Buchan whose works were published in the The Yellow Book. Wilde looks down on Buchan’s writing. He sees it taking over the place which should rightfully be his. It is a backwards step for literature and society.
The fifth stanza contains Wilde’s request for more wine and seltzer. He snaps at Robbie to “pull again at the bell!” in order to summon more drink to their room. Wilde is unhappy with the service of the hotel. His irritation in this part of the poem is likely brought on by his circumstances. He refers to the workers at the Cadogan Hotel as “cretins.”
Again, the sixth stanza of ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ is filled with Wilde’s speech. Now is a good time to take note of the fact that Wilde’s words are quite clear. There is not much room for interpretation and it doesn’t take any time to understand what he’s saying. His dialect is of the upper classes and will soon prove a striking contrast against the “two plain clothes policemen.”
In the first line of this stanza Wilde speaks on an “astrakhan coat.” This was a type of fur coat that Wilde believes is at “Willis’s.” There is another at “the Savoy,” one of the writer’s favourite hotels. Wilde seems to be foreseeing what is about to come and is looking for something to put on before going outside. Once realizing that neither of these coats are within reach he asks Robbie, “dear boy,” to get his “portmanteau,” a type of suitcase.
He asks Robbie to bring it “on later.” Perhaps he is envisioning a need for the suitcase and something in it soon. He knows his fate is very much up in the air at this point.
This is the turning point in The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel in which the climactic moment of Wilde’s arrest arrives. There is thumping and murmuring outside the door and in come two police officers. Wilde’s speech is interjected in these lines, lightheartedly and bravely complaining over the noise they’re making.
In the eighth stanza Wilde’s speech and the speech of a man from a lower class is contrasted. The policeman explains that they are there to take “yew” to the place where “felons and criminals dwell.”
The officer asks Wilde to come with them now, “quoietly” and leave the hotel. The policeman sees the hotel as being a very reputable high class establishment, contrasting with Wilde’s own opinion a few stanzas earlier.
The ninth stanza of ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ reverts to pure narration. The narrator, in simple terms, describes how Wilde gets up from his chair by the window and puts down “The Yellow Book.” He held it until the last moment, clutching onto this piece of his contemporary culture that means something to him.
Wilde is not in a good state. As mentioned above he had been drinking and was “terrible-eyed.” This likely refers to his emotional response to the situation, he’s angry or upset, as well as the impact that the drink has had. His eyes are irritated and red. On the way to the “hansom,” or two-wheeled coach, Wilde touches the plants “on the staircase”. The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel ends abruptly with the poet being helped into the carriage.
The moment he began the lawsuit against the Marques of Queensberry his fate was sealed. There was no doubt what was going to occur, just as there was no doubt in the text where Wilde was going and what was going to happen when he got there.