Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), Bosie to all and sundry, is, and will always be, seen as a secondary character in the life of Oscar Wilde, whose rise and fall in Victorian England is inextricably bound up today in the intersection between literary history and queer consciousness. Bosie himself knew that very well and spent much of his life fulminating against a legacy which had been set for him when he was only 25 years old. It was especially galling to him, having converted to Catholicism in 1911, that his primary position in history would be as Oscar’s Wilde’s homosexual lover, and he additionally did all that he could to repudiate his former friends, lifestyle, and past writings on the matter.
Efforts have been made in the seventy years since he died to improve Bosie’s reputation from l’enfant terrible of the Wilde pack to the poet he always saw himself as, and to brush over his later career as a serial litigant, libellous publisher of multiple newspapers including Plain English, and most damningly, such an outrageous anti-Semite that in 1924 he was imprisoned for six months for alleging, among other things, that Winston Churchill had been in league with “the Jews” to misreport the war to enable their financiers to benefit from a stock market crash. During his incarceration, Bosie composed In Excelsis, a seventeen canto poem on the nature of suffering and how much his enemies, especially the Jews, sucked, which he had published in full on release and in multiple other poetry collections during his lifetime.
I came across this information in Douglas Murray’s Bosie, which is one of the foremost works in the re-education programme. I was intrigued enough by his sustained argument that Bosie was just horribly misunderstood to go and seek out his works and see what he had to say for himself. This was not a simple task, and I am still working on tracking down two of the four autobiographies that Lord Alfred Douglas published in his lifetime. In the two I have read, Bosie does not come across well. There are many passages I could quote, but I think I may adequately repudiate charges of malicious mischaracterisation by simply quoting his statements regarding Jews, which admirably distil Bosie’s personal qualities to their essence:
“Our policy on Plain English was also strongly anti-Semitic. No other paper, with the exception of The Morning Post, did so much as Plain English to open the eyes of the public to what the Jews were doing. It is, yet, the incredible fact that, some two or three years after the death of Plain English, The Morning Post deliberately published a libel on me, written by a Jew, to the effect that I had ‘made it a paying proposition to publish vile slanders about Jews’. I sued The Morning Post for libel and it pleaded justification.
My present view about the Jews is that if the English (as they apparently do) like to be ‘bossed’ by the Jews, and then get very angry with anyone who tells them about it, there’s no sense blaming the Jews for taking advantage of the situation. If a Nation or a Party or any body of persons chooses to lie on its face and invite the Jews to come and trample on it, why blame the Jews for accepting the invitation? I used to get very excited about these questions, and about politics generally, when I had Plain English. I was desperately sincere, and quite ready to die or go to prison for my convictions. But the way I was treated on this occasion by The Morning Post, and by others who professed to share my views and the subsequent prosecution and imprisonment I underwent in return for my efforts to help my country, completely cured me of any desire to meddle further in English politics or ‘patriotic’ movements.”
– Autobiography of Lord Alfred Douglas (1928), Chapter 44
Despite this, I have seen enough evidence, in contemporary reviews, second and third editions, and international translations, that Lord Alfred Douglas was genuinely regarded in his own lifetime by many as a chronically underrated national poet who was single-handedly keeping the traditional sonnet form alive. I was therefore struck by the incongruence between the extraordinary praise lavished on In Excelsis, documented by Murray and Bosie himself, and the fact that I simply couldn’t find the finest work of the most celebrated British sonneteer since Shakespeare anywhere online in full. I found one Tumblr that had uploaded the first nine cantos and the final one with no further comment as to why the others had been removed. I realise now that Caspar Wintermans, in his 2007 publication in English of Alfred Douglas: A Poet’s Life and His Finest Work, has also made this editorial decision and the Tumblr owner most likely copied it from there.
Dissatisfied to find the internet does not contain everything, I eventually bought a first edition of In Excelsis, and have reproduced it in full below. Lord Alfred Douglas, poet, author, journalist, libeller, one of the earliest gay advocates willing to publish under their own name, lover, husband, father, Catholic and moralist firebrand, always wished that people could judge his poetry rather than his character – the reader is invited to judge both.
To Alfred Rose
Written between February 5th and April 18th (Good Friday) 1924 from Wormwood Scrubs Prison.
Torment of body, torment of the mind,
Pain, hunger, insult, stark ingratitude
Of those for whom we fought, detraction rude
But sanctimonious, cruel to be kind
(Truly for bread a stone): all these we find
In this our self-appointed hell whose food
Is our own flesh. To what imagined good
Have we thus panted, beaten, bound and blind?
God knows, God knows. And since He knows indeed,
Where these’s the answer: who would stay outside
When God’s in prison? Who would rather choose
To warm himself with Peter than to bleed
With Dismas penitent and crucified,
Facing with Christ the fury of the Jews?
I follow honour, brokenly content,
Though the sick flesh repine, though darkness creep
Into the soul’s unfathomable deep,
Where fear is bred: though from my spirit spent
Like poured-out water, the mind’s weak consent
Be hardly wrung, while eyes too tired to weep
Dimly discern, as though a film of sleep
Squalor that is my honour’s ornament.
Without, the fire of earth-contemning stars
Burns in deep blueness, like an opal set
In jacinth borders underneath the moon.
The dappled shadow that my window bars
Cast on the wall is like a silver net.
My angel, in my heart, sings ‘heaven soon’.
I have within me that which still defies
This generation’s bloat intelligence,
Which is the advocate of my defence
Against the indictment of the world’s assize.
Clutching with bleeding hands my hard-won prize,
Immeasurably bought by fierce expense
Of blood and sweat and spirit-harnessed sense,
I keep the steadfast gaze of tear-washed eyes.
And this discernment, not inherited,
But grimly conned in many cruel schools,
Unravels all illusion to my sight.
In vain, for me the wings, the snare is spread.
Folly imputed by the mouth of fools
Is wisdom’s ensign to a child of light.
When death, the marshal of our settled state,
Shall beckon us to our appointed end,
To what remembrances shall be the trend
Of those last thoughts that gather at the gate?
What profit then that this was delicate,
Or that breathed flowers? Shall they not rather tend
To recollected woe as to a friend,
For pleasures are but hostages to fate?
What bitterness shall then be left in these,
As insult, calumny, the truth abjured,
The dock, the handcuff and the prison cell,
Detraction bartered for forensic fees,
And, else, a thousand wrongs bravely endured
And sovereign against the gates of hell?
O none, if grace enrich the soul’s release
With covenanted joy’s presentiment,
Sweet presage of fruition’s deep content
Which is the complement of hope’s increase,
The harvest of delight, sorrow’s surcease,
The untransmutable extreme consent
Of will and spirit ultimately blent
In diapason of perpetual peace.
But who can so set up his reason’s throne
Above the accident of mortal hap,
As to embrace disparagements and mocks,
Encounter suffering without a groan,
Lie like a nurseling in affliction’s lap
And realise the saintly paradox?
Not I, alas, at any rate, not yet;
Prisoned in flesh the willing spirit wars,
Glimpses a transient lustre through the bars
And beats her wings in vain against the net.
In vain her evocated host beset
The citadel that lies beyond the stars;
The guarded walls stang up like beetling scaurs,
Though white desire o’er-leap the parapet.
Perfection’s fortress is impregnable,
But her saint-trodden way allures us still.
She bids us cherish what out senses hate,
And entertain where we would fain repeal;
And love at last constrains the inconstant will
To make the bitter choice deliberate.
For such is love, a great good every way,
Bearing all toil, making all burdens light:
To its internal vision the dark night
Shows clear and shining as the dawn of day:
Being born of God it still denies to stay
With less than God, but evermore takes flight
To the belov’d on wings as swift as sight,
A torch, a vivid flame, a lucent ray.
Could love compel the appertinent retinue
Of all oour essence to some bridge of air,
Spanning the gulf of that estranging sea
Which hides the lover from the loved one’s view,
How happy then were we who lothly wear
The earthly vesture of mortality.
But so to use oneself as to entice
The visit of such love, so dignified
With such a sovereignty, may scare betide
Us, the sad out-cast heirs of paradise.
Hardly the merchant paid the exceeding price
Of that one pearl whose lustrous sheen outvied
The zenith of his longing, else denied
To any less than utter sacrifice.
And how shall we, unemptied of desire
Of all created things, command our Lord
Or open hopeful casements to the Dove?
Nah, but the spark pre-vents consuming fire,
The seedling predicates the harvest’s hoard,
From depth to height love corresponds to love.
And we bereft, diswinged, a very clod
Of sense-afflicted earth, uncomforted,
Cheated of dreams, whose flatteries have fled
Long since, fierce disillusion’s iron rod;
We whose entrammelled feet yet dully plod
The bitter road that saints were wont to tread,
Fulfilled of joy, by angel hosts bestead,
Or led like children by the hand of God, –
We have this love, and having it possess
The last revision of felicity.
For what, but love of God could so enforce
This furious will to seize on bitterness,
Revoke the lease of nature, and decree
With sweetness irremediable divorce?
For willingly I suffer, and endure
What I endure with full-consenting will
(Though not with joy) and therefore I fulfil,
By this consent to suffering, the pure
Condition of love’s presence, made more sure
By this that nature groans and takes it ill
And is at odds with grace that steads me still,
And what the world calls love I do abjure.
For this miscalled of fools, this ‘scion’ born
Of ‘motions’, ‘carnal stings’, unbitted lusts'<
(As the Venetian demi-devil’s wit
Reports it so) than midnight to bright morn
Is not more alien to love, nor thrusts
Against love’s breast a blade more opposite.
But this equivocation is a mesh
To unrespective minds (as to the liar
Truth is reflected like the moon in mire),
And to subserve occasion, devilish.
Love is a flame whose fuel is the flesh
Which, burning in that unconsuming fire,
Distils the milky dew of chaste desire
Whose secret sap wells ever sweet and fresh.
For love essentially must needs be chaste,
And being contracted to unchastity
(Even in marriage) knows essential loss,
And falls into a malady of waste,
Squand’ring the expended spirit’s minted fee
For that which, in the best, is worthless dross.
Have at you, inky scrabblers, base and lewd,
Whose general pen so greasily enseams
The venal page with ‘birth-controlling schemes’,
Free love, divorce and devil take the prude.
Thus I engorge with the chameleon’s food,
Promise-crammed vapour, stuff of angels’ dreams,
Immortal madness, folly that o’er-teems
And turns to star-dust all her airy brood.
And if it gall you and you needs must rail,
Let me not be your mark, but rail at God
Who made love chaste or ever time began.
I have but dreamed one rose to countervail
The rank effusions of the peiod,
The blazoned grossness of your devil’s span.
And well you know I never bowed the knee,
Nor paid regard to self-preserving ruth,
For even when I sucked perverted truth
From that arch-prophet of perversity
Who led me to the serpent-cinctured tree,
I bayed the pack alone; my tender youth,
As now my slanting years, disdained the smooth,
The proffered path of worldly policy.
And if, disvouching then my angel’s voice,
I could my natural spirit so outface
The frowning world and its proclaimed offence
Against my friend, shall I not more rejoice
To hate and brave it now, bestead by grace
And my long since recaptured innocence?
For I was of the world’s top, born to bask
In its preferment where the augurs sit,
And where the devil’s grace, to counterfeit,
Is all the tribute that the augurs ask
(Whose wedding-garments are a hood and mask).
But God be praised who still denied me wit
To ‘play the game’ or play the hypocrite
And make a virtue of the devil’s task.
I left ‘the game’ to others, and behold,
This same perversion’s priest, this lord of lies
In now exalted on your altar’s height;
His sophist’s tinsel is acclaimed pure gold,
And England’s course, swayed by his votaries,
Declines upon corruption and black night.
The leprous spawn of scattered Israel
Spreads its contagion in your English blood;
Teeming corruption rises like a flood
Whose fountain swelters in a womb of hell.
Your Jew-kept politicians buy and sell
In markets redolent of Jewish mud,
And while the ‘Learned Elders’ chew the cud
Of liquidation’s fruits, they weave their spell.
They weave the spell that binds the heart’s desire
To gold and gluttony and sweating lust:
In hidden holds they stew the mandrake mess
That kills the soul and turns the blood to fire,
They weave the spell that turns desire to dust
And postulates the abyss of nothingness.
Their spell binds fast, their feet are on your necks
But not on mine, I could not choose but fight,
Lacking your ‘English phlegm’ to take delight
In Apemantus’ ‘coil’, ‘serving of becks’
And all the rest; I was ordained to vex
This ‘Pax Judaica’, the parasite
Of base assent, this oily sea whose might
O’er-swells the gorged loot of a million wrecks.
My star shone clear, my angel smiles, I went
Down the white way. I could not break my tryst
With Scotland’s honour in an English gaol.
My soul fares free, my neck was never bent
To any yoke except the yoke of Christ,
This Douglas knee will never bow to Baal.
Follow the star. The unseen sighing wings
Beat in the soul’s night in the forest’s gloom.
Follow the star, the Child is in the womb
That shall be born, the lamp is lit that swings
Over joy’s cradle. Who is this that sings
In the heart’s garden where red roses bloom?
The moth-soft fleece is woven on God’s loom,
The web of peace is spun, ye holy Kings.
Follow the star and enter where it rests,
Be it on palace or in lowly shed.
What house is this whose hideous bold and bar
Groan on the opening? Who are these pale guests,
These creeping shadows? Whither am I led?
What iron hold is here? Follow the star.