Betjeman, Buchan, Wilde and The Yellow Book

This is an article released as part of The FrankenPod’s exploration of Oscar Wilde and his place in the gothic literary canon.

The poem “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” is a subtle yet insistent condemnation of the society that allowed for the prosecution of Wilde. In depicting the final moments before Wilde’s arrest Sir John Betjeman talks of The Yellow Book.

Sir_John_Betjeman_(1906-1984)
Sir John Betjeman

“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.

-Sir John Betjeman

To unpack this passage we need to know a little about the aforementioned Yellow book. The Yellow Book was a yellow clothbound publication that featured salacious and subversive stories, many of them French. Many note that a yellow book, similar to the future periodical was given to Dorian Gray by Lord Henry in The Picture of Dorian Gray written by Oscar Wilde in 1891.

Is it possible this could be part of the inspiration for the name of the periodical?

Well kind of. The phenomenon of the illicit French narrative was very much alive during the time Oscar Wilde was writing The Picture of Dorian Gray. But the yellow bound book is not an invention of Wilde’s but rather a common mode of publication for these transgressive tales. It follows that if Lord Henry was to procure such a corrupting, violent and heavily sexualized book it would more than likely have been presented in this yellow bound format. The periodical The Yellow Book is named after this publication presentation phenomenon that preceded The Picture of Dorian Gray.

It was also known as “The Yellow Nineties” due to its decade of publication.

The quarterly publication is cited as running from 1894 to 1897 and came under heat when Oscar Wilde was seen to be carrying a similar book, leading to outraged crowds throwing stones at the office of the publication. That gives you a bit of a clue as to the kind of societal outrage Oscar Wilde was facing. In this time of crisis in Wilde’s life, his arrest for gross indecency, surely seeing the publication whose name could have been inspired by his prose, give way to a style of writing so distanced from his own aesthetic style would be another blow to the great author.

The implications that this has for the poem is that these tales that challenge social mores are being supplanted by John Buchan’s more tame prose.

I am not entirely sure what Wilde’s opinion of Buchan’s writing really was but Wilde, as written by Betjeman, positions himself and aestheticism as the unconventional to Buchan’s conventionally appealing writing. By the Yellow Book publishing the work of Buchan, Betjeman is implying that challenging works such as Wilde’s that have achieved hard-earned success have been pushed aside to make way for less groundbreaking potboilers. This is a gross simplification of the two author’s works but that is not a reflection on the beauty of the poem.

The poem is the essence of the societal rejection of Wilde, his fall from favour and the sense that the world of literature will continue on without him.

John Buchan and his brand of thriller are the future and Wilde’s aestheticism is the past. Literature may have suffered greatly from the loss of Wilde’s unwritten work, but what is done is done. And in 1937 when Betjeman is writing this poem the literary scene had undergone a massive transformation, he seems nostalgic but resigned to the change that sweeps through everything eventually.

LILLIE_LANGTRY_-_Cadogan_Hotel_21_Pont_Street_Chelsea_London_SW1X_9SG
Cadogan Hotel By Spudgun67 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
As the poem “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” is the creative property of Betjeman  I will not be reproducing it in full but I am providing a link to the poem in full from Poetry By Heart who has permission to reproduce the poem.

So with that, we say goodbye to Wilde for now. The world of mystery and espionage that Buchan’s work forms part of could be in our future.

The passage from The Picture of Dorian Gray which introduces the nature of the yellow book:

“His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What was it, he wondered. He went towards the little, pearl-coloured octagonal stand that had always looked to him like the work of some strange Egyptian bees that wrought in silver, and taking up the volume, flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.”

Thanks for reading

Morgan

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