A poet with his own paradise lost

November 17, 2000

The English boarding school has much to answer for. Alfred Bruce Douglas was in most respects a typical product of his class and education, enthralled in adolescence by desperate entangled fancies about innocence, sex, religion, money, gambling and justice.

Not that Winchester can be blamed for the black ancestral Douglas blood, or the guns that proved repeatedly lethal, not just to pheasants. Both Alfred's grandfather and eldest brother died in shooting accidents that may have been suicide; his uncle Jim less equivocally slit his own throat. Alfred followed his atrabilious father, the eighth marquess of Queensberry, in directing most of his violence outwards.

It was going to law that made them different, the father and son. In other respects "Bosie" was a run-of-the-mill public schoolboy, spoilt by his mother, angry with his invisible father, intoxicated by his own good looks, reckless for pleasure, disdainful of pain for himself and others, in search of a fight. With his father, of course - at least to begin with.

Queensberry had been mainly absent from the childhood Eden at Kinmount, the family seat in Dumfriesshire. By the time the golden boy was 17 the paradise had been sold and the parents divorced. So to be taken up by Oscar Wilde was one way to bring his father to book publicly.

Yet Douglas was not there in person for the Wilde trials and this too was a critical absence. We know this story mainly from Oscar's point of view, as we know of his "berserk passion", in Richard Ellmann's phrase. If Douglas had been there in 1895, he might have spent less of his own middle age in the law courts, frantically seeking the justice refused when he was not present to speak for himself.

There were other important moments in his life: the deaths of his father and Wilde in 1900; his marriage to Olive Custance and the birth of their only child, Raymond, in 1902; his reception into the Catholic church in 1911; Raymond's reception into a psychiatric institution in 19.

But it is virulent litigiousness that dominates Murray's story.

From 1909 to 1923 his subject engaged in a staggering series of libel cases against Arthur Ransome, Robert Ross, Colonel Custance, Winston Churchill and others. After a dinner in 1908 in honour of Wilde, Douglas wrote to Ross repudiating the company of "those who are engaged in active propaganda of every kind of wickedness from anarchy to sodomy" (a pity this last isn't spelled with a "z"). Wilde was now "the greatest force of evil that has appeared in Europe for the last 350 years". Again, a familiar story of rebel son turning into reactionary father, with a vengeance.

In 1923 Douglas found out what the other bad father had endured, when he served six months in prison for libelling Churchill. The last third of his life is something of a relief as his instincts for justice and mercy settle into nervous equilibrium, improbably assisted by George Bernard Shaw. At last, a proper mentor who could rebuke him for having, politically, "the brains of a grasshopper" and still admire his audacity.

Shaw also admired Douglas's writing. Murray endorses the high esteem in which his poetry was once held by readers, including Arthur Quiller-Couch, John Betjeman and, more surprisingly, Mallarme. Douglas poured scorn on Eliot and other modernists for their neglect of "form" and hatred of "beauty". On discovering that Yeats had failed to include him in the Oxford Book of Modern Verse , Douglas penned a typically acrid rebuke. The best of his sonnets, for instance "The Wastes of Time" (1934), are elegant, elegiac homages to a late-Victorian Shakespeare: golden lads and dust aplenty, but no chimney sweeps, as it were.

Douglas has never had much of a press and there is much in his life to deplore, especially the vindictive assault on fellow survivors from the Wilde years and on the memory of Oscar himself. Murray does not flinch from judging the Judas in him, but he shows us a boy who kicked and screamed through most of his life and was lucky and plucky enough to survive a bit longer and partly grow up.

What savage origins. When he eloped with a woman about to marry an old schoolfriend, one cousin remarked to another that "anything short of murder in the Douglas family is a source of congratulation". Self-restraint was rarely one of his vices, but for such discipline as Lord Alfred embraced - in the sonnet at least - education must take some credit.

Adrian Poole is reader in English and comparative literature, University of Cambridge.

Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas

Author - Douglas Murray
ISBN - 0 340 76770 7
Publisher - None
Price - £20.00
Pages - 374

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