Ed Sams: A favorite poem

The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel
John Betjeman

I find that modern poets can’t manage folk ballads, except John Betjeman.  His “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel” develops a complete narrative in only nine terse verses.  There is an epigram worthy of Wilde himself:  “Approval of what is approved of/ Is as false as a well-kept vow.”  There is irony in the repeated line “This is the Cadogan Hotel” first by Wilde as a comment on the staff and then by the police as a comment on Wilde.  With Wilde now the vanguard of a civil rights movement, the poem still manages to be relevant.

Ed Sams
Lecturer, San Jose State University

The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel

He sipped at a weak hock and seltzer
As he gazed at the London skies
Through the Nottingham lace of the curtains
Or was it his bees-winged eyes?

To the right and before him Pont Street
Did tower in her new built red,
As hard as the morning gaslight
That shone on his unmade bed.

“I want some more hock in my seltzer,
And Robbie, please give me your hand–
Is this the end or beginning?
How can I understand?

“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.

“More hock, Robbie–where is the seltzer?
Dear boy, pull again at the bell!
They are all little better than cretins,
Though this is the Cadogan Hotel.

“One astrakhan coat is at Willi’s–
Another one’s at the Savoy:
Do fetch my morocco portmanteau,
And bring them on later, dear boy.”

A thump, and a murmur of voices–
(“Oh why must they make such a din?”)
As the door of the bedroom swung open

“Mr. Woilde, we ‘ave come for tew take yew
Where felons and criminals dwell:
We must ask yew tew leave with us quoietly
For this is the Cadogan Hotel.”

He rose, and put down The Yellow Book,
He staggered–and, terrible-eyed,
He brushed past the palms on the staircase
And was helped to a hansom outside.

John Betjeman


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