The Uranian Poetry of Lord Alfred Douglas
Lord Alfred Douglas, born on 22 October 1870 and now generally recognised as the lover of Oscar Wilde, was one of the torch-bearers of the Uranian poetic movement. The Uranians were a late nineteenth-century group of poets of homoerotic inclination, mainly English, who emerged around the year 1888 and adopted poetry as a means to present the world with the view of their love and sexuality. The term “Uranian” is derived from the Greek conception of the asexual birth of Aphrodite or Urania through the testicles of Uranus. Pausanius discuss this idea in Plato’s Symposium:
This goddess, whose descent is purely male (hence this love is for boys), is considerably older and… That’s why those who are inspired by her Love are attracted to the male: they find pleasure in what is by nature stronger and more intelligent. (181c)
This poetic movement spanned from the 1860s to WWI with the theme of love between an older man and a young boy. Following this theme of homoeroticism, Douglas anonymously published his poetry collection The City of the Soul in 1899 and was well received by the critics, “praised almost ecstatically for its purity and beauty.” (Douglas, 19). This appreciation of the book, however, disappeared as soon as Douglas published it with his name; this, as Mills notes, was due to his recognition as a Uranian poet and the Oscar Wilde trial. In this article, through an analysis of The City of the Soul, I intend to present Douglas as an important poet in a larger context of 19th-century poetics.
The collection stands in an order of poetic tradition preceded by Romanticism and the majority of the Victorian Era is thus, reflective of the themes and ideas of both traditions. Therefore, the plurality and impossibility of viewing the “long era as a static entity, a unique whole to be described by a single sweeping formula,” poses a problem to locate Douglas’s poetry within the historicity of its order, without, if not context, the collective themes and philosophy, and form of the book. (Bristow, i) This position, however, presents with a disorganised and jumbled mass of themes and concepts because the influence on Victorian poetry was not only limited to its immediate predecessor – Romanticism, but as Ker writes, “The themes are taken from all the ages and countries; the poets are eclectic students and critics, and they are justified, as explorers are justified...” (Eliot, 23).
The philosophy of Douglas in these poems is as inconsistent and vivid as the period in which they are produced. He, despite having a choice of multiple options of philosophical and ideological inclinations for his poetry, does not affiliate to one and yet encompasses them all. The collection is full of themes of mysticism (“Apologia”) and Catholicism (“The Ballad of Saint Vitus”), the celebration of love (“A Song”) and mourning due to its loss (“Plainte Eternelle”) etc. Patrick Braybrooke writes, “He is not, I believe, the kind of poet to frame any new kind of philosophy, whether it be a theological philosophy or a poetic philosophy of a new form...” (215) Therefore, while Douglas’s poetry denies any affiliation to a particular movement, he also does not formulate any of his own and instead utilises the available themes and ideas. This allows the poetry to be part of a broader tradition, preventing the use of poetry as preachment; and since the ideas in the poems are imbibed through the social osmosis, they are “representative of its age” (Eliot, 25). Douglas, being an emotional poet, thus, uses these borrowed philosophies as the means to make his moods more effable in the poems (Braybrooke, 230). The instability of the moods then runs parallel with the non-uniformity of the philosophical state.
In the second sonnet, he wonders about “the hidden things that poets see” and thereby, suggests the poet’s ability to observe what is unapparent to a general eye. This romanticised image of poets with ability is, however, uncertain of what their “quenchless light” is – is it the morality of Arnold or the mysticism of Wilde? In another poem, “A Triad of the Moon”, he surrenders the poet to grief and compares it to the nightingale:
“The nightingale is like a poet’s soul,
She finds fierce pain in miseries that seem.” (7-8)
The image of nightingale and sorrow makes resonance with Keats’s, “Ode to the Nightingale”; only here, the poet is not envious of the bird’s joy, but instead develops a sense of relativity due to sorrow. Both poems thus philosophise the poet to some extent; however, this occurs only when they are read individually. In the collection, they reflect fleeting ideas rather than a strong belief and can be interpreted as either change of mood or a change in Douglas’s idea of the poet for he is “too liable to tire of a subject, too liable to jump to conclusion,” (Braybrooke, 215).
Therefore, these disoriented ideas and the others, that do not remain constant to be in the poem, establish Douglas as a poet who does not theorise but also celebrates his rarity. The critics like David Eakin, then question his originality and individuality for he does not give anything new to the literary tradition. (p.473) The novelty of this poetry, to contradict Eakin, lies in its disorientation itself – that it neither theorises nor preaches, which in turn makes it “reflective of his time” through the ideas loaned but also a step away from it and creates a poetry of conflict and the natural instability of mood. Further, it also allows us to weigh its commitment to form and apply Eliot’s question for Shelley here as well, “is it possible to ignore the ‘ideas’ in … poems, so as to be able to enjoy poetry?” (90) However, before moving towards the discussion of Douglas’s form in these poems, the essay which has been so far having analysed the collection considering the poet’s anonymity, will now observe Alfred Douglas as the poet.
The loss of anonymity, at once, reduces the ambiguity of the ideas discussed above and makes them prone to their context, which in this case is a major socio-poetic movement. For instance, the image of the captive bird and free poet in the third sonnet can be interpreted as the symbol of imprisoned Oscar Wilde and the free Douglas himself. Similarly, in “A Song”, the line “Because my love is fair and white and kind” is indicative of the justification of the Uranian love and it is beautifully hidden with the reference to the self-love of Narcissus.
Another important theme that Douglas tackles in these poems is Religion as he juggles Greek Pantheism and Catholicism. Braybrooke and Mills have noted this duality in poems like “Apologia” and “Rejected” and interpret it as Douglas’s mental conflict between the two. However, the Uranian context changes the use of these themes, while the Hellenic ideas are central to expressing Uranian love, the use of Catholicism is there, to justify it. Timothy Smith remarks, “If classical themes were able to lend themselves so well to legitimizing the theme of Uranian love, Christian doctrines were even more heavily appropriated for spreading the message. Poems on martyrdoms of boys, the comparison of the friendship of Jesus with John to Uranian relationships...” (187) “The Ballad of Saint Vitus” comes out as a perfect example of what Smith notes, where Vitus’s love for Jesus resonates with homosexual affection. Douglas creates a very descriptive image of Vitus describing his features and presents him in his seventeenth year, while he originally, was in his early adolescence at the time of his martyrdom, reflecting his Uranian attraction for younger boys.
And his lips were as red as mulberries
And his eyes were like the soft black velvet.
His silk brown hair was touched with bronze,
And his brown cheeks had the tender hue. (11-14)
Such romantic descriptions are visible in his other ballads as well, especially in “Jonquil and Fleur-De-Lys" where he has described Jonquil’s beauty in six quatrains. However, it is in “Saint Vitus,” where Douglas mixes the religion:
And around him were archangels four,
Michael, who guards God’s citadel,
Raphael, whom children still implore,
And Gabriel and Uriel.
God send us all such Company.
This angelic company is similar to the comradeship advocated by Carpenter and it reflects the superiority of homosexual love: “the manly concept of true male comradeship knitted stronger bonds than the marriage tie.” The selfless martyrdom of Vitus to Jesus is relative to the greatness of the Uranian love and sacrifice as well as opposition by law and society. Douglas carefully weaves the ballad as he never makes a direct comparison of homosexuality with Catholicism and instead presents it as a religious verse by concluding it with “Amen.” The antagonist character of the pagan priest further adds up his stance on Christianity and the dismissal of paganism. Furthermore, the choice of ballad which deals with the conflict in beliefs of the father and son is representative of Douglas’s own feud with his father. His poetry is, therefore, not completely impersonal, however, his Uranian themes do not affiliate with any social cause as they are concealed and reflect a mere expression of thoughts; Douglas’s concentration is instead on the form of his work.
The long nineteenth century was dominated by the conventional forms of verse, “The greater part of Lord Alfred Douglas’s work belongs to a period when traditional forms of poesy- the sonnet, the ode, the villanelle- were more fashionable than they are to-day.” (Mills, 261) The sonnet was revived, which became so widespread that it was termed as a disease -”sonnettomania” by the New Monthly Magazine. Interestingly, it was a popular form among the Uranian poets as well and John Nicholson’s Love in Earnest contained fifty sonnets. Douglas too wrote the majority of his poems as sonnets, while this influence was mainly from Swinburne and Dryden instead of Uranians. Mills remarks, “Lord Alfred Douglas’s title to poetic immortality is usually based, I believe, upon his reputation as a sonnet writer.” (266) The City of the Soul, itself, consists of sixteen sonnets and Douglas’s obsession with the sonnet form is also visible in his poems, of which, one is a sonnet admiring the sonnet itself: “This is the sonnet, this is all delight.” He, however, adheres strictly to the Petrarchan sonnets and none of the verses in the book deviates to Shakespearean/English sonnet form. The sonnets in the collection, on the other hand, vary from his general formula for the sestets- CEDCED:
But thou, my love, my flower, my jewel, set c
In a fair setting, help me, or I die d
To bear Love’s burden; for that load to share e
Is sweet and pleasant, but if lonely I d
Must love unloved, ‘tis pain; shine we, my fair e
Two neighbour jewels in Love’s coronet c
This sestet from “In Sarum Close,” not only changes the usual scheme to CDEDEC, but represents Douglas’s principle of not breaking the infinitives in “load to share” and “to bear”: “On the other hand, I object strongly to split infinitives... I think they are ugly.” (Douglas, 284) Also, the repetition of the word “love” occurs only in the line marked ‘c’ and ‘e,’ as well as there is a change in his referral sense when capitalised. Other sestets that differ from his general schemes follow the CDEDEC and CDECED, but Douglas is not experimental enough to form a couplet or quatrain.
Another characteristic that is omnipresent in his poetry is its musicality and flow; “he expects his poetry not only to sing, but to sing the charming tune” (Braybrooke, 215). This influence comes to him from Swinburne who saw a resemblance between music and poetry. Therefore, Douglas is critical of the ‘mechanical’ pauses in the lines and instead prefers alteration of the stress, so visible in his poetry. (Douglas, 55)
With his song, and the hum
Of the bees as they come
To feast at the honey-board laden and groaning
Makes musical droning.
The third line here does not need any instruction to pause but, instead, the metre of the first two lines creates a flow and it automatically suggests a pause in the following line. These lines also serve as an example of Douglas’s use of onomatopoeic words, (here, “hum”) and where monotony is avoided by changing the length in the third line. There is a use of similar techniques in, “Night going out of a Garden,” where Douglas makes excellent use of anapaest, (as he does in the first two lines of last poem):
“They are still when she comes with her long robe
x x / x x / x x / /
Falling down to her feat.”
x x / x x /
There is then the use of onomatope in the following quatrain:
“The thrush has sung to his mate
‘She is coming! Hush! She is coming!’
She is lifting the latch at the gate,
And the bees have ceased from their humming”
James Miles describes it as his ingenious for the “perfectly” expressing “within the compass of four lines.” (265)
This musical expertise of Douglas in poetry is reflected through his ballad as well, especially in The Ballad of Saint Vitus, where he uses the image of music to create a flow. The twenty-fifth quatrain ends with “With lute and flute and angelot,” and the next one begins with a similar image and words, “On lute and angelot they played.” This not only relates the story of the two stanzas but also their musical flow. Similarly, when the priest reports to the King, there is neither repetition of the entire stanza nor there is a new one, instead Douglas alters a few words while still retaining the old rhyming scheme.
“Of the blessed light of Mary’s face.
As she sits amidst sweet pleasant sounds,
And how that Christ is the Prince of Grace,
And hath five flowers that be His wounds.”
The underlined words in the new stanza are either substituted or added, such technique immediately separates it from the original but is still relative as the major stress words remain unchanged. The collection also consists of two translations from Baudelaire, “Harmonie Du Soir” and “Le Balcon.” His quatrains are compact and smooth owing to his choice of vocabulary and metre. He artistically breaks, “Valse mélancolique et langoureux vertige!”into two expressions: “O languorous waltz! O swoon of dancing feet.” This use of exclamation also reflects the conversational tone that is regular in many of his poems. The short length of his poem and the use of sonnets suggests the major aspect of Douglas’s concern about his form. His short and condensed poetry is what separates him from “some of the greater nineteenth-century poets” whose effect “is diminished by their bulk” (Eliot, 152). The poetic work of Douglas, neither exceeds in material quantity nor in the lengths of individual poems. The poems in The City of the Soul never appear to be excess and instead, as Braybrooke describes his thoughts fall naturally into the verse. Therefore, his commitment to form in his poetry places him as an “essential poet” whose sonnets have been remarked to have reached the quality of “sonnetism” (Braybrooke, 216). His stress on the form and not philosophy as the idea of his philosophy, reflects the innovation in his poetry.
Braybrooke, Patrick, “The Collected Poem” Lord Alfred Douglas: his life and work. The London and Norwich Press (1931)
Bristow, Joseph: Editorial Matter in, The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry Bristow, Joseph (ed.) Cambridge University Press (2012)
Douglas, Lord Alfred, The City of the Soul, Woodstock Books (1996)
Douglas, Lord Alfred Without Apologia, The Richards Press Ltd (1938)
Eliot, T.S “Tradition and Individual Talent”, The Use of Poetry and the use of Criticism, Faber and Faber Limited (1964)
Mills, James W. “The Poetry of Lord Alfred Douglas” Lord Alfred Douglas: his life and work. The London and Norwich Press (1931)
Smith, Timothy Love in Earnest, Routledge and Kegan Paul (1970)