Cafe Royal: Carol Ann Duffy in a tuxedo!
Carol Ann Duffy plays 'what if?' here, with the added frisson of a gender shift....for perhaps we all enjoy the lure of history, with its complex, frustrating narratives.... Infamous encounters shackling our heroes to their fate. And if we are all secret biographers then perhaps we do enjoy in our quieter moments the fantasy of reminiscence. Imagine we say, if he or she had met me! Then how would their lives have changed? Time travelling as I have said several times on this blog seems a preoccupation of Carol Ann Duffy and here it is used to theatrically replay an encounter with Oacar Wilde in the stylish decadence of the Cafe Royal.
In this poem Carol Ann Duffy plays at being a handsome youth, wistfully replaying Oscar Wilde's disastrous meeting with George Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris, where he was almost persuaded to flee London and pursue his legal fight with the Marquis of Queensberry( his lover's father) from the safety of Paris. Their good deeds were however subverted by the untimely intervention of Bosie, Wilde's ill chosen lover whose petulant selfishness overthrew Wilde's attempt at self -preservation. Bosie's desire to revenge himself upon his homophobic 'macho' parent compromised Oscar Wilde to the point where he was found gulity of sodomy and sentenced to two years' hard labour in prison, a sentence which ruined him physcially and financially and led to his premature death.
After such a detour around the poem's context/origin, let's get to the poem.
It begins with a recognition of life's mistiming. How late we all can be, how we miss our lives..timing is everything, in business and in pleasure and here the invented protagonist ( Carol Ann Duffy in a tuxedo no less! ) finds his time travelling amiss and that the proverbial room is empty!( Cf Edmund White!) Only too aware of his missed encounter with Oscar, the 'he' plays with the decadent signs of the past, still practically and imaginatively available in the famous Cafe Royal. As his senses are assailed with the 'hock' wine, the time traveller finds his senses aroused once again, straining at the narratives of the past, so that he can 'nod to Harris and Shaw' and then encounter 'the Lord of Language' himself at the door...How physically exciting such an encounter feels to this cross dressing Duffy, is transmitted through the brevity of the two avowals:
So tall.' Breathing.'
Imagine the force of the man! The power of Oscar Wilde's physical presence as the fantasy becomes solidified and fires the 'boy's' senses. the charisma and sexual potency of Wilde reminds his conjuring (female) fantasist that 'He is the boy who fades away...'it is as if the reality of such a meeting is too much and the 'poet' becomes a mere 'boy' still we know ironically more than a likely match for the voracious, roving eye of Wilde...
The apparent mistyping of 'longs' for the expected 'lounges' deliberately captures the duality of this fantasy encounter. For the encounter embraces both a love of the fin-de-siecle setting with its decadence, sexual secrecy and lasciviousness, with a hundred year old erotic crush on the most famous 'wit' perhaps who has ever lived. Thus he may affect a 'lounge' but the reality of his feelings is far more a 'long'!!
How polite and tender too the 'Dear, I Know where you're going. Don't go there.' How affecting the resonance of the italicisation! Indeed when I watched the marvellous Stephen Fry/Jude Law biopic on Oscar Wilde, when Bosie( played by Law) sauntered onto the screen I wanted to shout 'don't do it!' like a hiss at a pantomine villian. For such is the tarnished figure of Bosie who has gone down in history as the commonplace, spolit source of a great man's ruin.
The final stanza blurs the fantasy with the reality, as the teller seems replay Oscar's fate and mimics in this present age, a prospective pick up with 'an older man in a suit' through the suggestiveness of his 'half-smiles'...is the irony here that the time traveller saviour has become another Bosie...eyeing up an older well dressed male who may have little idea of the destructive fatalism of such erotic encounters?
For whose are the 'terrible wonderful eyes'..? I have read elsewhere that they might be Oscar's but I think the self-conscious bravado of the final line emanates from the desire of the time traveller to supplant the banal Bosie in Oscar's affections. And the homosexual underworld with its signs and codes and worship of male beauty is richly represented through this lingering, sexually charged phrase... perhaps in trying to get Oscar right..he is seduced by the replay in more ways than one..