Lord Alfred Douglas

 

Lord Alfred Bruce Douglas (22 October 1870 – 20 March 1945) was a poet, a translator and a prose writer, better known as the intimate friend and lover of the writer Oscar Wilde. Much of his early poetry was Uranian in theme, though he tended, later in life, to distance himself from both Wilde's influence and his own role as a Uranian poet.

The third son of John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry and his first wife, the former Sibyl Montgomery, Douglas was born at Ham Hill House in Worcestershire. He was his mother's favourite child; she called him Bosie (a derivative of Boysie), a nickname which stuck for the rest of his life.

Douglas was educated at Winchester College (1884–88) and at Magdalen College, Oxford (1889–93), which he left without obtaining a degree. At Oxford, Douglas edited an undergraduate journal The Spirit Lamp (1892-3), an activity that intensified the ongoing conflict between him and his father. Their relationship had always been a strained one and during the Queensberry-Wilde feud, Douglas sided with Wilde, even encouraging him to prosecute his own father for libel. In 1893, Douglas had a brief affair with George Ives.

In 1891, Douglas met Oscar Wilde; they soon began an affair, though, according to Douglas, they never engaged in sodomy. Though Douglas consented to be the lover of the older Wilde, he shared Wilde's interest in younger partners.  Of the two, Douglas was known for preferring schoolboys, while Wilde liked older teenagers and young men. When his father, Lord Queensberry, suspected that their liaison may have been more than a friendship, he began a public persecution of Wilde. In addition to invading the playwright's home, Queensberry planned to throw rotten vegetables at Wilde during the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest. In 1894, the Robert Hichens novel The Green Carnation was published. Said to be based on the relationship of Wilde and Douglas, it would be one of the texts used against Wilde during his trials in 1895.

When Lord Drumlanrig (Douglas' eldest brother and the heir to the marquessate of Queensberry) died in a suspicious hunting accident, rumours circulated that Drumlanrig had been having a homosexual relationship with the Prime Minister, Lord Rosebery. As a result, Lord Queensberry began a crusade to save his youngest son. Queensberry publicly insulted Wilde by leaving, at the latter's club, a calling card on which he had written: "For Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite" (a misspelling of sodomite).

In response to this card, and with Douglas's avid support, but against the advice of friends such as Robert Ross, Frank Harris, and George Bernard Shaw, Wilde sued Queensberry for criminal libel. The case went badly, since Queensberry had hired private detectives to document Wilde's and Douglas's homosexual contacts. Several male prostitutes were enlisted by the defence to give evidence against Wilde and, on advice from his lawyer, he dropped the suit. However, based on evidence raised during the case, Wilde was charged with committing acts of gross indecency with other male persons, a charge which covered all homosexual acts, public or private. Douglas's 1892 poem "Two Loves", which was used against Wilde at the latter's trial, ends with the famous line that refers to homosexuality as "the love that dare not speak its name".

After a retrial (the jury in his first trial having been unable to reach a verdict), Wilde was convicted on 25 May 1895 and imprisoned at hard labour for two years. Douglas was forced into exile in Europe. Following Wilde's release (19 May 1897), although not immediately, the two reunited in August at Rouen, but stayed together only a few months owing to personal differences and the various pressures on them.

This meeting was disapproved of by the friends and families of both men. During the later part of 1897, Wilde and Douglas lived together near Naples, but for financial and other reasons, they separated. Wilde lived the remainder of his life primarily in Paris, and Douglas returned to England in late 1898.

The period when the two men lived in Naples would later become quite controversial. Wilde claimed that Douglas had offered a home, but had no funds or ideas. When Douglas eventually did gain funds from his late father's estate, he refused to grant Wilde a permanent allowance, although he did give him occasional handouts. When Wilde died in 1900, he was relatively impoverished. Douglas served as chief mourner, although there reportedly was an altercation at the gravesite between him and Robert Ross. This struggle would preview the later litigations between the two former lovers of Oscar Wilde.

After Wilde's death, Douglas established a close friendship with Olive Eleanor Custance, an heiress and poet. They married on 4 March 1902 and had one son, Raymond Wilfred Sholto Douglas (Nov 17, 1902 - Oct 10, 1964). In 1911 Douglas embraced Catholicism.

Douglas started his "litigious and libellous career" (Murray p152) by obtaining an apology and fifty guineas each from the Oxford and Cambridge magazines The Isis and Cambridge for defamatory references to him in an article on Wilde.

He was a plaintiff and defendant in several trials for civil or criminal libel. In 1913 he accused Arthur Ransome of libelling him in his book Oscar Wilde: A Critical Study. He saw this trial as a weapon against his enemy Ross, not understanding that Ross would not be called to give evidence in the trial. Similarly he did not appreciate that when he urged Wilde to sue his father that his father’s character was not relevant to the case. The court found in Ransome's favour.

In the most noted case, brought by Winston Churchill in 1923, Douglas was found guilty of libelling Churchill and was sentenced to six months in prison. Douglas had claimed that Churchill had been part of a Jewish conspiracy to kill Lord Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War. Kitchener had died on June 5, 1916, while on a diplomatic mission to Russia: the ship in which he was travelling, the armoured cruiser HMS Hampshire, struck a German mine and sank west of the Orkney Islands. Despite this conflict, in 1941 he wrote a sonnet in praise of Churchill (Murray page 317).

In 1924 while in prison, Douglas, in an ironic echo of Wilde's composition of De Profundis (Latin for "From the Depths") during his incarceration, wrote his last major poetic work, In Excelsis (literally, "in the highest"), which contains 17 cantos. Since the prison authorities would not allow Douglas to take the manuscript with him when he was released, he had to rewrite the entire work from memory.

Douglas maintained that his health never recovered from his harsh prison ordeal, which included sleeping on a plank bed without a mattress.

More than a decade after Wilde's death, with the release of suppressed portions of Wilde's De Profundis letter in 1912, Douglas turned against his former friend, whose homosexuality he grew to condemn. In 1918, having been called as witness in Maud Allan's libel suit against a newspaperman, he described his old lover as "the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe during the last three hundred and fifty years." Douglas added that he intensely regretted having met Wilde, and having helped him with the translation of Salomé, which he described as "a most pernicious and abominable piece of work."

Following his own incarceration in prison in 1924, Douglas' feelings toward Oscar Wilde began to soften considerably. He said in Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up that “Sometimes a sin is also a crime (for example, a murder or theft) but this is not the case with homosexuality, any more than with adultery” (Murray p309-310).

Throughout the 1930s and until his death, Douglas maintained correspondences with many people, including Marie Stopes and George Bernard Shaw. Anthony Wynn wrote the play Bernard and Bosie: A Most Unlikely Friendship based on the letters between Shaw and Douglas. One of Douglas's final public appearances was his well-received lecture to the Royal Society of Literature on 2 September 1943, entitled The Principles of Poetry, which was published in a limited edition of 1,000 copies. He attacked the poetry of T. S. Eliot, and the talk was praised by Arthur Quiller-Couch and Augustus John (Murray pages 318-319).

Douglas's only child, Raymond, was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder in 1927 and entered St. Andrews Hospital, a mental institution. He was decertified and released after five years, but suffered a subsequent breakdown and returned to the hospital. In February 1944, when Olive Douglas died of a cerebral haemorhage at the age of 67, Raymond was able to attend his mother's funeral, and in June he was again decertified and released. However, his conduct rapidly deteriorated and he returned to St. Andrews in November where he stayed until his death on 10 October 1964.

Douglas died of congestive heart failure on 20 March 1945 at the age of 74. He was buried at the Franciscan Monastery, Crawley, West Sussex on 23 March where he is interred alongside his mother, Sibyl, Marchioness of Queensberry, who died in 1937 at the age of 91. A single gravestone covers them both.

See also: The Curse of the Queensberrys

 

This page was last updated on 29 June 2015

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