Auctions | January 23, 2013

Betjeman’s Manuscript of “The Arrest of Oscar Wilde” Upcoming at Bonhams

Sir John Betjeman’s handwritten draft of one of his best known poems, ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ is to be sold in Part I of The Roy Davids Collection III:  Poetry: Poetical Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets at Bonhams New Bond Street on 10 April.  The only manuscript of the poem ever to have been offered at auction, it is estimated at £5,000-6,000.


Betjeman wrote the draft of ‘The Arrest of Oscar Wilde at the Cadogan Hotel’ in 1932 or early 1933 on the headed notepaper of The Architectural Review where he worked as assistant editor from 1930-1935. It was published in the June 1933 edition of the Oxford and Cambridge magazine and over the intervening years has become one of his most celebrated and quoted works.

Oscar Wilde’s arrest for gross indecency in 1895 and subsequent two years imprisonment hold an enduring public fascination as the current successful run of David Hare’s play The Judas Kiss shows. The first act of the drama takes place in the Cadogan Hotel in the hours leading up to the arrest itself, as immortalised in the poem.


The work contrasts the languid, fatalistic resignation of the doomed artist playing out his role to the end with the semi-comic, down-to-earth practicality of the arresting policemen:


"Mr Woilde, we 'ave come for to take yew                  

 Where felons and criminals dwell,

We must hask yew to leave with us quoitly                    

For this is the Cadogan Hotel."...


The novelist and biographer, A N Wilson has described the poem as giving ‘a stronger sense of Wilde than many of the weighty biographies.'


The poem is almost entirely as it appears in the published version although the title is slightly different, Betjeman using ‘in the Cadogan Hotel; rather than the familiar version ‘at the Cadogan Hotel’. There seems little doubt that this was the ‘near to final’ draft written to send to the Oxford and Cambridge magazine perhaps while Betjeman was at his desk at The Architectural Review.


Poetry: Poetical  Manuscripts and Portraits of Poets,  is the fruit of 40 years of collecting by the poet and scholar Roy Davids and is the finest collection of poetry ever to come to auction.  In Mr David’s  own words, “it would now be impossible for the present collection to be even approximately replicated.’