The Exiled King
By Bryan R. Monte
Oscar Wilde (1854 -1900)
The innocent always suffer
And we are all innocent
Until we are found out.
Wilde to Esterhazy, 1898
In my black cape and top hat
I am a shade in this luminous city
A vagabond, a poseur living off old stories.
I must wait here until they give me up
And scratch away like some great ape
The salve’s no success, the rash persists
My ear is near to bursting!
I sit and sip my absinthe
And wait for it to take effect
To unwind the wound that’s wound
Its way deep inside my brain.
I am Sebastian Melmoth. I am the Happy Prince.
I am the tall, shabby man with an upturned collar
Who stands outside the pastry shop biting his fingers
Then feeds the birds the bread he has begged.
They call to me and their mates as they circle
The bronze general along the boulevard
On whose great green shoulders and hat
They leave their merry tribute.
It was not long ago people paid dearly to see me
In another country, in such a public place
They said I carried a lily
Through the square at Piccadilly
Soon all London was ablaze with my bright phrases
Either those drapes go or I go
Everyday I find it harder to live up to my blue china
I can resist everything except temptation.
The bitter truth sugared with a great deal of wit
Guaranteed my entrée into polite society and the literati
I became the new Congreve with plays on two stages
An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest
Balfour and the Prince of Wales bragged of my acquaintance
Whilst others crowded around in nervous amusement
Trying to catch my infectious conversation.
The milkman and the postman even bought my picture
And asked mother if she were any relation!
It was the same when I made my New York debut
While I waited the night in ship’s quarantine
Reporters came out of the sea to meet me
Their pens still dripping with brine
I met them in a great green coat trimmed with otter
A white shirt with a wide Byronic lapel
A sky blue mariners tie, purple knee breeches
And black patent leather shoes
I was exotic, I was fantastic
I was everything they had hoped I would be.
I quickly discovered my greatest collegiate defence
That dress is the weapon to disarm one’s audience.
At Customs they asked if I had anything to declare
And I replied: Only my genius, and then I was off
On my year-long, transcontinental tour
New York, Boston, Halifax, Buffalo, Chicago
Omaha, Topeka, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, San Francisco and back
To lecture on Dress, The House Beautiful, and The English Renaissance.
I saw the condemned man in Leavenworth reading Dante
Silver miners in Leadville open a vein in my honour
And at Harvard, 60 boys dressed as Whistler
White flowing hair and Bunthorne’s great hat
Limping languidly in procession, carrying sunflowers
These are the kind of compliments mediocrity pays greatness
You should have heard their sighs of distress
As I rose to the stage in plain evening dress.
Then followed the lilied receptions in great mansions
The writers, reporters, publishers and politicians
Falling over each other or the Japanese screens
That cluttered dark rooms grey with incense
The curtains drawn against the afternoon sun
In the gaslight the guests looked absolutely grotesque
While I in my ermine looked fantastic
At Blanche Roosevelt’s Count Chiero read fortunes
From hands thrust anonymously through silk curtains
She looked at mine for a moment and said:
The left hand, the hand of a king
The right, a king who sends himself into exile
I left the party without a word.
Yes, I was the Happy Prince
Who stood as the general in the town square
And bid the young swallow strip me bare
My rubied sword, my sapphire eyes, my gold leaf coat
To feed the feverish boy oranges
To clothe the tattered match girl
To warm the two boys under the bridge
Shivering in each others arms, who dared not speak
For this I stripped myself dull and grey.
For half an hour I stood
In the grey November rain
On the centre platform
At Clapham Junction
Handcuffed and in convict dress
Surrounded by a jeering mob
Whose numbers swelled
With each arriving train.
And when winter came
Blind, exposed and defenceless
My heart cracked from the cold
Indifference of those I’d clothed and fed
John Donoghue, I found you on a lecture stop
In a bare room at the top of an enormous building
Starving upon a radish and a crust of bread
Who praised your statue of young Sophocles to the press?
Who obtained the commissions for your studio in Paris?
And Monsieur Gide, who fancies himself a Uranian
Won’t even sit with me in the public café
Because in my company he loses the habit of thinking
Even mother’s friends turn away. Last week
The Contessa de Brémont at the Spanish Café
Put up her fan so I could not approach
But next morning, alone, on the bateaux moches
To Saint Cloud she was all apologies
Saying she couldn’t sleep the night
She asked why I no longer write.
I looked out into the brown water
That should have been blue and said:
I wrote when I did not know life
And now that I do, I have nothing more to say
Once the boat reached the shore, she quickly walked away
And you, George Alexander, grinning idiotically
As you passed me on your silver bicycle by the sea
I made you rich from the receipts from my plays
Now you have no time to stop these days.
Tell me George, when they sacked my house
Whilst I lay in prison, how much
Did my presentation volumes bring?
The ones by Hugo, Swinburne and Whitman
The drawings by Burne-Jones, Whistler and Simeon?
My antique Thomas Carlyle writing desk
Surely these were sufficient to pay my debts
But these were the least of my treasures.
Where are my children, Cyril and Vivian?
From whom I created the Happy Prince?
Shall I ever see them again? They have a new name
What is it? Holland, I think, given by my dead wife
To conceal them from the modern angels of death – the press
Though she could not hide herself as well.
In the foothills of Genoa there is a simple stone
Constance Mary, daughter of Harold Lloyd, Q.C.
There’s not even the slightest mention of me.
And where is the young swallow
I bid strip me of all my riches?
Will he not kiss me once before I die?
My dear Bosie, my beautiful boy from Magdalen
Whose boxing, bullying father broke me
Will you not pay my legal fees as promised
Now that you have your £20,000 inheritance?
Did you not enjoy our villa in Naples?
Do you not love me more than your horses?
Now we can afford that white house on Corfu
Where we swam in the bay with the bronzed fisherboys
But you’re never coming back, are you?
They have all deserted me except two
My dear Robbie Ross who waited for hours
In a long, dark corridor as I passed
From prison to Bankruptcy Court
So that he could silently tip his hat
Men have gone to heaven for smaller things then that.
And Frank Harris who nightly sits by my bed
My guide through the tremors and coughs
Of the sulphureous underworld
There are two types of nurses in this world
This one must give me over to the boatman.
And when winter came, the town’s councillors took me down
And melted my grey form in a furnace
To make a memorial to themselves from my metal
My leaden heart they could not render.
On his iron stand in the twilight
The general slowly wades into the night
Shadows erasing his heavy boots, large hands
Fierce eyes and scornful mouth
Until nothing of his visage is left
But darkness, darkness under the hat.