Death of a shrinking violet

Theodore Wratislaw is a conundrum. He is at once one of the most emblematic of the English 1890s poets and one of the most obscure. Almost all of his slim output was confined to that celebrated decade, and his work festers with Decadent tropes of vampiric women, pretty boys, picturesque decay and the triumph of artifice. But beyond the vivid imagery, Wratislaw – Rugby-educated and a qualified solicitor – was outside the hothouse looking in; he lived a life of tidy conventionality, a wallflower who shunned London’s literary haunts.

There are those who turn their lives into their greatest work. Theodore Wratislaw was not among them. As John Betjeman says in his foreword to a slim, posthumously published account of the poet’s encounters with Oscar Wilde, “I doubt whether Wratislaw […] committed any of the purple sins he liked to hint at in his lyrics” (although he also goes on to say “He was a punk before his time, a hot-house flower left down in those soggy playing fields of Rugby…” which merely makes you wonder what Betjeman imagined a punk to be). Although he was a hereditary count of the Holy Roman Empire, Wratislaw could summon none of the performative outrage of such exotic blooms as fellow aristo-poet Count Eric Stenbock. I mean, look at him: that is hardly a face which bespeaks nights of Heliogabalan dissipation.

But somehow that tension between the outer and inner life makes him more interesting, and his banal fate sadder. It wasn’t premature death, prison or drugs which claimed Wratislaw after his last volume of verse in 1896. It was the civil service, which Wratislaw described as “penal servitude”. Or as Matthew Sturgis says in Passionate Attitudes: The English Decadence of the 1890s, “Theodore Wratislaw presented his monstrous Orchids to an ungrateful world and then entered the Estate Duty Office at Somerset House.” You can’t help but wonder what his workmates would have made of a poem like “To a Sicilian Boy” (“Love, I adore the contours of thy shape,/Thine exquisite breasts and arms adorable…”).

Although flattered and bemused by a small flurry of attention he received late in life during one of several 1890s revivals throughout the 20th century, he moaned, “I feel sick of the whole subject of the Nineties and my juvenile contribution.” His pen was stilled, a late plan to write an autobiography abandoned, and Theodore Wratislaw died on this day in 1933.

From that last volume of poetry comes a poem whose subject matter is a hardy perennial of Decadent themes: “Hothouse Flowers”. It goes a little something like this:

I hate the flower of wood or common field.
I cannot love the primrose nor regret
The death of any shrinking violet,
Nor even the cultured garden’s banal yield.
The silver lips of lilies virginal,
The full deep bosom of the enchanted rose
Please less than flowers glass-hid from frost and snows
For whom an alien heat makes festival.
I love those flowers reared by man’s careful art,
Of heady scents and colours: strong of heart
Or weak that die beneath the touch of knife,
Some rich as sin and some as virtue pale,
And some as subtly infamous and frail
As she whose love still eats my soul and life.

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8 comments

  1. Wratislaw’s work lives on in one small way that might have surprised him: that wonderful phrase “an alien heat” is the title of the equally wonderful fantasy by Michael Moorcock that’s the first book in his Dancers at the End of Time trilogy. Moorcock took all the titles for those books, and the related short stories, from Decadent poetry (Ernest Dowson provided titles for the other two novels).

  2. Algabal

    “To a Sicilian Boy” is a poem I adore. Even if some regard it as mere decadent posturing, it speaks to me as a genuine and powerful expression of love and erotic desire.

    I’m happy to finally have a picture of Wratislaw! Thank you again for your marvelous work here.

    • Many thanks! Yes he’s an elusive flower our Wratislaw. And I agree, “To a Sicilian Boy” seems to be motivated by more authentic emotion than some of his other work. It’s the exclamation marks which give him away…

  3. I’ve always said that faux decadence is better than none at all! It reveals an appreciation of the real thing, and that in itself is a tiny step towards some sort of liberation, even if it’s merely confined to one’s interior life. Great post, as ever!

  4. Pingback: The literary lion in winter | Strange Flowers

  5. Pingback: Late entries | Strange Flowers

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