A few days ago, I posted a proposal on Kickstarter for research into the life and work of the poet Lord Alfred Douglas. (Only 25 hours to go! Can we make it happen?) To my tremendous surprise, even though I told one or two friends about it, my idea has so far failed to go viral. I was baffled by this. I mean, who doesn’t love strict formalism and the Petrarchan sonnet, am I right?
I did a bit of exploring on the Kickstarter site to see what types of pitches receive the most funding and I think I know what my problem is. My project does not have enough potato in it.
In case you do not know what I am talking about, I am referring to one of the site’s most wildly successful campaigns. An Ohio guy promises he will make potato salad:
He does not promise it will be good potato salad. It is just potato salad. He has thousands of backers and a total today of $54, 504.
This is not surprising at all. People like potato salad.
I would like a bit of that spud windfall myself. While my project (primary research to create a sample chapter that will form the basis of a full length biography) pales in ambition and scope to “Basically I’m just making potato salad. I haven’t decided what kind yet,” it does have certain potato salad aspects that may not be obvious on the surface. So here is a top ten list of how Lord Alfred Douglas is like potato salad.
1. To make potato salad you need to pick potatoes. Potatoes are Irish, Oscar Wilde was Irish and Lord Alfred Douglas picked him.
Here’s how Irish Oscar Wilde was: his parents met protesting the Irish potato famine.
2. Potatoes grow underground and need to be dug up. Biographical information also needs to be unearthed through trips to dusty archives.
Hidden away in an archive at the New York Public library are the letters between Lord Alfred Douglas and his wife the poet Olive Custance. Custance was part of Douglas’s life for four decades. I will be looking for previously unpublished clues as to her influence on his life and work.
3. Potato salad is traditional and made by following a recipe. Lord Alfred Douglas preferred the strict structure of the sonnet as his poetic recipe.
To see the moment holds a madrigal,
To find some cloistered place, some hermitage
For free devices, some deliberate cage
Wherein to keep wild thoughts like birds in thrall;
To eat sweet honey and to taste black gall,
To fight with form, to wrestle and to rage,
Till at the last upon the conquered page
The shadows of created Beauty fall.
The octet of Lord Alfred Douglas’s Sonnet on the Sonnet is a fitting metaphor for the poet’s life. He was a man of unruly passions, an inheritance they say, of the “mad bad” Douglas line. Douglas would spend most of his life in search of a structure, a “deliberate cage” to hold them. He had absolute devotion to any cause he took up. He expected absolute love from his friends. He chose as his preferred art for the rigid form of the Petrachan sonnet. He chose for his religion an un-yielding form of Catholicism. He longed to return to childhood, when rules were clear and all choices were made for him. He even found his greatest peace in prison.
4. A main ingredient in potato salad is mayonnaise. To make mayonnaise, you need to break some eggs. Lord Alfred Douglas did a lot of smashing with his hot temper.
When Douglas was in a good mood he could not sit still. He would fidget and pace, jump up and sit down. When angered, he could not contain the emotion, he would explode and then the storm would pass, but not without leaving hard feelings in its wake. It was an aspect of his personality he would have to wrestle with his entire life.
Douglas was aware of his own turbulent emotions at an early age. The closest he came to explaining how these tempers felt from inside was the 1891 poem “A Summer Storm,” “…but lo! one note/Of harsh discord, one word of bitterness,/And a fierce overwhelming wilderness/Of angry waters chokes my gasping throat.”
5. Potato salad is a mixture of odd ingredients. Lord Alfred Douglas’s personality was also a mix of odd ingredients.
Douglas seemed to be everything and its opposite all at once, and all of it in the extreme. He was a romantic poet, a dreamer, loyal to a fault and also combative, haughty, vile. He was self-centered and generous, a gentleman and a non-conformist, a titled Lord with no money, born with the advantage of social privilege and the disadvantage of a family legacy of mental instability. He could not take criticism, but he loved to dish it out. He cuts the figure of a knight in the wrong time, mounting his horse in full armor to do battle with a cream pie. The famous Monty Python sketch about the man who is alternately rude and polite could very well have been inspired by his lordship. George Bernard Shaw wrote “Alfred is a psychological curiosity. Sometimes he is possessed by his father, sometimes by his mother; often by both simultaneously. Add to this that his age varies from five to fifty without a word of warning.” Another team of biographers called him “a kaleidoscope of a man. …we gaze upon a cinema of a man of many selves; each turn of the cinamatograph reveals a new man, or rather a new shade to a chameleon’s skin.”
6. Admittedly the aristocratic Douglas never cooked for himself. But here is a Victorian potato salad recipe that one of his servants might have whipped up.
From Godey’s Lady’s Book 1861.
Boil as many potatoes as will make a dish for your family; when done peal them carefully and slice while hot into a deep dish;cut in very small pieces young onions or shives (chives) and mix them among the slices, distributing a little pepper and salt; pour over the whole, good vinegar, scalding hot, and send it to the table immediately. A wholesome and pleasant dish for spring and early summer.
(After his wife’s death, an elderly Douglas fell into an absolute panic when his maid had to go to the hospital and he thought he might starve to death. He wrote to Shaw, “I was left with no servant and an utter impossibility of getting one… Without a servant I couldn’t live and had to go to hotels at ruinous expense… At present I am in a miserable state of health caused by worry and anxiety… and inability to sleep.”)
7. The Douglases were Scottish. Here is a Scottish potato salad recipe.
10 waxy potatoes, diced
4 ounces (100g) shelled fresh peas (or frozen peas)
4 ounces cooked beetroot (red beets) diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Two teaspoons chopped onion
One teaspoon chopped fresh parsley
Four tablespoons (60ml) salad dressing or salad cream
Fresh parsley to garnish
Boil the potatoes in salted water for ten minutes or until tender. Drain and pat dry. Cook the peas separately for about five minutes or until tender and then drain.
While the vegetables are still warm, mix together and stir in the chopped parsley and onion and season with salt and pepper to taste.
Fold in the salad dressing (or salad cream) to moisten, and garnish with sprigs of fresh parsley.
Source: Traditional Scottish Recipes
8. Potato salad is a staple at dinner parties, as was Lord Alfred Douglas.
9. Lord Alfred Douglas had a lot of salad days due to his life-long hobby of betting on losing horses. (He even placed a losing bet on a horse on the day he died.)
10. Potatoes assume the most curious shapes, as did Alfred Douglas’s life.
Enjoy this clip from the 1895 journal The Sketch, which juxtaposes a story about an oddly shaped potato with a notice about a poem based on a letter from Oscar Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas.
(The poem based on the letter was written in an attempt to thwart blackmailers.)
Join me tomorrow when I will explain what Lord Alfred Douglas has in common with the proposed “I Know Where Your Cat Lives” ap.
[P.S. Thank you to Kickstarter for naming my project a “staff pick” today.]