George Szirtes's "Missing Dates/Sleeve Notes" (October 2007) wisely argues that "the selves that inhabit poetry are imagined selves" and that we should temper our urge to read poets' biographies into their verse. It may follow that "poetry is useless as evidence," but I did a double-take when Szirtes adds that, to his knowledge, "no poem has ever been adduced as evidence in court."
The trials of Oscar Wilde confute Szirtes's statement but also support his broader argument. A poem by Lord Alfred "Bosie" Douglas, Wilde's "homme fatal," was introduced by the prosecution as evidence of Wilde's "unnatural tendency," as were letters by Wilde to Bosie that Wilde defended as "poems in prose." ("Those red rose lips of yours should have been made no less for music of song than for madness of kisses.") Bosie's "Two Loves" was published in The Chameleon, a gay underground literary magazine where Wilde had also published in 1894. The prosecution in effect was trying to establish guilt by association. While perhaps not meriting canonicity, "Two Loves" is nevertheless remembered for its terminal line: "I am the love that dare not speak its name." When the prosecution asked Wilde to explain what this meant, he gave his best defense from the witness stand in all three of his trials, invoking Plato, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare, and earning applause from the courtroom.
The judges in Wilde's trials, however, ultimately instructed the jury to ignore literary evidence (not only the poems in question, but also The Picture of Dorian Gray), on the same grounds that Szirtes sets forth when he declares that a literary work "does not conduct us into the world of cause and effect, the world of biography."