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SEX AND SEXUALITY, 1640 - 1940
Literary, Medical and Sociological Perspectives

Part 5: Gay Literature from Anacreon to John Addington Symonds from the British Library, London

Part 5 of Sex and Sexuality provides an essential resource for all those interested in the History of Gay Literature. Works such as Claude Summer’s The Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage (1995) have made it clear that there is a rich tradition of writings about homosexuality, but that few libraries possess these texts. This project seeks to fill that gap, by making available rare volumes from the Private Case and other collections at the British Library.

The project explores the physical, spiritual, psychological and cultural dimensions of homosexuality through a range of titles and genres, covering the Classical period, the Renaissance, the sexual libertarianism of Restoration England, the bawdiness of the 18th century, the hidden underside of the Victorian era, through into the early twentieth century.

Homosexuality was not coined as a term until the 19th century and the ancient Greeks and Romans took for granted same sex love and the attraction of younger boys. The earliest items in the collection give us a window on the sexual habits at a time when homosexuality was an accepted fact of life and featured in many plays and poems. Translations of works by Anacreon, Aristophanes, Ovid and Tibullus are included and the mores and actions depicted served as an effective endorsement for many classically educated young men. The nature of the 19th century translations are themselves of interest – what was said and what was unsaid?

We include works for the Renaissance period concerning homosexuality, two by Richard Barnfield, The Affectionate Shepherd, 1594 and Cynthia with Certaine Sonnets, 1595, a work by Robert Greene entitled Menaphon, 1589 and Marlowe’s Edward II. Both of Barnfield’s poems describe a shepherd’s longing for a younger man using pastoral homoerotic similes, whilst Marlowe’s Edward II, describes a weak king who is manipulated by his homosexual lover.

We include a good number of items for the Restoration when King Charles II’s court was known for its sexual freedom and love of pleasure. The period was a world of man-boy relations which were condemned but still thrived. One of the infamous cases of the mid 17th century was the case of John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore who was accused of sodomy with his steward and both men were convicted and hanged. We include Atherton’s account of the case, The Life and Death of John Atherton, 1641.

Included also is a play by George Etherege, The Man of Mode, 1676 which revolves around the life of bisexuals and transvestites.

Nathaniel Lee’s celebrated plays include The Princess of Cleve, 1689 which tells the story of a bisexual man; The Rival Queens, 1677 depicting male couples as lovers; Massacre of Paris 1689 and Caesar Borgia 1680 in which homosexuality is shown more as homoerotic than sodomitical. John Wilmot, the Earl of Rochester was a notorious libertine of the period and we include examples of his poetry and his drama describing various acts of sexual activity such as A Satyr against Mankind, 1675 and Valentinian, a Tragedy, 1691.

William III’s notoriety as a sodomite saw a rise in plays about the subject in the latter part of the 17th century. Thomas Southerne and John Crowne’s plays contain different types of sodomites as their central characters, as illustrated in Southerne’s comedy The Maid’s Last Prayer, 1693 and John Crowne’s The Married Beau, 1694.

In the 18th century a subclass evolved with the homosexual no longer confined to the court but roaming the parks, tea houses, carnivals and spas in search of personal pleasure. The “mollies”, as they were called, had their own meeting places and sub-culture but there no longer existed the tacit acceptance of homosexuality and men seen as a sodomites were open to public disgrace. The literature of the period provided the reader with realistic descriptions of the new social type and warned them against the new menace in works such as Satan’s Harvest Home: or the Present State of Whorecraft, 1749 and Sodom and Onan, 1776 by William Jackson both of which we include in this collection. The Marquis de Sade was by turns notorious and well read – and his works of pornography, often include homosexuality activity as can be seen in La Philosphie dans le Boudoir, 1795.

The project is strongest for the 19th and early 20th centuries when a rich literature emerged describing the varieties of homosexual behaviour.  Homophobia in the British Isles increased in the nineteenth century while in Europe there was a general tolerance of homosexuality and Paris became the place of exile for writers such as Oscar Wilde.

An infamous case of the early nineteenth century was the scandal of the Bishop of Clogher who was found in a compromising position with a Grenadier guardsman. It is recorded in A Correct Account of the Horrible Occurrence which took place at a public-house in St James, 1822. We include writings of two of the great British nineteenth literary figures who wrote about homosexuality, Byron and Oscar Wilde. Byron’s Don Leon, published in 1833 is said to be an account of his homosexual life and an appeal for law reform. Homosexual scandals occurred throughout the nineteenth century but probably the best known is the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895. We include his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890 in which homosexuality is only implied but still caused an outcry.

The most open homosexual work of the mid nineteenth century was Ionica, 1858 by William Johnson (sometimes known as William Cory). It contains, amongst heterosexual poems and classical settings, many expressions of male-male desire. John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) was inspired by Ionica and produced many works advocating male-male love, a good number of which are included in this collection.  We offer his second, third and fourth publicly distributed books of poems containing homosexual material, New and Old, 1880, Animi Figura, 1882  and Vagabunduli Libellus, 1884. His privately printed and distributed A Problem in Greek Ethics, 1883, a defence of homosexuality is also included. Two other important texts included by him are In the Key of Blue, 1893, a collection of essays, and Walt Whitman, A Study, 1893.

1896 saw the appearance of two important publications in defence of homosexuality, both by Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Poems and The Greek View of Life. Frederick William Rolfe, known by his pseudonym of Baron Corvo, published six pieces in the Yellow Book, 1897 which he called Stories Toto Told Me. The stories describe his erotic adventures with his male friends whilst in Italy one summer.

Other important works for the 19th century included in this publication are the controversial work Poems and Ballads, 1866 by Algernon Charles Swinburne containing lesbian and bisexual content; Marius the Epicurean, 1892 a novel by Walter Pater; The Terminal Essay from Richard Burton’s translation of The Arabian Nights, 1885; two works by Theodore Winthrop; Two Years before the Mast, 1841 by Richard Henry Dana and Roderick Hudson, 1876 by Henry James telling the story of the development of a young sculptor.

The defence of homosexuality continued into the twentieth century culminating with the gay liberation movement in the 1960s and the ensuing changes to the laws concerning homosexuality. Included are titles by Ronald Firbank, William J Ibbett, and Vernon Lee (Violet Paget).

Included also are works by French writers such as Theophile Gautier, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine and Joris-Karl Huysmans, a work in German by John Henry Mackay and in Italian by Antonio Rocco. The hugely important Leaves of Grass by the great American author Walt Whitman is also included.

Biographical Notes on Authors

Anacreon (c570-c485 BC)

Born in Asia Minor he spent most of his life in Samos, Athens and Thessalia. He was known for his satires and poems featuring love and infatuation. Included in this collection are translations of his poems published in 1815.

Aristophanes (c460/450-c386 BC)

Aristophanes was a Greek Old Comic dramatist and his writing covers the period from Athen’s political and moral decline to a return to prosperity shortly before his death. His plays, full of social and political observations, concentrate on Athenian sexual mores and include a good deal of slapstick humour concerning parts of the body which appealed to the lower classes. The Knights is reported to be a criticism of Cleon, one of the most important men in Athens.

John Atherton (1598-1640)

He was born in Bridgewater, Somerset and educated at Oxford. He moved to Ireland eventually rising from prebendary in Dublin to Lord Bishop of Waterford and Lismore. In 1640 he was accused of sodomy with his steward and tithe proctor, John Childe and both men were convicted and hanged. They were only the second pair of men executed for sodomy in UK history and numerous pamphlets were written about the notorious case including the one included in this collection The Life and Death of John Atherton, 1641. It contains lurid illustrations of the men on the gallows.

Thomas Artus

We include his work Les Hermaphrodites, 1610.

Richard Barnfield (1574-1620)

He was born in Staffordshire, spent his youth in Shropshire, studied at Oxford and became a lawyer. While at Oxford he became friends with the poets Thomas Watson and Michael Drayton and possibly Edmund Spenser. The Affectionate Shepherd, 1594, his first poem, was based on the second eclogue of Virgil and Cynthia, with Certaine Sonnets, 1595 is written in the Spenserian stanza and would appear to be a panegyric on Queen Elizabeth. Both of the poems describe a shepherd’s longing for a younger man using pastoral homoerotic similes.

Thomas Lovell Beddoes (1803-1849)

Born near Bristol and educated at Oxford he went to Germany to study medicine and practised in Zurich. Throughout his life he suffered with depression, committing suicide with poison in Basel and much of his work is preoccupied with death. We include his poem Dream Pedlary, 1910.

Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)

An explorer and orientalist who spoke around 30 languages, he translated most famously The Kama Sutra,1883 and The Arabian Nights – a plain and literal translation, 1885. We include the Terminal Essay from the latter which describes a wide range of sexual practices, including a frank discussion of homosexuality.

Samuel Butler (1835-1902)

He was born in Nottinghamshire, educated at Cambridge and emigrated to New Zealand where he became a sheep farmer.  Although his most famous novel is The Way of all Flesh he was the author of several satirical novels, books on controversial scientific subjects and the translator of Greek and Latin works. We include his homoerotic work Shakespeare’s Sonnets Reconsidered, 1927.

Lord George Gordon Noel Byron (1788-1824)

Byron was brought up in Scotland and educated at Harrow and Cambridge. He became famous with the publication of Childe Harold in 1812 and went on to write some of England’s best loved Romantic poetry. Although his sexuality was in doubt he married and had affairs.  He left England for ever in 1816 travelling to Switzerland and Italy where he wrote Don Juan, 1866 and finally to Greece where he took part in the war of independence against the Turks.  

John Crowne (c1641-1712)

He was born in England and accompanied his father to the New World in 1657 where he studied at Harvard. He returned to England without graduating in 1660. He produced numerous plays most of which were based on heroic love. We include his play The Married Beau, 1694.

Richard Henry Dana (1815-1882)

Born in Cambridge Massachusetts, he attended Harvard. Suffering from ill health he enlisted as a common sailor on a voyage round Cape Horn to California, visiting settlements there including Monterey, San Diego, Santa Barbara and San Francisco. He kept a diary during his trip and his experiences formed the basis for his book Two Years Before the Mast, 1841 included in this collection. The book is one of America’s most famous accounts of life at sea and provides a detailed account of life on the California coast before the Gold Rush. He later became a lawyer, an advocate for the rights of seamen, an expert on maritime law and a prominent abolitionist playing a prominent part in the politics of the American Civil War.

Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (1862-1932)

He was born in London, studied medicine at Cambridge and had an intense platonic love affair there with Roger Fry. Together with other well known figures he drafted schemes for the League of Nations and he played a leading role in the founding of a group of international pacifists known as the Bryce Group.

He believed that the study of the Greeks was very important to the contemporary world and his book The Greek View of Life, 1896 which was published in several dozen editions was recommended as an excellent overview of ancient Athenian attitudes to religion, the state, art and the individual. We also include Poems, 1896.

John Dryden (1631-1700)

He was a poet, translator and playwright, born in Northamptonshire who became the dominant literary figure of his age and famous for his satiric poetry and comedies. His play Don Sebastian, King of Portugal, 1690 tells the story of a king who abdicates because of an act of incest.

George Etherege (1636-1689)

Born in Berkshire he studied law in London . His plays introduced a style of wit previously unknown on the British stage and he vividly portrays gay young gentlemen enjoying their amorous adventures. After writing two very successful plays, The Man of Mode, or Sir Fopling Flutter, 1676 is recognised as the best comedy of intrigue written in England before the days of Congreve. It had a witty plot and satirised persons who were well known in London at the time.  

Ronald Firbank (1886-1926)

Born in London he left Cambridge without completing his degree. Author of several books, we include here Valmouth, 1919, Santal, 1921 and the play The Princess Zoubaroh, 1920.  Valmouth is set on the west coast of England and describes the activities of elderly people at a health spa. He was a great admirer of Oscar Wilde who appears thinly disguised in The Princess of Zoubaroh.  

Theophile Gautier (1811-1872)

He was born in Tarbes, France, educated in Paris and became a poet, dramatist, novelist, journalist and literary critic. His early poetry written in the 1830s was written in the style of the Romantic Movement but he later took up the idea of “art for art’s sake”. He became the leader of the Parnassian school of poetry which believed that poetry should be concerned with artistic effect rather than life.

His most important novel was Mademoiselle de Maupin, 1883, a historical romance telling the story of a love triangle - a man and his mistress who both fall in love with Madelaine de Maupin who is disguised as a man.

Robert Greene (1558-1592)

He was born in Norwich, attended Cambridge and Oxford and then moved to London. He became a well-known personality publishing pamphlets, plays and romances and became one of the first authors to fully support himself by his writing. He lived a rather scandalous life, mixing with the seamier side of life in Elizabethan London. He is well known to Shakespeare scholars as one of his pamphlets makes one of the very first references to Shakespeare as a writer. Menaphon, 1589 written in imitation of Arcadia by Sir Philip Sidney is an example of one of his better romances and the short poems and songs included are considered his finest.

Robert Smythe Hitchen

We include his work The Green Carnation, 1894.

Joris-Karl Huysmans (1848-1907) pseudonym of Charles Marie Georges Huysmans

A French novelist living in Paris, he wrote semi-autobiographical novels which depict the seamy side of Paris life while working as a civil servant for the Ministry of the Interior. His style is known for its breadth of vocabulary, very detailed description and satirical wit. His early novel Marthe Histoire d’une fille, 1876, the story of a young prostitute, depicting how physical or spiritual escape is morally wrong, shows the influence of Emile Zola’s work. His most famous novel Against the Grain (A Rébours), 1922 is the story of an aesthete and his homosexual encounters in Paris. The novel was to influence Oscar Wilde and his writing and formed a key exhibit as an example of a sodomitical book at Wilde’s trial in 1895.

William J Ibbett

We include his work A Greek Garland of Amorous Trifles, 1925.

William  Jackson

We include his work Sodom and Onan, 1776.

Henry James (1843-1916)

Regarded as one of America’s greatest writers he was born in New York and lived most of his adult life in Britain. He studied law at Harvard but was drawn to writing and contributed articles to American periodicals. He is regarded as one of the founders and leaders of the school of realism in fiction and is best known for his novels such as The Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of a Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl which had as their central themes the meeting of the American and European way of life. Many of his friends in Britain belonged to an artistic circle which was considered to be homosexual and research carried out on his correspondence in recent years raises questions about his sexuality.

Jocelyn Percy (1764-1843)

He was Anglican Bishop of Clogher in the Church of Ireland from 1820-1822. The pamphlet A Correct Account of the Horrible Occurrence which took place at a public-house in St James, 1822 tells the story of how he was caught in an compromising position with a Grenadier guardsman in a public house in London. He was the most senior British churchman to be involved in a public homosexual scandal in the 19th century and the case became the subject of many cartoons, pamphlets and limericks. He was removed from his position as bishop for “the crimes of immorality, incontinence, Sodomitical practices, habits, and propensities, and neglect of his spiritual, judicial, and ministerial duties”.

William Johnson (1823-1892) also known as William Cory

Born in Devon, England he was educated at Eton where he later became a master. Despite being a great educator he was forced to resign in middle age for supposed homosexual activity. He is best known for his Uranian poem Ionica, 1858 which was a collection of homoerotic and pederastic poems dedicated to one of his pupils, later Lord Halifax. He is the author of the well known Eton Boating Song.

Nathaniel Lee (c1653-1692)

Educated at Cambridge, he wanted to act but turned to writing plays. The Rival Queens, or the Death of Alexander the Great, 1677 which has jealousy as its theme was a favourite on the English stage for many years. His associates in London belonged to the John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester circle and he lived their profligate way of life. We include three more of his plays in this collection.

Vernon Lee (1856-1935) pseudonym of Violet Paget

Born in France to British parents she spent most of her life in Italy. She is known mostly for her supernatural fiction but wrote also essays and poetry and contributed to the “Yellow Book”. Her circle included many famous male writers but she preferred close friendships with women. She was responsible for introducing the concept of empathy into the English language and her writings were influenced by Walter Pater, the pioneer of the English Aesthetic Movement. Ariadne in Mantua, 1903, a romance is recognised as her most self-revealing work. The Beautiful, 1913, also included in this collection, is a study of aesthetics.

John Henry Mackay (1864-1933)

Born in Scotland of German and Scottish parents, he returned to Germany with his German mother when his father died. He wrote in German and initially gained recognition as a lyric poet writing novellas. His novel Der Schwimmer, 1901 was one of the first literary sports novels ever written. He achieved fame with two books about anarchy Die Anarchisten and Der Freiheitsucher and also wrote books about homosexual love under the pseudonym Sagitta.

Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)

Born in Canterbury and educated at Cambridge he is famous for tragedies such as Tamburlaine, The Jew of Malta and The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus in the years preceding Shakespeare. Edward II which is included in the collection is one of the very few Renaissance plays to deal with the subject of homosexuality. It tells the story of the dethronement of the homosexual Edward II by his barons and French queen.  

Ovid (43BC-AD17)

Born near Rome, Publius Ovidius Naso was educated in Athens and travelled widely in Asia and Europe. We include his poem Ars amatoria (Art of Love) which gives details on lovemaking. It caused a scandal in Rome and led to his banishment.

Walter Pater (1839-1894)

As an essayist and critic, born in London who lived most of his life in Oxford, he is remembered primarily as an innovator in aesthetics – “art for art’s sake”. His writings aimed to introduce to his age the art and literature of the Renaissance and his hedonistic life was a great influence on his younger contemporaries, Symons, Edmund Gosse, Gerald Manley Hopkins and Oscar Wilde. His novel Marius the Epicurean, 1892 is a study of the thoughts and feelings of a young second century Roman.

Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891)

A French poet and father of French symbolism, he produced his best work while still in his teens. His relationship with the French poet Paul Verlaine was to end violently and it was during this period he wrote Une Saison en Enfer, 1873 examining his spiritual state in poetry and prose. The work is regarded as a pre-cursor to modern Symbolist writing.

Antonio Rocco (1586-1653)

This Italian writer is famous for a single book which was condemned as filthy and obscene but was finally published in 1652 twenty years after it was written. It is called L’Alcibiade Fanciullo a Scola (The Boy Alcybiades at School) and tells the story of a teacher trying to persuade a pupil to have sexual relationships with him.

Frederick Rolfe ( Pseudonym Baron Corvo) (1860-1913)

He was born in London and after converting to Roman Catholicism wished to become a priest, an ambition which was never realised and he became a freelance writer and photographer, mostly of nude men. Most of his writings concern homosexuality. He was a regular contributor to the Yellow Book for which the series Stories Toto Told Me, 1897 was written. These are retellings of Italian peasant legends about the saints, later collected into book form with a sequel and entitled In his Own Image, 1901.

Marquis de Sade (1740-1814)

A French writer infamous for his licentious and scandalous life and for the pornography he wrote, his works have been the subject of much argument and discussion. We include his play La Philosophie dans le Boudoir, 1795 which is a pornographic tale concerning a young woman and her corruption by a woman, her brother and a homosexual. The characters are all bisexual and prefer the act of sodomy.

Simeon Solomon (1840-1905)

Born in London to a prominent Jewish family he became a well known painter of the Pre-Raphaelite circle. He was open about his sexuality and was sentenced to hard labour for openly attempting to procure men in London. He spent his last years suffering from alcoholism in a London workhouse.

Thomas Southerne (1660-1746)

Born in Dublin, he became a lawyer and a soldier before turning to writing plays. He wrote numerous plays, both comedies and drama, The Maid’s Last Prayer, 1693 being one of them. His plays were regularly revived and remained popular over the succeeding years.

Philip Stubbes (1550?-1593?)

As an English poet and pamphleteer, in his famous work Anatomie of Abuses, 1583, he addressed the controversy concerning certain aspects of the Catholic doctrine which had been carried over into the Church of England. His ridicule of dancing, theatre and other activities deemed immoral gave him the reputation of being a Puritan.

Howard Overing Sturgis (1855-1920)

He was born in London to a rich and well-connected family who mixed with well known figures such as Henry Adams and William Makepeace Thackeray. His novel Tim: A Story of Eton, 1891 recounts the unhappy time he spent at Eton. After attending Cambridge he lived with his lover “The Babe” for many years.

Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)

He was born in London and after attending Oxford became famous for his verse dramas. Poems and Ballads, 1866 caused one of the most famous literary scandals of the period as it attempted to shock the reader with a celebration of physical love in the spirit of the ancient Greek lyric poets and French contemporaries. He enjoyed a hedonistic life style and counted Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris as his friends.

John Addington Symonds (1840-1893)

Born in Bristol and educated at Harrow he married but had several homosexual lovers. It was while he was in Europe with one of his male pupils that he wrote some of his best poetry New and Old: A Volume of Verse, 1880. He eventually settled at Davos in Switzerland and it was here that he wrote most of his books. A volume of essays In the Key of Blue, 1893 and Walt Whitman, A Study, 1893 were published in the year of his death.

Symonds could not speak openly about his homosexuality but he privately published a large number of poems on the subject and in 1883 wrote one of the first essays in defence of homosexuality A Problem in Greek Ethics followed in 1896 by A Problem in Modern Ethics which included proposals for the reform of anti-homosexual legislation. These essays continued to be read widely by homosexual writers for many decades after and in the late twentieth century more of his personal writings and letters were finally published.

Albius Tibullus (c 54-19 BC)

Tibullus was a Latin poet and writer of elegies. His book of love elegies included in this collection contains details of his love affairs with men as well as women.

Paul Verlaine (1844-1896)

French poet and leader of the Symbolist movement, he was born in Metz and educated in Paris. He was briefly married but left his wife to live with the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. After a drunken quarrel with him, during which Rimbaud was injured, he spent two years in prison and converted to Roman Catholicism. Many of his poems reflect on his life with Rimbaud. He taught in England and in France and his infatuation with one of his pupils, Lucien Létinois produced more poetry. In his later years he was addicted to drink and drugs and lived in poverty in Paris. We include his poem Hombres, 1903.

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

The famous American poet, essayist, journalist and humanist is regarded as the most influential poet in American literature. He was born on Long Island and worked as a journalist, teacher, clerk and as a volunteer nurse during the American Civil War, at the same time producing memorable poetry. He is believed to be homosexual.

Leaves of Grass, a collection of poetry which he would continue editing and revising until his death is recognised as his greatest work. The first edition published in 1855 caused considerable interest but was also criticised for its obscenity. Further editions appeared throughout his lifetime and we include that for 1856.

Oscar Wilde (1854-1900)

Educated at Trinity College Dublin and Oxford, he was famous for his bohemian life style. At the beginning of his career he published poetry and novels such as The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890 but it was as a playwright he enjoyed most success. Accused and convicted of homosexual conduct with Lord Alfred Douglas at the peak of his career in 1895 he served hard labour in Reading prison before moving to France where he died a few years later.

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (1647-1680)

An English libertine and writer of satirical and bawdy poetry, he was born in Oxfordshire and attended Oxford University. Although he married and had a mistress his poetry suggests he was bi-sexual. He led a very dissolute life and by his early thirties was dead from alcoholism and possibly syphilis. His poems and dramas deal with scandals in the court of Charles II and are influenced by his reading of French and Latin poets. His poem A Satyr Against Mankind, 1675 was admired but was infamous for its denunciation of rationalism and optimism.

Theodore Winthrop (1828-1861)

A writer, lawyer and traveller, he was born in New Haven, Connecticut. After graduating from Yale he travelled in Great Britain, Europe and USA. He wrote and contributed various articles to periodicals before the Civil War but it was not till after his death that his books were published. John Brent, 1876 was based on his experiences in the West and Cecil Dreeme, 1876 his most important work, discussed morality and gender at New York University.

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