• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Subversive Activities

And yet, as Crompton himself seems at times to feel, this is not an adequate explanation for the deep roots and long duration of English prejudice on this subject. The Napoleonic wars ended with victory in 1815 but the rate of executions went up; the death penalty was not rescinded until 1861, when it was replaced by life imprisonment, and sexual relations between men were not decriminalized until 1967. Given the frequency of homosexual attachments among upper-class Englishmen who attended public schools and all-male universities in the century and a half between Byron’s departure and the Wolfenden Report of 1957, one can only wonder why legal redress came so late. Perhaps the brake on reform was fear of the rancorous antagonism of the lower classes that made possible the atrocity of the pillory and that manifested itself as late as 1895 when a mob attacked Oscar Wilde on his way to prison. Even so one might have expected that as the years went by the laws would be allowed to fall into oblivion. What happened, however, was exactly the opposite: arrests for homosexual offenses reached the number of three thousand as late as 1952. What these archaic laws did encourage, of course, was blackmail. How many prominent men with a reputation to defend paid up to silence male prostitutes or rejected lovers we shall never know, but there is good evidence, discussed in detail by Crompton, that one of the causes of Castlereagh’s suicide was the threat of blackmail on this count. “I am accused of the same crime as the Bishop of Clogher,” he told King George IV.

Almost as hard to understand as the slowness of legal reform is the fact that in spite of the universal public abhorrence of homosexuality the Greek and Latin classics continued to serve as the basic text of upper-class education. Plato’s Phaedrus and Symposium, to name only two of the best-known dialogues, make no bones about what kind of love is under discussion; Horace’s Odes often mention boys as objects of love, desire, or mere pleasure, and even Virgil, as Byron jocularly points out in a famous stanza of Don Juan, blotted his otherwise clean copybook in his second eclogue, which deals with Corydon’s passion for Alexis. Horace and Virgil the schoolmasters could manage by selective assignment or expurgation; even as late as 1930 I read Juvenal in an edition entitled The Satires of Juvenal which contained only thirteen of the extant poems—one of the missing, Satire XI, is the complaint of a homosexual prostitute which goes into scabrous detail about the unpleasantness of his duties. And in 1961, to the amazement of the American classical establishment, the Oxford University Press brought out an edition of Catullus from which, to quote the preface, “a few poems which do not lend themselves to comment in English have been omitted.” The “few” number thirty-two out of a total of 116; thirteen of them are concerned with carnal homosexual relations.

Plato, however, is not so easy to handle; consequently, as Crompton points out, he almost entirely disappeared from the British educational curriculum in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Greekless reader, too, was spared the cultural shock Plato’s early dialogues would have given him; the only available translations were thoroughly bowdlerized. John Stuart Mill published a partial translation of the Phaedrus, excerpted “in such a way as to leave no hint” of the presence of homosexuality in the text even though, as Crompton justly remarks, the theme “is woven into the very warp and woof” of the dialogue. And when Shelley, in 1818, embarked on his translation of the Symposium, prefaced by an essay “upon the cause of some differences in sentiment between the antients & moderns with respect to the subject of the dialogue,” he knew that he was treading dangerous ground. He did not, in fact, publish the translation and when his widow decided to do so she was prevailed upon by Leigh Hunt to change “unacceptable words like ‘lover’ into ‘friend,’ ‘men’ into ‘human beings,’ and ‘youths’ into ‘young people.’ ” What is more, the speech of Alcibiades in which he describes his unsuccessful attempt to seduce Socrates was omitted. The essay, of course, was suppressed entirely; its full text in fact did not become available to the general public until the classical scholar James Notopoulos included it in his Platonism of Shelley, published in 1949.

Fear of legal action and censorship, not to mention the certainty of social ostracism, enforced the conspiracy of silence until late in the twentieth century; protest, even rational discussion of the subject, could only be private. A most eloquent private protest and an eminently rational discussion were the work of a contemporary of Byron (one for whom, incidentally, Byron had no respect), the jurist and philosopher Jeremy Bentham.3 In 1774, almost two centuries before the recommendations of the Wolfenden Committee were incorporated in the law of the land, Bentham wrote the first of a series of notes, essays, and projected books on this subject, the latest of them dated 1825, eight years before his death at the age of eighty-four. As a hedonist and utilitarian he could see no reason to punish “a crime, if a crime it is to be called, that produces no misery in Society.” But he never dared publish a word of his voluminous writings on this theme, in spite of frequent resolutions to do so, recorded in his notes; his opinions remained unread until 1931, when C.K. Ogden published some extracts in his edition of Bentham’s Theory of Legislation.

Crompton obtained from the library of University College in London, where Bentham’s papers (along with his well-preserved and fully dressed corpse) are stored, more than five hundred manuscript pages of his reflections on homosexuality and the law. “Composed over a period of fifty years,” they were “remarkably far-ranging in their perspectives, analysing the subject from a legal, moral, psychological and even literary point of view.” Crompton gives a generous sample of this fascinating material (indeed his book might well have been titled “Byron, Bentham, and Greek Love”); the most sensational item is Bentham’s proposed sequel to a book he published under a pseudonym in 1823, Not Paul but Jesus.

The published book was a general challenge to St. Paul’s right to set himself up as a spokesman for Christ; it made no mention of his denunciation of homosexual love, though Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (1: 24ff.) was the New Testament text on which the Church based its condemnation of homosexuality—“vile affections…against nature…men with men working that which is unseemly….” Bentham treated this subject, however, at length and in detail in the unpublished manuscripts of what was to have been the sequel—three hundred pages of notes which “seem to have been written helter-skelter and then reorganized under chapter headings.” After a philosophical rejection of asceticism in general Bentham draws a contrast between a true ascetic, St. John the Baptist, and an antiascetic, indeed antinomian, Christ, a figure “strikingly similar to the portrait William Blake was elaborating at almost exactly the same time in his unfinished poem ‘The Everlasting Gospel.’ ” Christ, who nowhere specifically condemns love between men, was, in Bentham’s view, perfectly capable of rejecting Mosaic law on this point as he did on others.4 But Bentham goes much farther and wonders whether the references to the “beloved disciple” in the Gospel According to St. John may not suggest “the same sort of love as that which appears to have had place between David and Jonathan,” a love which he has earlier characterized as sexual. He even sees in the “young man, having a linen cloth cast about his naked body” mentioned by St. Mark in his account of the arrest of Jesus in Gethsemane (Mark 14: 50–52) a cinaedus (the Greco-Roman word for a homosexual prostitute) and a “rival or a candidate for the situation of rival to the Apostle.”

It is understandable that Bentham shrank from publishing these opinions but, though Crompton does not mention it, he was not the first to hold them. Christopher Marlowe, according to one of his accusers, said that “St. John was a bedfellow to Christ,” and according to an unsigned deposition in the British Museum about Marlowe’s “monstrous opinions” (thought to be in the handwriting of Thomas Kyd), he “would report St. John to be our saviour Christ’s Alexis…that is, that Christ did love him with an extraordinarie love.” According to this same source, Marlowe also anticipated Bentham’s low estimate of St. Paul; he told the anonymous informer “that for me to wryte a poem of St. Paul’s conversion as I was determined to do would be as if I should go write a book of fast and loose, esteeming St. Paul a jugler.”

From his hedonist and utilitarian viewpoint Bentham can see nothing wrong in a relationship that does no harm to others, but he fails to appreciate one social aspect of the matter, the fear that besets heterosexual parents that those placed in authority over their pre-adolescent sons as teachers or trainers may, if homosexually inclined, seduce or even molest them. “SCOUTMASTER BETRAYS TRUST,” ran a famous (though possibly apocryphal) headline in Britain’s prewar mass-circulation Sunday paper, The News of the World; “INCIDENT IN RAILWAY CARRIAGE.” The News was a scandal sheet prized for its verbatim reports of proceedings in the divorce courts, but that headline gives pithy expression to a real concern. In Matthews’s 1811 letter to Byron the list of arrests for sodomy includes “a sandman for pedicating one of his boys” and “John Cary Cole, usher of a school, for ditto with some of his pupils.”

Even the ancient Athenians, who took love affairs between grown men and adolescent boys for granted, were concerned about this matter; Solon the law-giver, we are told by a fourth-century orator, regarded teachers with suspicion and drew up elaborate regulations to ensure that teachers and gymnastic trainers would never be alone with a boy. 5 And today that issue of homosexuals as teachers in school is, in some parts of the country, a matter for acrid controversy—in which the problem of heterosexual men teaching young girls is scarcely mentioned.

Bentham rather lightheartedly dismisses this thorny subject; according to Crompton, he “is willing to believe there may be some advantage in such a relation.” But this is probably an overreaction against the raw malevolence of his contemporaries. Bentham’s rational discussion of the entire problem is a welcome contrast to the venomous rhetoric of the public prints and a wholesome relief from the record of barbarous punishments. Crompton’s discovery and presentation of this arresting material is an important contribution to English social history. It is also timely. As anxiety about the AIDS syndrome assumes the proportions of a national panic and voices charged with biblical indignation begin to suggest extreme measures, the book will serve as a salutary reminder of the barbarities into which blind prejudice against an unpopular minority can plunge an otherwise progressive society.

  1. 3

    Presented with a copy of Bentham’s Springs of Action during his final trip to Greece, Byron threw it to the floor and exclaimed: “What does the old fool know of springs of action; my –- has more spring to it.”

  2. 4

    Leviticus 20:13. “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death.”

  3. 5

    Aeschines, Against Timarchus, 9ff. The statement is all the more remarkable since the speaker later announces that he has been and still is a “lover” (i.e., of young men).

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print