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Subversive Activities

Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in Nineteenth-Century England

by Louis Crompton
University of California Press, 419 pp., $24.95

The nearest English equivalent of the word Herodotus used to describe his account of the Persian War and its antecedents, historiai, is “enquiries”; the Greek verb historein means “to ask questions.” In recent years history has begun to ask questions about people it once took little or no notice of; to concern itself, for example, with “the short and simple annals of the poor” and the “destiny obscure” of the neglected and oppressed. The history of blacks in America has become a flourishing academic industry, that of women all over the world and throughout the centuries an even wider field of research and publication, and “gay history,” of which Crompton’s book is a distinguished specimen, seems, to judge from the wealth of literature cited in his footnotes, to be following in their wake.

Such approaches to history have produced important work; new and significant data have been amassed, which often throw fresh and revealing light on the established record. But since these studies are for the most part undertaken by scholars who share the race, sex, or inclination of the group they are investigating, it is only natural that they sometimes reflect the bias in the minds of their authors. This can manifest itself in a failure to view the new data in historical perspective, in a tendency to base broad generalizations on evidence which, given the nature of historical records prior to the twentieth century, is often inadequate, and finally in a polemical tone that puts the reader on his guard. No historian, of course, has ever been totally free of partiality to a cause, class, or nation, but the best of them have tried to be so, and sincerely thought they had succeeded. Macaulay, for example, would have been surprised and indignant if he had lived long enough to hear himself credited with the creation of the “Whig theory of English history.”

It is a pleasure to be able to report that although Crompton, as a cofounder of the Gay Caucus for Modern Languages, is clearly a committed witness, his book exhibits none of the characteristic flaws of sectarian history. He is, to be sure, too ready to find specific personal references in the works of the imagination (Byron’s Thyrza, for example, is unequivocally identified with Edlestone, the choirboy at Trinity College, Cambridge, with whom he had a deep romantic attachment), but this is an error historians, by the nature of their calling, are prone to; the real danger facing a gay historian, a failure to distinguish between affection, romantic friendship, and sexual passion when expressed in the idiom of a different age, Crompton is fully aware of and gracefully avoids.

Unlike some modern critics who, faced with new evidence, have come to obviously exaggerated conclusions about Byron’s sexual ambivalence (“basically homosexual,” for example), Crompton is measured in his judgment, recognizing that “Byron’s heterosexual impulses were fully as real as his homosexual ones and, if we take his life as a whole, more persistent and significant.” But, though the book’s structure is a narrative account of Byron’s homosexual inclinations and encounters and their effects, its real novelty and importance lie elsewhere, in the matter announced in the subtitle. With a dispassionate authority and in a wealth of detail Crompton explores some little-known and very unpleasant features of one of the most richly documented periods of English history—the age of Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Castlereagh, Jeremy Bentham, and Byron.

It is of course no news that Byron’s vigorous career as a rival of Don Juan Tenorio was punctuated by homosexual attachments of varying intensity. Crompton acknowledges his debt to Peter Quennell’s Byron: The Years of Fame (1935) and the later studies which dealt with Byron’s relationships with his Harrow schoolmates and with Edlestone, as well as his affairs with fifteen-year-old boys on his first and also on his last visit to Greece. Crompton attempts “to shape this deluge of new material” (much of it scattered through Leslie Marchand’s great edition of Byron’s letters and journals) “into a narrative.” And he adds new and notable evidence, in particular a letter from his Cambridge friend Charles Skinner Matthews to Byron at Falmouth on his way to Greece (1809) and another which reached Byron at Malta on his way back (1811), both of them here printed for the first time. The earlier letter is a reply to one of Byron’s, which leaves no doubt whatever, if indeed any still remained, about the import of Byron’s cryptic references to Georgia, hyacinths, and “Plen. and optabil.—Coit.,” an abbreviated quotation from Petronius which was Byron’s usual phrase for a satisfactory sexual encounter.1

Matthews writes to Byron and Hobhouse in the tone of a professor congratulating his pupils on their progress in what he calls “ma methode,” compliments Byron on his “first efforts in the mysterious, that style in which more is meant than meets the Eye,” takes it that the hyacinths Byron speaks of “culling” at Falmouth “will be of the class polyandria and not monogynia,” and wishes for both of them in their travels in the East “all the success which in your most methodistical fantasies you can wish yourselves.”

The second letter, a reply to one of Byron’s now lost, asks for more details on what must have been an account of Byron’s exploits in the East and then reports Matthews’s own sexual inactivity: “Quant à ma methode, my botanical studies have been sadly at a stand.” There can be no reasonable doubt that Crompton is justified in his claim that the three men “share what today would be called a gay identity, based on common interests and a sense of alienation from a society they must protect themselves from by a special ‘mysterious’ style.” The “common interest” was a love of boys, the “Greek love” of Crompton’s title: Hyakinthos was a boy love of the god Apollo.

The final paragraphs of Matthews’s second letter gave Byron an account of the arrests and punishments of homosexuals in England during his absence: some of what the press of the day called “miscreants” had been exposed in the pillory to the fury of the mob, others hanged. “That which you get for £5,” writes Matthews, jocularly, referring to the easy availability of homosexual pleasures in Greece and Turkey, “we must risque our necks for; and are content to risque them.”

That men were regularly hanged for homosexual relations in nineteenth-century England—sixty in the first three decades of the century and “another score under naval regulations”—will come as a surprise to most readers; it was in fact the “discovery of an unprecedented number of executions of homosexuals in England in the statistical reports” of the period that first drew Crompton’s attention to his subject. Hanging, however, was reserved for those unfortunates in whose cases solid evidence of sexual intercourse was proved (or confessed); where “evidence both of penetration and emission” was not available, the arrested men were charged with “assault with the attempt to commit sodomy” and given the lesser sentence of exposure in the pillory. Contemporary accounts of what this meant for the victim strongly suggest that hanging might have been preferable. Of one survivor of this ordeal a journalist eyewitness remarked: “The head of this wretch when he reached Newgate was compared to a swallow’s nest. It took three buckets of hot water to restore it to anything like a human shape. Though much battered and bruised, the fellow is in no danger, but he is at present totally blind.”

Crompton quotes extensively from a contemporary pamphlet which describes the ordeal of six men sentenced to the pillory in 1810. What he justifiably calls a “semilynching, which was supposed to stop short of killing” (though in fact the victims did not always survive) was organized by the police, who escorted the prisoners through a hostile mob armed with balls of mud and brickbats. They arrived at the pillory looking like “bears dipped in a stagnant pool”; once secured, they were exposed to the ministrations of “upwards of fifty women who were permitted to stand in the ring, who assailed them incessantly with mud, dead cats, rotten eggs, potatoes, and buckets filled with blood, offal, and dung.” The newspapers reported the event in graphic detail; their editorials, far from expressing sympathy for the victims, declared that if any of them died from the effects of their punishment they would die “unpitied” and “justly execrated,” or else complained that the pillory was too merciful a sentence and demanded the death penalty.

The wretched sufferers on the gallows or in the pillory seem to have been exclusively working-class men; persons higher up on the social ladder who were arrested usually managed to avoid punishment and escape to the Continent, like the Bishop of Clogher in Ireland who, caught in flagrante delicto with a guardsman in 1822, jumped bail and left England for good. Even mere suspicion based on gossip could drive a man into exile; William Beckford, the rich and famous author of Vathek, felt himself constrained to leave England for ten years and was still treated as a social pariah when he returned. Crompton’s thesis is that one of the reasons Byron went into self-imposed exile was his fear that rumors of his homosexual escapades might draw down on him the ostracism of his peers and the vicious rage of the street mobs who, infuriated by the escape of Bishop Clogher, attacked and pillaged the episcopal palace. That such rumors were abroad is clear from notes in Hobhouse’s diary; their source was Byron’s rejected mistress Lady Caroline Lamb, to whom Byron seems to have confessed that, as Lady Byron put it, “from his boyhood on he had been in the practice of unnatural crime.” Given the universal “homophobia”2 which Crompton has so copiously documented for the period, fear of exposure on this score may well have been as urgent a motive for Byron’s abrupt departure from England as the scandal of his broken marriage and his affair with his half-sister Augusta.

It is a remarkable paradox that an England which was in many ways the most liberal country in Europe could condemn homosexuals to the rope and the pillory at a time when on the Continent the medieval laws that made sodomy a capital offense had been totally repudiated, as in revolutionary France, or allowed to fall into disuse, as in Catholic Italy. Reform of the criminal law, imposed by such enlightened despots as Catherine in Russia, Frederick in Prussia, and Grand Duke Leopold in Tuscany, was not even contemplated by the British parliaments of the eighteenth century. As for the manic hatred for sexual deviants that inspired both the mobs at the pillory and the editorial writers at their desks, Crompton explains it as caused partly by English xenophobia and partly by the activities of the Society for the Reformation of Manners, which, in the opening decades of the eighteenth century made homosexuality the main target of its propaganda and its network of pious informers. The Napoleonic wars and especially the threat of French invasion after the renewal of hostilities in 1803 did nothing to lessen public virulence against what was considered an un-British vice.

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. 1

    Leslie A. Marchand, ed., Byron’s Letters and Journals, Vol. 1, “In My Hot Youth” (Harvard University Press, 1973), pp. 206–207; Gilbert Highet identified the quotation “plenum et optabilem coitum” (Satyricon 86) for Marchand; Crompton points out that in its Petronian context it clearly refers to homosexual coupling.

  2. 2

    Until the subject could at last be discussed objectively in the press and in books, there were no words in the English language for homosexuals that were not derogatory. The words that eventually came into use were, however, linguistically inelegant, to say the least. “Homosexual” is an ugly hybrid, half Greek, half Latin; it was taken over from the Germans, who had coined the word as early as 1869. (Crompton mentions an American coinage which never became current—”similisexualism”; it is all Latin but obviously too much of a mouthful for common use.) “Homophobia” is all Greek but unfortunately it doesn’t mean what it is supposed to. The Greek prefix “homo-” means “alike”; “homogeneous” means “of the same kind” and so “homophobia” should mean something like “sharing the same fear.” The word has been formed by false analogy with such words as “xenophobia,” but since the only alternative (used once by Crompton) seems to be “antihomosexualism” it will probably remain in use, all the more so since those unacquainted with the classical languages will take the prefix “homo-” for the vulgar abbreviation of “homosexual” often heard in common speech.

  3. 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.”

  4. 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.”

  5. 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).

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