A History of Gay Poetry, 2: Two Giants
For centuries homosexuality was confined to an underworld, to the back streets, sleazy establishments, nuances where a covert existence could be lived out avoiding the condemnation of law and society. A minority group who lived in a twilight zone, whose activities were repressed and personal identities diminished or destroyed. Religion, government, the law and society were not prepared to tolerate a deviant group of people whose sexuality was abhorrent, contrary to the laws of God and nature, individuals who were deemed perverts and wholly unacceptable because of their life style.
Where do I begin with the subject of Gay Poetry? There would be little merit in a futile search of the distant past when the subject was seen as not to exist. Perhaps, it is better to bring the subject up to a time we began to see Gay and Bisexual men and women who dared to broach this hitherto unspoken of subject. The nineteenth century saw two literary giants who possessed the courage to use their poetry to draw attention to same sex relations and love. Walt Whitman of the USA and Oscar Wilde of the UK (pictured). Their poetry has been acclaimed as some of the best written in the English Language but it was often that such attention was not given full recognition until after their deaths. Both of them were of the Victorian Era, all native English speakers, whose intellects shone out and placed them in an esteemed category of being writers ¨par excellence ¨.
Walt Whitman (1819 - 1892) was a prolific writer, an essayist, journalist, humanist and poet. He has been described as the ´father of free verse ´ although he did not invent it. He was very much his own person, possessed courage and an iron determination, he opposed slavery, wrote openly about death, sexuality and prostitution. He was a patriot whose descriptive verse was of an incredible beauty and where his true talents lay. He worked as a publisher, editor and distributor. During the American Civil War he volunteered as a nurse in field hospitals. He embraced all religions equally, enjoyed nudity and was generally considered as being very controversial. ¨The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman, published by the Wordsworth Poetry Library is a comprehensive work and well worth reading, as in this volume one encounters, ¨Leaves of Grass ¨and in particular ´Calamus´in which explicit reference is made to gay love. Some would refute this so as not to tarnish the reputation of a famous poet. In order to publish ´Leaves of Grass´ Whitman had to do so with his own money. At the time it was described as obscene for its overt sexuality. It was first published in 1850, revised and re-released in 1860.
Then we come to Oscar Wilde, an intellectual genius, born in Ireland, a poet, playwright and journalist. Fluent in French and German, a classicist at Dublin and Oxford Universities. His poetry was published during his life time in both Canada and the United States of America. He was the author of ¨The Importance of being Earnest ¨. After a good deal of litigation, private detectives and other hostile people he was charged with Gross Indeceny and imprisoned. Those who investigated the matter found their evidence in homosexual brothels, from male prostitutes and cross dressers. No stone was left unturned to destroy his reputation. Confined to Reading Gaol, he wrote a poem, which has over the years, become a literary classic, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Lord Alfred Douglas, a friend and reputed lover of Wilde wrote the poem, ¨Two Loves ¨, the last line which reads......I am the love that dares not speak its name ¨. Wilde was eventually released and travelled directly to France where he later died destitue in Paris at the age of 46 years.