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Wilfred Owen

The heightened sense of the fragility of male beauty and strength that war provides has given rise to a great deal of homoerotic poetry, perhaps most famously in the case of Wilfred Owen, who was killed at the end of the First World War. Owen called his war poems elegies, which suggests that their lack of any consolatory passages can be seen as intentional, as if Owen were emphasizing that it is impossible to recover from the loss of so many loved men.

Twentieth-Century Elegies

The absence of consolation is typical of elegiac poems in the twentieth century--with the exception of consciously classical and campy poems like Frank O'Hara's elegies for James Dean.

To some extent, this absence is due to the unwillingness of modernist and contemporary writers to use traditional poetic and philosophic formulas; more specifically, of course, writers who are openly gay do not see marriage as a solution to the loss of a loved one, and neither are they inclined to leave readers in doubt about whether the dead person was a friend or a lover.

Sometimes even when the relation between the poet and the subject was friendship, as in Allen Ginsberg's "City Midnight Junk Strains" for Frank O'Hara, the poem tends to celebrate gay sexuality rather than to speculate about the afterlife.

Elegiac Elements in Recent Lesbian Poetry

Some recent poetry by lesbian and gay writers has used elements of the elegy. Adrienne Rich's "A Woman Dead in her Forties" simultaneously mourns a dead friend, acknowledges the hardships of women's lives, and celebrates various kinds of bonds between women.

Audre Lorde's "Need: A Chorale of Black Women's Voices" is a complex and ambitious poem that speaks openly about the problems of black women in America and praises the strength shown in the face of this pain. These poems construct a specifically lesbian and feminist elegiac mode in opposition to the standard male elegy.

AIDS and the Revival of the Elegy

For most of the twentieth century, the elegy seemed to be outdated, like the ode. In the last decade, however, the AIDS pandemic has made the elegy relevant once again. As in war time, the fragility of human life is always apparent. Many poems about AIDS, like those collected by Rachel Hadas in Unending Dialogue, are elegiac; some poets, like Paul Monette, call their poems elegies. Contemporary lesbian and gay poets, like their predecessors, have found that the elegy is always timely.

Stephen Guy-Bray

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literature >> Overview:  War Literature

From ancient times, homoerotic writing has been a notable part of the literature of war.

literature >> Overview:  The Western

A distinctive American narrative genre that has developed over more than two centuries, the Western is now consumed worldwide; characteristically depicting homosocial relationships, it is also frequently suffused with homoeroticism.

literature >> Ginsberg, Allen

The forthrightly gay Allen Ginsberg is probably the best-known American poet to emerge in the post-World War II period.

literature >> Gray, Thomas

Thomas Gray, the best-loved English poet of the eighteenth century, wrote several poems that express the love he felt for other men.

literature >> Hopkins, Gerard Manley

In some of the most original poetry of the Victorian period, the sexually-repressed Gerard Manley Hopkins celebrated male beauty as one of the most splendid witnesses to the divine.

literature >> Housman, A. E.

A. E. Housman's poetry is inextricably rooted in homosexual experience and consciousness and is also a significant reflector of gay history.

literature >> Lorde, Audre

The work of African-American activist and writer Audre Lord was greatly influenced by her lesbianism.

literature >> Milton, John

While Milton accepted the biblical condemnation of sodomy, some of his works suggest that his attitude toward same-sex relations was enlightened for his age.

literature >> Monette, Paul

In novels, poetry, and a memoir, Paul Monette wrote about gay men striving to fashion personal identities and, later, coping with the loss of a lover to AIDS.

literature >> Moss, Howard

Howard Moss, one of the leading figures of American letters in the latter half of the twentieth century, is the author of a significant body of elegant, erudite, and urbane work, especially poetry. 

literature >> O'Hara, Frank

The influential poet Frank O'Hara wrote works informed by both modern art and the world of urban gay male culture.

literature >> Owen, Wilfred

English war poet Wilfred Owen combined the homoeroticism latent in the elegy tradition with precise observation of the horror of trench warfare.

literature >> Rich, Adrienne

Adrienne Rich, who aestheticized politics and politicized aesthetics, is America's most widely read lesbian poet.

literature >> Tennyson, Alfred Lord

Although he was sexually attracted to women, Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote poetry suffused with homoeroticism, including the most beautiful homoerotic elegy in the English language.

literature >> Theocritus

The ancient Greek poet Theocritus is the first great voice in the homoerotic pastoral tradition in Western literature.

literature >> Virgil

Virgil wrote approvingly of male love in many works, and his second eclogue became the most famous poem on that subject in Latin literature.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.


Bray, Alan. "Homosexuality and the Signs of Male Friendship in Elizabethan England." History Workshop Journal 29 (1990): 1-9.

Crewe, Jonathan. Trials of Authorship. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.

Dellamora, Richard. Masculine Desire: The Sexual Politics of Victorian Aestheticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990.

Haggerty, George E. "'The Voice of Nature' in Gray's Elegy." Homosexuality in Renaissance and Enlightenment England. Claude J. Summers, ed. New York: Haworth Press, 1992. 199-214.

Nunokawa, Jeff. "In Memoriam and the Extinction of the Homosexual." English Literary History 58 (1991): 427-438.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Staten, Henry. Eros in Mourning: Homer to Lacan. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995.


    Citation Information
    Author: Guy-Bray, Stephen  
    Entry Title: Elegy  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated August 10, 2002  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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