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literature

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English Literature: Nineteenth Century  
 
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Alfred Lord Tennyson

Except for Byron's work, British homosexual writing in the first half of the century could not have had any widespread impact on knowing readers since, as indicated, much of it remained unpublished or appeared from authors with relatively small audiences. That situation changed exactly in the middle of the century, with the appearance of the first nineteenth-century English literary work that evoked homosexuality forcefully for a widespread reading audience and that also served as a compelling landmark for the age's homosexual writers and readers.

This was In Memoriam A.H.H. by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892), the long poem of 1850 eulogizing his beloved Cambridge friend Arthur Henry Hallam that Tennyson began in 1833 after Hallam's sudden death. Including philosophical challenges to the period's new evolutionary science and Biblical scholarship amid what is predominantly a set of elegiac lyrics about Hallam, In Memoriam contains absolute romantic statements surpassing even the most emotional declarations permitted to same-sex friendships in the age.

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In sections 17, 103, and 129, Tennyson calls Hallam "all I love," "him I loved, and love / For ever," and "my lost desire." Others of its lines have been turned without strain into chestnuts of heterosexual love--for example, section 27's "'Tis better to have loved and lost / Than never to have loved at all." The poem even echoes traditional code terminology for homosexuality, as when Tennyson describes his feeling for Hallam in section 93 as "The wish too strong for words to name."

But two major protective features blunt In Memoriam's homosexual content.

The first is the elegiac situation, which customarily allowed greater same-sex emotional outpouring than in ordinary circumstances and where the fact that the praised loved one is dead gives anxious readers a way to avoid facing the romantic subject fully.

Second, Tennyson gives the entire poem a heterosexual frame, ending it with a long "Epilogue" trumpeting the marriage of his youngest sister as symbolic of a restored cosmic order and faith (and forecasting his own long-delayed marriage, which finally took place two weeks after the poem's publication).

These cloaking features were successful enough to make In Memoriam a Victorian bestseller (the Queen declared it her chief comfort after the Bible) and to generate a critical controversy that continues to the present. Nevertheless, In Memoriam became a widespread model and inspiration for later nineteenth-century homosexual and bisexual authors.

In addition to being literally echoed in some cases, and not just in England but abroad (as in Verlaine's 1888 elegy for his student lover, "Lucien Létinois"), In Memoriam helped generate the even greater use of elegiac situations in later nineteenth-century male homosexual writing and gave many the sense that more open homosexual speech could be ventured though of course still hedged by safeguards.

Homosexual Scandals in the Second Half of the Century

Notable homosexual scandals continued in the second half of the century. Some, like the forced resignations of the Harrow headmaster Charles John Vaughan in 1859 and the Eton master William Johnson in 1872 and the arrest of the painter Simeon Solomon in 1873, were kept out of public view but were open secrets among the educated and upper classes and among writers and artists.

Others, like Oscar Browning's dismissal from the Eton faculty in 1875, were mentioned in the press and the House of Commons, though charges were never specified. Still others, like the 1871 Bolton-Park trial and the 1884 and 1889 Dublin Castle and Cleveland Street scandals, were notorious, extensively discussed in the press and ended in convictions, suicides, or flights to the continent.

The best-known of these to modern audiences is undoubtedly Oscar Wilde's prosecution and imprisonment in 1895, which, as can be seen, was not the first noted homosexual scandal of the century, but which publicized homosexuality nearly universally because of the widespread fame of the accused and new communication technologies.

Meanwhile, when they were stated publicly at all, official cultural attitudes remained constant, as in W. E. H. Lecky's remark in his widely read History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (1869) that the "unnatural passion" of male-male love was "totally remote from all modern feelings."

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