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literature

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English Literature: Renaissance  
 
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Even though it undoubtedly derives from the homoerotic tradition of an army of lovers as described by Phaedrus in Plato's Symposium, the passionate love between men depicted here can plausibly be interpreted as nonphysical.

At the same time, however, the palpable eroticism of the passage contradicts any narrow notion of chastity. After all, the lovers' happiness consists in their being able to "frankely there their loves desire possesse." Its spritualizing language may betray anxiety about same-sex eroticism, but the passage is nevertheless quite bold.

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Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander

Even bolder is an episode in Marlowe's posthumously published Hero and Leander (1594). An Ovidian epyllion, Hero and Leander belongs to a genre that includes Francis Beaumont's Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (1602) and Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594) and in which male beauty is the focus of erotic attention (as it is also in works based on the biblical David, such as Abraham Cowley's Davideis [1656]).

In Marlowe's poem, Leander's beauty is celebrated in a homoerotic blazon that lovingly details all of his bodily charms, including especially the shapeliness of his buttocks. But most defiant of all is the poem's farcical episode in which Neptune mistakes Leander for Ganymede and caresses and attempts to seduce him. Marlowe's joke is not only on the passionate god, but also on the naive youth, who can imagine only heterosexual desires.

Moreover, the point of the episode, in addition to its titillation value and its foregrounding of the awkward heterosexual lovemaking of Hero and Leander, is to suggest the essential likeness of homosexual and heterosexual passion. The very playfulness of Marlowe's approach in this episode and throughout the epyllion destabilizes the seriousness of the dominant constructions of gender and sexuality in his age. For all its farcical humor, the poem is subversive and defiant.

John Donne's Verse Letters to "T.W."

Another important example of Renaissance homoerotic poetry is a series of four verse letters that the eighteen-year-old John Donne addressed to a younger male friend, "T.W.," probably Thomas Woodward, in 1590. George Klawitter has recently demonstrated that these poems constitute a sequence that records, first, Donne's infatuation for his friend and, then, his disappointment with the friend's failure to respond with a like ardor.

These youthful verse letters poignantly voice Donne's desire for a physical and emotional relationship that in our own time would be labeled homosexual. These poems by the man who would become the late Renaissance's supreme poet of heterosexual love and who pillories stereotypical sodomites in his satires also offer concrete evidence of the fluidity of sexual and emotional response in Renaissance literature and life.

Donne's Portrayal of Lesbian Desire: "Sapho to Philaenis"

Donne's dramatic monologue in a lesbian voice, "Sapho to Philaenis," is particularly important as one of the few Renaissance works that represent lesbian desire frankly. Lesbian affectivity does appear in a late sixteenth-century Scots poem that survives in the Maitland Quarto, and was first printed in 1920, and in other accounts of female friendship; but Donne's poem is unique for its positive depiction of lesbian erotics.

As Janel Mueller has noted, Donne's portrayal of lesbianism questions the conventions of Renaissance heterosexuality and establishes lesbianism as a master trope for utopian sexuality. The poem is also interesting for Donne's adoption of the Sapphic voice to define homoerotic love and to envision the return of a lost golden age of sexual freedom and equity in love.

John Milton's Homoeroticism

If Donne seems an unlikely source of homoerotic poetry in the Renaissance, the same is true of John Milton, the great voice of Christian humanism in the period. Yet Milton's elegy for his close boyhood friend, Charles Diodati, Epitaphium Damonis (1638), is deeply moving in its homoeroticism, while his numerous allusions to the classical literature of homosexuality suggest both his deep familiarity with this literature and his capacity for discovering in it emotions correlative to his own. But Milton's most significant literary engagement with homosexuality occurs in Paradise Regained (1670), where he tactfully incorporates a homosexual temptation into the famous banquet scene.

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