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English Literature: Renaissance  
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The Lesbian Voice of Katherine Philips

The most significant lesbian voice in poetry of the English Renaissance is that of Katherine Philips, who was known as "The English Sappho." More than half of her collected poems, which were published posthumously in 1664 and 1667, deal with her love for other women, addressed in pastoral names like "Lucasia" or "Rosania."

In these works, Philips tactfully yet suggestively celebrates and defends romantic friendship between women. In "To My Excellent Lucasia, On Our Friendship," for example, the poet reassures her lover:

No bridegroom's nor crown-conqueror's mirth
To mine compar'd can be:
They have but pieces of the earth,
I've all the world in thee. (17-20)

Yet Philips insists that their love is "innocent." As Arlene Stiebel has argued, Philips uses standard literary conventions and references to an idealized classical friendship tradition to mask and diffuse the sexual reality inherent in the concrete, physical terminology that she employs. That is, the poems simultaneously cloak and reveal lesbian sexual desire. For all her respectable decorum, Philips is remarkably candid.

The Renaissance Homoerotic Masterpiece: Shakespeare's Sonnets

The great masterpiece of homoerotic poetry in the Renaissance (and, indeed, in English literature generally) is Shakespeare's Sonnets, published in a pirated edition in 1609 though the individual poems were probably written in the mid-1590s. The large majority of the poems--126 of 154--are concerned with the poet-speaker's obsession with a young man of surpassing physical beauty, if somewhat dubious character.

The homosexual consciousness of the Sonnets is seen not merely in the celebrations of the young man's beauty, in the obsessiveness of the speaker's love, or even in his repeated attempts to define his relationship with the young man in terms of marriage, but also in his profound sense of otherness.

The great sonnets of alienation and abnegation that give Shakespeare's sequence its distinctive aura of embattlement and despair articulate particularly well a homosexual subjectivity. This sense of difference is expressed forthrightly in the angry and defiant Sonnet 121, in which the speaker declares "I am that I am" and defends the naturalness of a sexuality that is decried and attacked by his culture.

A highly complex, discomfitingly dark, richly ironic, and painfully intense record of obsessive love, the sequence plumbs depths of emotion that transcend sexual categories. Yet, by virtue of its inscription of a homosexual subjectivity, it has a particular importance in literary history and in gay literature.

Homoerotic Friendships in Renaissance Romance Narratives

The prose of the English Renaissance includes several romance narratives that feature homoerotic friendship, celebrations of male beauty, and transvestism that often facilitates mistaken identities. Robert Greene's Menaphon (1589), Sir Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia (1593), and Thomas Lodge's Rosalynde: Euphues Golden Legacie (1590) all partake of these characteristics and depict homoerotic situations titillatingly.

Sidney's work is especially significant for the depth of its portrayal of the friendship of Musidorus and Pyrocles though it (like the other works) sorts out all the sexual confusions and mistaken identities in a conventional conclusion that privileges heterosexual marriage.

In these prose romances, homoerotic attraction seems to be a passion associated with the escapism of romance itself, a phase through which characters pass only to emerge into "mature" heterosexuality.

Another romance, Lady Mary Wroth's Urania (1621), deserves note for its account of a Duke "besotted on a young man," who viciously betrays him. The relationship depicted in this episode may be based, as Ellis Hanson has argued, on King James's infatuation for his ill-fated favorite Robert Carr. Herself an intimate of James's consort Queen Anne and a frequent visitor at Court, Wroth was in a good position to observe the king's affection for Carr. In any case, the episode in Urania is a fascinating story of obsessive love. Even after the young man in the story betrays him, the Duke cannot help loving him.

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