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literature

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English Literature: Romanticism  
 
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Homosexuality is such a reality to Byron's life and of such centrality to his poetry that it may be confidently asserted that only in recent years has either been sympathetically or even correctly "read." Yet it is hard to read what cannot be written, and it cannot be overemphasized how wholly written out of English Romantic culture was any overt expression concerning homosexual experience.

The Climate of Censorship

The climate of censorship that pervades the years of the war with France (1793-1815), as well as the troubled decade afterward, extends far beyond political matters. So systematic is it that in a later time we must continually remind ourselves how preliminary to all authorial choices was the constriction of acceptable literary discourse.

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Even heterosexual passion is largely expurgated from English literature during this period, as can be witnessed by Thomas Moore's beginning his career in 1801 with a volume of traditional carpe diem verse and finding himself dogged by reviewers for years as a deleterious influence on British youth. The nice paradox of English Romanticism is how little "romance" it contains.

Bentham and Shelley

It is certainly telling that the two mainstream English authors of the age who were willing to write openly of homosexuality never published their remarks. Louis Crompton in different contexts has ably chronicled the lifelong interest of Jeremy Bentham in decriminalizing homosexuality, expressed in several unpublished manuscripts of prodigious length.

Bentham appears to have felt that the public expression of these moderate views would have so raised an outcry against their author as to have set at risk his whole program of utilitarian values and so never dared bring them to print.

In 1818, Shelley created the first unexpurgated, unregendered translation of Plato's Symposium in English, and in projecting its publication began a preliminary "Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love" that was meant to contextualize it so as to mitigate what he well construed as the moral offense implicit in such a publication.

Surveying modern, heterosexualized treatments of classical Greek society by French and German novelists, Shelley laments the distortions sanctioned by European culture: "There is no book which shows the Greeks precisely as they were; they seem all written for children, with the caution that no practice or sentiment highly inconsistent with our present manners should be mentioned, lest those manners would receive outrage and violation."

Although Louis Crompton, the only critic to look at this discourse from a modern gay perspective, considers it "distinctly marked by English anti-homosexual bias," he does not take into account the necessity Shelley must have felt, were he even capable of securing a publisher for his work, to accommodate as far as possible a reading public assumed to share a pervasive cultural hostility to such a translation of Plato.

In any case, the issue of Shelley's sympathy or lack thereof may be thought academic since--tellingly--the full text of his "Discourse" was not published until 1949.

Covert Expressions of Homosexuality

In a climate of homophobia so inveterate that the only open acknowledgments of alternate sexual behavior remain unpublished, where else does one look for understanding of its emotional or sexual dynamics, its cultural conditioning, its psychological costs? Covert expression, or gender displacement, are obvious ploys to writers of all sexual persuasions, but they are just as clearly interpretatively slippery, ever dependent on a particular reader's sense of nuance.

A homoerotic interpretation of established authorial relations, such as Koestenbaum has attempted with the collaboration of Wordsworth and Coleridge, is likely to be construed by "straight" readers as special pleading and thus largely to be ignored.

But on the other hand, the active willingness of almost all of his critics to participate in Byron's concealments, to hide behind his own cover, so to speak, is more than a little disconcerting.

The circumstances in which Manfred (1817) was conceived--after hearing M. G. ("Monk") Lewis, whom Byron himself identified as homosexual, translate the first part of Goethe's Faust--should have long ago been enough to allow a general recognition that the unnameable center of the drama is not sibling incest but transgressive and hopelessly divided sexuality. In fact, the recognition did come long ago, in 1902, but has never gained currency in mainstream criticism.

Even further recessed within the obscure inner dynamics of Romantic culture is the characteristic phenomenon of the Doppelgänger, the homosocialized double self. Its presence in so many of Byron's works may translate, depending on the period of his life, into either a fearful or exhilarating sense of multiple potentialities, probably most fully rooted in his sense of sexuality.

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