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English Literature: Romanticism  
page: 1  2  3  4  5  

A stormy radical but a medical prodigy, Beddoes seems always to have been accompanied by devoted young men about whom his editors and biographers are coyly reserved. His particular niche in English literature comes from his devotion to the macabre. His plays--The Bride's Tragedy (1822) and Death's Jest-Book (1825-1828)--are obsessed with wasting diseases, multiple deaths, and charnel houses.

Here, too, the transgressive and the pathological seem directly related, and the displacement from homosexual self-loathing into an abiding sense of the monstrous enacts an extreme version of the paranoid gothic of earlier generations. In this psychic space, suicide seems all but inevitable.


It is this context, finally, against which one should read the particular odyssey of Byron as expressed in the overarching curve of his achievement. One is touched by the youthful "Thyrza" elegies (1811-1812) for the chorister John Edlestone, as much by the need to dissemble behind a female name as by their expression of authentic affection.

One can read the bifurcation of the narrative voice in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (1812-1818), or the unresolved contradictions of the various "Byronic heroes" of his early poems, as directly expressive of sexual uncertainty and ambivalent desire. His tragedies, particularly Manfred and Sardanapalus (1821), represent heroes who cannot exist within the culture that frames them and have only flamboyant rhetoric to hold on to.

All these are recognizable embodiments of the unnameable object of disgust that is the homosexual in this age. Perhaps, indeed, given the paranoid displacements of the gothic tradition, they should even be admired for the acuity of their cultural understanding and the honesty of their attempts to find a means to an acceptance of the self without loathing.

But nothing (except the incredible letters) quite prepares us for what Byron finally began to create in 1818, two years after his exile from England, a true poetic of transgressiveness that in Beppo (1818), in Cain (1821), and, most especially, in Don Juan (1819-1824), makes of it a way of life, virtually an ideology.

In Don Juan, the tragic is turned inside-out into absurd comedy, and one's inability to fit in becomes the means by which one knows oneself most fully human. It is here (and, one is tempted to say, only here) that homosexuality and popular notions of Romanticism can be reconciled, as it is only here that English culture of the Romantic age can glimpse the psychic and sexual liberation that would take another two centuries to begin to effect.

Stuart Curran

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literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Nineteenth Century

From its beginning, the nineteenth century in England had a purposeful homosexual literature of considerable bulk, both male and female, though it was fettered by oppression.

literature >> Overview:  Ghost and Horror Fiction

Both male and female homosexuality or homosexual elements appear throughout the broad scope of ghost and horror fiction.

literature >> Overview:  Gothicism

The Gothic has always offered writers and readers the chance to experience the excitement of transgressive sexuality of various kinds, including male and female homosexuality.

social sciences >> Overview:  United Kingdom I: The Middle Ages through the Nineteenth Century

The United Kingdom has a rich and vibrant legacy of queer cultural expression despite a long history of severe legal sanctions against male-male sexual acts and other manifestations of sexual and gender deviance.

literature >> Beckford, William

Extremely wealthy and connected to the aristocracy, British author and connoisseur William Beckford was ostracized by English society for the last sixty years of his life because of his homosexuality.

literature >> Bentham, Jeremy

The most notable law reformer in the English-speaking world, English philosopher, jurist, economist, and political scientist Jeremy Bentham argued for a tolerant attitude toward homosexuality in a series of papers first published in full in 1985.

literature >> Butler, Lady Eleanor, (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831)

Known as the Ladies of Llangollen, an enduring emblem of female romantic friendship, Butler and Ponsonby eloped to Wales where they lived together for over fifty years and entertained several important writers.

literature >> Byron, George Gordon, Lord

The bisexual Lord Byron treated many of his homosexual love affairs in his poetry, encoding them by the use of classical references or by purporting that they were affairs with women.

literature >> Lewis, Matthew G.

Matthew Lewis's scandalous masterpiece, The Monk, is one of the great works in the gay and lesbian literary tradition.

literature >> Plato

Among Greek writers on homosexual themes, Plato is preeminent not only as a major philosopher but also as the greatest master of Greek prose.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

literature >> Seward, Anna

One of the best known English women poets of her time, Anna Seward had several romantic friendships with women and celebrated the Ladies of Llangollen in verse.

literature >> Shakespeare, William

As one of the key figures that western civilization has used to define itself, William Shakespeare stands in a complicated, fiercely contested relationship to homosexuality.

social sciences >> Vere Street Coterie

The 1810 conviction of London's Vere Street Coterie led to the most brutal public punishment of homosexuals in British history.

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 >> Walpole, Horace

Throughout his life, Horace Walpole was devoted to other men, and his exploration of dysfunctional families in The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother probably stems from his own experience with a destructive father.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Crompton, Louis. Byron and Greek Love; Homophobia in 19th-century England. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985.

_____. "Don Leon, Byron, and Homosexual Law Reform" Journal of Homosexuality 8.3-4 (1983): 53-71.

_____, ed. "Jeremy Bentham's Essay on 'Paederesty' (1785)." Journal of Homosexuality 3 (1978): 389-405; 4 (1978): 91-107.

DeJean, Joan. Fictions of Sappho, 1546-1937. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Faderman, Lilian. Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love between Women, from the Renaissance to the Present. New York: Morrow, 1981.

Knight, G. Wilson. Lord Byron's Marriage: The Evidence of Asterisks. New York: Macmillan, 1957.

Koestenbaum, Wayne. Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Macdonald, D. L. Poor Polidori. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1991.

Norton, Rictor. Mother Clap's Molly House: The Gay Subculture in England, 1700-1830. London: Gay Men's Press, 1992.

Rousseau, G. S. "The Sorrows of Priapus: Anticlericalism, Homosocial Desire, and Richard Payne Knight." Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment. G. S. Rousseau and Roy Porter, eds. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988. 101-153.

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


    Citation Information
    Author: Curran, Stuart  
    Entry Title: English Literature: Romanticism  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated March 3, 2004  
    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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