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English Literature: Romanticism  
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Since homosexuality was severely persecuted during the Romantic period, writers who treated the subject more or less positively were forced to encode it or leave it unpublished and were themselves frequently forced into exile.

In the popular imagination, the term romanticism conjures up notions of intense, free-wheeling emotionality, forceful individualism, and unrestrained lyrical expression, usually centered in love as an ultimate human value. The reality of the age (1785-1825) was rather different.

English Persecution of Homosexuals

If anything, this romantic ideal was generally a protest of lonely, unrealized desire against the increasing cultural restrictiveness with which a newly dominant, puritanical middle-class asserted its power. At its core, in England at least, was a publicly sanctioned aversion to sexual transgressiveness of such extremity as to underscore the truth of Louis Crompton's argument that had reached its zenith in the British Isles in 1810.

That was the year of the trial of the "Vere Street Coterie"--so-called to give an aura of dangerous subversion to the unassuming frequenters of the Swan in Vere Street, a molly-house (forerunner of the gay bar), who were apprehended one night in various states of impropriety and charged with capital crimes. The two caught in the act were hanged. Another six, convicted of the lesser charge of "attempted sodomy" (solicitation), were sentenced to the pillory.

The procession of these latter men from Newgate Prison and their subjection to punishment on September 27, 1810, shut down central London for the day, drawing an abusive mob of between 30,000 and 50,000 spectators, who subjected the miscreants to such a barrage of offal, rotten fruit, dead animals, and hard missiles that they barely escaped with their lives.

Although so hideous a legal public spectacle strains credulity, it points to an indisputable cultural pathology, one that explains why an open expression of homosexuality is out of the question in the literature of this age. In a climate in which the editor of the standard edition of Shakespeare, George Steevens, could feel it his moral duty to bypass the sonnets, one might anticipate that even the mention of homosexuality would be rare, and then almost ritualistically deprecatory.

It is indicative of the time that a widely read and cosmopolitan figure such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who in his twenties had a succession of intellectual crushes on men and who famously described a great mind as essentially , routinely scapegoats an actual homosexuality when setting moral limits for art: "Blest indeed is that state of society, in which the immediate purpose would be baffled by the perversion of the proper ultimate end; in which no charm of diction or imagery could exempt the Bathyllus even of an Anacreon, or the Alexis of Virgil [Eclogue 2], from disgust and aversion," he writes in his Biographia Literaria.

Androgyny is just a trope, a figure of speech; homosexuality, paradoxically, is so real that it cannot even be named.

The Vere Street Coterie were without exception workers, artisans, and tradesmen. At the other end of the social scale, the persecution was no less severe, but there were options to escape the extremity of the laws.

When the affair between William Beckford and the adolescent Lord Courteney became obvious to Courteney's relations in 1785, Beckford, for all his enormous wealth, was forced to leave England. He settled in a luxurious villa in Cintra above Lisbon, where he continued as a social lion, however conspicuous the righteous snubbing of his visiting countrymen.

Except for the infamous Dutch persecutions early in the eighteenth century, Europe, whatever private misgivings or clerical prescriptions obtained, was generally tolerant of homosexuality. In 1791, the new French penal code simply dropped it from the category of offenses, an omission sustained in its revisions as the Code Napoléon of 1801 and 1810.

Throughout the nineteenth century, Paris, especially after Napoleon's fall, became the natural site for exile, from Lord Courteney himself down to Oscar Wilde. (It might be noted that Italy, conceived by the British as the center for this particular pestilence and where male hustling had long been something of an institution, likewise welcomed its share of English homosexual exiles throughout this time and, indeed, well into the twentieth century.)

For the well-heeled, a distinct pattern developed. Arrested in incriminating circumstances, the miscreant (the code word commonly applied to homosexuals by the press), posted bond and immediately fled the country.

This was the case with the celebrated incident of the Bishop of Clogher of 1822, a cause célèbre whipped into such dimensions by the press that it brought about the suicide of the Foreign Secretary and Tory leader of the House of Commons, Viscount Castlereagh, who was being blackmailed to keep his sodomy a secret. (It is perhaps fair to note that his widow denied the truth of the charge, and his biographers seem universally uncomfortable with it.)

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Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote an essay on ancient Greek sexual practices in 1818, but the rampant homophobia of the Romantic period prevented the publication of the full text during his lifetime.
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