Don Leon and underground gay scholarship
IN March, 2018, US writer JOHN LAURITSEN, above, a long-time contributor to the Gay and Lesbian Humanist magazine –
now The Pink Humanist – addressed the Outing the Past Conference in Liverpool. This is an abridged version of his talk.
Last year I published two books under the Pagan Press imprint. One of them, The Shelley-Byron Men: Lost Angels of a Ruined Paradise, deals with homoeroticism – or male love – in the lives and works of men around the two most famous poets of English Romanticism, Shelley and Byron.
The other book, Don Leon & Leon to Annabella, recovers a milestone in the struggle to emancipate male love. It is also one of the greatest epic poems in English.
Don Leon is a powerful outcry against injustice, a moving and witty defence of male love, and an account of Byron’s sexuality, which on the whole has proven to be true. Among neglected literary masterpieces, Don Leon heads the list – not only neglected, but vilified and suppressed.
It is great poetry. At the same time, it is pornographic, at least by earlier standards.
I gained my enthusiasm for Don Leon from my friend, the late Joseph Wallfield, later known by his pen name, “Warren Johansson” – a brilliant man and a mentor to many gay scholars. I first met him in 1969 in the early weeks of the New York Gay Liberation Front. For well over a decade, Warren and I and art historian Wayne R Dynes would meet every weekend for dinner, usually in an Indian restaurant in the Lower East Side. I can still hear him chuckling over some of the racier or more blasphemous couplets of Don Leon.
Most of Don Leon was probably written in the early 1820s, and it was probably first published in the late 1830s or early 1840s, but this is conjectural. No copy of this first edition is known to exist. The oldest surviving edition was published in 1866 by Dugdale, known mainly for pornographic titles. In 1934 Fortune Press published Don Leon and Leon to Annabella; this edition was confiscated by the London police, who burned all the copies they could find.
In editing Don Leon & Leon to Annabella, I collated all surviving editions, using the Dugdale copy in New York’s Morgan library, which also has the unique surviving first edition of the companion poem, Leon to Annabella.
For the first time the Pagan Press edition provides critical material in addition to the two poems.
We don’t know and may never know the author or authors of the Leon poems. Perhaps they were a team effort. Although various candidates for authorship have been put forward, I simply refer to the “Leon poet”. Following earlier editions, the Pagan Press edition shows “Lord Byron” as the author – but he cannot be the sole author, since Don Leon mentions events that happened after his death. Our copyright page gives the author as “Lord Byron (allonym)”.
Is Don Leon really a great poem? I believe that it is, and fully agree with Warren Johansson, who wrote: “The Don Leon poems belong to the masterpieces of English literature and as heroic and didactic verse are second to none in our language.”
G Wilson Knight, the man who in 1957 rescued Don Leon from obscurity, wrote: “The quality of the writing is of the highest order. Indeed, no such brilliant manipulation of the rhymed couplet has been known since Pope.” A contrary opinion was expressed by Doris Langley Moore, a Byron biographer who tried to deny, excuse, or minimize every trace of homoeroticism in his life. She wrote: “In England, among the advocates of a less normal kind of eroticism, two dirty, dingy poems, full of sniggering puns, were in circulation.” Well, so much for her.
I received an expert opinion from Steven J Willett, an authority on metrics:
“Don Leon is a superb work that should be more widely known. The primary author is a skilled craftsman: the meter of the heroic couplets tends to be regular, but strong variations are used for rhetorical focus . . . He also handles rhyme with genius. The long central section on sexual hypocrisy reminded me of Swift, Dryden and Pope in its precision, contempt, saeva indignatio and satirical point.”
Thus, the suppression of Don Leon was not only the suppression of a polemic for homosexual emancipation, but also the suppression of a literary masterpiece. Don Leon has not received the appreciation it deserves for several reasons: few people, even gay scholars, have even heard of it; it was read too fast and with the wrong expectations; and it was read in a poor edition. Reading poetry is a talent, which requires an inborn sense of rhythm as well as knowledge of various rules. Poetry should be read aloud or slow enough that the words can be heard inside the head.
In 1974 when David Thorstad and I wrote The Early Homosexual Rights Movement (1864–1935), we dated the beginning of our movement from the first writing of Karl Heinrich Ulrichs. Since then, gay historians have uncovered significant earlier writings, such as Heinrich Hössli’s two-volume work of the 1830s, Eros: The Male Love of the Greeks . . .
In terms of publication date, Don Leon is the oldest surviving work in English to discuss sex between males and call for the abolition of England’s sodomy (or “buggery”) statute, enacted under Henry VIII.
Earlier, Jeremy Bentham about 1785 had written an essay on “Paederasty” and Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1818 had written “A Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks” – but these were not published until 1978 and 1931 respectively.
I’ll now discuss the arguments of Don Leon. The poem begins by addressing a judge who is about to don the black cap worn when pronouncing the sentence of death – on a man convicted of buggery.
Under the barbarous buggery statute, men and even adolescent boys in England were hanged, as late as 1835. The law remained on the books until 1861. In sharp contrast, sex between males was legalized by France in 1791 and shortly thereafter in Russia and much of Europe. The poem begins:
Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap!
What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap?
Peep through the casement; see the gallows there:
Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare?
The Leon poet then poses the question: “What had he done?” This leads into the argument that sex between males is not harmful:
What bonds had he of social safety broke?
Found’st thou the dagger hid beneath his cloak?
He stopped no lonely traveller on the road;
He burst no lock, he plundered no abode;
He never wrong’d the orphan of his own;
He stifled not the ravish’d maiden’s groan.
His secret haunts were hid from every soul,
Till thou did’st send thy myrmidons to prowl,
And watch the prickings of his morbid lust,
To wring his neck and call thy doings just.
An original note to Don Leon cites Beccaria (translated): “The only true measure of crimes is the harm done to society.”
Argument: The law is unjustly applied:
Now look: those crowded benches contemplate
Where legislators sit in grave debate.
They make our laws, and twist the hempen cord,
That hangs the pennyless and spares the lord.
Argument: Male love is natural:
Though law cries “hold!” yet passion onward draws;
But nature gave us passions, man gave laws,
Whence spring these inclinations, rank and strong?
And harming no one, wherefore call them wrong?
Argument: There are classical precedents for male love:
Oh! flowery path, thus hand in hand to walk
With Plato and enjoy his honeyed talk.
Beneath umbrageous planes to sit at ease,
And drink from wisdom’s cup with Socrates.
Now stray with Bion through the shady grove;
Midst deeds of glory, now with Plutarch rove.
Argument: All-male sex is or can be masculine. Don Leon has raunchy descriptions of soldiers and sailors:
Are you a soldier? Pace the barrack-room,
Just as the morning dawn dispels the gloom.
See where the huddled groins in hot-beds lie,
Each fit to be a garden deity.
Are you a sailor? Look between the decks:
What sinews thewed are there! what sturdy necks!
Pent in their hammocks for a six months’ cruise,
They dream of Portsmouth Point and Wapping stews.
No deep-sea lead, suspended from a weight,
Could keep their manhood in quiescent state:
Here the Leon poet, by a century, anticipates the Kinsey study of American men, which found only one significant difference between males towards the homosexual end of his continuum and those whose behavior was exclusively heterosexual. The gay men had a higher “sexual substrate” (or sex drive). This is positive, because a high sex drive correlates positively with good health, longevity, and intelligence. Don Leon’s robustly horny soldiers and sailors, having sex with each other, hardly fit the later paradigms of “sexual inversion” (Westphal) or “a female soul trapped in a male body” (Ulrichs) or “the third sex” (Hirschfeld).
Argument: Sex between males is widespread.
The Leon poet repeatedly argues that devotees of male love are found among all kinds of men and in all classes.
Argument: Bisexuality is the norm.
Byron and others are depicted as attracted to both males and females. An original Don Leon note is explicit: “It does not follow as a natural consequence that paederasts are mysogynists, or that a culpable indulgence in inclinations for the one sex argues an insensibility to the charms of the other.”
Argument: Religion is an enemy.
Don Leon is strongly anti-religious and blasphemous. Although the death penalty for blasphemy in England was abolished in 1676, the offence remained punishable by fine and imprisonment until it was finally abolished only ten years ago, March 2008. Some lines:
Could all the scourges canting priests invent
To prop their legendary lies . . .
Who has not seen how Mother Church can press
Each vain tradition to her purposes,
And from the cradle to the grave supply
Proofs sacred of infallibility?
Look, how infected with this rank disease
Were those, who held St. Peter’s holy keys,
And pious men to whom the people bowed,
And kings, who churches to the saints endowed;
All these were Christians of the highest stamp –
The notes to Don Leon are almost as long as the poem itself, and are of great value to gay scholars. These contain excerpts from an 1833 work by “A. Pilgrim”: A Free Examination into the Penal Statutes xxv Henry VIII cap 6 and v Eliz c 17 addrest to Both Houses of Parliament. Although the work itself is lost, much of it survives, embedded in the Don Leon notes. In an appendix, my colleague, Hugh Hagius, retrieves these fragments and discusses the lost book’s arguments, which are:
a) The Scriptural basis of the sodomy laws is vague and obscure.
b) The predilection was shared by many of the noblest figures of antiquity.
c) The argument that sodomy is bad for the propagation of the species is based on a misapprehension; what is required is not greater fertility but less, as Dr. Malthus has shown.
d) The law is applied unequally, with much greater severity toward the lower orders than their social superiors
There are connections between Don Leon and the overlapping circles around Jeremy Bentham, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Lord Byron. They may have been connected in some way to Don Leon – as authors, editors, or publishers. There is no reason that Shelley or Byron, separately or in collaboration, could not have written almost all of Don Leon. It is a great poem and they were great poets who were masters of the heroic couplet.
So far as I can tell, from participation in conferences and discussion groups, the specialists in English Romanticism do not want to know that these men were gay, with a tentative, grudging exception made for Byron. Whatever progress we may have made, Academia is still not friendly to male love. There is much work to be done, to uncover and preserve what belongs to us.
The full text of John Lauritsen address as well as references can be found here.
• Liverpool’s Outing the Past (formerly known as Sexing the Past) conference, addressed this year by John Lauritsen, is dedicated to examining the subjects and methodologies that are part of LGBT+ history.
It attracts delegates involved in academic research related to a wide array of disciplines, political and human rights activism, as well as other voluntary organisations and professional practices.
This year, the programme highlighted the legacy of individuals or organisations in affecting or better understanding the lives of LGBT+ individuals.
The annual conference documents the emergence and development of organisations or movements committed to LGBT+ activism, provides a historical context for LGBT+ activism in the past or present, illuminates the ways that activism can influence how past attitudes to sex and gender have been historicised and considers particular possibilities and challenges inherent in historicising LGBT+ activism