George, Lord Byron
Whether autobiographical or simply biographical (perhaps written by George Coleman), this poem is a remarkable early 19th century apology of male love and plea for tolerance, whose message is still fresh almost two centuries later.
First published 1866. Attributed (by some)
to George Lord Byron (17881824).
Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap!
What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap?
Peep thro’ the casement; see the gallows there:
Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare?
What had he done? Ask crippled Talleyrand,
Ask Beckford, Courtenay, all the motley band
Of priest and laymen, who have shared his guilt
(If guilt it be) then slumber if thou wilt;
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.
And shall the Muse, whilst pen and paper lie
Upon the table, hear the victim’s cry,
Nor boldly lay her cauterising hand
Upon a wound that cankers half the land?
No! were the bays that flourish round my head
Destined to wither, when these lines are read;
Could all the scourges canting priest invent
To prop their legendary lies, torment
My soul in death or rack my body here,
My voice I’d raise insensible to fear.
When greedy placemen drain a sinking state,
When virtue starves and villains dine off plate;
When lords and senators untouched by shame,
For schemes of basest fraud can lend their name;
When elders, charged to guard the pauper’s trust,
Feast on the funds, and leave the poor a crust;
When knaves like these escape the hangman’s noose,
Who even to Clogher a pardon would refuse?
Who would not up and lend a hand to save
A venial culprit from a felon’s grave!
Sheer indignation quickens into rhyme,
And silence now were tantamount to crime.
I know not in what friendly breast to pour
My swelling rage save, into thine, dear Moore,
For thou, methinks, some sympathy will own,
Since, love, no matter in what guise ’tis shown,
Must ever find an echo from that lyre,
Which erst hath glowed with old Anacreon’s fire.
Death levels all; and, deaf to mortal cries,
At his decree the prince or beggar dies.
So, when I’m gone, as gone I soon may be,
Be thou, dear Tom, an honest, firm trustee;
And, nor for filthy lucre, nor to dine
At Holland House, erase one single line.
To titled critics pay no servile court;
But print my thoughts through good or ill report.
And if these musings serve but to dispense
One little dose of useful common sense,
I fain would hope they greater good had done
Than all the pious tracts of Rivington.
Can it be justice in a land like ours,
Where every vice in full luxuriance flowers-
Where schoolboys’ eyes can recognise afar
Soho’s green blinds and Lisle-street doors ajar-
Where bold-faced harlots impudently spurn
The modest virgin’s blush at every turn,
Where every pavement hears their ribald laugh,
Spite of the Bow-street gang and watchman’s staff,
That one propensity (which always hides
Its sport obscene, and into darkness glides,
Which none so brazened e’er presume to own,
Which, left unheeded, would remain unknown,
Should be the game their worships will pursue
With keenest ardour all the country through?
No parson of the quorum feels a blush
To claim the honours of the stinking brush;
Whilst at the scent unkennelled curs give tongue,
Until the poor misogynist is hung.
Yet naught can satisfy the foul-mouthed crew;
Laid in his grave their victim they pursue;
And base Smellfunguses insult his ghost
With sainted columns in the Morning Post.
I grant that casuists the Bible quote,
And tell us how God’s tardy vengeance smote
Lot’s native town with brimstone from the sky,
To punish this impure delinquency,
Unmindful that the drunkard’s kiss defiled
(Whilst yet the embers smoked), his virgin child.
But reason doubts the Jewish prophet’s tale.
Does history then no other place bewail?
Descend the Nile, and steer your bark along
The shores recorded in Homeric song.
Where’s centi-portalled Thebes? The crumbling stone
Marks well its site, but sandy mounds have grown
O’er granite lanes that line the public way,
And seem to bid defiance to decay.
Why seek we Priam’s palaces in vain?
Why howls the blast over Lacedaemon’s plain?
Where’s Memphis? Wherefore in Persepolis
Do jackals scream, and venomed serpents hiss?
What! were thy ramparts, Babylon, so thick;
And hast thou left us not a single brick?
But where’s thy house, Zenobia? Thou wast Queen
Of Tadmor once; and now the Bedoween
Erects his tent, and scares the fleet gazelle,
That comes to drink at thy sulphureous well.
Where’s Caesarea now, or Antioch? Where?
And yet their domes deserved God’s special care,
There Paul was honoured; there our faith proclaimed,
There true believers first were Christians named.
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?
Would you be damned? a text conveys her curse;
Or rise again? you have it in a verse.
Her rites as means of revenue are prized:
For mammon’s sake our infants are baptised.
With golden offerings marriages are made;
Woe to the union where no fee is paid.
Who weds or fornicates, no matter which,
Children begets, and makes the altar rich;
But, where no offerings to the surplice fall,
The taste forthwith is anti-physical.
Hell-fire can hardly expiate the guilt
Of that damned sin-the church’s rubric bilked.
The tree we plant will, when its boughs are grown,
Produce no other blossoms than its own;
And thus in man some inborn passions reign
Which, spite of careful pruning, sprout again.
Then, say, was I or nature in the wrong,
If, yet a boy, one inclination, strong
In wayward fancies, domineered my soul,
And bade complete defiance to control?
What, though my youthful instincts, forced to brood
Within my bosom seemed awhile subdued?
What, though, by early education taught,
The charms of women first my homage caught?
What, though my verse in Mary’s praises flowed?
And flowers poetic round her footsteps strewed,
Yet, when her ears would list not to my strain,
And every sigh was answered with disdain,
Pride turned, not stopped, the course of my desires,
Extinguished these, and lighted other fires.
And as the pimple which cosmetic art
Repels from one, invades another part,
My bubbling passions found another vent,
The object changed, but not the sentiment.
And, ever my years could task my reason why,
Sex caused no qualms where beauty lured the eye.
Such were my notions ere my teens began,
And such their progress till I grew a man.
With thee, dear Margaret, whose tender looks
Made me forget my task, my play, my books,
Young though we were, our union soared above
The frigid systems of Platonic love.
Untutored how to kiss, how oft I hung,
Upon thy neck, whilst from my burning tongue
Between thy lips the kindling glow was sent,
And nature fanned the new-born sentiment;
How oft, beneath the arbour’s mystic shade,
My boyish vows of constancy were made!
There on the grass as we recumbent lay,
Not coy wast thou, nor I averse to play;
And in that hour thy virtue’s sole defence
Was not thy coldness, but my innocence.
Among the yeomen’s sons on my estate
A gentle boy would at my mansion wait:
And now that time has almost blanched my hair,
And with the past the present I compare,
Full well I know, though decency forbad
The same caresses to a rustic lad;
Love, love it was, that made my eyes delight
To have his person ever in my sight.
Yes, Rushton, though to unobserving eyes,
My favours but as lordly gifts were prized;
Yet something then would inwardly presage
The predilections of my riper age.
Why did I give the gauds to deck thy form?
Why for a menial did my entrails warm?
Why? but from secret longings to pursue
Those inspirations, which, if books speak true,
Have led e’en priest and sags to embrace
Those charms, which female blandishments efface.
Thus passed my boyhood: and though proofs were none
What path my future course of life would run
Like sympathetic ink, if then unclear,
The test applied soon made the trace appear.
I bade adieu to school and tyro’s sports,
And Cam received me in his gothic courts.
Freed from the pedagogue’s tyrannic sway,
In mirth and revels I consumed the day.
No more my truant muse her vigils kept;
No more she soothed my slumbers as I slept;
But, idling now, she oft recalled the time
When to her reed I tuned my feeble rhyme.
She knew how those ’midst song and mirth grow dull
Whose tender bosoms soft emotions lull.
As manhood came, my feelings, more intense,
Sighed for some kindred mind, where confidence,
Tuned in just unison, might meet return,
And whilst it warmed my breast, in his might burn.
Oft, when the evening bell to vespers rung,
When the full choir the solemn anthem sung,
And lips, o’er which no youthful down had grown,
Hymned their soft-praises to Jehovah’s throne,
The pathos of the strain would soothe my soul,
And call me willing from the drunkard’s bowl.
Who, that has heard the chapel’s evening song,
When peals divine the lengthened note prolong,
But must have felt religious thoughts arise,
And speed their way melodious to the skies.
Among the choir a youth my notice won,
Of pleasing lineaments named Eddleston.
With gifts well suited to a stripling’s mood,
His friendship and his tenderness I wooed.
Oh! how I loved to press his cheek to mine;
How fondly would my arms his waist entwine!
Another feeling borrowed friendship’s name,
And took its mantle to conceal my shame.
Another feeling! Oh! ’tis hard to trace
The line where love usurps tame friendship’s place.
Friendship’s the chrysalis, which seems to die,
But throws its coil to give love wing to fly.
Both are the same, but in another state;
This formed to soar, and that to vegetate.
Of humble birth was he – patrician I.
And yet this youth was my idolatry.
Strong was my passion, past all inward cure
And could it be so violent, yet pure?
’Twas like a philtre poured into my veins-
And as the chemist, when some vase contains
An unknown mixture, each component tries
With proper tests, the draught to analyse,
So questioned I myself: What light this fire?
Maids and not boys are wont to move desire;
Else ’twere illicit love. Oh! sad mishap!
But what prompts nature then to set the trap?
Why night and day does his sweet image float
Before my eyes? or wherefore do I dote
On that dear face with ardour so intense?
Why truckles reason to concupiscence?
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?
What’s virtue’s touchstone? Unto others do,
As you would wish that others did to you.
Then tell me not of sex, if to one key
The chords, when struck, vibrate in harmony.
No virgin I deflower, nor, lurking, creep,
With steps adult’rous, on a husband’s sleep.
I plough no field in other men’s domain;
And where I delve no seed shall spring again.
Thus with myself I reasoned; then I read,
And counsel asked from volumes of the dead.
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.
And oft I turned me to the Mantuan’s page,
To hold discourse with shepherds of his age;
Or mixed with Horace in the gay delights
Of courtly revels, theatres, and sights;
And Thou, whose soft seductive lines comprise
The code of love, thou hadst my sympathies;
But still, where’er I turned, in verse or prose,
Whatever I read, some fresh dilemma rose,
And reason, that should pilot me along,
Belied her name, or else she led me wrong.
I love a youth; but Horace did the same;
If he’s absolv’d, say, why am I to blame?
When young Alexis claimed a Virgil’s sigh,
He told the world his choice; and may not I?
Shall every schoolman’s pen his verse extol,
And, sin in me, in him a weakness call?
Then why was Socrates surnamed the sage,
Not only in his own, but every age,
If lips, whose accents strewed the path of truth,
Could print their kisses on some favoured youth?
Or why should Plato, in his Commonwealth
Score tenets up which I must note by stealth?
Say, why, when great Epaminondas died,
Was Cephidorus buried by his side?
Or why should Plutarch with eulogiums cite
That chieftain’s love for his young catamite,
And we be forced his doctrine to decry,
Or drink the bitter cup of infamy?
But these, thought I, are samples musty grown;
Turn we from early ages to our own.
No heathen’s lust is matter of surprise;
He only aped his Pagan deities;
But when a Saviour had redeemed the world,
And all false idols from Olympus hurled,
A purer code the Christian law revealed,
And what was venial once as guilt was sealed.
With zeal unwearied I resumed again
My search, and read whate’er the layman’s pen
In annals grave or chronicles had writ;
But can I own with any benefit?
’Tis true, mankind had cast the pagan skin,
But all the carnal part remained within
Unchang’d, and nature, breaking through the fence
Still vindicated her omnipotence.
Look, how infected with 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-
How many scholars, wasting over their lamp,
How many jurists, versed in legal rules,
How many poets, honoured in the schools,
How many captains, famed for deeds of arms,
Have found their solace in a minion’s arms!
Nay, e’en our bard, Dame Nature’s darling child,
Felt the strange impulse, and his hours beguiled
In penning sonnets to a stripling’s praise,
Such as would damn a poet now-a-days.
To this conclusion we must come at last:
Wise men have lived in generations past,
Whose deeds and sayings history records,
To whom the palm of virtue she awards,
Who, tempted, ate of that forbidden tree,
Which prejudice denies to you and me.
Then be consistent; and, at once confess,
If man’s pursuit through life is happiness,
The great, the wise, the pious, and the good,
Have what they sought not rightly understood;
Or deem not else that aberration crime,
Which reigns in every caste and every clime.
Chance led me once, when idling through the street,
Beneath a porch my listless limbs to seat,
Where rudely heaped, some sculptured marbles lay,
Of pediments now crumbled to decay.
There the fallen building as I musing eyed,
Which meditation to the mind supplied,
And called me back to epochs now remote,
When Zeuzis painted and when Plato wrote,
Aloof my faithful Tartar waiting stood,
(Dervish Tahiri); for he understood
His master’s fancies, and with naked blade,
The near approach of boorish men had staid.
Close to the spot a Grecian dwelling reared
Its modest roof. A courteous man appeared;
And, bowing low, with invitation pressed
To enter in, and on his sofa rest.
I crossed the threshold of the courteous man,
And smoked and chatted. Close by the divan
His son, as Eastern usages demand,
In modest attitude was seen to stand.
And smiling watched the signals of my will,
To pour sherbet, or the long chibook fill.
Grace marked his actions, symmetry his form;
His eyes had made an anchorite grow warm,
His long attire, his silken anteri,
Gave pleasing doubts of what his sex might be;
And who that saw him would perplexed have been,
For beauty marked his gender epicene.
Day after day my visits I renewed,
His love with presents like a mistress wooed;
Until his sire with dreams of greatness won,
To be my page made offer of his son.
I took him in my train, with culture stored
His mind, and in it choice instruction poured;
Till like the maiden, who some budding rose
Waters with care and watches till it blows,
Then plucks and places it upon her breast,
I too this blossom to my bosom pressed.
All ye who know what pleasure ’tis to heave
A lover’s sigh, the warm caress receive
Of some fond mistress, and with anxious care
Watch each caprice, and every ailment share.
Ye only know how hard it is to cure
The burning fever of love’s calenture.
Come, crabbed philosophers, and tell us why
Should men to harsh ungrateful studies fly
In search of bliss, when e’en a single day
Of dalliance can an age of love outweigh!
How many hours I’ve sat in pensive guise,
To watch the mild expression of his eyes!
Or when asleep at noon, and from his mouth
His breath came sweet like odours from the south,
How long I’ve hung in rapture as he lay,
And silent chased the insect tribe away.
How oft at morn, when troubled by the heat,
The covering fell disordered at his feet,
I’ve gazed unsated at his naked charms,
And clasped him waking to my longing arms.
How oft in winter, when the sky overcast
Capped the bleak mountains, and the ruthless blast
Moaned through the trees, or lashed the surfy strand,
I’ve drawn myself the glove upon his hand,
Thrown o’er his tender limbs the rough capote,
Or tied the kerchief round his snowy throat.
How oft, when summer saw me fearless brave
With manly breast the blue transparent wave,
Another Daedalus I taught him how
With spreading arms the liquid waste to plough.
Then brought him gently to the sunny beach,
And wiped the briny moisture from his breech.
Oh! how the happy moments seemed to fly,
Spent half in love and half in poetry!
The muse each morn I wooed, each eve the boy,
And tasted sweets that never seemed to cloy.
Women as women, me had never charmed,
And shafts that others felt left me unharmed.
But thou, Giraud, whose beauty would unlock
The gates of prejudice, and bid me mock
The sober fears that timid minds endure,
Whose ardent passions women only cure,
Receive this faithful tribute to thy charms,
Not vowed alone, but paid too in thy arms.
For here the wish, long cherished, long denied,
Within that monkish cell was gratified.
And as the sage, who dwelt on Leman’s lake,
Nobly his inmost meditations spake,
Then dared the man, who would like him confess
His secret thoughts, to say his own were less;
So boldly I set calumny at naught,
And fearless utter what I fearless wrought.
of George Gordon,
6th Lord Byron.
Byron in 1818