Blessed are the Puer in Heart

E. E. Bradford

Copyright © Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. These essays may not be archived, republished or redistributed without the permission of the author.


A Ganymede with grace is a delight both to gaze upon and to love, but most of the boys in the gay poetry written as the nineteenth century turned into the twentieth were ethereal wisps of pale straw. Poets such as Roden Noel (1834-1894) dreamed at a distance of bright butterfly-boys with "delicate limbs of milk" whose limpid features mirrored their wet-dream existence. For those who have a penchant for good old-fashioned apple pandowdy like auntie used to make (hot from the oven), it is refreshing as well as surprising, to come upon the vigorous verse of the Reverend Edwin Emmanuel Bradford (1860-1944). This merry Scots Protestant minister pursued Willie, Eric, Dick, Guy, Frank and Jock, as well as an occasional Aubrey, Silvester, or "A shy little fellow called Merrivale White." He prefers a swarthy rustic to a statuesque Adonis: "Talk about the Greeks' impeccability of form: / Give to me a Belton boy whose flesh and blood are warm." Of course these are still boys, not men, but pederasty was part of the philosophical tradition. But we should take care not to apply the modern term "paedophile" to him, since is it apparent that all of his chums were post-pubescent and most of them were around sixteen years old.

Bradford often cruised down London way to carouse with the "Uranian" coterie of gay poets, though his verse resembles theirs only in its theme of boy-love. He became the good friend (only friend — I am sure he would not touch a full-grown man) of Samuel Elsworth Cottam at Exeter College in the 1880s, whose magazine Chameleon was produced in evidence against Oscar Wilde at his trial, since Wilde had contributed to this openly gay journal. Later both Bradford and Cottam became chaplains at the Anglican church of St George in Paris, where together they chased the choirboys, and no doubt taught a few how to sing. Bradford's biography is sketchy except for what he gives us in his own poetry, according to which his boy-lovers included Eddie Worth, Merrivale White, Leslie de Lampton, Clinton Fane, Merivale Trelawney Bates, Steve Ailwyn, Hugh, Alan, David, Boris, Bob, Roy, Geoffrey, etc.

Bradford's brisk and unencumbered verse sometimes resembles the classic Horatian style of A.E. Housman's Shropshire Lad, as in "The Belton Boy":

No bird or brute's more shy than the boy bather
In Belton Cove. If in a sheltered nook
He's run to earth, he eyes the bold invader
                    With startled look.

Although perhaps his coat lies neatly folded
Upon a rock, he'll promptly put it on,
Then like a timid puppy struck or scolded,
                    He's up and gone.

You'd best begin by talking of the weather,
Or asking if the water's hot or cold:
Then, when you've had a little chat together,
                    He'll grow more bold.

From time to time he'll give you furtive glances,
And if you make him laugh or even smile
The game is won. Your friendship soon advances,
                    And in a while

His coat comes off again, his trousers follow,
And by the time his sunburnt body's bare
He'll laugh and chatter, whistle, shout and holler
                    As free as air.

Bradford writes poetry of action. He doesn't merely reflect or gaze upon something, but describes something as it happens and participates in a dramatic situation. His style is that of the narrative ballad, ballad dialogues, and Browningesque dramatic monologues — always with an undertone of irony that marks him out as a distinctively modern poet. There is hardly a trace of the mythological allusions that make his contemporaries' gay poetry so tacky. Even his Eros bears more resemblance to the bugler during an English fox-hunt than to the Cupid of a Raphael painting:

Eros is up and away, away:
Eros is up and away!
The son of Urania born of the sea,
The lover of lads and liberty.
Strong, self-controlled, erect and free,
He is marching along today!
He is calling aloud to the men, the men:
He is calling aloud to the men —
"Turn away from the wench, with her powder and paint,
And follow the Boy, who is fair as a saint":
And the heart of the lover, long fevered and faint,
Beats bravely and boldly again.

A leaping, rollicking freedom is the mainspring of his poetry, but he sometimes enters the arena of angry polemic for truly serious issues, as in his bitterly sarcastic attack on culturally enforced heterosexuality:

So some men counsel: "Breed and multiply!"
The most prolific race at last will win.
Send forth your sons in myriads to die
Or kill their fellows. Till next war begin,
Breed on with fury; pour your children in
Till every shop and factory be full,
And labour cheap. What if they're starved and thin?
— I have no heart to procreate
Earth children for the sword:
The Love that links me to my mate,
Himself is his reward.

Bradford lived through both World Wars, and, like Housman, he saw many of his lads die in battle — the slaughter of the unacknowledged aristocracy of shoe-shine boys, paperboys, grocers' boys.

Loitering in Piccadilly, we might come across one of his favourites, some of whom include Hilary:

Hilary is seventeen
Hopeful, though his home's an attic,
Optimistic and serene,
Though his future's problematic:
Full of love is he I ween —
So all say, and so I see, too:
What remains still to be seen
Is — has he love to spare for me, too?

Or Silvester:

Silvester seems somnolescent.
Slow in speech, in manner mild:
Amiably acquiescent,
Simple as a Sunday child.
Don't believe it: He is far
Sharper than your town boys are.

Of Freddie:

Week after week, every Saturday night,
Frederick goes to confession.
All Sunday his soul is apparelled in white,
And the angels are still in possession.
But week after week, on the following morn,
Regenerate Frederick's ready
To become once again the bad boy he was born —
Irresponsible frivolous Freddie!

Or Aubrey:

Lightly clad in night attire,
In the chimney corner snug,
Aubrey lies before the fire,
Couched upon a Persian rug.

No doubt ready for a bedtime story.

Or Willie:

O Willie, Willie, Willie, summer holidays are coming,
And I know that you are coming with the holidays, too:
And Love, little chum, beats a heart like a drum,
Rat-a-tat! rat-a-tat! rat-a-tat! tum! tum!
In a sort of merry devilish tattoo.

Or Eddie:

So as soon as I get Eddie is it heaven that begins —
With the frolicking and rollicking and laughter?
No — Paradise: Though very nice I rather think one wins
Full heaven only on the evening after.

Or we can mosey on out to the lowlands, and perhaps make friends with

... a lusty ploughboy in naked pride,
A boy in beauty, but a man in might,
Majestic flower of the flesh.

And if any dour Puritan scolds Bradford for this indelicacy, he would reply:

The mere word "carnal" shall not me affright;
Nor will I cease, in Puritans' despite,
To love the boyish body with the sprite,
And hymn it too.

This is just a sampling of the twelve books of poetry Bradford wrote, all openly on ladslove, with titles such as Passing the Love of Women, The Romance of Youth, Boyhood, The New Chivalry, and Matthew Rawdon — a complete novel in verse! There is not enough space to quote his ironic narrative poems, such as the one that describes the deepening love between Clinton Fane and Alan Dave, which ends in their swearing blood-brotherhood in a marriage ritual similar to that between Gerald and Birkin in D.H. Lawrence's Women In Love; or a tender conversation between Bradford and a boy blinded by smallpox; or Bradford and a boy named Chris walking past old men on benches who snicker in recognition of their obvious love-relationship. I must be content to leave you with a gem of Bradford's wisdom:

From Lust to Love the roads are twain —
Through Woman and through Youth.
These swerve in time, but meet again
In Love's eternal Truth.
Most follow Woman, since the Fall,
But as for me, I'll follow Paul.


Copyright © 1974, 1998 Rictor Norton


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