Edward Carpenter

Walt Whitman may have said that "the body is electric," but his disciple Edward Carpenter was more turned on. Both poets despised the diarrhea of the drawing rooms of the late 19th century, but the differences in their life-styles is the difference between repression and affirmation. Whitman sometimes visited his very good friend Peter Doyle, the New York bus conductor, while Carpenter lived for 27 years with his lover, George Merrill – affectionately dubbed "Georgette" (below, left).

Whitman called himself "the poet of adhesiveness," a rather ambiguous concept; Carpenter called himself "the poet of hitherto unuttered joy" and explicitly meant the unrepressed union of physical and spiritual homosexual love. Whitman accepted the outcast, the despised, the rejected, and all those outside the conventional norm; Carpenter loved them.

Carpenter was probably the first modern gay liberationist. He was one of the first Englishmen to advocate reform of the sex laws and to celebrate the joys of homosexual love in print, as well as to advocate a reform of the government toward socialism and a radical change in people's attitudes toward themselves and others. But he wasn't just a theorist. He gave away most of his money and earned a subsistence living as a sandal-maker as well as a lecturer and a poet, hoping to realize his ideals by becoming part of the labor class and by working with his hands as well as his pen. Whitman became equally involved in alleviating human misery, though temporarily, as a male nurse during the American Civil War. But for all his celebration of the life force, Whitman, sad to say, was an apostate He publicly repudiated the homosexual theme of his own Calamus Leaves as "morbid and damnable." Carpenter, on the other hand, proudly affirmed the delights of gay love and attacked the anti-gay attitudes of his society. He believed that the gay life was the good life, so he didn't care if anyone accused him of gay "proselytizing."

In 1924, according to a document possessed by Allen Ginsberg, a young American scholar visited Carpenter in England and later recorded in his diary that even at the age of 80 the poet was still an expert in lovemaking. It is this facet of Carpenter, the fully human person who expressed himself in his life and poetry, who is more interesting than the pamphleteer and analyst of "the third sex."

Carpenter as a social reformer argues for liberation, sometimes with the biting humor of the iconoclast as in Civilization: Its Cause and Cure, but Carpenter as a poet is liberated, and reading his poetry is a more vitally liberating experience than reading the more skillfully constructed poetry of Walt Whitman.

The poetry of these two men sprang from nearly opposite motives. Whitman, as we can clearly see in some of his poems, repressed his nature until it split into the opposites of hearty goodfellowship in public and masturbation in private. For all his delight in sensuous imagery, Whitman was a voyeur in all things erotic.

Carpenter had the liberation of a fully integrated personality: for him, the soul is freedom, the body is joy, and "flesh is the root of the soul." Like Whitman, Carpenter in Towards Democracy (1883) sings of the abstractions equality, democracy, freedom, and love, but the ideas are always illustrated by convincing concrete examples. Equality is the feeling that all persons have equal dignity: "If I am not level with the lowest, I am nothing." The "lowest" are not merely the ideological categories of the outcast, the rejected, and so forth, but real persons who are prostitutes, drug addicts, thieves, Blacks, and homosexuals.

Likewise, democracy is not a political/economic theory, but the great goat-legged god of old upon whose thick-sinewed haunches we achieve our desire, the "mutual deliverance of persons wholly without reservations towards each other," and the discarding of "acquisitions, formulated rules, rights, prescriptions, impediments of property, and whatever constitutes a barrier."

Freedom is liberation from "the many mirror-lined chambers of self (grand though they be, but O how dreary!) in which you have hitherto spent your life." This is a freedom for the discovery of other men and women, achieved "by never refusing or disowning anyone whom we have ever met." Carpenter hopes that such freedom will create a democratic subculture of the conventionally despised: "A golden circle of stamens hidden beneath the petals of humanity."

Whitman rarely writes about love except in its most diluted national aspect as brotherhood, as though this goal, vaguely Christian in its compassion, can be achieved by putting the cart before the horse. But for Carpenter, love is:

Not kisses only or embraces
Nor the sweet pain and passion of the flesh alone:
But more, far more,
To feel the creature deep within
Touch on its mate, unite, lie entranced
There, ages down, and ages long, in light
Suffused divine – where all those other pleasures
Fade but to symbols of that perfect union.

And above all, liberation. First the recognition that none of us is truly alone:

I know that you are self-conscious,
That you are troubled – haunted – tormented.
It is not pleasant!
But look into the mirror once more, and satisfy yourself thoroughly about it:
Do you not see, this time that there is someone else looking in it also
Beside you over your shoulder?

Then the deliverance of brotherhood:

Now when I am near to you, dear friend,
Passing out of myself, being delivered –
Through those eyes and lips and hands, so loved, so ardently loved,
I am become free.

Then the historical assurance of eventual freedom:

O child of Uranus, wanderer down all times,
Yet outcast and misunderstood of men –
I see thee where for centuries thou hast walked,
Yet outcast, slandered, pointed at by the mob.
The day draws nigh when from these mists of ages
Thy form in glory clad shall reappear.

And finally, the immediate inner certainty of personal freedom:

Through a thousand beautiful forms – so beautiful! –
Through the gates of a thousand hearts –
emancipated, freed,
we will pass on:
I and my joy will surely pass on.

What is most appealing about Carpenter is his ability to capture the ordinary day-to-day nuances that Whitman so often buried beneath a broad symbolism. We enjoy sleeping with our lovers, but we also sometimes enjoy "spend the night alone," "resuming ourselves" as Carpenter puts it, and dreaming of a host of possible lovers and friends. Or what about the passing glimpse of a stranger unspoken to? –

You, proud curve-lipped youth, with brown sensitive face,
Why, suddenly, as you sat there on the grass, did you turn full upon me those twin black eyes of yours,
With gaze so absorbing so intense, I a strong man trembled and was faint?
I know not.

Or our pastoral dreams of wrestling naked in the woods, with that curious sadomasochistic mixture of "savage play and amorous despite" as the sweat runs off our bodies. Or "the deep deep hunger of love," the "dream of splendor" versus "the shallow laughter of our companions."

It is one of the unfortunate ironies of artistic creativity that pain often carves out finer stuff than pleasure. It seems that Whitman's repressions or A.E. Housman's renunciations produced poetry of greater artistic excellence than Carpenter's liberated spirit or the boyish glee of Casimir Dukahz's Asbestos Diary. This, perhaps, is as it must be, for psychology and experience seem to teach us that art is an artist's attempt to contain, yet gradually leak out, what he or she has suppressed. The literature of pure celebration is rare, for exuberance spills into life rather than into art.

In the early phases of coming out of the closet we may need the support of others who have suffered our own frustrations – like Whitman, Housman, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Radclyffe Hall, Stephen Spender, perhaps even the host of homosexual authors who wrestled with their religious dilemmas during the 1890s. But once we're out of the closet and on the path toward liberation, we no longer have an urgent need for the negative support of such statements as "You're not sinful." In fact, any literature that hints at guilt, shame, renunciation, or fear becomes either a painful recollection of wasted days or downright laughable.

What becomes far more relevant is the literature of affirmation and celebration, "minor" and artistically flawed though it may oftentimes be: the burlesque humor of Christopher Marlowe's Hero and Leander (1598), the erotic satire of John Wilmot's Sodom or The Quintessence of Debauchery (1684), the satiric anger of Judy Grahn's Edward the Dyke, the liberated nuances of Carpenter's Towards Democracy.

When Liberation finally comes, internationally or personally, literature as defined by the Christian world in terms of tragedy, sorrow, and stoic resignation may no longer be read. Meanwhile, we may critically study Whitman, or read him when we're moody after having slipped back into internalized guilt, but we shall read and re-read Carpenter when we wish to radiate with the inner joy of our own faltering but steady liberation.

In the preceding article, which was published in Los Angeles's gay newspaper The Advocate in 1973, I judged Carpenter to be superior to Walt Whitman in terms of the principles of Gay Liberation. (Not as good a poet, though.) Carpenter was praised, mainly for his gay socialism, in John Lauritsen and David Thorstad's The Early Homosexual Rights Movement: 1864–1935 in 1974. The inspirational flame of Edward Carpenter as a pioneer advocate for what he called "homogenic love" may have been fanned anew by advocates of Gay Liberation in the 1970s, but I think his torch had been kept steadily alight for decades before that.

Carpenter's book Intermediate Types was an important source for the philosophy and writings of the Mattachine founder Harry Hay in the early 1950s; Hay remembered the book having a powerful impact on him when he read it at the age of 11, which would be around 1923. I'm almost certain that leaders of the early homophile organization One, Inc. such as Jim Kepner and W. Dorr Legg were also familiar with, and valued, Carpenter's work, and discussed it with their colleagues at One Institute.

Some of Carpenter's verse is included in Eros: An Anthology of Friendship, edited by Patrick Anderson and Alistair Sutherland, which was published in London in 1961 and in New York in 1963, and which was the direct offspring of Carpenter's similar anthology Iolaus (1902). I acquired a copy of Eros circa 1964, but didn't read the full text of Carpenter's long poem Towards Democracy until 1972. Carpenter was given pride of place among gay reformers in Jeffrey Weeks's book Coming Out: Homosexual Politics in Britain from the Nineteenth Century to the Present in 1977. Iolaus was the first book reprinted by Pagan Press, founded by John Lauritsen in 1982.

Of course Carpenter's main influence was upon gay Socialists. Gay Men's Press in London (founded by three gay Socialists) reprinted an edition of Towards Democracy, and in 1984 published Edward Carpenter: Selected Writings, Volume 1: Sex, edited by David Fernbach and Noel Greig and introduced by Noel Greig. They never got around to Volume 2: Non-sexual writings. Around 1992 or 1993 David Fernbach, the publisher of GMP, gave me all his copies of Carpenter's books (which were a powerful inspiration for him) and asked me to get together Volume 2. I assembled the material and a biographical outline/introduction, but after a delay of a year or two of increasing economic difficulties, we all faced the cold light of commercial reality: since Volume 1, which after all was about sex, sold perhaps only 70 copies in ten years, Volume 2, which would be about politics and travel and philosophy and things not half so interesting as sex, would never find a market and was really a non-starter, and the project was permanently abandoned. (Actually, in the very early days GMP planned for these Selected Writings to extend to a Volume 3. How hopeful people were in those early days when they were green and young.)

Times have changed and there was now deemed to be a market for Sheila Rowbotham's biography of Carpenter in 2008. But I suspect that even the most fervent gay Socialists will settle for just talking about Carpenter rather than buying books about him.

It probably is not quite true to say that Carpenter was reclaimed by gay men as one of our heroes. He was reclaimed specifically by gay socialists with the aim of popularizing socialist ideals among gay men who were mostly apolitical until the late 1960s. In other words, Carpenter was reclaimed by socialists who happened to be gay, for the sake of politicizing the gay movement. It was really his socialism rather than his sexuality that was reclaimed! The case of Carpenter is quite different from, say, gay men reclaiming Shakespeare or Handel as "one of ours". In any case, Carpenter's socialism and sexuality were integral to one another (and incidentally were part of his pretty good comprehension of women's liberation), and it's this unity of ideas that make him interesting and distinctive and worth celebrating.

Like most gay men (though this is not so true of lesbians), Carpenter traced his homosexuality to his earliest childhood. As he says in his autobiography My Days and Dreams: "As to friends – that absorbing subject – I can trace the desire for a passionate attachment in my earliest boyhood. But the desire had no expression, no chance of expression. . . . The glutinous boy-friendships that one formed in classroom or playground were of the usual type: they staved off a greater hunger, but they did not satisfy. On the other hand I worshipped the very ground on which some, generally elder, boys stood; . . . I dreamed about them at night, absorbed them with my eyes in the day, watched them at cricket, loved to press against them unnoticed in a football melee, or even to get accidentally hurt by one of them at hockey" etc., and he had guilt-free sex with boys from early on. There really is no doubt that (homo)sexual desire was near the core of his identity from a very early age and certainly much earlier than his socialism – though a certain mystic mooniness may also have arisen from a very early age.

Copyright © 1973, 2001, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. The first part of the above article were originally published in The Advocate in 1973. My comments in the second part originally appeared during a discussion of this subject in the History of Sexuality Discussion List during November 2001.

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