Aleister Crowley's White Stains

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

Aleister Crowley once had one of his long poems published in a national newspaper, of which the first letter in each line spelled out the words "The Virgin Mary fills my heart with desire / But arseholes set my prick on fire." A week later he sent the newspaper an explanatory clarification of his trick, which they declined to print. Such was the essentially mischievous nature of the Great Beast, the man the newspapers called The Wickedest Man in the World.

This is not the place to attempt a mini-biography of a very odd man, especially as I am interested primarily in a book he published at the age of 23, before he had fully developed his magical rituals and earned for himself worldwide notoriety. By the age of 45 Crowley had become the god in his own temple of black magic; had run the gamut of sexual experience including gay S/M; had experimented widely in drugs; had been responsible for the deaths of some human beings (not to mention numerous fowl); had met hundreds of demons and ancient deities; and, most importantly, had discovered the Law of Thelema: DO WHAT THOU WILT.

But let me come directly to the point: White Stains. This has been called "the filthiest book of verse ever written," so no historian of erotica can afford to ignore it; happily it also comes within the purview of homoerotica. White Stains was published in Amsterdam by Leonard Smithers in 1898 in an edition of 100 copies; most of these were destroyed by British Customs in 1924; a Limited Edition of 1000 copies was published in London by Gerald Duckworth in 1973, 118 pages, £7.00.

The very title immediately announces that the contents will be "perverse," and we soon discover that it is one of those books that invites itself to be banned. In the dedicatory poem the Beast is being buggered:

Lie close; no pity, but a little love.
Kiss me but once and all my pain is paid.
Hurt me or soothe, stretch out one limb above
Like a strong man who would constrain a maid.
Touch me; I shudder and my lips turn back
Over my shoulder if so be that thus
My mouth may find thy mouth, if aught there lack
To thy desire, til love is one with us.

And in the concluding poem, the narrator is wandering in the abyss of Hell, fierce with syphilis.

In between these poems are 34 others, describing "Th'extreme of pleasure and the worst of pain" via the major variations of buggery, pederasty, heterosexual sodomy, fellatio, cunnilingus, rimming, rape, sapphism, impotence, bestiality, coprophilia and necrophila. It is the poetic equivalent of Krafft-Ebing's sexological study Psychopathia Sexualis.

Facetiously subtitled "The Literary Remains of George Archibald Bishop, A Neuropath of the Second Empire," the book attempts to trace the progress of diabolism in an unhinged mind. To this end, each poem is successively more vile than the preceding, until we reach the penultimate "Necrophilia":

Yes, thou art dead. Thy buttocks now
Are swan-sort, and thou sweatest not;
And hast a strange desire begot
In me, to lick thy bloody brow;
...
To chew thy dainty testicles,

to rip open the hanged man's belly and wallow in his bowels, to cling, suck, rave, fuck, shriek, to eat the corpse's final stool, and to do some things so self-consciously unspeakable as to leave us more numbed than repulsed.

Some of the poems are deliberately "blasphemous"; in one, while he is in bed with a Jewess, the poet has a vision of Christ on the cross and imagines himself violating Him via the spear-wound. Most of the poems occur within a religious framework, albeit most of the imagery is satanic rather than seraphic. I find it a bit difficult to appreciate many of the poems, for they are melodramatic in the worst sense of Victorian music-hall entertainment, heavily sentimental, and dripping with the diction of the damned.

The finer poems are the lighter ones, those in a pastoral or humorous mode. It is surprising to find genuine wit and humor and a light touch in a volume so bedeviled by earnest putridities, yet this is the case, for example, in "A Ballad of Passive Paederasty":

Free women cast a lustful eye
On my gigantic charms, and seek
By word and touch with me to lie,
And vainly proffer cunt and cheek;
Then, angry, they miscall me weak,
Till one, divining me aright,
Points to her buttocks, whispers "Greek!" —
A strong man's love is my delight!

It is equally surprising to find — amidst so many heavy-handed attempts at outrage — the occasional poem whose meter genuinely parallels the delightful "rushing-forward" sense of orgasm, as in the following rondel:

Boy of red lips, pale face, and golden hair,
Of dreamy eyes of love, and finger-tips
Rosy with youth, too fervid and too fair,
Boy of red lips.
How the fond ruby rapier glides and slips
'Twixt the white hills thou spreadest for me there;
How my red mouth immortal honey sips
From thy ripe kisses, and sucks nectar rare
When each the shrine of God Priapus clips
In hot mouth passionate more than man may bear,
Boy of red lips!

W.B. Yeats admitted that Crowley had written "about six lines, amid much bad rhetoric, of real poetry." I think that is a prudish underestimation of Crowley's talent (though I wouldn't put the figure much higher than 60 lines). But if we can rid our minds of the false notion that Beauty and Filth cannot coexist, I think we can discover in Crowley's opus at least one poem (a sonnet in fact, on watersports etc.) that is both genuinely distasteful and genuinely good:

Go into the Highways and Hedges, and compel them to come in
Le my fond lips but drink thy golden wine,
My bright-eyed Arab, only let me eat
The rich brown globes of sacramental meat
Steaming and firm, hot from their home divine,
And let me linger with thy hands in mine,
And lick the sweat from dainty dirty feet
Fresh with the loose aroma of the street,
And then anon I'll glue my mouth to thine.
This is the height of joy, to lie and feel
Thy spicéd spittle trickle down my throat;
This is more pleasant than at dawn to steal
Toward lawns and sunny brooklets, and to gloat
Over earth's peace, and hear in ether float
Song of soft spirits into rapture peal.

This poem perfectly subverts the pastoral genre, and transforms its prettified fripperies into coarse passion. Not even Andre Gide had the honesty to describe his Arab boys in terms other than quaint and cherubic. Gide might go so far as to describe their "dirty feet" as long as they were also "dainty,", but his imagination had not the courage or the realism to rise to the brilliant image of "spicéd spittle," two words which in juxtaposition capture all the splendour of the mysterious east and mundane familiarity.

Here it must be noted that Crowley was much influenced by French decadent poetry boiling out of the cauldron of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal, most obvious in his rather sickly portraits of lesbian love in nearly illiterate French verse. "Go into the Highways ..." was almost certainly inspired by the third poem in Rimbaud's Les Stupra (Defilements) (1872), about Verlaine's arsehole:

Dark and wrinkled like a deep pink,
It breathes, humbly nestled among the moss
Still wet with love that follows the gentle
Descent of the white buttocks to the edge of its border.
...
In my dream my mouth was often placed on its opening;
My soul, jealous of the physical coitus,
Made of it its fawny tear-bottle and its nest of sobs.
But note how laboured is Rimbaud's verse in comparison with Crowley's.

To leave White Stains for a moment, some of Crowley's goat-like paeans to lust can also be traced back to Rimbaud, a sympathetic soul. For example, the first quatrain of the first poem in Les Stupra:

Ancient animals copulated even as they ran,
Their glans coated with blood and excrement.
Our fathers proudly displayed their members
By the fold of the sheath and the grain of the balls.
...
But a sterile hour has truck: the horse
And the ox have bridled their lust, and no one
Will dare again to raise his genital pride
In the woods where playful children are swarming.

Crowley, of course, did dare, and if on one side of his coin of sexual magic is engraved a buggered anus, on the other side is the solar phallus. For example, Crowley's magnificent "Hymn to Pan" (written in 1913, published in The Quincunx in 1919) is an unbelievably powerful invocation of these ancient animals in their god-like forms. I quote the last third:

I am numb
With the lonely lust of devildom.
Thrust the sword through the galling fetter,
All-devourer, all-begetter;
Give me the sign of the Open Eye,
And the token erect of thorny thigh,
And the word of madness and misery.
O Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan! Pan,
I am a man:
Do as thou wilt, as a great god can
O Pan! Io Pan!
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! I am awake
In the grip of the snake.
The eagle slashes with beak and claw;
The gods withdraw:
The great beasts come, Io Pan! I am borne
To death on the horn
Of the Unicorn.
I am Pan! Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Pan!
I am thy mate, I am thy man,
Goat of thy flock, I am gold, I am god,
Flesh to thy bone, flower to thy rod.
With hoofs of steel I race on the rocks
Through solstice stubborn to equinox.
And I rave; and I rape and I rip and I rend
Everlasting, world without end,
Mannikin, maiden, maenad, man,
In the might of Pan.
Io Pan! Io Pan Pan! Io Pan!

Crowley was mad, and therefore not to be judged by ordinary standards. We would even be mistaken if we thought of him merely as a man. He took pains to develop within himself the magical qualities of the Whore of Babylon, even to the extent of adopting the "female role" in his sex magic: the Paris Working in 1914, for example, necessitated him being sodomized twenty- four times (not all at once) by his assistant Victor Neuberg. Just as Dionysus was double-natured (Diphues) and Zeus was male-female (Arrhenothelus), so Aleister Crowley wanted his epitaph to be "half a woman made with half a god." This dowdier side of this self-created icon is illustrated by a photograph of himself in make-up which he pasted into his diary, and wrote underneath it "Alys", that is, Alice, femininet of Aleister. Despite the outrageously aggressive nature of his public behavior (he used to greet people by biting their lips, or wrists, till he drew blood), I always tend to think of him as a rather dowdy Edwardian lady trying to be wicked below her staion.

In the year that White Stains was published, Crowley had just met one of his first boyfriends, the transvestite Herbert Charles Jerome Pollitt (alias "Diane de Rougy"), and Crowley's own verse is a compound of ambisexual themes. Even in the most overtly heterosexual poems he is often portrayed as an abject slave to a black queen of the night, tortured, trampled, lashed and absolutely crushed and humiliated by the archetypal empress on spiked heels. I use the word "ambisexual" rather than "bisexual" because Crowley's lusts were not solely human. Possibly the most stimulating poem in White Stains is "With Dog and Dame," in which the narrator greedily licks at the penis of a Great Dane as it slides in and out of his mistress's vagina, while the latter has her finger stuck up Crowley's anus.

I am not aware that any other of Crowley's books of verse have been reprinted (indeed some are still in manuscript), and I have not been able to locate his other most homoerotic collection The Scented Garden of Abdullah the Satirist of Shiraz, largely plagiaried from translations by Sir Richard Burton and published privately in 1910. Readers who wish more knowledge o Crowley's sex-magic rituals may consult The Magical Record of the Beast 666 (edited by John Symonds and Kenneth Grant, published by Duckworth in 1972), which contains some very explicit details on how he and his assistants — many of them male — practiced the Law of Thelema. The text is exceedingly abstruse for those not adept in astrology, the I Ching and goetic theurgy, but it also contains some amusing bawdy verse and further howlings from this mad creature. One also finds some itneresting asides on Crowley's erotic paintings, which I have never seen, such as one on lesbians and "the big Cunnilingus canvas."

I am not the person to judge Crowley's magical powers: Could he really make himself invisible? But let me sum up the importance of White Stains in this way: once you have read it, you can never again be shocked. He demonstrates pretty clearly that pornography is not dangerous; the more prolonged is the orgy in honor of the Great God Pan, the more it threatens to become boring.


Copyright © 1977, 1998 Rictor Norton


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