Aleister Crowley's White Stains
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
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:
And in the concluding poem, the narrator is wandering in the abyss of
Hell, fierce with syphilis.
- 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.
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
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
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,
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":
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:
- 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!
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
- 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!
Go into the Highways and Hedges, and compel them to come in
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
- Let 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.
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:
But note how laboured is Rimbaud's verse in comparison with Crowley's.
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.
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:
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
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 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 station.
I am numb
With the lonely lust of devildom.
Thrust the sword through the galling fetter,
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!
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