The Summer of Life

The Gay Love Letters of Edmund Gosse to William Hamo Thornycroft

Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries (1998), Edited by Rictor Norton

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.


Sir Edmund Gosse (1849–1928) was the archetypal British man of letters: assistant librarian at the British Museum, translator at the Board of Trade, librarian at the House of Lords, contributor of several biographies for the English Men of Letters series, poet and influential literary critic, friend of Swinburne, Robert Louis Stevenson, Henry James, and many of the leading literary figures of his day. His relationship with his father is beautifully documented (sometimes not entirely truthfully) in his famous biography Father and Son. The love of friends was the ruling passion of the life. In 1870 he wrote to his school friend John Blaikie, “How I long to know all about you! You are seldom from my thoughts. I think the time has already come, of which you spoke, when you said that one day our love would be so magnified that it would seem as though we had not loved at all.” They wrote poetry to one another and their friendship continued for several years. But the great love of his life was the handsome young sculptor William Hamo Thornycroft, whom Gosse had met long before his marriage to Nellie Epps in 1875. Although Gosse took great pleasure in his wife and children, the relationship with Thornycroft, six months younger than he, filled an equally strong need. They went on many expeditions together in search of a pastoral arcadia. In May 1879 Gosse was standing on Richmond Bridge when he suddenly saw Hamo skim past in his father’s boat the Waterlily: “It was the queerest sensation and, if the battlements of the bridge had been lower, I don’t know but what I might have thrown myself into the river and committed suicide out of sheer companionableness.” In June he and Hamo, Hamo’s father and two other men cruised up the Thames in the Waterlily, bathing together naked in the warm evenings. An almost mystical union between the two men took place while they swam at Goring creek on June 19, which he mentioned to his wife: “We are lying now in a delicious quiet creek full of the scented rush — the calamus.” He must have been familiar with the homoerotic symbolism attached to this plant by Walt Whitman, to whom he had sent his first volume of poems in 1873. He wrote a poem which he trusted Hamo would “be able to read between the lines,” full of longing for the past:

Already that flushed moment grows
So dark, so distant; . . .
But we can never hope to share
Again that rapture fond and rare,
Unless you turn immortal there . . .

Early in 1880 Gosse wrote to Thornycroft: "How your friendship has reawakened me, made me young again . . . Nature, the clouds, the grass, everything takes on new freshness and brightness now I have you to share the world with. You have swept all my cobwebs away, the sort of clubbishness that was coming over me; and now I have only one desire, to keep your love and fellowship all my life. After all my dreary, weary youth, I have a right, I think, to be happy now." However, Gosse obviously failed to seize the day, and several years later acknowledged that he was “so much haunted all the time . . . with a memory of that sedgey creek at the back of Goring, with the silence and the sunshine, and that mood of unbelief, the Pilgrim at the very gates of Happiness, turning back with tears to renounce Hope for ever.” For several years Gosse and Thornycroft spent their holidays together, in Scotland, Paris, Switzerland, and the north of England, climbing mountains or swimming naked in the black lakes “wherein we believed that the sword Excalibur might at any moment be brandished, dreaming all our dreams of poetry and art. The spirit of youth was dancing in our veins.” In 1883 Thornycroft became engaged to be married, and the dream came to an end, although they remained friends for the rest of Gosse’s life; in 1885 Gosse wrote from America: “My dear Hamo, by the banks of the Susquehanna and the waters of the Squittersquash, I love you as much as I ever did by the sedged brooks of Thames’s tributaries.” Before and after the period of 1879–83, when his relationship with Thornycroft brought relief, Gosse was subject to fits of more or less severe depression, almost certainly caused by sexual repression. When Lytton Strachey was asked if Gosse was a homosexual, he replied “No, but he’s Hamo-sexual.”

Gosse’s friend John Addington Symonds, the art historian and father of gay history, had acquired photographs of many of Thornycroft’s nude male statues, including the famous Teucer (a Thracian archer, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1881), and collected photographs of nude youths by Wilhelm von Gloeden and Guglielmo Plüschow. He exchanged packets of these photographs with Gosse, who kept stealing glances at one all through the funeral service held for Browning at Westminster Abbey. Gosse wrote sympathetically to Symonds about how to persuade society to reform the laws against homosexuality, but sent him a poem suggesting that he himself had “tamed the chimaera.” Gosse presumably destroyed the letters Thornycroft had written to him, just as he destroyed letters received from Blaikie with whom he was intimate prior to his developing passion for Thornycroft – and just as he threw on a bonfire all of Symonds’ letters and diaries and papers that had been bequeathed to him (saving only Symonds’ memoir, with the injunction that it not be opened for fifty years). Symonds’ granddaughter Janet Vaughan was nauseated by the “smug gloating delight” with which Gosse informed her what he had done to preserve Symonds’ good name. Similarly he had carefully suppressed an important part of his own life for the sake of middle class respectability.


SIR EDMUND GOSSE TO WILLIAM HAMO THORNYCROFT

Board of Trade, S.W.
18.12.79

My dear Hamo, –
          Were you not rather tired on Saturday? I ached in every bone, and lay in bed till 12 next day. After getting off my skates, I came and stood above you at the head of the lake. It was too dark for me to distinguish any one but you: I stayed there watching you talking and meditatively pirouetting on the ice till I made up my mind to go. I hope you saw the splendid bar of crimson in the west, behind the trees.
          You have been busy this week, I expect. I have been doing a great deal since I saw you. I shall have – I hope, rather an important poem to read you when we meet next in any quietude. For the moment, I send you a sonnet, fantastic and very unintelligible, I daresay, to most people. . . .
          Think ever kindly of
                    Thine
                              Edmund W. G.

                                                  To H. T.

When by the fire we sit with hand in hand,
          My spirit seems to watch beside your knee,
Alert and eager, at your least command,
          To do your bidding over land and sea.
You sigh – and, of that dubious message fain,
          I scour the world to bring you what you lack,
Till from some island of the spicy main
          The pressure of your fingers calls me back;
You smile – and I, who love to be your slave,
          Post round the orb at your fantastic will,
Though, while my fancy skims the laughing wave
          My hand lies happy in your hand, and still;
Nor more from fortune or from life would crave
          Than that dear silent service to fulfil.

29, Delamere Terrace
31.12.79

My dear Hamo, –
          I have been as busy as possible all the evening with proofs, letters, etc., and now having cleaned up everything, and made clear decks, I mean to spend the last half hour of 1879 with you. I have a pleasant fancy that you are at this very moment writing to me, but I daresay that is only superstition. . . .
          Reviewing 1879, I see that it has been the most prosperous and the happiest in my life. I have gained several valuable acquaintances; I have published two important books; a son has been born to me; but above all these things I put the fact that you have come up out of the rank of a common friend into the first place of all, as something better than a brother. You are the inestimable treasure for which I was waiting nearly thirty years, and which, God knows, I long ago thought would never come at all. . . .
          I am astounded when I think what progress you have made this year; and I do not think there is any peak or alp of the sculptor’s art that you may not reach if you husband your powers and are true to the strong simplicity with which you have begun. Don’t be too social, and don’t work too late a-nights, these are the only warnings I presume to give you.
          You see I venture to watch over you. Do the same good office to me, in another way. I am sadly conscious of my faults, dear Hamo! Beside your serenity and seriousness, my ugly temper and frivolity show off in colours that are anything but pretty. I speak of this for once only, because I am often deeply ashamed, and shall feel happier if it is understood between us that I perfectly well know my own ugly ways. By and by, I hope to conquer my faults and grow more like you and worthy of you. Help me to do this, like a true friend.
          Will you dine here at 6 next Monday? Do. If you positively cannot, tell me a day soon that I may come and spend an evening with you, when you have no company. But I hope you will come on Monday.
          If I write any longer, it will be 1880. My last thoughts in this year and my first thoughts in next year will be of you.
          May you enjoy every desirable and happy wish of your heart through 1880, may your work grow steadily better and better, and if you must have any troubles may they only be such as you can share with
                    Thy
                              Edmund W. G.

29, Delamere Terrace
Friday night. 16.1.80

My dear Hamo, –
          Will you dine here next Monday at 6? If you can’t, fix any day you like next week. . . .
          I have a great longing to talk to you, and nothing to say. What a foolish person, you will say – but I have long given up trying to make you think me anything else. . . .

          I have such a bad rheumatism in my right arm that I cannot write without pain, and I have had to write for three hours this evening. So altogether my horizon is rather leaden, and the only sunlight I find just at present is when I absorb myself in the thoughts of you, grand and serious, face to face with your goddess [a statue of Artemis which he was sculpting], putting on her robes for her, like Apollo when he winds the body of the Dawn in fleecy raiment of clouds. You are Apollo to me: how glumpy and wretched was I when I began this note, and already your far-reaching beams have pierced my darkness. But you must expect to find me excessively dull and spiritless on Monday . . .
          I can’t believe that anything pleasant will ever happen to me again. Why can’t fortune let us alone, when we want so little, just a nest of domestic quietude in which to brood over our two blue eggs, Friendship and Art, till they hatch two fledgeling immortalities?
          This is mere jabbering; but I write on because I am too tired to leave off, and because the only thing that would really quiet me would be to drop my head into the paws of some feline creature – a jaguar for instance – and sleep a dreamless sleep. . . .

29, Delamere Terrace
Saturday [early 1880]

Dear Dr. Hamo, –
          The patient was troubled yesterday with a very large sore lip and a general feeling of brains having been well-shaken [by a fall while ice-skating]. But otherwise he did great credit to his physician; and is better still today.
          No more ice this season, I am afraid. You agree with me, I hope, in spite of the tumbles, that Thursday was by far the best of the good days we have had on the ice. The glow of the sun as we sat on the bench, how it thrilled us. . . . Few people know how moving a sunshiny day in mid-winter is; it sets all the summer veins pulsing, welling up blood from the heart in the great throb of the arteries, till the whole body is in a sort of melting ravishment, ready to take in every hint of colour and perfume and bodily touch. I could say many curious things about that bask we had in the sun on Thursday; but I saw in your eyes that you were thinking them too, so I will not waste my speech.
          Do you not perceive that, like the bees, we are storing a great deal of the honey of memory for our old age? Strange, that people don’t do this more; but I suspect few people live quite so much at their own finger-tips as we do. . . . I could not help thinking as we skated about what a poor thing all the matters I used to boast myself of — I mean mere acquirement of knowledge and book-learning – are in comparison with living one’s life while one is young. It seems to me much more worth doing to be able to ride a colt across a rough piece of country than to be able to read a page of Thucydides. Ten years ago it would have seemed blank idiocy to me to have said that, but now the long months and months I have spent in stuffing the inside of my sheet of brown paper seem to me almost wasted. I think I could be quite happy to go with you to some place in the Back Woods, where we could make a clearing, build ourselves a hut, grow our own food and go off with our rifles into the forest when we wanted a change of employment. Do you know that you are a great wizard? I am very oddly bewitched; I scarcely know myself. . . .
                    Your
                              E. W. G.

29, Delamere Terrace
2.7.83

My dear Hamo, –
          We are blind creatures, and although I have often teazed you about Tonbridge, I had no notion that it was serious. You describe a sculptor’s wife, and if your sketch of her is only fairly like, she must be a most charming, a most lovable creature. I pray God with all my heart to bless you both, to teach her to love you as you deserve to be loved, and to give you a long sunny life together. If she is worthy of you, and I cannot help hoping that she may be, you will be a splendid pair. I feel so serious and agitated about it that I cannot indulge in any of the gentle chaff which is proper to these occasions. . . .
          You are not so young now as to be treated as if you were the sublimely selfish first-lover of 22. I may even venture to speak to you of myself, for at this crisis of our lives my one great thought is of gratitude to you for these four wonderful years, the summer of life, which I have spent in a sort of morning-glory walking by your side. You will not think about this at first, and I should be sorry if you did. But as time goes on and we grow older still, it will all come back to you.
          I can say nothing but what is stupid. God bless you and be good to you. When you find a spare moment you must try and prepare your future wife to like me. I am so very anxious to like her.
                    Your loving Friend,
                              Edmund W. Gosse


SOURCE: The Life and Letters of Sir Edmund Gosse, ed. Evan Chareteris (London: William Heinemann, 1931).


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