A Flower in Broken Leaf

Edward Cracroft Lefroy

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.


Almost any day of the week Edward Cracroft Lefroy (1855-1891) could be seen in the bleachers at the football games and cricket matches, always accompanied by handsome athletes. After the games he could be found at the theater, or smoking concerts, or whist parties, again accompanied by handsome athletes. He once remarked that "athletics as a spectacle made a poet out of me." Lefroy would have remained a stereotypical gay Victorian bachelor-tutor had it not been for the rugby field.

"His friendships," according to his biographer Wilfred Austin Gill, "were few, but very close." Unfortunately the only friend actually named is Gill himself, a close friend from boyhood. Biographies by friends and literary executors, to which post Gill was appointed, are often the least candid, and Gill has probably suppressed much material. His short Memoir of 1897 praises Lefroy's virtue, nobility, and courageous endurance of a painful and eventually fatal heart disease. Gill acknowledges Lefroy's avid interest in the masculine sports, but assures us that his admiration of the male physique was entirely aesthetic and spiritual. He quotes a comment made to him by Lefroy: "Here and there I could pick you out an Antinous, who, on purely artistic grounds, would bear away the palm from Helen." Antinous was beautiful in a purely artistic sense, but he was also the boyfriend of the Emperor Hadrian, and Lefroy must surely have had this in mind. Gill further assures us that Lefroy's resignations from every job as a minister he ever occupied were caused solely by his painful illness, though this apparently did not prevent him from attending numerous football games and whist parties. Of course it is possible that a fuller revelation of Lefroy's gay lifestyle would have revealed something about Gill himself.

Lefroy undoubtedly experienced a sense of guilt at being homosexual, and he often repressed his emotions just as did A.E. Housman. But there are indications that his interests were not completely repressed to the purely artistic level. In his poem "A Penitent" he addresses someone to whom he has just confessed an unspecified "sin" and "guiltiness":

Enough! I choose to tell you. Priest or no,
Your pity is grateful to me. Yet be sure
For comfort's sake I tell you, not for cure.

Again like A.E. Housman, in two poems titled "A Disciple Secretly," Lefroy mourns the death of a friend to whom he had not the courage to reveal his love:

I spake but little — did not tell
A secret from the heart's hid core.
I did not speak. Is that a reasoned grief,
Now chance of speech is gone, for ever gone?

Too often — but not always — Lefroy was literally a bystander, standing on the sidelines of the field, watching the athletes and only dreaming of the jock superstar who could be his.

Like many gay poets of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Lefroy's choice to write upon mythological and classical subjects was a tactic of evasion. This is particularly true of Echoes from Theocritus (1883). The naive Victorian public could read about the "sun-browned shepherd" Batthus, boyfriend of Theocritus, and excuse the homoerotic theme as a mere classical imitation, while the initiated gay subculture could re-translate it into a contemporary gay context; thus Lefroy appeased two different audiences at once. He is sometimes fairly direct, as in "A Sacred Grove" where "Hither at noon comes Love / And woos the god who is not hard to woo." And sometimes quite evasive, as in "The Tomb of Diocles," where he speaks of "ruddy children" engaging in a kissing contest when he knows very well that this was between boys only, to celebrate the homosexual love of Diocles and Philolaus.

Only two of his poems treat of the beauty of girls, and I suspect that these were originally males before revision for publication. In "A Shepherd Maiden" a girl is oddly rejected by "thy fellows:

On shores of Sicily a shape of Greece!
Dear maid, what means this lonely communing
With winds and waves? What fancy, what caprice,
Has drawn thee from thy fellows? Do they fling
Rude jests at thee?

This suggests the too-frequent gay experience, common until very recently, of being ridiculed. It also echoes some lines from Edward Carpenter's "O Child of Uranus," in which Carpenter laments that Eros, inspirer of gay love, is "outcast and misunderstood of men."

The meanings behind many of Lefroy's highly condensed sonnets are often quite obscure. In the highly erotic "Flute of Daphnis," for example, one cannot quite decide if he is deliberately or unconsciously allegorizing himself as a fellated penis:

I am the flute of Daphnis. On this wall
He nailed his tribute to the great god Pan,
What time he grew from boyhood, shapely, tall,
And felt the first deep ardours of a man.
Through adult veins more swift the song-tide ran, —
A vernal stream whose swollen torrents call
For instant ease in utterance. Then began
That course of triumph reverenced by all.
Him the gods loved, and more than other men
Blessed with the flower of beauty, and endowed
His soul of music with the strength of ten.
Now on a festal day I see the crowd
Look fondly at my resting-place, and when
I think whose lips have pressed me, I am proud.

Lefroy's finest poems are his studies of athletes, cricket bowlers, football players, track racers and various "nimble wights" on the playing field #— and off. Partially because of his own disabilitating illness, he most admired their youthful agility, their strength, their striving for physical perfection, and their sportful exuberance: "I love to watch a rout of merry boys / Released from school for play," their "wild activity and strident noise," and particularly "the lads of larger growth" moving "fieldward with such perfect equipoise."

His best and most dramatic portrait is "A Football Player":

If I could paint you, friend, as you stand there,
Guard of the goal, defensive, open-eyed,
Watching the tortured bladder slide and glide
Under the twinkling feet; arms bare, head bare,
The breeze a-tremble through crow-tufts of hair;
Red-brown in face, and ruddier having spied
A wily foeman breaking from the side;
Aware of him, — of all else unaware:
If I could limn you, as you leap and fling
Your weight against his passage, like a wall;
Clutch him, and collar him, and rudely cling
For one brief moment till he falls — you fall:
My sketch would have what Art can never give —
Sinew and breath and body; it would live.

It is always intriguing to take special note of an artist's own comments upon the nature of art. Lefroy's "Palaestral Study" — alluding to both ancient Greece and to his own experience of pain — is his most serious poem, one of his most carefully controlled and intense statements (quite modern except for its last line), and, I think, perceptive of a fundamental truth regarding certain kinds of art, which depend upon suppression for their perfection:

The curves of beauty are not softly wrought:
These quivering limbs by strong hid muscles held
In attitudes of wonder, and compelled
Through shapes more sinuous than a sculptor's thought,
Tell of dull matter splendidly distraught,
Whisper of mutinies divinely quelled, —
Weak indolence of flesh, that long rebelled,
The spirit's domination bravely taught.
And all man's loveliest works are cut with pain.
Beneath the perfect art we know the strain,
Intense, defined, how deep soe'er it lies.
From each high master-piece our souls refrain,
Not tired of gazing, but with stretched eyes
Made hot by radiant flames of sacrifice.


Copyright © 1977, 1998 Rictor Norton


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