Naked as Bacchus: Roden Noel (1834-94)

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.

Roden Noel's great-uncle Percy Jocelyn, the Bishop of Clogher, in 1822 was discovered in the arms of a soldier in a tavern at St Alban's Place, London, and subsequently broke bail and fled to Scotland to escape imprisonment. In Noel's brief sexual autobiography contributed to Havelock Ellis's Sexual Inversion (published in 1897), he obliquely refers to this incident, claiming that his homosexuality was therefore "hereditary and inborn," and that, in fact, his whole family tended toward it. He also states, rather candidly, that he was "immensely vain of my physical beauty," and that he particularly enjoyed

long hours of voluptuous communion during which my lover admires me. ... I am much preoccupied with my personal appearance and fond of admiration; on one occasion I was photographed naked as Bacchus.

Noel was also married, with three children, and he seems to have been indifferently bisexual, though his earliest fond memory was "the caresses of my father's footmen when I was quite a little boy." He did not particularly enjoy heterosexual intercourse. Legend has it that he was the first man to sleep with John Addington Symonds, the famous scholar-critic-poet, a genius and the most important figure in the Victorian sexual reform movement. Whether or not this legend is true, it is certain that they were lovers for a time, and together they became active disciples of Walt Whitman's theory of comradeship.

Noel's poems have a respectably wide range of diversity, including a verse drama (The House of Ravensburg, 1877); an epic on, of all things, Livingstone in Africa (1874); a curious mixture of verse, dramatic dialogue, and prose philosophy in A Modern Faust (1888); and poems on economic conditions, politics, religion, nature, art, philosophy, and love — including gay love. During his own day he was most praised for his metaphysical and mystical poetry, which even his early lover J.A. Symonds says "is often abstruse and not unfrequently perplexing: It is probable that his poems will not receive due recognition until a Noel Society has been founded."

Noel's philosophical system is an uneasy mixture of charitable Christianity, sensuous Hellenism, and Stoic determinism — words of wayward beauty jarring with stark intellect. I much prefer the too often ignored poems of common, everyday realism, though they are tinted with the sentimental style of the period. His common pastimes included celebrating Christmas Eve with a family of poor people, gathering in the crops with "bronzy harvestmen," and playing sports with "appleblooming boys." (Noel's use of compound nouns relating to boys rather resembles the characteristic manner of Gerard Manley Hopkins.)

One poem which particularly catches my attention is his long poem "The Two Friends," which deals with a repressed lesbian love between two women:

... Maude kept
A noon of heart where Ellen crept
So warm the love of common wives
Were pale, methinks, to that which lives
In this stern woman for her friend.

But Ellen practically breaks Maud's heart by going off and getting married. Maud closes herself up like a hermit, and grows bitter, cold, and reserved. Ellen gradually replies less frequently to Maud's letters, and finally Maud is left entirely to her bitter loneliness. One day Ellen dies, and Maud firmly believes that her ghost returns to her whenever someone plays Ellen's favorite tune on the organ. All the time she had kept Ellen's rooms exactly as it was when she left — and no one is allowed to enter it except her, where she sleeps each night. The tale is a bit too pathetic, but one thinks immediately of the same spurned-and-repressed love theme in Faulkner's A Rose for Miss Emily. Sympathetic poems about lesbians are a rarity in Victorian verse.

Noel is most famous, and perhaps justly so, for his extremely sensuous poems on mythological subjects. And it is in these poems that he most clearly describes his homosexual loves. "The Triumph of Bacchus" (perhaps related to his own posing for the photograph) is quite overpowering in its sensuous appeal. Here is one slice of this over-rich pie:

Dionysus lolled in a Chryselephantine car
Upon a pillow's damson velvet pile,
An undulating form voluptuous,
All one warm waved and breathing ivory,
Aglow with male and female lovelihood.
...
The face was fair and beardless like a maid's.

He possesses an "ample bosom, and love-moulded flank" and his "languid eyes [are] dim-dewy with desire." This is undoubtedly a self-portrait, echoing Noel's own desire to be voluptuously gazed upon. This is a characteristic theme in poetry by more-or-less effeminate gay men, the opposite of the "male gaze" — men who desire to be desired, rather than just men who desire.

The poem "Ganymede" portrays another fawn-youth, "A yough barelimbed the loveliest in the world," who is sitting with his favorite boyfriend when Zeus catches sight of him and decides to rape him in the form of an eagle:

... the tremendous bird
Now slanting swoops toward them, hovering
Over the fair boy smitting dumb with awe.
A moment more, and how no mortal knows,
The bird hath seized him, if it be a bird,
So lightly lovingly those eagle talons
Lock the soft yielding flesh of either flank,
His back so tender, thigh and shoulder pillowed
How warmly whitely in the tawny down
Of that imperial eagle amorous!

The rape is quite explicit — the eagle "Took his last fill of delicate flushed face, / And swelling leg and rose-depending foot, / Slim ankle, dimpling body rich and full," and generally glutted himself upon his lollipop-boy.

The mythological poem which I prefer is "The Water-Nymth and the Boy," in which Noel wickedly assumes the role of the nymph who pulled Hylas into the pool and drowned him. Hylas is pictured as a doe- timid boy clothed in "hose of opalescent silk / Revealing his delicate limbs of milk." Accompanied by "cinnamon-winged butterflies," he prances "daintily" up to the pool on his "strawberry feet," whereupon "a locust leaps upon his loins!" Goodness! And he "cowers before the shock" of this rude advance, tumbling into the water. Noel-the-Nymph clings to his "Smooth boy-bosom, with its twin / Rosebuds in a silky skin," and drowns him, thus preserving his beauty forever from the ravages of Time.

But Noel was at his poetic best when he wrote of the sea, a theme which he fortunately developed during his most mature years (My Sea in 1896 was his last collection, published posthumously.) His "lipping, leaping, laughing sea" represented for him all the joy and freedom of life eternal.

We rush through the water, we scatter the spray,
The foam-bubbles leap in the blue light away.
Old dotards may mumble their winterly talk,
But the young joy of living their age may not baulk.
Never fear, never fear, nestle closer to me,
Owe to joy to bound over wild waves and be free!

The lover with whom he nestles is supposedly "a lady," but it was common practice for Victorian gay poets to heterosexualize their pronouns before publishing their verse. Almost all of Noel's sea-poems are concerned with men.

One of Noel's finest poems is a lament upon the death of an unidentified friend with whom he made frequent trips to the seashore:

To. J. H.

Nay, we may never more climb waves together
In bounding boats, nor ply the limber oar
Among those bounding billows; but I roam
Heart-wounded in chill twilight by the shore,
Like him of old of whom blind Homer sang,
How, reft of one he loved, disconsolate,
He went in silence by the sounding sea:
I hear that rhythmic breathing of the sea
And evermore the surge repeats thy name.
Even so Achilles mourned his friend Patroclus,
So Alexander wept Hephaestion.

Noel's poetry is perhaps two sweet and delicate for modern ears, and it is doubtful that a Noel Society will ever be founded. The major drawback of the poems is that they are concerned with either pure idea or pure substance, rarely wtih the two harmoniously combined except in the sea poems. His ideological poems, like most solely theoretical and abstract art, will be entirely forgotten in time. But his poetry of highly concrete imagery deserves at least a small and permanent niche in any gay library, if only for its unabashed homoeroticism.


Copyright © 1998 Rictor Norton


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