The Homosexuall Pastoral Tradition by Rictor Norton

1. An Era of Idylls

Antoine-Felix Boisselier, The Shepherd, 1808

If any particular genre can be called a homosexual genre, the evidence would point most convincingly to the pastoral tradition - from Theocritus' Idylls to the chapter entitled "Bee and Orchid" in Marcel Proust's Cities of the Plain, from Walt Whitman's Calamus Leaves to A. E. Housman's Shropshire Lad, from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn to Richard Amory's underground pulp novel Song of the Loon, from Gerard Manley Hopkins' ballads on boys bathing to Sanford Friedman's Totempole, from all the Greek poets' praise of boys in the gymnasia to all the flashbacks to adolescent experience in Boy Scout camps in American gay fiction in the 1960s. In its origins, homosexual love was an integral part of the pastoral tradition.

Seven of the thirty idylls completed by Theocritus are essentially homoerotic: in the fifth idyll two shepherds good- naturedly accuse each other of pederasty (one accusing the other of anal rape in the bushes), using colloquial expressions that are "obscene" enough to be printed in Latin in some modern English translations from the Greek (a notorious pedantic practice that makes merely vulgar passages seem especially wicked - and easier to locate); in the seventh idyll Aratus is passionately in love with a boy; in the twelfth idyll a lover addresses his absent beloved and describes a kissing contest amongst boys in honour of Diocles, lover of Philolaus; in the thirteenth idyll Hercules frantically searches for his beloved Hylas; in the twenty-third idyll a lover commits suicide and is revenged by a statue of Eros falling upon his faithless beloved; in the twenty-ninth idyll a lover speaks to his inconstant and immature beloved; and in the thirtieth idyll a rejected suitor reflects upon the heartbreak caused by the love of lads. Theocritus portrays the homosexual lover as one who experiences fleeting moments of gaiety ending in dejected frustration and pensive memory - the very same way in which he portrays heterosexual lovers.

Generally the sodomy in Theocritus' Idylls is that of healthy virility rather than the "abominable filthiness" seen by many Renaissance polemicists who otherwise adopted the conventions of the pastoral. Theocritus' work was unavailable to most Renaissance writers, and their imitations are almost always secondhand, by way of Virgil and French pastoralists. But the very first English translation of selected pieces, the anonymous Sixe Idillia of 1588, contains an insightful comment about the paradoxical love-death relationship between the boy-surrogate (Adonis) and the sacred king wearing the totem skin (the boar). The boar pleads his case to Venus:

Venus, to thee I sweare,
. . .
Thy husband faire and tall
I minded not to kill;
But as an image still
I him beheld for love [i.e., Eros]
Which made me forward shove,
His thigh that naked was
Thinking to kisse, alas!
. . .
Why beare I in my snowt
These needless teeth about?

We need not view this as a case of homosexual bestiality, but the homoerotic implications are obvious. They are more explicitly present in the unknown poet's translation of Idyll 20, which contains a catalogue of gods who have loved neatherds, ending with "and thou, al daie / O mighty Jupiter but for a shepeheardes boy didst straie."

Theocritus's immediate imitators, Bion and Moschus and some unknown writers, emphasized the elegiac potential of the death of the boy-surrogate. Hercules' frantic search for Hylas is the archetype and motivation underlying Venus' lament for the death of Adonis, and Bion in "Lament for Adonis" borrows lines directly from Theocritus' thirteenth idyll to describe her frantic approach to Adonis' bier. Venus is not so much the goddess herself as a transvestite sacred king disguised as the goddess; the figure of the female Venus is the inevitable outcome of Hercules wearing the lion-skin of the totem Mother Goddess or the female attire while serving Omphale. According to Herodotus, the god Mithra was worshipped as the goddesses Mylitta of Babylon, Venus of Assyria, and Anaitis of Armenia. Readers who see Shakespeare disguised as Venus pursuing Master W. H. disguised as Adonis are reading the poem with its proper archetypal context, as recently recognized by Ted Hughes' Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being.

Moschus's similar "Lament for Bion" shows that neither Bion nor the narrator are exclusively heterosexual:

Herdsman, the gifts of all the Muses died
With you, warm girlish kisses, and the brave
Sweet lips of boys; . . .
. . .
Close to his bosom Eros he could snatch [i.e. ravish]
And Aphrodite's passion could rouse.
(trans. Henry Harmon Chamberlin)

The medieval tradition had a limited and limiting influence upon Renaissance mythological conceptions, but although medieval poetry did not give a very strong impetus to the homosexual pastoral-mythological tradition, it is nevertheless relevant to an examination of the development of common homosexual themes. Ernest R. Curtius in European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages discusses several examples of "unprejudiced erotic candor" in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and it is safe to say that although the poetic Muses would have preferred a rose garden to the cloister, life in a medieval monastery was as often gay as solemn. The scholarly monks poured over the antique manuscripts every morning - but each afternoon they recited pagan Latin epigrams with their young pupils, and in the evenings abbot and novice together learned the more subtle realities of brotherly love. In the shadow of the risen Christ the brotherhood glimpsed the risen Ganymede - were not both of them shepherds, and had not both ascended directly into heaven? The love of Jesus for John, of David for Jonathan, were but manifestations of the love of Achilles for Patroclus, of Corydon for Alexis, of Hercules for Hylas. The austere moral fibre of Christianity would not bloom till the late twelfth century, and from 400 to 1100 A.D. the new religion was still pagan in tone. Surely Bacchus still revelled near the wine-press whose amber liquid brought money to the abbey. And surely Eros still shot his arrows from the plane trees in whose cooling shades wandering scholars rested betimes with wandering minstrels. "Here's Death twitching my ear, "Live," says he, "for I'm coming"" - so runs the earthly wisdom which prompts drinking-songs and love lyrics addressed to men as well as maids. Baudri of Meung-sur-Loire (1046-1130), abbot of the monastery of Bourgueil, Archbishop of Dol in Brittany, proudly boasts:

I wrote to maids, and wrote to lads no less,
Some things I wrote, 'tis true, which treat of love;
And songs of mine have pleased both he's and she's.

It is merely a matter of relatively modern cultural prejudice that the love of Abelard for Heloise is better remembered than the equally poignant love of Ausonius for Paulinus of Nola. Ausonius (310-395), professor of rhetoric at the University of Bordeaux, tutor to the Emperor Gratian, Consul of a province, loved above all others his pupil Paulinus, his younger by some forty years. But Paulinus suddenly and without explanation left for Spain, where for four years he answered none of Ausonius' imploring letters. Finally he replied, with great compassion, but still declined to return to Ausonius. Ausonius wandered in the fields of sorrow

. . . in deep woods, in mournful light,
And lakes where no wave laps, and voiceless streams,
Upon whose banks in the dim light grow old
Flowers that were once bewailed names of kings [and boys].
(trans. Helen Waddell, who suppressed the concluding words et puerorum)

Ausonius almost self-consciously portrays himself as Apollo lamenting his boyfriend Hyacinthus.

Meandering across the continent, Venantius Fortunatus (530-603) chanted Virgil rather than the Psalms as he lay at night under the open sky, till he stopped at Poitiers in 567 and became Bishop. He writes to his friend Rucco, deacon in far-away Paris:

Swift as the waves beneath an east wind breaking,
Dark as beneath a winter sky the sea,
So to my heart crowd memories awaking,
So dark, O love, my spirit without thee.

The pang of separation, caused often by pilgrimages, is a frequent theme, as in lines exchanged between Colman the Irishman to a younger man of the same name. Hrabanus Maurus (776-856), abbot of Tours, similarly writes to Grimold, abbot of St Gall:

Earth's self shall go and the swift wheel of heaven
Perish and pass, before our love shall cease.

Grimold was also the friend of Walafrid Strabo (809-849), a pupil whom he sent to the bitterly cold abbey of Fulda to study under his friend Hrabanus. But Walafrid, displeased, wrote back to Grimold:

Fool that I was, a scholar I would be,
For learning's sake I left my country,
No luck have I and no man cares for me.
Even in the house it is cold as snow,
My frozen bed's no pleasure to me now,
I'm never warm enough in it to go
To quiet sleep.
(trans. Waddell)

The patron saints of the monastery of Gembloux were the entire Sacred Band of Thebes, the Greek army consisting of 150 pairs of homosexual lovers, now canonized. Sigebert (1030-1112), lover of the Abbot Olbert, wove in memory of this army a garland of lowly privet blossoms:

Clumsy the work, a silly weight to carry,
And yet revile it not, for it is love.

St Anselm had a passion for writing love letters to men. To Gondulph, "soul most beloved of my soul," he decares "withersoever thou goest, my love follows thee; and wherever I remain, my longing embraces thee." Medieval epistolary passion finds its epitome in his letters to William, "My most dearly beloved" (mi charissime) appearing more than a dozen times in one letter. Supposedly Anselm was trying to convert William to the Christian faith, but his clearer desire was for William to come love with him at the Abbey of Bec: "delay not thy so great good, and fulfil my yearning for thee, that I may have thee for my companion in following Christ." Such subconscious subterfuge is permissible when the goal is to strive together on the road to the heavenly Jerusalem.

From about 1150 onwards, anti-homosexual prejudice usurped the humanistic throne of Greek love. In the twelfth century it became fashionable - and politic - to repent one's wanton youth, as did Marbod, Bishop of Rennes:

My mind did stray, loving with hot desire . . .
Was not or he or she dearer to me than sight?
But now, O winged boy, love's sire, I lock thee out!
Distasteful to me now the embrace of either sex.

Marbod wrote this in his old age. More typical of the earlier centuries was the unknown Veronese cleric who in the ninth century wept for

. . . that boy who disdainfully
Scorns the entreaties I utter, ah, painfully!
You that was mine is my rival's tomorrow,
While I for my fawn like a stricken deer sorrow!

And we are indeed fortunate that from the ruins of manuscripts destroyed or defaced by later zealots, who scratched out or covered with pitch the offending lines, we can now and then retrieve a fragment of ageless beauty, such as Hilary's unblushing plea to his boyfriend, an archetypal formosus puer, written in the early twelfth century:

Hair of gold and face all beauty, neck of slender white,
Speech to ear and mind delightful - why, though, praise for these?
For in every part's perfection, not a fault hast thou,
Save - protesting chastity jars with forms so fair!
Ah, believe me, were the Golden Age to come again,
Ganymede should be no longer slave to highest Jove;
Thou, to heaven ravished, shouldst by day his cup refill,
Thou by night shouldst give him kisses, nectar far more sweet.
(trans. Ernest R. Curtius)

But the Golden Age would not come again for some centuries yet, and by the fourteenth century Chaucer could portray the typical homosexual as an immoral debauched syphilitic, in the person of his Pardoner, who sings "Come hider, love, to me" to the Summoner, and who is threatened with having his testicles crushed by that amiable tavern-keeper Harry Bailey. In many medieval mystery plays, the wicked Herod is portrayed as the archfaggot, just as in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar.

The first vernacular mystery play, The Killing of Abel (1450), though it is not in the pastoral- mythological tradition, contains some pertinent comments upon the first two shepherds on earth. Cain, who in the play may have a homosexual liaison with the Devil as well as with the boy Garcio, seems to desire to form such a relationship with Abel:

Com kis myn ars, me list not ban,
. . .
Com nar, and other drife or hald,
And kys the dwillis toute!
Go gres thi shepe under the toute,
For that is the most lefe.
[Come kiss my ass, I won't curse. Come near and kiss the devil's buttocks! Go grease your sheep under their buttocks, for that is dear to you; lines 49-65]

These scenes (which are censored in some scholarly modern editions) very likely allude to the osculis posterioris of the Knights Templars and the witch-cult of Western Europe. It may seem sacrilegious, but Cain and Abel, like Hercules and Antaeus, form the primordial pair-bond that wrestles until death. Another homoerotic pair common to medieval literature is Lechery and Idleness. In the Scots poet William Dunbar's description of the Dance of the Seven Deadly Sins, written in 1507, these two figures "led thay uthir by the tersis [and] fycket with thair ersis" (led each other by the penis and fucked with their asses).

The minor imitators of Virgil who wrote during the thirteenth century seem to have studiously avoided imitating the second eclogue itself, perhaps because of the increasingly zealous Christian condemnation of the beastly sins of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Virgilian tradition was rather inactive until Dante revived it in the fifteenth century, this time in the form of epistolary eclogues. Dante's eclogues in turn influenced the eclogues of Boccaccio and Petrarch, who popularized the use of Ovidian mythology. Petrarch bears the responsibility for the allegorical obscurity of later pastoral literature, for he would use, for example, the myth of Zeus's rape of the lowly shepherd Ganymede as merely a fanciful indication that one Giovanni Colonna was suddenly promoted to the Cardinalate; whether Petrarch had any other connotations in mind we cannot know. Boccaccio, however, was very explicit, and in his tenth eclogue he introduces the ghost of Prince Lycidas who has been sent to hell because of his thievery and his homosexual affairs; as W. Leonard Grant points out in Neo-Latin Literature and the Pastoral, "the Mise-en-scene seems intentionally modeled on the passage in the Divina Commedia in which the dead Brunetto Latini converses with Dante"; Latini has been sent to hell because of his homosexuality (Inferno, Book 10). Boccaccio perhaps chose the name "Lycidas" because it comes from the Greek lykos, meaning "wolf," and may retain the homosexual connotations of the wolf in the folklore of lycanthropy. These implications may have been forgotten by the time Milton wrote his pastoral lament for another Lycidas.

The three literary traditions or genres which critics associate most closely with the Renaissance achievement are fundamentally homoerotic: (1) the entire pastoral tradition, with its elegiac laments and lovers' complaints; (2) the Ovidian erotic mythological tradition, with its host of androgynous young men; and (3) the friendship tradition, with its belief that the love of man and youth is a higher form of affection than the "phrensie" of loving women, and its belief in the narcissistic phenomenon of "one soul in bodies twain." The Elizabethan dramatic tradition is primarily heterosexual, but a significant number of Renaissance plays focus upon the transvestite "maid in man's attire" motif, as in Shakespeare's As You Like It; the caricature of the fop or dandy in the comedy of humours; and the Love versus Honour plot (i.e. heterosexual love for a mistress versus homosexual loyalty to a comrade) that was to dominate the Restoration heroic drama, as in Thomas Otway's Venice Preserved (1682). The only Renaissance literary tradition from which favourable views of homosexual love are rigidly excluded is Christian polemic or moralism, and even here one finds curious references to Christ as the bleeding Adonis, or the ascending Ganymede, or the Eros of brotherly love.

The Renaissance writers reincarnated Eros of their own accord, but by way of the Latin tradition rather than the Greek tradition. In early Greek thought, Eros was both Eros Pandemos and Eros Uranos, simultaneously sensual and spiritual, profane and sacred - a totality. But in Rome he was fragmented into the homosexual Eros Pandemos of the lyricists; the ethical Eros Uranos of the philosophers; and the heterosexual Eros Pandemos of the followers of Venus, who now became the patroness of heterosexual love, whereas her forerunner Urania had been the patroness of homosexual love. During the early Middle Ages, Eros became allegorized into a spiritual Eros in the service of Aphrodite Urania as the Virgin Mary; during the late Middle Ages, he acquired more bodily form, but became a child rather than a lad, until at last he ended up as a decorative cherub on picture frames and pediments. These cherubim were to fill the canvases of the Renaissance masters, and they are often indistinguishable from the infant Christ. But with painters such as Caravaggio and Parmigiano, the child began growing up again, and he regained his earlier erotic features as an Anacreontic mischievous lad. Contrary to the common opinion, however, the figure of Cupid appeared in numerous homoerotic works as well as in Petrarchan poets' praises of their fair mistresses; often the mistress is merely a stage prop which allows the sonneteer to dwell upon the lovely features of the Cupid reflected from her eyes. But Eros seldom regained the primordial totality which he once had in Plato's Phaedrus. Seeking truth through the veil of Ovid, the Renaissance writers were forced to use later models of the refined boy-surrogate such as Adonis, Ganymede, and Narcissus rather than the historically earlier prototypes of Socratic Eros or pre-Hellenic Hylas. The specific figure of Hylas seldom appears in Renaissance literature, but he is certainly the icon behind his most frequent manifestations as Adonis or Ganymede. Edmund Spenser has intimations of this fact when he describes the lad named Fancy in The Faerie Queene (1589-96):

. . . a lovely boy
. . .
Matchable ether to that ympe of Troy,
Whom Jove did love and chose his cup to bear,
Or that same daintie lad, which was so deare
To great Alcides [Hercules].
(3. 12. 7)

As a result of this wayward pursuit of the archetype, these writers seldom created a picture of Erotic love that was not coloured by the over-refinement of Sidney or the decadence of Marlowe or the guilt of Shakespeare. The greatest single tragedy of Renaissance art and literature is that few people were able to read Plato or the early poets in the original Greek. Their nearest prototype to the true Eros was the ideal Shepherd's Swain, a figure who combined the manly Roman virtues of Virgil with the Sicilian sensuousness of Theocritus. This icon lacked the political and philosophical values of Socratic Eros, values which were relegated to the highly systematic, undramatic and dull qualities of Eros Uranos in works such as Marsilio Ficino's Commentary on Plato's Symposium (1473). For the most part, the shepherd as Eros was a figure of fantasy and desire rather than reality and love, as illustrated in this conventional portrait from Michael Drayton's Endimion and Phoebe (1595):

Endimion, the lovely Shepheards boy,
Endimion, great Phoebes onely joy,
Endimion, in whose pure-shining eyes
The naked Faries daunst the heydegies.
The shag-haird Satyrs Mountain-climing race,
Have been made tame by gazing in his face.
For this boyes love, the water-Nymphs have wept,
Stealing oft times to kisse him whilst he slept:
And tasting once the Nectar of his breath,
Surfet with sweet, and languish unto death;
And Jove oft-times bent to lascivious sport,
And coming where Endimion did resort,
Hath courted him, inflamed with desire,
Thinking some Nymph was cloth'd in boyes attire.

In the fifteenth century a rediscovery of classical manuscripts held by Byzantine merchants stimulated many new imitators of Virgil, particularly Baptista Mantuanus, whose work henceforth became the primary source for most of the later pastoral literature. Mantuan's third eclogue, the major single influence upon specifically elegiac eclogues, called epicedia, involves the passionate lament of one shepherd for a younger shepherd and his consolation by an older shepherd. Although the specifically erotic element has by now been sublimated into "friendship," this eclogue is nevertheless the standard-bearer of the homosexual pastoral tradition having its sources in Theocritus, Bion, Moschus, and Virgil. In spite of a tendency towards melodramatic overstatement, George Tubervile's English translation in The Eglogs of the Poet B. Mantuan Carmelitan (1567) accurately captures Mantuan's predominantly literary and moral concerns (unlike the personal and playful concerns of Theocritus). This eclogue alludes to Virgil as "Tytrus (belou'de / of his Alexis)," indicating that Tubervile was aware of the autobiographical homoerotic nature of Virgil's second eclogue (Tytrus was the pastoral name Virgil adopted for himself). The eclogue contains Fortunatus' lament for Amyntas, the "Wofull wretched Boy that in / [his] tender years didst die" because of his unrestrained "Phrensie" for an unnamed shepherdess. The Virgilian prototype has thus been transformed into a more acceptable Christian pattern, by substituting a moralistic Fortunatus for an infatuated Corydon; by having Amyntas decently die, whereas Alexis indecorously ran off with another man; and by substituting a shadowy female character in place of Alexis' new male lover Iolas. But the lament, the absence, the deep male friendship, the tone of infatuation, and the love for another as the cause of the absence - as well as clear literary imitation - remain the common denominators of the archetype and its descendants.

The so-called eternal triangle has undergone mutations in its literary history. From originally consisting of three men, it has become a triangle of one male who loves another male who loves a female in Mantuan (and later in Spenser, Barnfield, and Shakespeare); and finally it becomes a triangle of two males who love the same female in modern literature. In other words, it is heterosexualized. But the homosexual origin of this triangle - even in modern television situation comedy or the popular song "The Tennessee Waltz" - can still be detected by the importance placed upon the fact that one of the men is not merely a strange interloper, but in every case the best friend of the other. The real tragedy, even pathos, of the eternal triangle in most literature is the breaking-up of this male bond. It is indeed ironic that the eternal triangle is neither eternal nor heterosexual.

The unnamed female, who is responsible for this severance, in Mantuan's eclogue is a veritable high priestess fit for the slaughter, a "white haird trull of twenty years." Amyntas is a boy-surrogate dies for no other reason than religious destiny: "What part of welking wrought thy woe; that didst deserue no yll; / What curssed corner of the Heauens did thee untimely kill." He dies because of the "Phrensie" of his love for the maidenly trull. Had Amyntas lived, he would have been the incarnation of both Pan, the master-musician "With Oaten quill and pleasant pipe," and Apollo, the paragon of poet-shepherds, who, according to the myth recounted in the eclogue, once took on the guise of a shepherd in the Amphrisian fields. Amyntas is both the Dionysian spirit of fertility and the Apollonian deity of the sky; his death is the death of the year in seasonal ritual.

Since one dare not entertain for too long the notion that the gods are capable of such unmitigated perfidy, the blame finally comes to rest upon the shoulders of womankind. In the extended antifeminist diatribe of the fourth eclogue, Mantuan lists the women who have overpowered their men: Tarpeia, Medea, Helen, Byblis, Myrrha, Semyramis, and so forth. He assigns to women in general the unlovable qualities of being "curst, cruell, puft with pride," irrational, "threatfull, thirsting blood," "quareling apes" and "Sorceresses." This misogynist invective was continued by Alexander Barclay in his Certayne Egloges (1570), and even extended to include all women, but Barclay's eclogues contain little distinction in themselves, and add nothing of either positive or negative value to the homosexual pastoral tradition. Misogyny as such is more characteristic of Christian literature and the letters of St Paul, although classical literature commonly takes the view that masculine love is superior.

It is rather intriguing to speculate on how Hercules' frenzy for Hylas and Venus' frenzy for Adonis have become the "phrensie" of heterosexual love in the Renaissance. The transition from the frenzy of a man for a man, then a transvestite for a man, then a woman for a man, to the frenzy of a man for a woman most likely resulted from the classical and Platonic view that heterosexual love is entirely irrational and thus destroys the rational value of the male bond which was necessary for climbing the ladder of perfection. The religious frenzy of the dance in pagan ritual becomes the irrational frenzy of heterosexual love seen as witchcraft and sorcery. Barnabe Googe in his Eglogs, Epytaphes, and Sonnettes (1563) had specifically condemned the frenzies of both homosexual love and heterosexual love. His eclogues are much less imitative and much more personal than the very traditional and conventional ones by Barclay, and rather interesting to read in spite of his medieval Christian moralizing and lack of compassion. Googe, like many other Renaissance writers, suspects that women make themselves appear desirable to men by means of enchantment: "the greatest grief no doubt / Is to be Venus thrall," or the helpless captive of the literally bewitching powers of the goddess who has now become the high priestess of an anti-Christian witch-cult. But Googe leaves little room for any erotic alternatives, and he accepts heterosexuality only if it will curb homosexual desire:

I shall not nede (I thynke) to byd the, to detest the Cryme,
Of wycked loue, that Ioue did vse, in Ganimedes tyme,
For rather wolde I (though it be much) that thou shuldest seake the fyre,
Of lawfull Loue, that I haue tolde, than burne wyth such desyre.

His parenthetical "though it be muche" reveals him as a medieval monk at heart. Having admonished his hapless young companion to choose the lesser of two devilish fires to quench his adolescent urgings, Googe advises the self-discipline of worship, though worship of the Christian deity:

Not he, whom Poets old haue faynd, to lyue in Heauen Hye,
Embracyng Boyes: (O fylthy thyng) in beastly Lecherye.

The renascence of the homosexual pastoral will not come until the next generation, but the very fact that homosexual love can be so openly attacked in the pastoral indicates how close it is to the surface.

Go on to 2. Edmund Spenser. Go to Pastoral Bibliography.
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Copyright 1974, 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.
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