The Homosexual Pastoral Tradition by Rictor Norton

4. The School of Spenser

Louis-Vincent-Leon Palliere, Shepherd at Rest, early 19th century

We seldom speak of Edmund Spenser and Christopher Marlowe in the same breath, for there are few contrasts so stark as that between the two figures whom we popularly believe to be the serious erudite scholar and the hot young rebel, the leisurely architect of prolific stanzas and the fevered Proteus of Faustian drama. Yet the bulk of English literature for the next half-century, and much of the literature through the next four centuries, owes more to the combined influence of these two poets than to any others except Shakespeare and the Bible. Wherever we look, be it Milton's Paradise Lost, Byron's Childe Harold, Shelley's Adonais, Keats's Odes, we find repeated echoes, imitations, and plagiarisms of Spenser's Bower of Bliss or Garden of Adonis and Marlowe's Swim of Leander or Aspiration of Dr Faustus - not the influence of one poet or the other, but of both simultaneously. In the seventeenth century this influence was felt at its strongest - so strongly, in fact, that for fifty years most literature is highly derivative and imitative rather than creatively original. Much of it was written by a group of poets, most of them intimate friends, who styled themselves the School of Spenser.

William Browne of Tavistock, for example, was called "the second Colin Clout," and he even published the first edition of his Britannia's Pastorals (1613) under Spenser's name. In this unbearably long work, Browne gives pleasingly long descriptions of beautiful boys obviously modeled upon those found in Spenser and Marlowe. Doridon, whose name by no accident rhymes with Corydon, is a typical "lovely swain" whose beauty caused Narcissus to gaze upon him and pine away: "Ovid clean mistook" the Narcissus myth, so Browne gives his homoerotic version. Doridon, like all lovely lads, is not only a Narcissus, but a composite of all the lovely deities in mythology. Jove thinks Doridon is Ganymede, and almost abducts him; Venus sees no difference between him and Adonis; birds think he is Endymion; and Apollo does what he usually does in such situations:

The chievest cause the sun did condescend
To Phaeton's request [to use his chariot] was to this end,
That whilst the other did his horses rein,
He might slide from his sphere and court this swain,
Whose sparkling eyes vied lustre with the stars.

The meandering plot is heterosexual in so far as Doridon courts the nymph Marina, but one sometimes suspects that this is a device created for the support of its numerous homosexual subplots. Every so often we catch a glimpse of a "pretty youth" who "was almost made a maid" because Dame Nature "a male or female doubted which to make" - Browne is alluding to Shakespeare's Sonnet 20. These "pretty shepherd's boys" and "sweet-fac'd boys" are forever running across the pastoral meadows, just as Florimel does in The Faerie Queene, and they seem to exist only because Browne likes describing them. Sam. Hardinge, who wrote a commendatory epistle to the 1616 edition of Brtiannia's Pastorals, goes so far as to suggest that Browne ceased writing not because he died, but because a pretty shepherd's boy had enticed him away from his Muse. What is the modern reader to make of this playful homoerotic banter? Can we just dismiss it as convention? To say that all these references are merely part of a conventional tradition does not really solve the problem: they are patently part of a homosexual conventional tradition.

Browne's one contribution to English literature is a group of very fine elegies, usually lamenting the death of a young man. Doridon himself is killed by a flint thrown by a wicked shepherd in a scene modeled upon the myuth of Zephyrus's killing of Apollo's boyfriend Hyacinthus, though he is later magically resurrected. The death of Hylas is behind a beautiful elegy written by Willy (Browne's well-known pastoral name) upon the death by drowning of an unnamed friend:

Glide soft, ye silver floods,
And every spring:
Within the shady woods
Let no bird sing!
Nor from the grove a turtle-dove
Be seen to couple with her love;
But silence on each dale and mountain dwell,
Whilst Willy bids his friend and joy farewell.

This lament is followed by an epitaph supposedly written by Apollo himself, beginning "In depth of waves long hath Alexis slept." The fourth song of the second book contains an elegy of adolescent masculine love, in which a young boy laments the departure, rather than the death, of his older friend Philocel: "I never can forget in yonder lair / How Philocel was wont to stroke my hair." One thinks of Socrates, in his last days, caressing the beautiful long hair of Phaedo.

In The Shepherd's Pipe, amidst the pastoral surroundings and more beautiful youths, we see Browne lamenting the death of "his truly loved (and now as much lamented) friend Mr. Thomas Manwood." This is perhaps the finest elegy of a very fine elegiac poet, quite worthy of its prototypes such as Bion's lament for Adonis. Willie, sitting "under an aged oak" with a sadness "that nigh his heart-strings rent," laments the loss of his "mate." His grief is so deep, he wishes even the sun and moon would cease their revolutions:

Great Phoebus! Daphne is not here,
Nor Hyacinthus fair;
Phoebe! Endymion thy dear
Hath long since cleft the air.
But ye have surely seen
(Whom we in sorrow miss)
A swain whom Phoebe thought her love,
And titan [i.e. Phoebus] deemed his.
But he is gone! then inwards turn your light,
Behold him there: here never shall you more.

The celestial love-triangle, in which Phoebus and Phoebe both vied for the affection of the swain, apparently came to naught, for he and Browne had consummated their love, as though it were a sacrament:

O what is left can make me leave to moan,
Or what remains but doth increase it more?
Look on his sheep: alas! their master's gone.
Look on the place where we two heretofore
With locked arms have vow'd our love,
(Our love which time shall see
In shepherds' songs for ever more,
And grace their harmony),
It solitary seems.
Their beauties fade, and violets
For sorrow hang their heads.
. . .
And as he [i.e. Willy] spent the day,
The night he pass'd alone,
Was never shepherd lov'd more dear,
Nor made a truer moan.

In spite of rigorously fulfilling all of the formal conventions of the elegiac tradtiion, the "true moan" does indeed ring with sincerity, perhaps because it does not end with an artificial consolation such as the assurance that Manwood is better off in heaven.

The shepherds who appear most frequently in Browne's ecologues, Cuddie and Roget, are his close friends Christopher Brooke and George Wither. All three poets wrote the standard "commendatory epistles" to each others' works, containing expressions of friendship in hyperbolical terms that perhaps are merely conventional. Brooke in his single pastoral, simply titled Eclogue (1614), sings a paean of praise to Willie Browne:

My loued Willy, if there be a man
That neuer heard of a browne-colour'd swan;
Whose tender pinions scarcely fledg'd in show
Could make his way with whitest swans in Poe;
. . .
Then let him know, thou art that young browne swan,
That through the winding streames of Albion
Taking thy course dost seeme to make thy pace
With flockes full-plum'd, equal in loue and grace.

The "browne swan" is of course an unimaginative pun upon Browne's name, but the image suggests the contrast of the fair lad and the swarthy lad in Virgil's second eclogue. However, except for a criticism of foppish courtiers as hermaphroditic lechers in The Ghost of Richard III, none of Brooke's work contains any specifically homoerotic content.

George Wither, who had collaborated with Browne in writing The Shepherd's Pipe, in his own The Shepheards Hunting (1622) adopts the name "Philarete" for himself - the same name that Browne used for Manwood in his elegy. These eclogues, written for private circulation while Wither was politically imprisoned in the Marshalsea for his Abuses Stripped and Whipped (1613), describe visits to him by Willie, Cuddie, and Alexis (William Ferrar). The two major themes of Wither's eclogues are the abuses of the times and masculine love. The latter has the typical "friendship" situation of an older male advising a younger male, but their feelings for each other are expressed in terms of a strong emotion akin to romantic love: "Where heretofore we talk't we did embrace: / But now I scarce can come to see they face" (because of the prison bars).

Phineas Fletcher, another self-styled member of the School of Spenser, puts the pastoral tradition to two new uses, for a physical anatomy of the body in The PurpleIsland (1633), and, under the influence of Sannazaro, for the occupation of fishing instead of sheep herding in Piscatorie Eclogues (1633). The Purple Island is a grotesque expansion of the House of Alma (already grotesque enough) in Spenser's The Faerie Queene. At one point we find ourselves sailing across a huge sea of urine in the stanzas devoted to the kidneys. Fletcher explicitly condemns homosexual love (or at least pederasty), and notes the phallic significance of the eagle in the myth of Ganymede:

With him Acatharus in Tuscan Guise;
A thing, that neither man will owne, nor beast:
Upon a boy he lean'd in wanton wise,
On whose fair limbes his eyes still greedie feast;
He sports, he toyes, kisses his shining face:
Behind, Reproach and thousand devils pace;
Before, bold Impudence, that cannot change her grace.

His armour seem'd to laugh with idle boyes,
Which all about their wanton sportings playd:
Al's would himself help out their childish toyes,
And like a boy lend them unmanly aid:
In his broad targe the bird her wings dispread,
Which trussing wafts the Trojan Ganymed:
And round was writ, Like with his like is coupeled.

For Acatharus, who is the allegorical personification of fornication, Fletcher gives an accurate side-note reference: "Sodomie. Rom. I. 26, 27. Levit. 20. 15, 16." But his reproach is much milder than Googe's early vituperation upon "beastlie Lecherye."

This passage is strangely at odds with a passage upon the beautiful Anchises in Fletcher's earlier Brittain's Ida (1628), written largely under Marlowe's influence. Anchises, like all the lads described by Marlowe, Barfield, and Browne - and no doubt like the lad whom Acatharus leans upon - possesses hermaphroditic beauty and is homoerotically attractive:

A dainty Boy there wonn'd, whose harmelesse yeares,
Now in their freshest budding gently sweld;
His Nimph-like face ne're felt the nimble sheeres,
Youth's downy blossome through his cheeke appeares:
His lovely limbes (but love he quite discarded)
Were made for play (but he no play regarded),
And fit love toreward, and with love be rewarded.
. . .
His auburne lockes hung like darke threds of gold,
That wanton aires (with their faire length incited)
To play among their wanton curles delighted.
. . .
His cheerfull lookes, and merry face would proove,
(If eyes the index be where thoughts are read)
A dainty play-fellow for naked love [i.e. Eros];
Of all the other parts enough is sed,
That they were fit twins for so fayre a head:
Thousand boyes for him, thousand maidens dy'de,
Dye they that list, for such his rigorous pride,
He thousand boyes (ah foole) and thousand maids deni'd.

That parenthesis in the last line reveals something about Phineas.

Sannazaro in the tenth chapter of his Arcadia (1504) and in the fourth eclogue of his Eclogae piscatoriae (1526) alludes to Virgil's Corydon burning for the lovely Alexis, and Fletcher's Piscatorie Eclotues owe more to Virgil than to Sannazaro. In the first eclogue we discover that Thelgon (his brother Giles Fletcher) and Amyntas (King James I, according to Ethel Seaton) loved each other until Amyntas spurned Thelgon for the wealthier fisher-swain Janus (perhaps the Duke of Buckingham, or Sir Francis Bacon).

Thus we have come full circle to the original homosexual triangle found in Virgil's second eclogue. Like Corydon, Thelgon wanders disconsolately:

Haplesse Thelgon (a poore fisher-swain)
Came from his boat to tell the rocks his plaining:
In rocks he found, and the high-swelling main
More sense, more pitie farre, more love remaining,
Than in the great Amyntas fierce disdain.

Like Corydon, he laments that Amyntas disdains him; brags of his simple "sea" pleasures; laments that Amyntas will not "hear" the sweet songs of his pipe; swears to forget him; yet burns with love and grief. Like Virgil, Fletcher sets up a contrast between the blazing sun and the refreshing shade, and expresses the same tone of sorrow.

In the fourth eclogue Thelgon says to Chromis (who Seaton suggests is Phineas),

Chromis my joy, why drop they rainie eyes?
And sullen clouds hang on thy heavie brow?
. . .
What is it then that causeth thy unrest?
Or wicked charms? or loves new-kindled fire?
Ah! much I fear love eats thy tender breast;
Too well I know his never quenched ire,
Since I Amyntas lov'd, who me disdains,
And loves in me nought but my grief and pains.

Chromis replies that there is a strong mutual love between himself and another male, but this unnamed person (King James?) is so high above Chromis's station in life that their love cannot continue. The important element in the above passage is that we see "love," or Cupid, in his original role as Eros, the inspirer of love between males.

The second piscatory eclogue is a singing match between Thirsill (Phineas) and Thomalin (John Tompkin) on the death of Thelgon (Giles Fletcher, who died in March 1610/11), and is well within the elegiac tradition. The sixth eclogue concerns the love of Thirsill for Thomalin, which is upset by Thomalin's falling in love with a nymph named Stella. Thirsill grieves, as Hobbinol did for Colin, "'Tis love my Thomalin my leifest boye / 'Tis love robbs me of thee & thee of all thy ioy." Thirsill argues against the base love of women, as did E. K. in his criticism of gynerastic love, and pleads in favor of pederastic love: "Ah might thy love wth me for ever dwell / . . . / She shall not more deserve & Cannot love soe well." Stella, like Shakespeare's Dark Lady, is a siren-like sea-nymph who lurks in her sea-cave adn seduces and destroys all the beautiful fisher-swains who wander too close to her lair.

The homosexual themes in the work of William Drummond of Hawthornden, chronologically the last member of the School of Spenser, are largely relegated to mythological allusions. In "Iolas' Epitaph" he compares the beauty of Hercules' "dear Iolas" to that of Adonis and Narcissus. In "The Rose" he discusses the flower that sprang from the blood of Adonis, "the sweet Cynarean youth," and concludes with the interesting emblematic interpretation that the rose's thorns symbolize "the Boars' tusks, perhaps, his snowy flank which rent." In "Sonnet XLIX" he anachronistically compares his departure from his mistress to the rape of Ganymede: "So wailing parted Ganymede the fair, / When eagles' talons bare him through the air." And in "Narcissus" he alludes to some secret forbidden love that is not merely narcissism: "Floods cannot quency my flames! ah! in this well / I burn, not drown, for what I cannot tell" - suggest of The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name.

In "An Hymn of the Fairest Fair," in the Flowers of Sion, Drummond attempts to discuss the glories of God and Christ in sensuous Ovidian terms, and awkwardly presents a picture of Zeus and Ganymede, in which Christ is both puer aeternus and formosus puer:

. . . not far from [God's] right side,
With curled locks Youth ever doth abide;
Rose-cheeked Youth, who, garlanded with flowers
Still blooming, ceaselessly unto thee pours
Immortal nectar in a cup of gold,
That by no darts of ages thou grow old,
And, as ends and beginnings thee not claim,
Successionless that thou be still the same.

This passage very much resembles Giles Fletcher's comparison of Christ's ascent into heaven to the rape of Ganymede in Christ's Victorie and Triumph (1610). What Douglas Bush, in Mythology and the Reanissance Tradition, says of Fletcher Christ could be said of many a Renaissance poet's portrayal of Christ: "Fletcher's Christ in the wilderness might be another Leander or Endymion, Narcissus or Hermaphroditus, with his black hair in short curls, and "His cheekes as snowie apples, sop't in wine."" All of these figures coalesce in the boy-surrogate Hylas, whom, according to Drummond, it is indeed a glory for men to behold if their are fortunate enough to glimpse him rising from the mirror of the collective unconscious:

Over a crystal cource
Amintas laid his face,
Of purling streams to see the restless course:
But scarce he had o'ershadowed the place,
When (spying in the ground a child arise,
Like to himself in stature, face, and eyes)
He rose o'erjoyed, and cried,
Dear mates, aproach, see whom I have descried;
The boy of whom strange stories shepherds tell,
Oft-called Hylas, dwelleth in this well.

Go on to 5. Lovely Lad and Shame-Faced Catamite
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Copyright 1974, 1997 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

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