Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2002

Back Catalogue

A new column giving readers a chance to dust off a favourite older volume that’s given them pleasure and to share their enthusiasm with the rest of us.

Blake and Homosexuality, by Christopher Z. Hobson

reviewed by Shirley Dent

Plate 21 (copy b) of William Blake’s illuminated epic poem Milton is known informally among Blake scholars as “the blow-job plate”. The blow job is conducted between two men, in context William Blake and his mythological hero-poet, Los.

The plate has always been the cherry on the cake of titillation that Blake’s illuminated works provide the bored student. Huge penises, enlarged clitorises, hetero- and homo-clutches prevail, particularly in works such as “Vala”. On a personal note, I have spent many a happy rainy afternoon playing “spot the cock” with Milton and that other epic, Vala. Now if there are some readers of G&LH whose proclivities are sending them scuttling towards Blake’s collected works in search of this feast, then I should also add that such visual references are often hidden, worked into that dazzling tapestry of linguistic/visual imagination that coruscates Blake’s struggles with the society and politics of his time.

What Christopher Hobson’s erudite and innovative work achieves is the unveiling of the homosexual Blake and the homoerotic Blake. Blake, as far as biographical information has furnished his story, was as straight as a plumb line, with a marriage of 40 years’ standing to Catherine Blake. But this is not the point. As Hobson’s Blake and Homosexuality superbly demonstrates, Blake’s reassessment of homosexuality goes hand in hand with the reworking of what it meant to be a poet of reform and radicalism in the brave dawn of Enlightenment Europe.

In his excellent reappraisal of the Republican and Reform traditions of poetry, Hobson demonstrates that radicalism and republicanism do not necessarily entail revolution in sexual and, by extrapolation, social attitudes. Often the great poets of republican liberation take side swipes at royalist privilege by name-calling aristocrats along the lines of “you’re a bunch of no-good, degenerate nancy boys, and we the republicans are the real men in town”.

Hobson sees Blake moving from an uneasy play with such poetics of masculinity to a wider understanding of sexual expression as a humanist barometer of society and politics: the unentailed freedom of human expression in all its diverse forms. There are various points in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British history when this barometer reads very black indeed. In a characteristically knife-edge insight, Hobson says of Knight and Beckford: “Knight and Beckford, however, had the worst of both worlds: They were not read as striking blows for tolerance yet were injured as though they had done so.”

One of the grimmest periods in the history of early-nineteenth-century homosexual persecution in Britain was what Hobson has termed “A Contemporary Calvary: The Vere-Street Persecutions 1810-11”. Centring on arrests made at the White Swan, a public house in Vere Street, London, a known meeting place for male homosexuals, Hobson details the degeneration of Enlightenment principles into brute mob-hysteria:

“Seven of the arraigned prisoners were tried at the Middlesex quarter-sessions ten weeks later; all were convicted and sentenced to prison terms, with six to be pilloried as well. On September 27, the six were brought from Newgate along Fleet-street and the Strand to Haymarket, a distance of about a mile and a half: crowds estimated at 30,000 to 50,000 ... clogged the streets, forcing shops to close, and hurled mud, offal, dead animals, and bricks at the prisoners ... The authorities connived at the violence, doing little to restrain the crowds and even letting a group of fifty women inside the pillory area to pelt the prisoners.”

The persecutions reached their bitter climax with the execution of two soldiers, Ensign John Newball Hepburn, 42, and Thomas White, a drummer-boy, aged 16.

In Hobson’s retelling it is the quiet dignity of the teenager when condemned to and facing death that lingers in the imagination. It also obviously lingered in Blake’s imagination and Hobson does a wonderful job in recovering the effects of these trials on configuring and galvanising Blake’s condemnation of the Moral Law in his reworkings of Milton.

For brevity’s sake, I will limit myself to one example of this moving reinterpretation. As White was taken out to be publicly hanged, he is described in contemporary accounts as “perfectly indifferent to his awful fate, and continued adjusting the frill of his shirt while viewing the surrounding populace.” I won’t spoil the textual detective work that leads Hobson to connect this account convincingly with revised passages in Milton, but leave you with Blake’s lines condemning the ritual cruelty of the Moral Law and celebrating the nakedness of human expression and beauty:

Mark well my words, they are of your eternal Salvation

Between South Molton Street & Stratford Place: Calvarys foot
Where the Victims were preparing for Sacrifice their Cherubim
Around their loins pourd forth their arrows & their bosoms beam
With all colours of precious stones, & their inmost palaces
Resounded with preparation of animals wild & tame
(Mark well my words! Corporeal Friends are Spiritual Enemies)
Mocking Druidical Mathematical Proportion of Length Bredth Highth
Displaying Naked Beauty! with Flute & Harp & Song

URI of this page :
Created : Sunday, 2002-11-03 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys :