Jack’s Naughty Bits: Swinburne, part 3

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Jack's Naughty Bits
Whatever happened to male bisexuality? Am I wrong in thinking that in recent years fewer and fewer men are calling themselves bisexuals? (Which is, of course, different than acting bisexually . . . ) The seventies were the initial rabble-rousing closet-opening era of the gay rights movement; in the eighties and nineties, AIDS made vocal self-identification even more a matter of life and death. But the very embattled nature of contemporary gay identity seems to have led to a stratification. Sexual preference has come to be almost synonymous with personal identity for men: you’re gay or you’re straight. That’s it.


It may seem that male leanings have always been culturally dictated toward this kind of either/or. But that wasn’t always the case. Ancient Greece is the clearest example of a culture that celebrated male bisexuality — indeed, saw it as the norm. Modern Western cultures are far less tolerant, and more hypocritical. In fin-de-siecle Britain, for example, Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for two years on charges of sodomy, despite the fact that similar “crimes” were happening every day in Britain’s all-male public schools. Not unlike the so-called “four-year lesbians” in contemporary American universities, wealthy Brits would have extensive homosexual relations during their teens and then, ostensibly, return to exclusively heterosexual activities upon graduating.


A.C. Swinburne is an example of someone who experienced homosexuality in his youth but did not abandon it upon receiving his diploma. At Eton, it seems, he had his share of homosexual encounters, and (like many of the other boys) was regularly disciplined with whipping. He would retain a lifelong taste for both. (He was not alone: a taste for the lash was known in Parisian brothels of the time as “the English vice”.) What makes Swinburne less typical is that he made both masochism and bisexuality themes of his poetry (he even wrote a pro-flogging tract entitled The Whippingham Papers, which I will feature in a future column). Nor did he sugarcoat the verse with any kind of apology for his inclusive preferences. The poem below, “Fragoletta,” is his most pointedly homosexual. “Fragoletta” means “little strawberry” in Italian; it’s a lovely appellation for a boy lover, and a reminder that, in Jeanette Winterson’s phrasing, oranges are not the only fruit.


“Fragoletta” by A.C. Swinburne

O love! what shall be said of thee?
The son of grief begot by joy?
Being sightless, wilt thou see?
Being sexless, wilt thou be
Maiden or boy?

I dreamed of strange lips yesterday
And cheeks wherein the ambiguous blood
Was like a rose’s — yea,
A rose’s when it lay
Within the bud.

What fields have bred thee, or what groves
Concealed thee, O mysterious flower,
O double rose of Love’s,
With leaves that lure the doves
From bud to bower?

I dare not kiss it, lest my lip
Press harder than an indrawn breath,
And all the sweet life slip
Forth, and the sweet leaves drip,
Bloodlike, in death.

O sole desire of my delight!
O sole delight of my desire!
Mine eyelids and eyesight
Feed on thee day and night
Like lips of fire.

Lean back thy throat of carven pearl,
Let thy mouth murmur like the dove’s;
Say, Venus hath no girl,
No front of female curl,
Among her Loves.

Thy sweet low bosom, thy close hair,
Thy strait soft flanks and slenderer feet,
Thy virginal strange air,
Are these not over fair
For Love to greet?

How should he greet thee? what new name,

Fit to move all men’s hearts, could move
Thee, deaf to love or shame,
Love’s sister, by the same
Mother as Love?

Ah sweet, the maiden’s mouth is cold,
Her breast-blossoms are simply red,
Her hair mere brown or gold,
Fold over simple fold
Binding her head.

Thy mouth is made of fire and wine,
Thy barren bosom takes my kiss
And turns my soul to thine
And turns thy lip to mine,
And mine it is.

Thou hast a serpent in thine hair,
In all the curls that close and cling;
And ah, thy breast-flower!
Ah love, thy mouth too fair
To kiss and sting!

Cleave to me, love me, kiss mine eyes,
Satiate thy lips with loving me;
Nay, for thou shalt not rise;
Lie still as Love that dies
For love of thee.

Mine arms are close about thine head,
My lips are fervent on thy face,
And where my kiss hath fed
Thy flower-like blood leaps red
To the kissed place.

O bitterness of things too sweet!
O broken singing of the dove!
Love’s wings are over fleet,
And like the panther’s feet
The feet of Love.