30 March 2011

Ta-Nehisi Coates has been pondering Tennyson's poetry, and writes:

I'd like to ask some of our gay commenters to weigh in here. On Tennyson particularly, and more broadly on the realm of artists beautifully expressing affection for humans of the same gender,

I hear Tennyson and, for me, there is that long tradition of young black males mourning the death of fallen soldiers, through hip-hop. Mobb Deep made a career out of mugging for the camera, and yet in "Cradle To The Grave," Havoc could confess that at the sight of his dying friend "he felt like crying." And he does this in sub genre which holds strong prohibitions against saying such things about women.

For me, Tennyson was just one of hundreds(?) of British male poets who felt affection for other men, and In Memoriam one link in the centuries-long chain. Considering that "buggery" was a capital crime in England until 1861 (when Tennyson was 52 years old), any homosexual content in his poetry would have had to be thickly veiled.

It is interesting to compare Tennyson with A.E. Housman, who was contemporary to Oscar Wilde and died in 1936. To my gay man's mind, Housman's Shropshire Lad poems are some of the most erotically charged in existence. This is Shropshire Lad 38:

The winds out of the west land blow,
My friends have breathed them there;
Warm with the blood of lads I know
Comes east the sighing air.

It fanned their temples, filled their lungs,
Scattered their forelocks free;
My friends made words of it with tongues
That talk no more to me.

Their voices, dying as they fly,
Loose on the wind are sown;
The names of men blow soundless by,
My fellows' and my own.

Oh lads, at home I heard you plain,
But here your speech is still,
And down the sighing wind in vain
You hollo from the hill.

The wind and I, we both were there,
But neither long abode;
Now through the friendless world we fare
And sigh upon the road.

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