Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Was John Milton gay?

John Milton was born on December 9th, 1608. This December consequently becomes his 400th birthday, a date for Miltonists to celebrate and renew a declining reputation. Anna Beer’s recent biography, Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer and Patriot, offers a modern Milton in a modern way. She renews flagging interest in him in tabloid style by finding a B list celebrity flaw: his gay relationship with Diodati. Reviewers of Anna Beer’s work have given a variety of responses. Peter Ackroyd, with the literary biographer’s eye has applauded her book, Andrew Motion, with a poet’s eye has responded with balanced clapping, whilst observing that her Diodati theory is written in wooden prose and gayness is a difficult issue to discuss. Only John Carey, as a critic and distinguished Miltonist has kept his hands still and stated that Anna Beer’s assumptions about Milton and Diodati are without facts— especially as her book neglects poetic readings and “Milton :Poet” is largely absent from her work. Certainly, Anna Beer’s book presents an almost unrecognisably shallow Milton: he liked Diodati because “he was fun” (p.108) and this sexual attraction caused him, she believes, much religious anxiety. There is no written evidence that Milton suffered any kind of gay crisis: Beer is simply transporting modern Christian gay antagonism back into the seventeenth century. Yes, Diodati played, according to Milton in Elegia Sexta, L’Allegro to his Il Penseroso, but to reduce this relationship to “fun” among best friends is hardly accurate biographical comment. Anna Beer’s book, unlike much Milton criticism, is lively and loosely written and its gains are also its losses. John, as she calls him, is revived in a modern way for a modern audience, but modernising can lead to falsifications.

So, was John Milton gay? An answer to this rests upon some biographical facts and one poem, Epitaphium Damonis (1639-40), in which Milton laments the death of Charles Diodati. Milton knew Diodati from St Paul’s School, 1617-20, and their friendship was formed during their early youth. (Diodati was a few months younger than Milton). Later, Diodati went to Oxford and Milton to Cambridge. Diodati left Oxford in 1628 and Milton departed from Cambridge in 1632. During 1630-31, Diodati was living in Geneva and Milton in London. Dates show that their friendship was not built upon daily “fun”. “The Lady” of Christ College did not frequent Ye Olde Heavene nightclub on a nightly basis and did not take Charles to the annual Eden Gay Ball. Their relationship was built over distance, out of boyhood, and rested on an intellectual intimacy. The Milton-Diodati correspondence stretches to four letters, two in Greek (from around 1625-26) and two in Latin (from 1637). Elegia Prima and Elegia Sexta speak of two further letters, now lost. John T Shawcross has noted some interesting depths in these letters. The second Greek letter, from Diodati, jokes about the homosexuality of Sardanapalus, urging Milton to avoid his excessive pleasures…the joke being that Milton was never likely to succumb. And Milton’s Latin letters to Diodati are infused with sexual puns. Milton writes how he knows that Diodati likes “to study and repeatedly take breaks in between”, allowing studendi and orebro interspires to suggest erotic study and taking gulping breaths whilst having intercourse. The conclusions drawn by John T Shawcross in John Milton: The Self and the World are tentative, but they include his beliefs that Milton was sexually repressed, that there was some “action” between Milton and Diodati, and their connection went beyond friendship and involved Milton playing a female role (psychosexually) to Diodati’s male role.

Gay is a problematical term even now. It suggests a lifestyle and a bias. Neither a lifestyle nor a bias really exists in what is known about Milton. Today’s usage of gay connotes a drive within a man towards other men— the plural is important. What does exist between Milton and Diodati, without a doubt, is a constellation of emotions created by their own particular attraction to one another. Milton does parallel his love of Beauty with his feelings for Diodati. There are overtones of Renaissance Neo-Platonism in their friendship. Milton shares his quest for Beauty with someone who is beautiful in spirit. Ficino’s heavenly love (inspired by The Symposium) echoes within Milton’s mental landscape. But Milton writing to Diodati is not Michelangelo addressing Cavalieri. Milton, to use a clumsy modern phrase, was not a gay man living on the downlow. What existed…and perhaps Epitaphium Damonis becomes the Platonic child…was an intense psychological connection based on Eros rather than eros…evidence of a relationship creating a powerful attraction as opposed to a powerful inclination being attracted to a sexual object.

Epitaphium Damonis presented Milton with a number of problems. Firstly, it had to do justice to what he felt for Diodati in life and it had to hold Milton’s intense feelings of loss within an aesthetic form. Then, it had to be different from yet as exalted as Lycidas: Milton’s elegy for Edward King was not based on a close friendship. And finally, as Milton’s friendship with Diodati spoke through a Classical and Christian language, Renaissance synchronism, the structure of Epitaphium Damonis would have to preserve this element.

Epitaphium Damonis, consequently, is written in Latin. Its thematic imagery is drawn from the world of Greek and Roman pastoral. The most noticeable structural device is a repeated refrain: “Ite domum impasti, domino iam non vacat, agni”/”Go home unfed, lambs, your shepherd has no time for you now.” A key structural device,then, is lifted from pastoral. Both Theocritus and Moschus used refrains in this manner. And the refrain consciously echoes Virgil’s Eclogue X. Milton’s line rephrases Virgil’s “Ite, domum saturae, venit Hespurus, ite capallae.” Evidently, Milton chose to place his elegy within the male-male love of pastoral. But more ought to be asked about this refrain? Why 17 times? Number, for Milton, always carried Christian value. And the answer would appear to be this. According to the tradition of “silent numbers”, 17 was the number of the Perfect Man. The precedent for this would be St. Augustine who in Chapter 17 of Letter 55 explained 17 as man refined (by the 7 gifts of the Holy Spirit and the 10 Commandments of God) and thus able to find his place in Christ’s household. The 17-fold refrain, which reverses earthly pastoral, alludes to a Christian-Classical pastoral that will welcome Diodati as homo perfectus in Heaven. It is a structural statement of the conclusion: “Bacchic frenzy” (Paganism) “under…Zion” (Christ).

Taking 17, as a hint, also reveals something else about the structure of Epitaphium Damonis. In Lycidas, Milton used line length paragraphs to zone his poem. A similar method is used here. The poem opens with 17/1 where 17 lines make a pastoral prologue and 1 is the refrain. Lines 162-179 repeat this device. 17 lines renounce pastoral and make an epilogue in which the shepherd hangs up his musical pipe in favour of a new poetry. Pastoral dies with Damon/Diodati. This 17/1-17/1 circular structure in effect separates the pastoral elegy from its conclusion: a 40 line passage that resurrects Diodati into Heaven. The dark shades of Orcus controlled by Hermes’ virga/stick (l.23) do not await Diodati. He is taken to a world of light and a Hermetic Heaven ruled by the thyrso/branch (l.129) of God. By placing this apotheosis into a 40 line passage, Milton implicitly connects the transformation with control and waiting: 40 in the world of “silent numbers” connoted Christ’s days of reflection in the wilderness. The number 40 also alludes to what Milton celebrates in Diodati: a self-control that has produced chastity and “a youth without stain” (l.212-213).

This over-arching hermetical structure suggests the depth to which Milton identified with Diodati. Yes, he was a man of “virtue”, a “loyal comrade” and someone who offered “cultured wit”. He was most noticeably “a kindred spirit.” He was, moreover, Milton’s ideal companion. The final 40 lines of Epitaphium Damonis build two linked scenes. In the first, Milton/Thyrsis recalls presents that were intended for Diodati as a kind of hermetic baccalaureate…a laurel gift for an intellectual friend. Two books/cups were waiting to be shared. These were wrapped in an engraving that showed the Red Sea, Arabian balm, Aurora and the Phoenix, images of divine protection, healing, awakening and resurrection. The engraving also depicted Heavenly Amor shooting his burning arrows upwards towards the stars, an image of love’s divine power. In the second scene, Milton describes the epiphany of Diodati after death. Crowned with a ring of light, a beautiful Platonic-Christian image, Diodati is raised before the Chief Shepherd, Christ. Hermes-like, Milton puns on Charles Diodati’s name, identifying him as Damon/Spirit on earth, but “Gift of God” in Heaven: “Diodatus, quo te divino nomine….” (l.210). All of this depicts Diodati as rather more than what Beer calls Milton’s “Italian fantasy”.

Structurally, Epitaphium Damonis looks like this. From 17/1 to 17/1 (inclusive) there are 17 verse-paragraphs and 17 refrains.


The refrains act as a markers. These 17 episodes culminate in a Hermetic vision of the perfect man, whose number is 17, being elected to Heaven.

Whilst examining Epitaphium Damonis in Death in Milton’s Poetry (1994), Clay Daniel concludes that Milton’s second elegy is a reversal of Lycidas. Whereas the grief of Lycidas could be placed and solved within a Christian context, the personal grief caused by Diodati’s death shattered Milton’s belief in Christianity. Paganism triumphs over Christianity such that Damon “enjoys every sensual gratification in Heaven that he ever could hoped to have had on earth.” (p.156). This, though it might please those who would like to place the elegy’s homoerotic content outside Christianity, is a serious misreading of the poem. The structure of Epitaphium Damonis frames pagan pastoral despair with Christian hope. The elegy is a fitting devotion by a poet to his beloved. The virginal love between Milton and Diodati is fulfilled in the virginal hymeneal between Diodati and Christ, Bride and Bridegroom.

The intense structuring of this highly complex and personal elegy does not fall within the restrictive modern term gay. It rather opens the friendship between Diodati and Milton to something nameless…closed by death…but open to mystical possibilities. In Epitaphium Damonis, Milton has to expand his poetry to encompass his feelings for Diodati and this involves enlarging his Neo-Platonic Christian world view. In this sense, there is something very modern about Milton here: a poet has to invent language to explain an area of psychosexual experience.


Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Eshuneutics, for calling this to my attention. It is intellectually wrought but gracefully written, and it is largely persuasive.

As you note, terms current today can be too restrictive for discussing figures of the past, but even if some scholar were to 'prove' John Milton's 'gayness' on the basis of a poem, what would that same scholar do when faced by Adam's expression of his overwhelming love for Eve?

However one might answer that, thanks for calling me over. I too seldom have time to read many blogs these days, so when I do read, I am grateful to gain much.

Jeffery Hodges

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JD said...

Wow, Eshu! This was quite an education for me. So well written, so well researched and thought-over. There are so many points you have raised here that I find personally intriuging. And the number 17... I never knew that!
Thank you for this piece. It's a keeper.

Eshuneutics said...

Hello, Jeffery, I seem to have time to read but little time to write these days. I lack your discipline in this! I was asking myself an old question here: if Milton is not read hermetically, fully, with silent structures not heard, is much lost? In this case, I think I could answer "Yes"... unequivocally, for once. The Epitaphium had never interested me much (minor Latin verse)so I was stunned on discovering the nonsense written about it. Milton having a religious crisis and renouncing his Puritanism? Milton having a sexual crisis? Thanks for finding the time to read and comment. Best wishes.

Eshuneutics said...

Hi, JD. Got a bit carried away with this-- the original was three times as long! Hm. I was puzzling a question that might interest you: does sexual preference predestine a relationship or can a relationship re-define sexual preference? Today, we are obsessed culturally with sex, with being this or that. We strive for fixation and fixidity...as a kind of knowledge (sexual)to be obtained. But identity was more fluid in Milton's day. I doubt that being homosexual ever crossed Milton's mind. Thanks for your words, as ever.

JD said...

Does sexual preference predestine a relationship or can a relationship re-define sexual preference?

Good question. I will have to say a big 'NO' to both, though.


Eshuneutics said...

JD, you are more certain than I.

JD said...

I don't know about that...is just the way I feel when I look at the question... Should sexuality matter at all when it comes to relationship?