Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt Smith



The massive Eggborough coal fired power station recently announced its closure. On being asked how they felt, the miners chorused, "devastated." A West Sussex family were "devastated" just before Christmas to realise that they would have to leave the country and return to city living in London. The death of Pavel Srnicek, former Newcastle United goalkeeper, left the manager "absolutely devastated". The one and only David Beckham found himself equally "devastated" by the Paris atrocities. The adjective "devastated" has become a media cliche, which many grasp at as if it is the ultimate tragic emotion that can be felt. Unfortunately, for the many, "devastated" isn't an emotion and if the grieving were asked to enlarge on their devastation, they probably would have little to offer as an explanation.

The experience of personal devastation is best described by John Donne in Holy Sonnet XIV. Well aware that devastation means "to be made empty" and refers to warfare and the sacking of homes, Donne describes himself as "an usurpt towne". He longs for God to "enthrall" him, enslave him in effect, and finally "ravish" him, with ravishment carrying a double sense entwined: rapture, rape, intercourse and defilement. As a result of this devastation, in having his male body assaulted like a town, Donne believes that his feminine soul will be made chaste once more.

The contrast between Donne's metaphysical sense of being "devastated" and the modern usage of the word shows how clumsily we approach emotions (as a culture). Though there was a period some years ago during in which "emotional intelligence" became a buzz phrase, the education of emotions has waned. The deterioration has accompanied the dying of the Arts in education. Emotional training or an awareness of "felt form" has no place in the new Govian, Conservative curriculum with its emphasis on facts and bits of knowledge. Teachers now teach students the recognition of similes and how to write a simile rather than how to emotionally respond to a poet's usage of a simile or use a simile to convey a personal, emotional response in their own writing.

Tiffany Watt Smith's The Book of Human Emotions (2015) is a wonderful antidote to the current devastation of education. Written in association with The Wellcome Trust for (mental) health, the book is a collection of short, well-researched, wise and funny essays on emotions and how they relate in real life. The book is compiled in alphabetical order, Abhiman to Zal, from wounded dignity to melancholy. The book benefits from incisive thoughts and clear illustrations...and ranges across emotions from diverse cultures. In her essay on Resentment, Watt Smith captures its depths and dangers, seeing how this emotion underlies the terrorism of organisations such as ISIS; and how the correct response is to pin it down as a low-status bitter response, to deny its fake heroism (exactly how the terrorist recruits: by up-grading spiteful emotions into glorious ideals). The book is also characterised by a witty understanding of language and emotions rooted in words-- Disgruntlement is derived from the grunting of pigs! 

In reading this book, the reader not only discovers a new emotional language, but experiences emotions too. There is Joy in reading Watt Smith's thoughts on Fagu...compassionate care...and Sadness in Awumbuk, the heavy fog left when someone dear departs from a place. For the Baining people of Papua New Guinea, departure is a time for filling bowls with fresh water to absorb the heavy air that is left behind (in the mind and physical world). The Book of Human Emotions is a humane and wise book, one that is emotionally satisfying to read. It is best read an essay per day, at a time allocated for quite thought, or flicked through so as the many surprises gather.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Race War at Oxford, The Colossus of Rhodes.


Four years ago, the Sutton Trust for educational mobility, reported that 4 of the top independent schools and one Cambridge based Six Form College sent as many student to Oxbridge as 2000 other schools. The bias in admissions is not new. The worst aspect of the recent criticism, in December 2015, by the cross-party Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (Oxford continues to discriminate against applicants from lower class backgrounds) is that nothing has changed since the previous damning report.

In 2011, PM David Cameron criticised Oxford’s racist policy for only admitting one Black UK student. Not surprisingly, being educated at Eton (one of the independent schools with privileged access to Oxbridge) and not au fait with details of ethnicity, Cameron got the figures wrong. Only 1 Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford: Caribbean does not equal Black! Laughably, Oxford responded with indignation: its figures showed that it had admitted 27 Black UK students. Is 27 better than 1? Well, yes, 26 better, but hardly much to boast about. That 27 would be only 3% of the students supplied by the elite schools and a minimal percentage of all students admitted to Oxford.

The negative attitude within Oxford University towards lower class students and Black students is entrenched. So, the current race row at Oxford is interesting to watch and survey. Oriel College has a commemorative statue of Cecil Rhodes affixed to its college wall: Cecil Rhodes, founder of apartheid as an acceptable philosophy, the man who legislated for the right of owners to beat their slaves (thus reversing what had been removed by the Anti-Slavery abolitionists earlier in the C19) and the Imperialist who believed that White dominance was an educational necessity. Not the best advocate for an Oxford College, but then, maybe he is: Rhodes stands as a prime example of upper class supremacy, elitism and prejudice.

Should the statue of Rhodes be removed? The emeritus fellow of Magdalene college, R W Johnson thinks not. It would be an act of philistinism, much like the destruction of cultural buildings by Islamic terrorists. That isn’t the best comparison for him, as a Rhodes scholar, to make of the Black leader of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement. Suggesting that Ntokozo Kwabe (another Rhodes scholar) is a terrorist really evokes the language of apartheid.

The noted Jamaican academic Stuart Hall once commented that what he most disliked about being a Rhodes scholar at Oxford was the “distilled Englishness”. This also finds voice in the protesters against the Rhodes statue—it is a symbol of a prejudiced curriculum at Oxford that upholds White supremacist values.

All of this sounds like Dambudzo Marechera at Oxford. He did not know what to do with Oxford and Oxford did not know what to do with him. He realised that he divorced apartheid for an unhappy Black-White educational marriage. Marechera expressed his views on Oxfordian Rhodes and his liking for young male servants, his “lambs”, by transfiguring him into a Black transvestite in “The Alley”. Marechera also summed up his view of Black students at Oxford, in a mocking version of Fanon's Black Skin White Masks, as “chimpanzees…chittering about Rhodes and bananas.” ("Black Skin What Mask", The House of Hunger p.103). Nothing has changed that much.

Privilege arguing against privilege. Oxford should be re-curricularised? Who cares beyond those at Oxford? Would it change much for many? Not at all. Using Rhodes as a figure-head for an attack means little outside Oxford and the Oxfordonians who want to enter the debate. Most of Rhodes’ precious Englishmen and women will not know his reputation. The whole on-going saga stinks of hypocrisy. If Ntokozo Kwabe is so opposed to Rhodes and Oxford, why did he not refuse the Rhodes scholarship and stay away from Oxford? Because he knew that it would be good for his future career, that is why. Really, it is “let’s have the revolution after I’ve gained what came for”. His argument that the Rhodes scholarship money was just taking what Rhodes plundered from his people is worthy of a future barrister/politician. The principled stand would be stay away from tainted funding. It is all very well for Cameron to pluck fine words about too few students in Oxford, but this is the man who allowed Gove to turn the education curriculum backwards and—in a truly Rhodesian move—enshrine the teaching of "British values". If Cameron truly cared about Black pupil achievement, he would recognise what Fanon once said: you do not go around tilting at statues, you set about “decolonising the mind”. If we—as a culture—were engaged in decolonising the curriculum, indeed, removing the restrictions of a curriculum, opening up the education system at primary and secondary levels such that disadvantaged Black pupils are educated rather than schooled, then there might be less Black pupil failure, more Black pupils ready for Oxford and Cambridge…or better still, thinking students ready for more creative and valued degrees outside Oxford and Cambridge. The notion that Black students are disadvantaged and therefore do not succeed likes to place the fault within the the social background of the students. (In  the past centuries, it was within the mental capacities of the students). The real issue is that the curriculum is the cause of disadvantage, having little for Black students to identify with or take inspiration from. Cameron has no interest in radicalising Oxford, his Oxford, or the dissolution of the private elite establishment that fashioned him and placed him in Oxford. His words are nothing more than beating nanny with a silver teaspoon and the latest Oxford debacle is a storm in a fluted champagne glass. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

Afriboy's Hermetical Gay Art

Orokie/Afriboy/or A-Free-Boy was born in April, 1979, on “ a small island of Lake Victoria”, Uganda. He was educated there, in Kenya, and finally in Spain. From an early age, he drew secretly, using pictorial storytelling to explore his understanding of male-male love and sexual desire. (The word “gay” isn’t a term used by Orokie in his art, as he draws from African rather than Western traditions).

“I was grown drawing” he once wrote. And by this he meant more than “I grew up drawing”. Drawing was his education…it drew him out of himself, stretched him, and through drawing he learnt how to grow. At school in Kenya, where art was forbidden and water scarce, he painted using the water from drinks of tea.

Drawing developed Orokie's awareness of self and allowed him to shape his osotwa identity, which he felt was indigenous to Africa, part of its “tones of nature”. Osotwa, in Kenyan Maasai terminology, carries two important meanings: it is both the umbilical chord/navel and a bonded community. Osotwa is a sacred word for Orokie: it is a psychic link, an antenna chord at the centre of the body that links male lovers together. 

Osotwa 1 (showing fused navel chords).
The graphite image was pure language for Orokie. 


Eventually, he moved to ink, watercolour crayon and watercolour paint. He thinks in orokieglyphs, using symbolism and collages more easily than words and thus avoiding colonial language, the language of the oppressor that enslaved him and others and continues to do so. (This language is connected to The Bible and how it continues to be a source that justifies Africa’s hatred towards “homosexuals”). The following illustration is a good example of his humorous thinking and playful awareness of Hermes and Hermeticism, one that visually rhymes Hermes, the god, with Hermes, the fashion brand; African sexuality and Western capitalism; male super-models (Salieu Jalloh) and the racist commodification of the Black male body.



In March 2006, Orokie returned to Kenya for a visit. This became the beginning of a terrible ordeal in which he was attacked for his “homosexuality”. Whilst journeying home, he was wounded by an armed gang, receiving a panga blade to the skull. This and other injuries left him critically ill and facing blindness. Over a year, Orokie recorded this trauma in the Black Notebook Daler 3404Orokie returned to full-scale painting in January 2008. He was never free of health problems, however, and had to cope with deteriorating eye-sight. In a series of works called Orgone, based on Reichian therapy, he later developed an hermetical symbolism (recalling the visual puns of Leonardo da Vinci) that notated his recovery towards drawing and painting once more. 


The art of Orokie/Afriboy is a vital record of same sex love in Africa. His work has appeared in Black: The African Male Nude 3 (2006) and 8 (2008) and Mein Schwules Auge 6 (2009) and a careful selection of his work (chosen by himself) can be seen at the online Homoerotic Museum. The art of Orokie is individual, but always aimed to his African perception of sex, one that unites and serves a communal and political purpose. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Physical, Poetry and Andrew McMillan



Andrew McMillan’s Physical was recently nominated for the Forward Prize for Poetry and won The Guardian First Book Award, in November, 2015.  It was a deserved win and one notable for a number of reasons. Physical placed poetry on The Guardian First Book Award list for the first time in 16 years. (A shocking reminder of how a powerful cultural force historically has become side-lined among readers...to the point that only two poets have ever made the shortlist). The accolade also acknowledged the talent of a gay writer whose themes are not immediately in touch with the lives of the many book-groups that took part in the judging process: a tribute to liberalism and fair-mindedness. (Curious, though, how the book groups felt the need to recognise the difference and remoteness in McMillan's gay life yet somehow felt close to a mythically inspired novel about a fishing expedition in Nigeria! Perhaps, that fact tells us something about reading habits and genres: when it comes to novels, readers actively seek fictional worlds beyond their own reality; when it comes to poetry they seek an endorsement of their own world). And finally, the win recognised a poetical voice that is Northern and rooted and mercifully free of dreaming spires and Englishness.

At the presentation in London, McMillan paid tribute to his editor at Cape, Robin Robertson, and that seems a sensible place to begin this review of Physical because so much of how poetry appears these days is down to the work of a poet and how that work is manipulated by publishing houses into its final form.

The introductory blurb by Cape promotes McMillan’s poetry as an “almost religious celebration of the flesh” in “colloquial Yorkshire rhythms with a sinewy Metaphysical music”.  That “almost” is quite revealing, for it notes that this description isn’t McMillan’s work exactly; in fact, the tone of worship is about as close to religion as the semen stain that Gunn memorizes with such precision on “the toe of a boot” in “The Miracle” (The Passages of  Joy, 1982). Each night it is polished and renewed like "a saint’s blood". It is unfortunate that, in England, when it comes to male-to-male sexual writing, we are unable to promote naked flesh without dressing it in spirituality. One of McMillan’s achievements is that he is able to love the flesh for what it is and write with candour…and wit. The Cape blurb has led some reviewers to hear the blurb rather than the actual poetry and talk of “hymns to the male body”, as if McMillan is Michelangelo addressing Cavalieri. (This is encouraged by the cover’s representative gay, naked male, which echoes the provocative design that Carcanet produced for Neil Powell’s True Colours, in 1991. Carcanet dared to go as far as a bare torso with open trousers and a hanging leather belt. Cape has gone as far as a crack-shot, de-capitated and de-membered, so as the viewer can add their own desires to the smooth, marbled, classical body. McMillan's honest poetry has nothing to do with the body-beautiful. But a beautiful butt sells better than normality). Seduced by this, Alison Flood has felt a “heavy scent of sensuality” in McMillan's work. Probably, only a female reviewer with no unfortunate knowledge of male toilets could describe a poem about male urinals as possessing a “scent”. The wit of McMillan is learnt more from the twisting debates of Gunn and his ability to transform a poem with a surprise conclusion is learnt from St. Thom rather than directly from Donne and Marvell. As with Gunn, there is a modern Elizabethanism and like the poet who paid homage to Hermes in Moly, McMillan is well-aware of the poetical trickster. He uses the flow of words (no punctuation) to create rich, Mannerist effects. What is most likeable about McMillan is his love of verbal tricks rather than the usual dull accounts of tricks picked up in gay bars. The “colloquial Yorkshire rhythms” are heard in the middle section of Physical, in the re-published pamphlet “protest of the physical”. And, maybe, they are heard too obviously, for comic effect:

                        drunk man to the drunker woman
                        where you from?            Barnsley
                        Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaarnslie

The northern voice is heard more effectively in the weighting of certain syllables and words, in a dryness and flatness of tone. The long poem “protest of the physical” has been compared to Howl and McMillan to Ginsberg. It isn’t comparable and he isn’t:

                       the men are weeping in the gym
                       using the hand dryer to cover
                       their sobs  their hearts have grown too big
                       for their chests…

That could be Ginsberg’s Howl, but for the conscious irony and analytical mockery. There is surrealism in "The Men are Weeping in the Gym" that is closer to Liverpool, Patten and Henri, than Berkeley, California. Those northern readers who know Route Publishers, in Pontefract, and have read Howl for Now (2005) will not be fooled by such empty comparisons. (There is critical life outside the South). McMillan is McMillan and he possesses his own voice. In truth, “protest for the physical”, though important to McMillan, as it got him out of a writing-rut and into ploughing new fields;- isn’t the strongest work in Physical. The most memorable poems are those such as “Urination” and “Yoga” where there is direct communication with the reader and you listen to the voice in the words, on the page, and the shifts of humour and pathos and a sense of what comes out, not in poetry, but in the gay photography of Wolfgang Tillmans, where every little thing matters and homeliness and the commonplace exist alongside existence and uncertainty:

                       the toilet is an intimacy
                       only shared with parents when you are young
                       and once again when they are older
                       and with lovers when   say   on  a Sunday
                       morning stretching into the bathroom
                       you wake to the sound of stream into bowl
                       and go to hug the naked body…

I would rather read that, on a Sabbath, than go to Church! That is poetic communion. “Strongman” has wonderful humour and pathos and an ability to present complex ideas in clear images. “Finally” is a plangent lyric with a moving ending.

The problem in assessing Physical, is where to place McMillan as a gay poet, something that current reviews avoid. (Do the reviewers know any gay poetry outside Gunn and Ginsberg?) And something that Cape's publishing blurb and public recommendations avoid too. Even Mark Doty alludes to "male desire" rather than be direct about the nature of the poetry, allowing the reader to deduce that this must be gay poetry because Doty, as the most well-known gay (American) poet in the UK, as a Cape poet, is praising it to his gay Cape readership. All of the biographical, journalistic pieces written about McMillan dwell on his gay sexuality, yet this is rubbed away in the volume's shaping. Richard Scott, writing for Ambit, places McMillan alongside Jee Leong Koh…because he writes about “cocks”. He also sees McMillan as “Doty-esque”. Indeed, there is influence from Mark Doty on McMillan: it is heard in the blend of narrative construction and lyricism. Yet, Doty-esque he isn’t. The diminutive (though Scott means it as praise) is not just. Like Randall Mann, in Breakfast with Thom Gunn (2009), McMillan writes with an eye on Gunn, but his writing is truer to the spirit of Gunn and possesses a greater technical range. As Gunn learnt from Robert Duncan without copying technique, so McMillan has learnt from Gunn without becoming Gunn-esque. Gunn is the signpost at the Yorkshire crossroads. It points in many directions, towards the Pennines and beyond-- across the Atlantic. When writing, McMillan makes leaps in thought and syntax that are like climbing a staircase and missing a step. Ground disappears and re-appears. The love of language and how it can dazzle and deceive (like the physical body) is reminiscent of Reginald Shepherd, though McMillan does not push as far into realms of multi-layered perceptions. Shepherd is the true gay Metaphysical poet (and Duncan). He is careful not to make his poems into poems about language: they are poems about personal human experience. They are confessional, yet they are not genre poems about coming out. They are individual, contradictory poems that arise from the enquiring body that lived and carried them. Physical is a significant debut by a poet who can write about sexual identity without the dreary polemics of identity politics. McMillan is an intriguing poet and a valuable, emerging gay poet.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Double Vision in Barnfield's Homoerotic Poetry (2)



Among the London poets of the 1590s, pastoral epithets were established and shared: Spenser as Colin, Drayton as Rowland, and Barnfield as Daphnis. Leo Daugherty has argued convincingly that the Ganymede spoken of by Barnfield/Daphnis was none other than William, Sixth Earl of Derby, who inherited the poetic title on the death of his brother, Ferdinando (William Shakespeare, Richard Barnfield and the Sixth Earl of Derby (p.13). The family’s heraldic crest bears an eagle to connect them to the Ganymede myth. The Derby family were closely connected to hermetical movements in the C16, most noticeably to Dr John Dee, who had been the astrological and political advisor to Elizabeth I. Though Barnfield dedicates Cynthia to William, saying “small is the gift”, he must have been aware of how large was the connection. By linking Cynthia to the Sixth Earl, he connects the book to Ganymede (his love) and hermetic political movements in Elizabethan England—which is where the poetical vision begins.

“Cynthia” is composed around an elaborate conceit that Peele had used in The Arraignment of Paris (1584). At the close of his dramatic masque (performed in front of the Queen), Majestie (Juno/Hera), Love (Venus/Aphrodite), Vertue (Minerva/Athene) refuse the golden ball/orb of power and present the gift to Elizabeth. (In Astraea, pp.63-4, Yates notes Barnfield’s imitation of this theme). This poetic conceit was also visually present in a painting by Eworth (1569) hung at Whitehall Palace. Elizabeth, as Paris, as three-in-one, a trinity harmonizing all of the goddesses, maintains the orb for herself.


Using hermetical number symbolism, Stanzas 1-15 of “Cynthia”, form a ladder of ascent (as in The Psalms) that culminate in a vision of the triple-formed Elizabeth, the Spenserian Faerie Queene who possesses Power, Loveliness and Wisdom. Stanza 16 celebrates Elizabeth as the Sun and Stanza 17 as a “peerelesse Prince”. Unlike the visual conceit of Eworth, Barnfield dwells on the androgynous nature of Elizabeth who is both the Idea of physical pulchritude in woman and of mental wisdom in men. Such is an orthodox Spenserian view (Britomart, Belphoebe, and even Una in whom Sylvanus see his youthful male beloved, Cyparissus). “Cynthia” is a vision of political order in the key of chastity. The twenty sonnets that follow are homoerotic, but also in the key of Virgo. This is introduced by the Latin emblem for the whole volume: Quod cupio, nequeo, “What I desire, I cannot have.”

In taking the pseudonym, Daphnis, Barnfield draws upon classical Greek myth. He is the male laurel, Apollo’s tree, a shepherd son of Hermes, who offended Eros and Aphrodite and was consequently cursed with unrequited love. He is the homoerotic poet whose desire cannot be consummated. His Ganymede isn’t the Ganymede of traditional mythologizing, but a beautiful boy, as Sonnet 9 explains, whom was created by Diana and Venus—a contained lover wholly “to chastity inclinde.” The twenty sonnets place homoerotic desire in the context of a world where they cannot be physically realised, yet, as Neo-Platonism claimed, they allow for a poetic birth out of chastity (just as Elizabeth’s reign as Gloriana was born from her chastity).

The twenty sonnets, as already, said parallel the twenty Spenserian Stanzas of Barnfield's Gloriana vision. They also consciously open where "Cynthia" closes: Beauty, Majestie and Virtue quarrel over who shall possess Ganymede. Beauty/Love/Venus demands his lips, his cheeks, his eyes and  hair; Majesty/Hera requests his brow, chin, countenance and stature; Virtue asks only for his Modesty and wins. If Barnfield had been a cultured Neo-Platonist, he would have known, as Ficino and Bruno argued via the myth of The Judgement of Paris, that a trinity should not be split, but remain as a dynamic whole. Virtue triumphs in Sonnet 2 and in Sonnet 3, Barnfield dismisses Virtue in favour of Beauty/Love, for he wishes for "loues faire eie" alone (line 14). Sonnet 4 diverges further still from the trinitarian vision of "Cynthia" as Barnfield recognises that Ganymede, unlike Elizabeth, is a sun with night, so does not dwell in continual glory. The Barnfield sonnets progress towards a homoerotic love for Ganymede, under the guidance of one goddess, Venus. 

The sensual core of the Sonnets commences with Sonnet 6. This has been described disparagingly as a wet-dream poem. Such a judgement is somewhat adolescent itself. This is a young poet writing within the conventions of his time, not a C20 confessional poet... Sonnet 6 describes the rejuvenating effect of sexual release. And Sonnet 7 recognises the beauty and fear contained within desire. Barnfield's swan on the Thames is stock imagery from Drayton's The Shepherd's Garland (1593), but there are some gentle, personal touches. Ganymede is a "pruned" lover, like a swan that has oiled its feathers with its beak, and his feathers/hairs are massaged and decorative-- the imagery runs beautifully into Neptune washing the lover's feet with splashes of water. An extreme modern reading by Charles explains Barnfield's fear, at this point, as one of "outing" ("Barnfield's Lovers Discourse", The Affectionate Shepherd, Celebrating Richard Barnfield, p.179). Thetis, being heterosexual, will divulge the gay love between Ganymede and Daphnis. There is little, however, within the text to support this modern interpretation. Barnfield states that he does not fear Neptune (even though he loved the boy Pelops, which is implied) nor Apollo who desired the boy Hyacinthus, nor Sylvanus who loved Cyparissus. They would understand his desire. His fear is Thetis and the currents of heterosexuality. Ganymede's love wounds like the spear of Achilles (Sonnet 5) and Achilles' mother could open up dangerous tributaries.

The sonnets are unswerving in their aim towards pleasure. They refuse to pull back into a refined, distant worship of Neo-Platonic Mind and Courtiership. The target is nature's "lips ripe strawberries in Nectar wet" (Sonnet 17). In making this choice, Daphnis must accept that he draws further away from the political context of "Cynthia". That distance is measured in Sonnet 15 (a climactic point, as in "Cynthia") where Barnfield notes that divine males loved boys and did not look down on pastoral swains whereas the Court and intellect are "infected" by pride. Chastity has become hard-heartedness. In sonnets 16 and 17, Barnfield focuses on the problematical nature of language in the Sonnets. 

Weening to kisse his lips, as my loue's fee's (fees?)
I feel but Aire, but Aire to bee him.
Thus with Ixion, kisse I clouds in vaine.
Thus with Ixion, feele I endles pain.
(ll. 11-14)

Punning on "fees" as expenses and intercourse, Barnfield senses that his sexual metaphors are no more than deceptions--like the duped Ixion, he is left penetrating a cloud-shaped Hera/Majesty--and thus acquiring a life of "endles paine". Even so, in Sonnet 17, an alternative pleasure is imagined in which the beautiful body, exceeding Apollo and Adonis, might create a beautiful body of words to be loved. Eventually this to-and fro-ing comes to a point of exhaustion.

The “Ode” that follows the two sequences describes the death of Daphnis. Here, Barnfield's model is Theocritus' Idylls 1. An unknown speaker finds Daphnis weeping for his beloved. "Fancy" pulls Daphnis towards his boy love and "Love" pulls him towards a nymph. Consequently, he abandons Ganymede for a triple-formed Eliza (Beauty, Majesty and Wisdom). It is a surrender to Elizabethan times, one that requires he give up a fanciful desire for Ganymede (homoeroticism) for what love commands: heterosexuality. His acceptance of that Idea leads to a broken heart. Using the pastoral mirror of The Golden Age, the Daphnis poems, in Cynthia, are an exploration of same sex desire in Elizabethan England.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Double Vision in Barnfield's homoerotic poetry (1)




Reading habits are changing, as Alberto Mangual observes in The Traveller, the Tower, and the Worm: The Reader as Metaphor. The World Wide Web takes the reader on a journey of many roads, often at speed...and (I would add) frequently down the same paths with repeat information. One of the problems with the World Wide Web is the ease of reproduction: material is copied and pasted from one site to another such that errors multiply. Like Spencer's wandering Red Cross Knight, the reader finds that killing Error does not stop the spawning. Before attempting to review Barnfield's Cynthia, it is necessary to remove some of the misconceptions about  the author and his work in general. Nothing new, I know will be said, but it is best to be on solid ground as regards biography and influences.

Richard Barnfield was baptised on June 13th, 1574, in Norbury, Staffordshire. As with Shakespeare, his date of birth is not known. Little time, however, passed between birth and baptism in the C16. Infant mortality was high, so parents were eager to have their child ready for Heaven. Two days intervened in the case of Elizabeth I. Richard Barnfield would have been born somewhere around June 10th, 1574. Astrologically, this would have made him a Gemini. As a follower of Spenser, who was well aware (as any learned person in Elizabethan England) of hermetical matters, Barnfield was born under the sign of the androgyne and twins. I would not wish to make too much of this fact, but it should be kept in mind as a reader considers Barnfield's concern with twinning and male to male love.

Two dates are given (across the internet) for Barnfield's death, 1620 and 1627. 1620 is correct. As Worrall pointed out in Notes and Queries (1992, pp. 170-1), the 1627 will, taken as evidence of Barnfield's death, was Barnfield's father's will. That same will has been used to create a certain prejudice against Barnfield: he married, had a son, Robert, and his poems, therefore, are little more than a literary pastoral game by a heterosexual poet. Not so. It should be added, as regards this line of prejudice, that even if Barnfield had married it would not have meant that the poetry was automatically some kind of posturing. Heterosexual marriage, then as now, was and is a convention that "gay" men undertake. Interestingly, the prejudice is forgotten when it comes to Shakespeare. He married, had two daughters and one son, yet The Sonnets are readily taken as masterpieces of male to male sexuality.

The Poetry Foundation has this to say about Barnfield: [he] "published Cynthia, modelling his collection—which includes a 20-sonnet sequence—after the poems of Spenser and Shakespeare." The mention of the "20-sonnet sequence" intimates an influence from Shakespeare's sonnets. Across the internet, there are many discussion that connect Barnfield's sonnets with those of Shakespeare. Such is unlikely. Recent discoveries have linked the Dark Lady of The Sonnets to Lucy Negro who was a prostitute-actor, notably mentioned in the 1594 Christmas entertainments. Her reputation spread through the rest of the decade. Prior to this connection, critics attributed sonnets 127-54 to the middle of the 1590s. Now, this seems to be likely. This only suggests a date of composition for these sonnets-- it doesn't suggest an audience date. Certainly, Shakespeare's "sugared-sonnets" were circulating among a literary elite in 1598, as Mere's mentions them. But The Sonnets were largely unknown until 1609. The idea that Barnfield was a diluter of Shakespeare is simply incorrect. If anything, Shakespeare built on Barnfield's work, so the influence works in the opposite direction to what is assumed across the internet. On a simple technical note, Barnfield's sonnets are not Shakespearean sonnets: use a different rhyme scheme and do not show the characteristic octet/sestet split. If Barnfield accessed any Shakespeare beyond the early plays, it would have been Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. The strongest influence on Barnfield is Spenser; and this shows in Cynthia.

Barnfield was 20 years old when he wrote and published Cynthia, which opens with two sections that are drawn together in a third poem, "An Ode". "Cynthia" is a sequence of twenty Spenserian stanzas spoken by Barnfield's pastoral persona, Daphnis. The sonnets, as already said, number twenty and record Daphnis's love for Ganymede. "An Ode" describes how an unmentioned person finds Daphnis broken-hearted for his love of "a lasse" more beautiful than Ganymede. Numbers were often used to carry silent meanings in Renaissance poetry and the double use of twenty represents Barnfield, aged 20, split, like a halved androgyne, between two different visions. But before those visions are looked at, it is useful to set a context for the volume by discussing the framing of the poetry. 

Cynthia opens with an address to the reader. The author is Barnfield. He begins by acknowledging The Affectionate Shepherd (1594) as his work, disowns "two Books" that have been wrongly attributed, and then refers to licentious interpretations of his work. It has been said that Barnfield apologises for his "interested representation of homoerotic desire" (Norton, Rictor, "Pastoral Homoeroticism, p.6). In truth, Barnfield simply disassociates himself from the wrong readings (not stated overtly) and evokes classical precedent as his defence: Virgil's Eclogue II. At the close of his address. Barnfield makes it clear that the model for “Cynthia” is Spenser and his returning to Spenser is worth some careful thought.

As a student of Spenserian pastoral, Barnfield would have known the controversy surrounding E.K.'s gloss on the homoerotic element of the "January" eclogue in The Shepherd's Calendar (1579). Colin explains that he does not love Hobbinol, though Hobbinol loves him, and he is devoted to Rosalind. A mere two lines of unsensual verse

It is not Hobinol, wherefore I plaine.
   Albee my loue he seeke with daily suit
(Ianvarie, ll 55-56)


caused E.K to hear pederasty and defend Spenser, mainly via Plato. Rictor Norton repeatedly points out (in articles across the net and in print) that Webbe heard a similar note in the "June" eclogue  and this caused him to sneer,  in A Discourse of English Poetrie (1586), at Spenser's familiarity with Italian sodomy. If this were true, Spenser would be a dangerous model for Barnfield to use. In fact, in his Discourse, Webbe repeats that others have said that Spenser used "unsavoury love" in "June" and was aware of Italian sodomy, but all he hears in the eclogue is old friendship sacrificed to heterosexual love, as often happens to young men. By making “Cynthia” into "the first imitation of the verse of that excellent Poet Maister Spenser", Barnfield is consciously making a connection with the homoerotic element in English pastoral. And it is English pastoral, nor Virgilian Latin/Roman/Italian pastoral because Cynthia continues the imperial theme of Elizabethan England. There is no accident in how Spenser selects Spenser’s dangerous “April” eclogue as a major source. In this eclogue Hobbinol refers openly to his love for Colin, "on him was all my care and ioye" (l.23) and then sings, in Colin's absence, one of Colin's harmonius "lays". Hobbinol, the beloved, recreates his love with a song of "Eliza, Queene of Shepherdes all" ("April", l.34). Spenser sets Hobbinol’s nature inspired love of Colin as the context for a divine vision of Elizabeth I’s reign. This connection is revived in Cynthia. The first poem, “Cynthia” uses the Spenserian Stanza to overtly link Barnfield’s work with the political vision of Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590), Books 1-3. The twenty sonnets show, as Spenser did with Colin and Hobbinol, the natural love connected to that political vision. Golden Age pastoral is used by Barnfield to connect the love of men to natural order, not unnatural lust.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Richard Barnfield's Cynthia

Clive Hicks-Jenkins, illustration for the Cynthia sonnets.
For various reasons, poetry volumes are frequently badly reviewed. As modern collections are loosely focused, reviewing habitually consists of picking out a few poems, saying why they are liked, and then adding some sort of value judgement on poetic themes and achievement. This method doesn't work for Renaissance volumes that are  planned with structural images, for they demand that a reader has a sense of unity and reference. Perhaps, there is more to Barnfield's Cynthia than obviously meets the eye. Next post will return to Barnfield's homoerotic works of 1595.