“Mad, bad and dangerous to know,”
Wrote Lady Caroline Lamb in her diary
The night she first met Lord Byron. He
Had no used for prudes and said so—
He refused to compromise
With social reticence on sex.
(In Venice when Shelley asked
Why he was always surrounded by rough
Young men Byron replied: “What I earn
With my brains I spend on my arse.” Shelley
Left.) Byron’s memoirs were
Destroyed by his English publisher.
Too outrageous. Too obscene.
His journals and letters reveal that he
Had incestuous fun with his half-sister
And describe a party they both attended:
“Countesses and ladies of fashion left
The room in droves,” he wrote. But many
More threw themselves at his feet—wives
And daughters of the nobility,
Governesses and servant girls.
He threw himself at the feet
Of gondoliers and stable-boys.
Today only rock and film stars compare
With his effect on the public. Shelley
Wrote: “An exceedingly interesting person
But a slave to the vilest and most vulgar
Prejudices, and mad as the winds.”
By which, presumably, he meant
His undisguised love of working-class boys.
Shelley, alas, was a frightful prude
For all his anarchistic faith.
(And probably a closet-case too.)
Byron in every act and breath
Was a flaming iconoclast to the bone.
Revolutionary for human rights
Centuries ahead of his time.
Of poor Keats he wrote rather callously:
“A Bedlam vision produced by raw pork
And opium.” Matthew Arnold wrote
Of all three: “Their names will be greater than
Their writings.” Their memory lingers on.
Byron practiced what he preached:
He found it most in Italy
The most sensual and sensible
Of Western nations, the country of love
In all its forms, and the country of beauty.
Oppose this to England, the country of duty
And you will understand Byron completely.
In the Coliseum he once invoked
Nemesis to curse his wife’s
Lawyer—with great success, it seems,
For the later man cut his own throat.
What all the biographies skirt
When they describe his exploits we
Can now fill in: when they write of his women
“With great black eyes and fine figures—fit
To breed gladiators from” they don’t
Tell us how much he enjoyed their sons,
The gladiators he went down on.
Ever since Justinian
Who wanted more power over the Church
Fifteen-hundred years ago
Passed the first law against same-sex love
With the perfectly logical excuse
Caused earthquakes, we have seen
Religions and politics
Condemn gay sex as crime and sin.
The law had no effect upon
The population; they behaved
As if the Emperor had gone mad.
But some prominent bishops lost
Their bishoprics and balls,
Were tortured and exiled. Many more
Churchmen were castrated and died.
The best historian of the time,
Procopius, states these harsh laws
Served as pretext against the Greens
(The Emperor’s circus opposition)
Or those “possessed of great wealth or
Who happened to have done something
Which offended the rulers.” We know the empress
Theodora used the law against
Personal enemies. When a young Green
Made some nasty remark about her
She charged him with homosexuality,
Had him castrated without trial.
Procopius says that this cruel law
Was invented chiefly to extort money
From the victims among whom were numbered
Pagans, unorthodox Christians, astrologers.
All Constantinople turned against
Theodora and Justinian
On this matter, as did other
Imperial cities. The Church itself
Was a prime target of the civil law
And played no part in its enactment.
Later the Church got into the act.
The Spanish Inquisition threw
Faggots into the fire to burn
Witches and other heretics,
Especially the unconverted Jew.
Thus for a mad millennium
Or two the world has been in the grip
Of the criminally insane:
Neros, Caligulas, Justinians,
Stalins, Hitlers, Mussolinis,
Cromwells, Falwells and Khomeinis.
Nothing can stem the longed-for-same-sex need.
No matter what man-made laws may cause
In suffering. Wherever you go
The tide of sexuality swells
For same-sex love. With few exceptions
Most countries shut their hearts and minds
Against it, slam a dike or dam
On nature. Well, these may work with water
But not with the sexual tide. In
The Moslem world where the Rubaiyat
And Sufi poems extolled boy-love
The fundamentalist police
Chop noses, hands, feet, necks and dicks
Off for this universal need.
In the Soviet Union and its iron bloc
Torture, exile and slavery
Greet “decadent bourgeois acts”
Like tenderness of men
For men, women for women, as if
Sex could be legislated and made
Politically correct. No head
Is screwed on straight. Chez nous
In the USA Gay men and boys
Are bashed and killed with impunity
In the name of God, no less. The world
Has gone berserk with politics
And sick, depraved religion. Murder,
Their lingua franca, prevails. Nuts
Quote the Bible and Koran
Convincing us we’re better off dead
And try to prove it as fast as they can.
In Rumania if you’re caught with your pants
Down in flagrante you can tell the police
That your Rumanian comrade was buying them.
The young men will peel for American jeans.
We live under dictatorship
Whether of God or man.
Stalin is said to have deported
All Russian homosexuals
To the Arctic Circle, Tschaikowsky
Murdered by the Czar
For an affair with a young
Prince. The imperial doctor injected him
With typhus—to avoid a scandal.
Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty
Could not save him. Eugene Onegin
And Pique Dame could not have a sacred
Hair of his beard. The Czar wept.
No other course presented itself.
(The Empire must be maintained.)
Russia’s greatest composer martyred
Gogol, “Mother of the Russian Novel.”
Also involved with a prince, died
Young, thus avoiding homicide.
Remember the drag queens in Greenwich Village
Who fought the cops with their fists and any
Available objects? They
Sparked Gay Liberation, an
Equivalent to the Warsaw Ghetto
Uprising of the Jews against
Vastly superior Nazi might.
Once ignited the spirit
Does not die. Israel rose
From the ashes of the Warsaw Ghetto,
Gay Rights rose from the ghetto
On Christopher Street. It
Is better to die fighting than
To live on your knees. Krishna was right
To admonish Arjuna when he refused
To fight his kin to the death. His brothers
Would have finished him off.
Pacifism does not work. I say this
Sadly. We’re up against
Ignorant armies and must
Defeat them or die.
Love is not a crime;
If it were a crime to love
God would have not bound
Even the divine with love.
Anacreon, who “delighted in
Young men” confided, “I’m old,
There’s no denying it. So what?
Among young satyrs I can dance as well
As old Bacchus himself!” When asked
Why his poems were always about young boys
And not about gods he replied: “That
Is because young boys are our gods.”
He was a pleasure-loving, wine-loving
Boy-loving poet. “Whatever Plato
May say it is unlikely that
After sleeping beneath the same blanket
As Socrates, arose intact
From his embraces,” Lucian wrote.
Dying at eighty in the gymnasium,
His head on the knee of a boy, Pindar
Seemed happily asleep
When the attendant came to wake him.
Sophocles at fifty-five
Confessed that despite his age
He often fell in love with boys.
And Aristophanes wrote
That the favorite occupation
Of sophists and intellectuals
Was to make the rounds of gymnasiums
To pick up boys.
They went to their lessons
Accompanied by their little friends.
At twelve a boy already
Appealed to them, says the great playwright.
They considered him in the prime of life
Between sixteen and seventeen.
At eighteen he was over the hill.
To have a father of some handsome lad
Come up and chide me with complaints like these:
Fine things I hear of you, Stilbonides,
You met my son returning from the baths,
And never kissed, or hugged, or fondled him,
You, his paternal friend! You’re a nice fellow!
(The Birds, Aristophanes)
Zurich/Amsterdam, November, 1984/San Francisco, October, 1985