Mar 29, 2016

13 Writers and Artists of the Romantic Era That You Didn't Know Were Gay

When I was studying for my M.A. in English (1982-84), I had to select two adjacent historical eras for my Comprehensive Exams.  The problem is, gay content seems to go up and down, a homophobic wasteland (Medieval, Restoration-Augustan, early Victorian) followed by a period of homoerotic exuberance (Renaissance, Romantic, late Victorian).

For my first period, I chose the Restoration-Augustan Era, mostly because the professor of my graduate seminar, Dr. Singer, was gay -- or at least we thought he was.  For my second period, I chose the Romantic Era (1770-1830), because the poets were young and cute, and their lives seemed informed by homosocial and homoerotic bonds.  Later I discovered that several were gay in real life. 

The top 13 gay or gay-subtext literary figures:

1. Hugh Walpole  (1717-1797), who built a pseudo-Medieval castle, Strawberry Hill, to entertain the A-list gays of the early Romantic era.

 2. and 3. The Ladies of Llangollen, Eleanor Charlotte Butler (1739-1829) and Sarah Ponsonby (1755-1831), who eloped, set up housekeeping, and entertained many of the artistic and literary greats of the era.

4. Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), who forged a series of Medieval poems during his teens, and upset over his lack of recognition, committed suicide.  Many of the other Romantic poets revered him as a beautiful youth martyred by an uncomprehending world. He has only appeared on screen once, in a 1970 German movie, played by Ulrich Faulhaber.

 5. William Blake (1757-1822), who advocated for "free love" and illustrated his poetry with lovingly-detailed, super-muscular male nudes

 6. William Beckford  (1760-1844), who built his own pseudo-Medieval castle, Lansdowne Tower, where he kept his huge art collection. 

7. William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and 8. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), who roomed together and walked across England together (in the company of William's sister Dorothy).In Pandaemonium (2000), they are played by John Hannah and Linus Roach.

9. George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824), who hung out with attractive men, especially Greeks and Italians, and shared a house in Rome with fellow poet Percy Shelley. I hadn't yet read Byron and Greek Love (1985), but I thought Manfred highly homoerotic.  In Gothic (1986), Byron was played by Gabriel Byrne (seen here holding hands with Shelley, played by Julian Sand).

10. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who cohabitated with Byron and wrote Adonais to mourn the death of the beautiful young poet John Keats (check out the beefcake in the Star Trek episode "Who Mourns for Adonais". Besides, his wife, Mary Shelley, wrote Frankenstein.  In Frankenstein Unbound (1990), a scientist goes back in time to meet Shelley (gay performer Michael Hutchence, top photo) and the real Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia).

11. Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), who introduced the gay-coded Dandy to England.

12. John Keats (1795-1821), whose love for Charles Armitage Brown overwhelmed his love for Fanny Brawne (which was never consummated), and wrote of pure beauty much more often than the beauty of women.  In Bright Star (2009), which makes the romantic triangle overt, Keats is played by gay actor Ben Whishaw (left), and Brown by Paul Schneider.

13. Gay artist Henry Fuseli.

Frankenstein, vampires, gay subtexts, and beefcake.  What's not to like?

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