Poetry and public prudishness

1963 may well have been the year it all happened for Philip Larkin. But what of the loss in British prudishness which that year was also supposed to have heralded? Last year saw a nominee for the position of Professor of Poetry, Derek Walcott step down from the race, his chief rival – and indeed the eventual victor, Ruth Padel – having surreptitiously leaked stories of past sexual indiscretions to the press. Although Padel may have subsequently resigned, the position remains tainted, and electoral reforms are proposed for early 2010. Since the days of the banning of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and The Well of Loneliness, the often pornographic content of novelists’ and poets’ literary works has become widely acceptable. In light of the controversy surrounding the last contest for the Professor of Poetry, it seems that the acceptance of the actions of the authors themselves has some way to go.

“when did a priapic tendency count against someone being a celebrated poet”

The email in question, it emerged in May 2009, informed reporters of six pages detailing Walcott’s alleged actions in a book imaginatively titled “The Lecherous Professor”. Sure, it looks like Walcott, in the 1970s, did make some completely inappropriate comments to female students. But hang on a minute, when did a priapic tendency count against someone being a celebrated poet? Though Walcott has come under strong criticism for his libidinous ways, he is certainly not the first writer to whom this has happened. We hardly need to look far back into our literary past to see that rather than being the shameful exception, this is rather the norm with as regards our greatest poets.

Take the Romantics for example. Whilst at Trinity College, Cambridge, the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Byron began a relationship with a 15 year-old choir boy John Edelston. His adult life was embroiled with numerous scandals, including an affair with the married Lady Caroline Lamb. He was also reputed to have sired the daughter of his half-sister Augusta Leigh. In 1810, he is said to have offered £500 for a twelve-year old girl. This was turned down. In 1815 he left England altogether, after rumours of incest and sodomy were circulated.

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The fate of Letitia Elisabeth Landon (better known as L.E.L) might perhaps be seen as a counter-part to Byron’s colourful life and death. Her poetry in the 1820s achieved critical acclaim, but she was hamstrung by accusations of having had pre-marital sex. Her suicide in 1838 is seen as a result of the anguish suffered in virtue of this.

“So far from being a mark of shame, these types of allegations ought to be a badge of honour for poets”

Perhaps the most notorious poetic figure to fall foul of public prudishness was Oscar Wilde. A famously-flamboyant bisexual, his time at Magdalen College was spent adorning his room with peacock feathers, sunflowers and lilies – rather than engaging in the more traditional “gentlemanly” endeavours of rugby or cricket. A fellow student wrote that Wilde’s poetry “eclipses masculine ideals [and that] under such influence men would become effeminate dandies”. In the end, Wilde’s downfall was brought about by the father of one of his male lovers. After fighting an ultimately unsuccessful libel case against the Earl of Queensbury, he was imprisoned for two years hard labour, after being convicted of “gross indecency” with other men. Wilde had originally taken offence at Queensbury’s leaving of a calling card at Wilde’s London Club, describing him as a “Posing Somdomite” [sic].

So far from being a mark of shame, these types of allegations ought to be a badge of honour for poets. That doesn’t mean that Walcott shouldn’t be admonished for his inappropriate comments and actions to female colleagues and students in the past. There’s nothing to show that Walcott continues to hold derogatory views towards women; the position might be different if he did. The real point is that sexual dalliances shouldn’t be seen as precluding someone from being held in poetic esteem.

Ruth Padel may well be an accomplished poet. It’s a shame she decided to use such disgusting tactics to depose her closest rival. And it’s an even greater shame that they almost worked.

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