Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Spring 2001

John Lauritsen has just published a new edition of the English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium. Here, he looks at Shelley – one of the most prominent leaders of the Romantic movement – and male love, drawing on new material as well as old.

Piecing Together Percy

by John Lauritsen

Percy Bysshe Shelley was a declared atheist from the age of nineteen, when he was sent down from Oxford for publishing a pamphlet, The Necessity of Atheism (1811). But was he gay? The waters have been muddied here by a campaign of disinformation waged by Shelley’s widow, Mary, and her daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Shelley – a campaign described as “the fraudulent and mistaken efforts to turn the romantic, pagan Shelley, as Hogg, Peacock and Trelawny knew him in the flesh, into a Victorian angel suitable for enshrinement among the gods of respectability and convention.” [Smith]

Their efforts involved suppressing and bowdlerising Shelley’s writings, destroying pages from diaries, attacking writers who told the truth and using forged letters to defame the character of Shelley’s first wife, Harriett.

Mrs and Lady Shelley endeavoured to transform Shelley’s image from that of an infidel, rebel and advocate of Free Love, into a Christ-like milksop. Lady Shelley set up shrines for visitation and worship, containing items of clothing, locks of hair and other such relics. She commissioned a life-size statuary by Weekes, blatantly modelled on Italian Pietàs, which depicts Shelley-as-Jesus dying in the arms of Mary (thus fostering a double Mariolatry). Needless to say, the fabricators of the Shelley legend strove to eradicate every trace of homoeroticism in the poet’s life.

Edward Carpenter (1844-1929) broached the topic in 1925, being keenly interested in the androgyny of Shelley’s personal appearance, psychology and poetry, most notably The Witch of Atlas and Epipsychidion. Carpenter observed that Shelley’s relations with women were unhappy, transitory or “up in the air” – whereas he “certainly attracted the devotion of his men friends ... and was capable of warm and faithful attachment to them”. He makes a crucial point:

“Since the whole weight of herd-suggestion actively fosters and encourages the expression of all feelings of love towards the opposite sex and actively represses any patently homosexual expression, one clear indication of the latter is worth more as evidence than a dozen conventional signs of the former.”

I have just finished editing one of Shelley’s least known compositions: his translation of Plato’s great Dialogue on Love, The Banquet (or Symposium). Although a masterpiece in its own right, the translation was suppressed and bowdlerised for well over a century. The nineteenth-century moral order could not countenance male love, which lies at the heart of the dialogue.

Shelley began translating The Banquet during the summer of 1818. Working as though possessed by a Platonic Daemon, he finished the translation in ten days.

Shelley then wrote an introductory essay, “A Discourse on the Manners of the Ancient Greeks Relative to the Subject of Love”. This is only the second in English, after an unpublished 1785 essay by Jeremy Bentham, to address male-to-male sexuality. [Crompton]

Unfortunately, an overwrought feminism leads Shelley to maintain that women in Ancient Greece were so degraded that the males had to turn to each other for amatory satisfaction. And he almost hysterically denies that the Greeks engaged in acts that were “disgusting” or associated with “pain and horror” (read anal intercourse).

At any rate, Shelley had no serious thought of publishing either translation or essay, though he showed them to his friends. We should remember that, until the middle of the nineteenth century, males in England, including adolescent boys, were hanged for having sex with each other.

In July 1822, just short of his thirtieth birthday, Shelley was drowned in a boating accident. Eighteen years later his widow Mary, aided by Leigh Hunt, published the translation in a bowdlerised form: they changed “love” to “friendship”, “his beloved” to “the other”, “men” to “human beings”, and so on; they lopped off offending episodes and passages. This was the version the world knew until 1931, when translation and essay were finally published in their entirety – in a private edition of only 100 copies.

Since later biographers were misled by the myth makers, we must turn to Shelley’s own writings and those of his friends, where there are abundant indications of male love.

Edward John Trelawny – a tall, dark and handsome ex-buccaneer – was the same age as Shelley, 29, when they met. He fell immediately in love:

“Swiftly gliding in, blushing like a girl, a tall thin stripling held out both his hands; and although I could hardly believe as I looked at his flushed, feminine, and artless face that it could be the Poet, I returned his warm pressure.” [Trelawny, 1858]

Trelawny’s bravado enables him to get away with indiscreet statements. He gives a long and loving description of Shelley’s appearance and body; he casually remarks that he often saw Shelley “in a state of nudity”. Trelawny states point-blank that he loved Shelley; that he loved Edward Ellerker Williams (a handsome young artist and ex-soldier); and that he, Williams and Hogg all loved Shelley. [Trelawny, 1858, Massingham, Smith]

When Trelawny died, at the age of 88, his ashes were buried next to Shelley’s in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, in a grave he had reserved almost 60 years earlier. His letters were burned.

Thomas Jefferson Hogg was Shelley’s “one true love”, according to Trelawny. They were both expelled from Oxford over the atheism pamphlet, and then lived together until they were separated by their families. Shelley’s letters to Hogg contain such phrases as “brother of my soul”, “he whom I love” and “my bosom friend”.

Hogg’s reminiscences of Shelley, written 36 years after his death, are a loving tribute, and include numerous hints as to male love. For example, a dandified French duke remarks to Hogg that his friend’s cough should be treated with “Eau de Luce ... frequently rubbed on his chest by a soft, warm hand”. When Hogg innocently asks where Shelley will find the soft, warm hand, the duke replies, “Oh! with his truly charming physiognomy, he will very easily find that!”

Hogg includes Shelley’s “Essay on Friendship”, which describes his love for another schoolboy. Dedicated to Hogg, it was written in the last year of his life.

Byron, boldly gay for the time, was a close friend of Shelley’s for six years [Crompton]. Byron described Shelley as “the most gentle, the most admirable and least worldly-minded person I ever met” [Smith]. Byron’s memoirs were burned after his death.

The first Shelley biography was by his cousin, Thomas Medwin, who had known him from childhood. In a letter of 1820, Shelley urges Medwin to join him in Italy, “the Paradise of exiles, the retreat of Pariahs”, which Medwin did. Medwin includes two Shelley descriptions of homoerotic sculptures in the Uffizi gallery, commenting that Mary Shelley had “omitted” them from her edition of Shelley’s prose works.

Medwin decisively refutes the myth that Shelley was having an affair with Jane Williams. Although Shelley was fond of Jane, it was her common-law husband, Edward Ellerker Williams, whom he loved, and with whom he died.

According to Medwin, Shelley intended his “Epitaph for Two Friends” for himself and Williams:

They were two friends, whose life was undivided.
So let them mingle. Sweetly they had glided
Under the grave. Let not their dust be parted,
For their two hearts in life were single-hearted.

At the end of his life, Trelawny took up cudgels against the saintly Shelley myth makers, to affirm that Shelley, “from the earliest stage of his career to the last day of his life ... ignored all religions as superstitions”. Trelawny’s last words on Shelley are:

“A clergyman wrote in the visitors’ book at the Mer de Glace, Chamouni, something to the following effect: ‘No one can view this sublime scene, and deny the existence of God.’ Under which Shelley, using a Greek phrase, wrote, ‘P.B. Shelley, Atheist’, thereby proclaiming his opinion to all the world. And he never regretted having done this.” [Trelawny, 1878]


Edward Carpenter, The Psychology of the Poet Shelley, 1925.

Louis Crompton, Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th Century England, 1985.

Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1858.

H. J. Massingham, The Friend of Shelley: A Memoir of Edward John Trelawny, 1930.

Thomas Medwin, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1847; New, expanded edition edited by H Buxton Forman, 1913.

Thomas Love Peacock, Memoirs of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1858-1862.

Robert Metcalf Smith, The Shelley Legend, 1945.

Edward John Trelawny, Recollections of Shelley and Byron, 1858.

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Created : Sunday, 2001-05-13 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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