Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 186 - Poetry about Love between Women from the 18th Century - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/11/28- listen here)
In the podcast on 17th century poetry, I pulled together almost all the verses I could find in English or English translation that spoke of love between women. For the 18th century, there was far more material, and I need to pick and choose a bit more. The major reason for that expansion is that women’s writing was being preserved in larger quantities and in a wider variety of genres. But there is also a rise of popular themes that lend themselves to expressions of same-sex sentiment.
The 17th century poems sorted themselves out into some identifiable themes: The Pangs of Love, Men Jealous of Women’s Love for Each Other, Men Appropriating Lesbian Imagery, Satire and Vituperation, and The Triumph of Love. The 18th century material continues the larger themes but with some shifts and expansions.
One category that I’ve skipped over is translations or reworkings of classical material, such as the poetry of Sappho, or mythic tales like Iphis and Ianthe. In general, I’ve covered those in episodes examining their specific topics.
Poems of Romantic Friendship
Right off the bat, it’s clear that we need a new category: poems of romantic friendship. In the 17th century, we see the beginnings of this theme in the works of Katherine Philips and other poets working in the neo-Platonic tradition. The 18th century friendship poems are very similar, in focusing on a spiritual love that promises a union of souls, but not necessarily of bodies. The “pangs of love” may be expressed in this context, but first let’s hear some verses where those shadows don’t fall.
Anne Finch, the Countess of Winchelsea, began her poetic career in the Restoration era of the late 17th century, although the work I use here dates to 1713. Her work has something of a proto-feminist flavor, often commenting on the difficulties women encountered in the male-dominated literary establishment. Her works sometimes reference that of other female poets such as Katherine Philips and Aphra Behn and, like the work of Philips, she emphasizes the equality of men and women on a spiritual level. Finch was a maid of honor in the royal household and a companion of Sarah Churchill—whom you might remember from the episode on Queen Anne—and of Anne Killigrew, another poet whose work in the late 17th century included some poems suggestive of romantic feelings for women.
Anne Finch’s friendship poems are tender and passionate, but were written within the context of an amicable and loving marriage. Her husband was a significant supporter of her poetic career. It’s important to remember that one of the reasons romantic friendship was so openly acceptable was that it was not seen as inherently incompatible with loving relationships with, and marriage to, men. We mustn’t interpret these poems as indicating an “orientation” in the modern sense, but as operating within an understanding that souls were what loved, and that the gender of souls could be immaterial. Practical considerations meant that the ways that love was expressed differed depending on the object of affection, and that women were perhaps more free to make public expression of the passionate feelings they had for their female friends specifically because there was no inherent expectation of a sexual component.
Like many of her contemporaries, Anne Finch used poetic noms de plume in her work, for herself as well as for those her poems were addressed to. Finch was “Ardelia” as in the following work “Friendship between Ephelia and Ardelia” from 1713, written in the form of a dialogue. “Ephelia,” the other voice in this poem, may be the as-yet-unindentified author from the same social circle of several poems also on themes of female friendship. In the poem, the alternation between Ardelia and Ephelia is identified with tags, but I’ll distinguish them by voice.
Friendship between Ephelia and Ardelia (1713)
(Included in Donoghue, Castle, Loughlin. This text from the Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive)
What Friendship is, Ardelia shew.
‘Tis to love as I love You.
This Account, so short (tho’ kind),
Suits not my enquiring Mind.
Therefore farther now repeat:
What is Friendship when compleat?
‘Tis to share all Joy and Grief;
‘Tis to lend all due Relief
From the Tongue, the Heart, the Hand;
‘Tis to mortgage House and Land;
[Be]For a Friend be sold a Slave;
‘Tis to die upon a Grave,
If a Friend therein do lie.
This indeed, tho’ carry’d high;
This tho’ more than e’er was done
Underneath the rolling Sun,
This has all be said before.
Can Ardelia say no more?
Words indeed no more can shew;
But ‘tis to love, as I love you.
Mary Chudleigh was part of the same intellectual circle as Mary Astell and Lady Mary Whortley Montagu who get frequent mention in blog entries about the 18th century. Chudleigh’s work, both poetry and essays, focused on feminist themes. The negative attitudes toward marriage expressed in her work suggest her own may have been less than happy. The poems touching on female friendship invoke the image of an idyllic rustic retreat, a popular theme continuing over from the neo-Platonic pastoral motifs of the later 17th century.
I have to confess from my own reading of Chudleigh’s work that her writing doesn’t strike the ear as among the most eloquent of today’s poets. One of the poems that I didn’t use includes the couplet “No, though lov’d darling of my heart, We’ll never, never, never part” and it’s easy to image the author thinking, “Hmm, We’ll never dum-da-dum-da part. Oh, I’ll fix it in revisions!”
The poem I’ve chosen, “To Lerinda” from 1703, is a fairly typical expression of the themes of platonic love and friendship.
Mary Chudleigh “To Lerinda” (1703)
(Included in Loughlin. This text from Poetry Nook)
Cease, Dear Lerinda , cease admiring
Why Crouds and Noise I disapprove;
What e'er I see abroad is tiring;
O let us to some Cell remove;
Where all alone our selves enjoying,
Enrich'd with Innocence and Peace,
On noblest Themes our Thoughts employing,
Let us our inward Joys increase:
And still the happy Taste pursuing,
Raise our Love and Friendship higher,
And thus the sacred Flames renewing,
In Extasies of Bliss expire.
Similar idealized sentiments appear in the romantic friendship poems of Elizabeth Singer Rowe. Much of her poetry was religious in nature and this may account for the motif that the greatest joy of friendship is a spiritual reunion after death as in this verse “To Cleone” published in a posthumous volume in 1739.
Elizabeth Singer Rowe “To Cleone” (1739)
(Included in Donoghue.)
From the bright realms, and happy fields above,
The seats of pleasure, and immortal love
Where joys no more on airy chance depend,
All health to thee from those gay climes I send!
For thee my tender passion is the same,
Nor death itself has quench’d the noble flame;
For charms like thine forever fix the mind,
And with eternal obligations bind.
And when kind fate shall my Cleonae free
From the dull fetters of mortality.
I’ll meet thy parting soul and guide my fair
In triumph thro’ the lightsome fields of air;
‘Til thou shalt gain the blissful seats and bowers,
And shining plains deck’d with unfading flow’rs.
There nobler heights our friendship shall improve,
For flames, like ours, bright spirits feel above,
And tune their golden harps to the soft notes of love.
The sacred subject swells each heav’nly breast,
And in their looks its transports are expressed.
How do we define the dividing line between close friendships and a more particular exclusive relationship—or at least the desire for one? One hint may come when jealousy, or feelings of abandonment, define the nature of a bond by its absence. I explore that theme a bit more in a later group of poems, but here in Elizabeth Thomas’s “To Clemena” we see the rise and fall of emotions, thinking that an intimate friend may have transferred affections to another.
Thomas was another member of the literary circle that included Mary Astell, Lady Mary Whortley Montague, and Mary Chudleigh. Reading through the biographies of these women, one gets a sense of how interconnected English literary lives were at the time. No one was writing in a vacuum, and the sharing of themes and motifs is part of the way their work is a constant ongoing conversation.
In this poem from 1722, Thomas addresses an absent friend, framing her doubts as an imagined conversation with a gossiping meddler.
Elizabeth Thomas “To Clemena” (1722)
(Included in Donoghue.)
Clemena, if you are indeed
The Friend you have professed,
Your Kindness now exert with speed,
And give me back my Rest.
Late in our gloomy Shade I sat,
Retired from all domestic Care,
And tho’ as calm as was th’ air,
Yet soon disturb’d like that.
For while I grasp’d my precious Store,
And read your last kind Letters o’er,
The gay Melinda pass’d along,
And cried, Oh where is Friendship gone!
What makes Eliza look so down,
When fair Clemena’s come to town?
Indeed, methinks she’s much your friend,
So near, and neither come nor send.
Nay, prithee do not turn away,
‘Ere you have heard what I can say.
Alas, I much lament your Case,
For haughty Gallia takes your Place;
Her Clemena gives her heart,
And leaves you not the smallest part.
Judge with what Grief I was possessed,
How love and Anger tore my breast;
Is this, said I, her kind Return,
For all my tender Cares?
Did I for this my Life despise,
And venture it for hers?
Did I for this such Frowns endure,
Such Hatred to myself procure?
And can she with her Vows expence,
Now make this cruel Recompence?
But when this Storm was somewhat laid,
I fancied that I was betray’d;
For looking round the Nymph was gone,
And mock’d from far my piteous Moan;
‘Twas then, you came into my mind,
So nobly faithful, and so kind;
That I can hardly think it true,
But wait to be resolv’d by you.
Setting Marriage and Women’s Bonds in Conflict
In the 17th century, there seemed to be an entire genre of men’s poems complaining about how the close friendships of women were shutting them out and making the women unavailable for heterosexual relations. John Hoadly’s poem “On the Friendship of Two Young Ladies” is perhaps a remnant of that tradition lingering in the 18th century. But, in general, male criticism of women’s relationships seems to have moved more into the harshly satirical. There is, perhaps, a sense that the greater public prominence of female friendships has placed them farther from reproach, even on the occasions when they make the women disinclined for marriage.
Hoadly was better known as a playwright (though making his living as a clergyman) with his work leaning toward pastorals and farce. Many of his plays were written in verse form. Also showing the satirical bent of his talent, he wrote the verses that accompanied Hogarth’s famous engravings of “A Rake’s Progress.”
In this poem, he first appears to praise the close friendship of two women, then shifts into suggesting that such friendships inherently become rivalries solved by both turning to men for love.
John Hoadly “On the Friendship of Two Young Ladies” (1730)
(Included in Loughlin. This text from the Eighteenth-Century Poetry Archive)
HAIL, beauteous pair, whom Friendship binds
In softest, yet in strongest ties,
Soft as the temper of your minds,
Strong as the lustre of your eyes!
So Venus' doves in couples fly,
And friendly steer their equal course;
Whose feathers Cupid's shafts supply,
And wing them with resistless force.
Thus as you move Love's tender flame,
Like that of Friendship, paler burns;
Both our divided passion claim,
And friends and rivals prove by turns.
Then ease yourselves and bless mankind,
Friendship so curst no more pursue:
In wedlock's rosy bow'r you'll find
The joys of Love and Friendship too.
But women were becoming more forthright about rejecting the idea that marriage was a universal goal, or even a necessary evil. The anonymous poem “Cloe to Artimesa” published in 1720 is quite blunt on the subject. Note that the reference here to “the sex” means “the opposite sex”, that is, men.
Anonymous “Cloe to Artimesa” (1720)
(Included in Castle, Donoghue, Loughlin.)
While vulgar souls their vulgar love pursue,
And in the common way themselves undo;
Impairing health and fame, and risking life,
To be a mistress or--what’s worse--a wife;
We, whom a nicer taste has raised above
The dangerous follies of such slavish love,
Despise the sex, and in ourselves we find
Pleasures for their gross senses too refined,
Let brutish men, made by our weakness vain,
Boast of the easy conquest they obtain;
Let the poor loving wretch do all she can,
And all won’t please th’ ungrateful tyrant, Man;
We’ll scorn the monster and his mistress too,
And show the world what women ought to do.
Not all women were quite so forthright in their opinions. But marriage was sometimes framed as being in direct rivalry with female friendships. We may recall Katherine Philips offering similar sentiments.
Susanna Highmore Duncombe recounts a series of hazards to the intimate friendship she longs for in “To Aspasia” from 1751—a poem addressed to the woman she hopes will prove truer than those who came before her.
The poem is a bit of an extensive catalog of disrupted friendships, including an explanation of how she won’t recount one story as a favor to the sister of the faithless one. Listen for the reference to losing a friend to “Hymen,” which refers to the god of marriage and not the anatomical feature! Note also the reference in the first verse to pursuing friendship in “Dian’s Grove,” that is, among the followers of the goddess Diana who rejected marriage.
Susanna Highmore Duncombe “To Aspasia” (1751)
(Included in Donoghue.)
Wisdom, Aspasia, by thy gentle muse,
Warns me to shun the dang’rous paths of Love,
And rather those of sober Friendship choose,
With cheerful Liberty in Dian’s Grove.
Yet, led by Fancy through deceitful ground,
Oft have I friendship sought, but sought in vain;
Unfaithful friends with myrtle wreaths I crown’d,
Unpleasing subjects of my plaintive strain.
In youthful innocence, a school-day friend
First gained my sister-vows; unhappy maid!
How did I wipe thy tears, thy griefs attend,
And how was all my tenderness repaid!
No sooner Grandeur, Love, and Fortune smiled,
Than base Ingratitude thy heart betrays,
That friend forgot, who all thy woes beguiled,
Lost in the sun-shine of thy prosperous days.
Save me, kind Heav’n, from smiling Fortune’s power!
And may my wishes never meet success,
If e’er I can forget one single hour,
The friend who gave me comfort in distress.
Yet Friendship’s influence I again implored,
To heal the wounds by Disappointment made;
Friendship my soul to balmy peace restored,
And sent a gentle virgin to my aid.
Soft, modest, pensive, melancholy Fair,
She seem’d to Love and pining Grief a prey;
I saw her fading cheek, and feared Despair
Fed on her heart and stole her life away.
But ah! how chang’d my friend how vain my fears!
Not death, but Hymen stole her from my heart;
Another love dispell’d her sighs and tears,
And Fame was left the secret to impart.
Not twice the changing moon her course had run,
Since first the pleasing youth was seen and loved,
The Fair in secret haste he woo’d and won,
No friend consulted, for no friend approved.
Suspense not long my anxious bosom pain’d,
My friend arrived, I clasp’d her to my breast,
I wept, I smiled, alternate passions reign’d,
Till she the sad unwelcome tale confess’d.
Lost to her brother, country, and to me,
A stranger wafts her to a foreign shore,
She travels mountains and defies the sea,
Nor thinks of Albion or of Stella more.
Sure nature in her weakest softest mould,
Form’d my unhappy heart, false friendship’s prey!
Another story yet remains untold,
Which fond compassion bids me not display;
The lovely sister of a faithless friend,
Weeping entreats me spare of the recent tale;
Her sighs I hear, her wishes I attend,
And o’er her sister’s failings draw the veil.
This my success in search of Friendship’s grove,
Where liberty and peace I hoped to find,
And soften’d thus with grief, deceitful Love,
In friendship’s borrow’d garb attack’d my mind.
No passion raging like the roaring main,
But calm and gentle as a summer sea,
Meek Modesty and Virtue in his train,
What Friendship ought, true Love appeared to be.
But soon was chang’d, alas! the pleasing scene,
Soon threat’ning Storms my timid heart alarm’d;
And Love no more appear’d with brow serene,
But cloth’d in terrors, and with dangers arm’d.
From these enchanted bow’rs my steps I turn.
And seek from Prudence, safety and repose;
Her rigid lessons I resolve to learn,
And gain that bliss which self-approof bestows.
Thus, dear Aspasia, my unhappy fate,
My heart’s first darling schemes all blasted, see;
Yet now my bosom glows with hope elate,
Fair Friendship’s blessings still to find with thee.
By thee conducted to the realms of Peace,
No more in plaintive strains the muse shall sing.
Henceforth with hymns of praise, and grateful bliss,
The groves shall echo, and the valleys ring.
Erotic and Sensual Friendship Poems
Not all poems of romantic friendship focused only on the spiritual. The following three poems blend this theme with expressions of more sensual and erotic joys deriving from those relationships—or at least sought from them.
Pauline de Simiane was a French poet, the granddaughter of the famous courtier and correspondent Madame de Sévigné, whose letters she edited for publication. As the two poems of hers that I’ve included were originally in French, the translations are not metrical. The first, “Madrigal” encodes the homoerotic meaning in a complex set of mythological allusions to the goddess Diana and associated figures.
Diana, of course, was not only famously chaste and disdainful of men, but was the center of a number of stories featuring homoerotic relations between women (as discussed in my episode on Diana and Callisto). So when the poet addresses a female subject, who has kissed her sweetly, and calls her Diana, there is a weight of implication evoked. “Don’t treat me like Apollo” she says. Diana and Apollo were, of course siblings. So she’s begging, don’t kiss me chastely as one would a sibling, but passionately as one would a lover.
“I’d be happy with Endymion’s fate” the poem concludes, referencing the myth of Endymion, which was originally attached to the moon goddess Selene whose lover he was. Among many variants, the central motif of his myth is that he was cursed or blessed to sleep eternally in order to preserve his life and beauty. As Selene and Diana were both associated with the moon, Diana was sometimes substituted as Endymion’s lover, despite her generally anti-male attitude. Putting all this together, de Simiane is addressing a woman and asking, “Why do you kiss me like a sister, with such sweet kisses? Why do you treat me like a sibling when I want you to treat me like a lover.”
I’ve included the original French in the transcript of this show.
Pauline de Simiane “Madrigal” (1715, French)
(Included in Castle.)
Vous me baisez comme une soeur:
Ces baisers sont pleins de douceur;
Mais souffrez que je les condamne.
Je ne suis qu’un mortel, ô nouvelle Diane,
Pourquoi me traitez-vous ainsi qu’un Apollon?
Je serai trop heureux du sort d’Endimion.
You kiss me like a sister,
Kisses filled with sweetness;
Yet you must allow me to condemn them,
For I’m only mortal, my Diane;
Why treat me like Apollo great?
I’d be so happy with Endymion’s fate.
The second poem from Pauline de Simiane is in the form of a letter to someone addressed in the poem as Corinne (possibly a pseudonym) and in the poems title as “Madame la Marquise de S—“. Both this and the previous poem are dated 1715. The title of this verse indicates it accompanied a gift of tobacco and the poem makes a number of connections with “gratifying the senses”. The poet is self-deprecatingly suggesting that she would not have been asked to satisfy the Marquise’s more important longings—despite certain rumors to that effect. The final lines begging the recipient to “trace for me with your hand all of your pleasures” seems superficially to be asking for a letter in return, but raises other images as well.
Pauline de Simiane “Letter to Madame la Marquise de S--, On Sending Her Tobacco” (1715, French)
(Included in Castle.)
I’ve not forgotten you chose me
To gratify one of the senses
That’s generally said to be
Immaterial to life’s pleasures
Thus, despite the rumors spread abroad,
If you truly had the longing
To satisfy them one and all,
I think that in this fancy
Your heart, without a pause
Would not have chosen for the task
A pitiful friend like me;
But you have need of modest size;
In you, only the sense of smell is unfulfilled.
And yet do you imagine that my eyes
Away from you suffer any less?
Still, I cannot bear to see you penitent,
And will relieve your pain. As reward
For my tobacco and my care,
All I ask, my lovable Corinne,
Is that your hand sometimes choose
To trace for me with tenderness
All of your pleasures, all your fine times.
If tobacco seems an unusual gift of affection, the following poem by Mary Matilda Betham catalogs some much more conventional gifts, before settling on a gift of a kiss. Betham was a diarist, writer, and miniature painter in the late 18th and early 19th century. She wrote a biographical dictionary of famous women as well as four books of her poetry. Betham supported herself with her painting and writing and did not marry. I don’t know whether there are any guesses as to whom this “Valentine” poem was written in 1797.
Mary Matilda Betham “A Valentine” (1797)
(Included in Castle.)
What shall I send my sweet today,
When all the woods attune in love?
And I would show the lark and dove,
That I can love as well as they.
I’ll send a locket full of hair--
But no, for it might chance to lie
Too near her heart, and I should die
Of love’s sweet envy to be there.
A violet is sweet to give--
Ah stay! She’d touch it with her lips,
And after such complete eclipse,
How could my soul consent to live?
I’ll send a kiss for that would be
The quickest sent, the lightest borne,
And well I know tomorrow morn
She’ll send it back again to me.
Go, happy winds; ah, do not stay,
Enamoured of my ladies cheek,
But hasten home and I’ll bespeak
Your services another day!
The Pangs of Love
For this next set of verses I retain my poetic category of “the pangs of love” with two rather different takes on love gone awry.
Anna Seward was a well-known and prolific poet who spent all her life in the relatively rural area of the Peak District, far from the literary circles of London. She was a friend of the “Ladies of Llangollen” and wrote poems referencing them and their home. Seward rejected marriage, both abstractly and in the form of specific offers. Her romantic relationships were all with women, though her commitment to caring for her father limited how she carried them out. Very notably, she fell in love with a younger woman named Honora Sneyd who lived in their household for a while before marrying and thereby breaking Seward’s heart.
The following two poems mark the early adoration and the later hurt. First “Elegy Written at the Sea-Side and Addressed to Miss Honora Sneyd” written around 1780.
Anna Seward “Elegy Written at the Sea-Side, and Addressed to Miss Honora Sneyd” ( c. 1780)
(Included in Castle, Faderman. This text taken from Poetry Nook)
I write, HONORA, on the sparkling sand!--
The envious waves forbid the trace to stay:
HONORA'S name again adorns the strand!
Again the waters bear their prize away!
So Nature wrote her charms upon thy face,
The cheek's light bloom, the lip's envermeil'd dye,
And every gay, and every witching grace,
That Youth's warm hours, and Beauty's stores supply.
But Time's stern tide; with cold Oblivion's wave,
Shall soon dissolve each fair, each fading charm;
E'en Nature's self, so powerful, cannot save
Her own rich gifts from this o'erwhelming harm.
Love and the Muse can boast superior power,
Indelible the letters they shall frame;
They yield to no inevitable hour,
But will on lasting tablets write thy name.
This following poem, titled simply “To Honora Sneyd,” is only one of many “break-up poems” Seward wrote about what she considered Sneyd’s betrayal. Some people dwell a bit too long.
(Included in Donoghue. This text from Poetry Nook)
Honora, should that cruel time arrive
When 'gainst my truth thou should'st my errors poise,
Scorning remembrance of our vanished joys;
When for the love-warm looks in which I live,
But cold respect must greet me, that shall give
No tender glance, no kind regretful sighs;
When thou shalt pass me with averted eyes,
Feigning thou see'st me not, to sting, and grieve,
And sicken my sad heart, I could not bear
Such dire eclipse of thy soul-cheering rays;
I could not learn my struggling heart to tear
From thy loved form, that through my memory strays;
Nor in the pale horizon of Despair
Endure the wintry and the darkened days.
Now we turn to a somewhat more light-hearted and borderline scandalous expression of the pangs of love. The verse has a rather complicated provenance, so forgive me for going into a bit of detail.
In the 18th century, feuds between the fans of prominent opera singers were a thing. They’d show up to cheer on their favorite or heckle her rival. The theater managers considered these rivalries great for ticket sales and did nothing to discourage them. The rivalries between the stars themselves might go beyond jockeying for the best roles and even go as far as fisticuffs. One such rivalry was between the up and coming Faustina Bordoni and the established star Francesca Cuzzoni who came to blows during a performance in 1727—a fight that was quickly satirized in broadsides and even in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in 1728.
The following poem purports to be a letter from Faustina Bordoni to one of her supporters. It can validly be doubted whether Bordoni herself wrote it, particularly given that it seems designed to cast aspersions on her reputation.
The original gives the speaker’s name as “F—” in one place, but I’ve supplied the full name as Faustina from the attribution. Elsewhere, the name of the lady to whom the letter is supposedly addressed is left a blank and there seems to be no good theory as to who might be indicated. I wanted to fill it in with something for the sake of the metrical flow but the meter in that line is a bit of a mess and seems to call for a single unstressed syllable, so I’ve read “Joy to the fair [blank]” as “Joy to the fair one” and we’ll leave it at that.
There are a number of allusions that may be useful to know. The claim “ladies unpracticed in the art of love a living Aretin in me may prove” is a reference to the “Dialogues” of Renaissance author Pietro Aretino which included discussions of sex between women. The classical pseudonyms Chloe and Thalestris may have been understood by contemporaries as specific women in Bordoni’s circle. Thalestris was the name of an Amazon of legend. And the reference toward the end of the poem to Durastanti is to an earlier star soprano who had been supplanted by Bordoni’s rival Cuzzoni.
Faustina Bordoni (nominally) “An Epistle from Signora F—to a Lady” (1727)
(Included in Loughlin.)
Condemn not, Madame, as I write in haste,
My thoughts confused, or any word misplaced.
Of cens’ring tongues I scorn the little spite,
In wild disorder, as I love, I write.
In haste I write to ease your tortured mind,
Spite of your jealousy, I still am kind.
Unspotted as the sun, my love shall rise,
And soon dispel the fears that cloud your eyes
Let others for dear scandal search the town,
Or with superior fancy choose a gown;
Others their heads with learned volumes fill,
Or boast of deeper science at quadrille;
In the gay dance let other nymphs excel;
Faustina’s glory lies in loving well.
Of pleasure all the various modes I know,
In different degrees, it’s ebb and flow.
Ladies unpracticed in the art of love,
A living Aretin in me may prove.
Propitious Venus, Grant me power to give
Joy to the fair --, ‘tis for her I live.
Cease then to let your jealous fancy rove,
Nor give me such a cruel proof of love.
Am I in fault that crowds obsequious bend,
And rival beauties for my love contend?
That fierce Thalestris has attacked my heart?
Or gentle Chloe cast a milder dart?
To fierce Thalestris I disdain to yield,
And gentle Chloe ne’er shall gain the field,
In vain she breathes her passion in my ear,
For when you speak I nothing else can hear;
In vain with transport to my feet she flew,
All joys are tasteless, but what come through you.
Before your fatal face I chanced to see,
No Cynic ever laughed at love like me.
Inconstant as the wind, free as the air,
I ranged from man to man, from fair to fair.
I roved about like the industrious bee,
First sucked the honey, then forsook the tree.
In Venus’ combats I have spent the day,
Swiss-like I fought on any side for pay.
But now I love and your bewitching face
Has well avenged the cause of human race.
Do justice to yourself, review your charms,
Nor fear to see me in another’s arms.
Have you not beauty equal to your youth?
Look in your glass, and then suspect my truth.
No passion tramontane in you I’ve found,
By love and gratitude I’m doubly bound.
You first of all the British fair declared,
I sung unrivaled, e’er my voice you heard.
By sympathy you felt each charm, each grace,
And loved my person ere you saw my face.
Nor was I coy, or difficult to move,
When you revealed the story of your love.
With such pathetic mirth you played your part,
You found an easy conquest of my heart.
I felt a thrilling joy, till then unknown,
And loved with ardour equal to your own.
Witness the transports of that happy day,
When melting in each other’s arms we lay.
With velvet kiss your humid lips I pressed.
And rode triumphant on your panting breast.
Thus rode Saint George, thus fearless thrust his dart
Up to the head in the fell dragon’s heart.
In ecstasy you cried, “What joys are these?
Not Durastanti’s self so well could please.
This is no sleepy husband’s feeble mite,
The tasteless tribute of an ill-spent night.
Such were our joys, Oh could they always last!
But greatest pleasures are the soonest past.
Oh, did my power and will in concert move!
And were my strength but equal to my love!
Th’incredulous philosopher should see
Perpetual motion verified in me.
Satire and Vituperation
As I mentioned earlier, if mildly teasing digs at female couples for making themselves unavailable to men show up less often in the 18th century, the more vicious attacks on specific women, either for a lesbian reputation, or using accusations of lesbianism as a weapon, are on the rise. These were often published anonymously, although in some cases the authorship is obvious and undisputed.
The anonymously penned “The Adulteress,” published in 1773, is something of a broad-brush attack on the sexual morals of women in general. Some have identified it as a very loose re-working of Juvenal’s Sixth Satire, which is a similar misogynistic catalog of women’s supposed vices. I’ve included here only two brief excerpts: part of the preface, which compares the decadent present to the solid virtues of the era of Queen Bess (that is, Elizabeth I), and then the section discussing homosexuality. There are a couple of disguised personal names—a common technique for dodging libel. Since the specific names only matter to those who know the ins and outs of 18th century British politics, I’ve filled them in to fit the meter, though in one case I believe I’ve identified the correct person.
Anonymous “The Adulteress” (1773)
(Excerpts included in Castle, McCormick. Text (excerpts) from: Rictor Norton (ed.), "The Macaroni Club: The Adulteress, 1773", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 11 June 2005.)
How better were the Matrons of QUEEN BESS,
Who suited all their manners to their dress;
Who breakfasted on beef, and drank stout ale,
Rough as their Lords, as honest and as hale!
Our Sons had then red cheeks and sturdy back,
Not melted by Cornelys' and Almack's:
Earth never then had known a Coxcomb race;
Then Macaronies were not Man's disgrace;
The Sun did never condescend to smile
On tiny things like J----y and C--l-le;
Earth's common fruits in Markets were expos'd,
Unknown forestalling, Commons uninclos'd:
But when ELIZA to the Stars withdrew,
Genius and Chastity attended too.
With JAMES and CHARLES rank Lechery came in,
And Virtue then gave place at Court to Sin:
New modes of Lust e'en CHARLES himself devis'd,
And ROCHESTER both nurs'd them, and chastis'd:
Then did the Court chaste Marriage-rites profane,
And purer Virtue breath'd in Drury-lane.
# # #
Women and Men, in these unnat'ral Times,
Are guilty equal of unnat'ral crimes:
Woman with Woman act the Manly Part,
And kiss and press each other to the heart.
Unnat'ral Crimes like these my Satire vex;
I know a thousand Tommies 'mongst the Sex:
And if they don't relinquish such a Crime,
I'll give their Names to be the scoff of Time.
But here, Sweet Girls, my indignation fires,
When Man with Man into the shade retires;
And when that Justice damns them and their crimes,
The noble Monsters of these monstrous Times
Repair to Majesty, and piteous plead
A Wretch's cause – whom Virtue deem'd to bleed.
Can beauteous VIRTUE shew her heav'nly face?
When Jones is pardon'd – ***'s held in Place!
Hear me, sweet sheeny Virtue – hear my pray'r,
Make Love and Modesty thy constant care!
Diana, cull a wreath of Roses fair,
And place the posy in the Poet's hair:
I feel throughout this meretricious strain,
A hallow'd Virtue trill from vein to vein.
When Fashion suffers Turpitudes to grow,
Honour and Truth both cordially allow,
That even Bawdy is a Virtue now.
While “The Adulteress” takes aim at entire swathes of society, and as much at effeminate men as at “Tommies”, William King penned a much more pointed satire in revenge at a specific woman. The Duchess of Newburgh, he claimed, owed him several thousand pounds, but he lost a lawsuit to try to obtain the funds. Frustrated with more formal methods, King wrote a very long, convoluted satirical poem, densely packed with obscure references to contemporary figures and their scandals, which featured the Duchess in the form of a promiscuous pansexual witch named Myra. If the initial version in 1732 were not enough, William King published an expanded version four years later and reprinted it again in 1754.
From a historical point of view, the poem is valuable in demonstrating that the term “lesbian” was used in English in a sexual sense at least as early as 1732. Though one shouldn’t put too much reliance on the poem as evidence of cultural practice, it depicts a lesbian cultural tradition that envisions women who had a distinct and stable sexual orientation toward women.
The problem with trying to include even a sample from this poem in the podcast is that any brief excerpt is incoherent, while any extensive passage is going to include material that is not merely homophobic but also packed with slurs involving racial and religious groups, just for a start. So I will leave you with the knowledge of its existence and a serious content warning if you choose to look into it.
William King “The Toast” (1732)
(Excerpts included in Loughlin, McCormick, Rictor Norton)
(Poem not included in the podcast.)
For Love of a Dildo
One rather curious genre of poetry that appears in the 18th century—perhaps in parallel with the greater openness of sexual satires in general—are works about dildoes. It is difficult to determine the genuine place of dildoes in female same-sex erotics in this or other historic eras, largely because the records that obsess over the use of an artificial phallus may be treating it more as a symbol than a reality. There is a running theme throughout western history that sex between women is inherently less satisfying because only penetrative sex is the “real thing.” The use of a dildo raises anxieties that perhaps even that handicap can be worked around, making men entirely obsolete with regard to women’s pleasure. So to some extent, anxiety about dildoes stands in for a shift in understanding that perhaps women don’t actually need men to have completely satisfying sex lives.
This anxiety rarely stands alone, but is typically accompanied by an accusation that if men were doing their proper job as lovers, then women wouldn’t look elsewhere. In both the 17th and 18th centuries, satirical works combine accusations of male effeminacy and rampant sodomy with the vision of women consequently turning to each other, or to dildoes, or both as a consequence.
The anonymous epic poem “The Sappho-an,” published in 1735, is an extended exploration of this theme. Following the naming conventions of the day, the title should be read as “the Sappho club” or “the Sappho circle.” The appearance of the name “Mira” in the text suggests a connection to William King’s poem “The Toast,” raising the possibility that King was the author of this poem as well.
The poem contains extensive descriptions of sexual encounters and techniques between women but is clearly intended as a satirical attack, either on lesbian sex in general or on a specific woman whose connection to the poem is no longer obvious to us.
The general plot of the poem is thus. The Greek gods have been warned that the women of Olympus are sexually unsatisfied because the gods are all dallying with boys instead of paying attention to them. The mortal poet Sappho shows up and explains to the goddesses that there are other ways to get satisfaction. An extensive catalog of techniques and implements are discussed before Sappho settles down to displaying and demonstrating an ivory dildo. There is an underlying message that all of these delights are less satisfactory than sex with men, were that only available.
Anonymous “The Sappho-an” (1735)
(Included in Castle. Text from Rictor Norton (Ed.), "The Sappho-An, c.1735 or 1749," Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook. 26 August 2017.)
[The poem begins with this warning to contemporaries, before moving on to the classical setting:]
(Opening of Canto I)
SWAINS of Britannia’s happy, gladsome isle,
Who wait submissive on the fair-one’s smile;
And all the soothing arts of lovers try
In hopes to make the cruel Nymph comply;
Know, whilst you idle thus away your time,
Women in secret joys consume their prime;
Some fav’rite maid, or handy young coquette,
Steals the rich prize you vainly strive to get;
Of them be cautious; but the artful prude
Watch most, for she will thoughtless girls delude;
At break of Day when you have often mourn’d
Your tender billet-doux, unread, return’d,
And thought some happier rival in the place
When you expected the long-wish’d embrace;
Your lovely nymph, in private, quench’d her flame
With some experienc’d, well-known, crafty dame,
Who knew the softest way to reach her heart,
And proudly vy’d with nature in her art.
(Much later in the poem, Sappho arrives to save the day.)
“CEASE, cease she cries, your needless search suspend,
“Well vers’d in love, let me the conflict end;
“A curious artist that thro’ nature pry’d,
“Has ev’ry wish our hearts could form supply’d;
“He gives us man without the plague of males,
“Which will untired remain when nature fails;
“The conscious blush must rise whene’er I think
“What arts we use when drooping standards sink;
“In vain the lily hand with genial fire
“Strives with fresh heat the mortals to inspire;
“When round their limbs robust we gently twine,
“And fondly hope to make the centers join;
“Repugnant to our joys, the Ruler, dead,
“Hangs like a fading flow’r its livid head;
“Nor can our heaving breasts new strength excite,
“The darting tongue no longer can invite;
“When we to rushing joy go boldly on,
“Supine and indolent they tumble down;
“Baulk’d in our bliss, we to reproaches fly,
“And noise and tumult for kind signs supply;
“No more we clasp him in our tender arms,
“No more his colder breast our bosom warms;
“Who then such frail felicity wou’d trust,
“Or value those imperfect efforts most;
“When solid joys are always at command,
“And court the pressure of your eager hand?
“For this the burnish’d iv’ry rears its head,
“Waiting for coral of a lovely red;
“Or if too rude the polish’d engine seems,
“The velvet cov’ring keeps it from extremes;
“Its shape compleat, nor can ye aught despise,
“For to your choice they shall adapt the size.
…SHE said, and with a more majestic Mien
Produc’d at once the wonderful Machine.
Not more the Greeks rejoic’d when Ilium’s Fate,
Which on its stol’n Palladium did await,
The sly Ulysses cautiously drew out
And charm’d the wond’ring chiefs and vulgar rout.
…WITH rapture all beheld it, and applause
In Io’s loud, the silent image draws.
Immediate trial is the next demand,
The trial claims a gently trembling hand;
Kind Sappho soon administers her aid,
And drives the dart into the yielding maid.
Fond of the scheme they strive t’improve its use,
And each will the most pleasing method chuse.
The poem continues on at some length and ends by suggesting that the use of such implements damages the health and those who use it will end in regret.
Another poem “Monsieur Thing’s Origin” published in 1722 has similar underlying themes, if fewer classical allusions. It personifies the dildo as a foreign lover, bringing new sexual practices to England (and spreading them throughout the world). You may be amused that when Monsieur Thing first arrives in London, he finds lodgings at a “toy shop” in Covent Garden. There is a series of anecdotes describing various categories of women using the device, though only one anecdote involves a female couple. I’ve only included this excerpt from the poem. The reference to “two cows playing in a field” suggests that the author was familiar with same-sex mounting behavior in domestic animals.
Anonymous “Monsieur Thing’s Origin” (1722)
(Included in Castle, McCormick.)
Clear as Monsieur was, and free to range
Hs tour he took towards the Great Exchange;
Ingratiated himself into the favor
Of milliners, by’s complaisant behavior;
He pitch’d his tent between two partners
Indeed he took them not for to be whores
But like two cows a playing in a field,
While the one rid, the other seemed to yield;
This was itself complete encouragement,
To show what they’d be at, and their intent
Fully explain’d what it was that they meant.
One of these girls tied Monsieur to her middle,
To try if she the secret could unriddle;
She acted man, being in a merry mood,
Striving to please her partner as she cou’d;
And thus they took it in their turns to please
Their lustful inclinations to appease.
The Triumph of Love
But now it’s time to turn away from bawdy satire to conclude our poetic tour with the triumph of love. Many of the poems in the romantic friendship genre might easily fit here. I’ve chosen a work by one member of perhaps the most famous female couple in 18th century England: Sarah Ponsonby, the junior member of the Ladies of Llangollen. The poem, dated 1789, is simply titled “Song”. Although the poem contrasts “vulgar eros” with “love,” the sense of being overpowered by desire is reminiscent of Sappho’s work.
Sarah Ponsonby “Song” (1789)
(Included in Donoghue.)
By vulgar Eros long misled,
I call’d thee tyrant, mighty Love!
With idle fear my fancy fled
Nor e’en thy pleasures wish to prove.
Condemn’d at length to wear thy chains,
Trembling I felt and ow’d thy might;
But soon I found my fears were vain,
Soon hugged my chain and found it light.
A tour through various poems of the 18th century that touch of different aspects of love between women.
In this episode we talk about:
Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online
Links to Heather Online