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After the Supreme Court refused to review its December decision to recriminalize sex “against the order of nature", on 28 January, the Delhi-based poet and author Vikram Seth published a poem—a simple, bipartite reflection on natural love and unnatural crimes.

Seth has spoken out before against Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a clause dealing with “unnatural offences", but this time he did it in verse. In a note alongside the poem, the author emphasized that it could be used, disseminated or published anywhere without his permission. In doing so he joins a long tradition of poetic discourse on homosexual love that stretches from the ancients, through William Shakespeare and the Renaissance poets, past the gay liberation movement of the 1960s, till the present day.

Seth’s 12 lines of iambic tetrameter, Through Love’s Great Power, is a political poem, in that it addresses the specific language used by the judges to defend Section 377, but it’s also personal in its observations about joy, and public in its discussion of justice and the rights of the weak:

Through love’s great power to be made whole

In mind and body, heart and soul—

Through freedom to find joy, or be

By dint of joy itself set free

In love and in companionhood:

This is the true and natural good.

To undo justice, and to seek

To quash the rights that guard the weak—

To sneer at love, and wrench apart

The bonds of body, mind and heart

With specious reason and no rhyme:

This is the true unnatural crime.

The canon of homosexual love poetry can, superficially, be split into two groups: the political and the private. The first group points out the hypocrisy of society’s distinction between different kinds of love, as either pure or shameful. For example, Two Loves by Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover, ends with the well-known euphemism, “I am the love that dare not speak its name," quoted by the judge at Wilde’s 1895 trial, before sentencing him to two years’ imprisonment for “gross indecency". Wilde’s own poem, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, written in exile, attacks the same double standards:

Some love too little, some too long,

Some sell, and others buy;

Some do the deed with many tears,

And some without a sigh:

For each man kills the thing he loves,

Yet each man does not die.

He does not die a death of shame

On a day of dark disgrace,

Nor have a noose about his neck,

Nor a cloth upon his face.

The second group comprises more intimate and personal declarations of love, often addressed to a sleeping or absent lover. These poems, which need not necessarily be read as “gay" love poetry in that they deal with universal human insecurities and fears about love, nevertheless often lament the fragility of a relationship, or the impossibility of declaring it, as in Emily Dickinson’s verses to her sister-in-law Susan.

Many are mistakenly thought to be about heterosexual love, W.H. Auden’s consummate Lullaby, for example, a poem that celebrates the tangible and immediate body of a lover, over abstract conceptions and lofty ideals:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human, on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.

Lullaby is a haunting poem however you read it, but it’s hard to appreciate the subtlety of its defensiveness and desperate plea for seclusion, unless you know that Auden was gay, and writing about a male lover.

Gertrude Stein’s Two Love Notes to Alice B. Toklas is effusive:

Dear dainty delicious darling, dear

sweet selected (enemifier?) of my soul

dear beloved baby dear everything

to me when this you see you will

have slept long and will be warm

and completely (loudly?) loved by

me dear wifey, (your?) baby


Walt Whitman is more solemn in his enjoyment of a happiness he knows is temporary in When I Heard at the Close of the Day:

And that night while all was still I heard the waters roll slowly continually up the shores,

I heard the hissing rustle of the liquid and sands as directed to me whispering to congratulate me,

For the one I love most lay sleeping by me under the same cover in the cool night,

In the stillness in the autumn moonbeams his face was inclined toward me,

And his arm lay lightly around my breast—and that night I was happy.

Frank O’Hara’s poems are charactertistically jubilant and acidic about his successful or, more often, his failed relationships. But they allude to a wider dissatisfaction with what it means to be gay in the New York of the 1950s and 1960s. O’Hara was not strictly a “homosexual". He wrote about being in bed with men and women, but he despised the rigidity of the terms that define sexuality. “Heterosexuality! you are inexorably approaching. (How discourage her?)" He just loved and hated people indiscriminately—if anyone fits the term “gay" it was he.

From the joyful scramble of Steps:

oh god it’s wonderful to get out of bed

and drink too much coffee

and smoke too many cigarettes

and love you so much

to his plaintive Meditations in an Emergency:

Why should I share you?

Why don’t you get rid of someone else for a change?

I am the least difficult of men.

All I want is boundless love.

O’Hara could be spaniel-like in his devotion, but implicit in his demand for “boundless love" is a sense of more than one kind of restriction.

Some poets bridge this rather crude distinction between political and private. Federico García Lorca, for one. Lorca was assassinated in 1936 by Spanish Nationalists, some claim for his liberal views and sexual orientation. In his sonnet, Love Sleeps in the Poet’s Heart, he furiously attacks the rest of the world for intruding on his feelings:

You’ll never understand my love for you,

because you dream inside me, fast asleep.

I hide you, persecuted though you weep,

from the penetrating steel voice of truth.

Normalcy stirs both flesh and blinding star,

and pierces even my despairing heart.

Confusing reasoning has eaten out

the wings on which your spirit fiercely soared.

Seth’s simple observation is that love’s power, whatever its orientation, is to make a person whole. Without it we are incomplete, as A.E. Housman mourned in a tragic little quatrain on unrequited love:

He would not stay for me and who can wonder?

He would not stay for me to stand and gaze.

I shook his hand, and tore my heart in sunder,

And went with half my life about my ways.

Well before his time, however, Whitman imagined a more hopeful future in his Song of the Open Road:

Camerado, I give you my hand!

I give you my love more precious than money,

I give you myself before preaching or law;

Will you give me yourself?

Will you come travel with me?

Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

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