- Don Leon & Leon to Annabella ed. by John Lauritsen
Pornographic, Byronic, scatological, blasphemous, censored . . . why does no one read Don Leon?
The Victorians did, and Lord Byron exerted a powerful spell on Victorian writers. In The Picture of Dorian Gray, for example, when Dorian retreats to Nottinghamshire, “entertaining the fashionable young men of his own rank,” Oscar Wilde is paying tribute Byron’s home (where, no doubt, Byron entertained his own crop of fashionable young men at New-stead Abbey). John Lauritsen has re-issued this classic, composed in the 1820s or 1830s, but not published until the Victorian period, in 1866. In his Introduction, he briefly explores authorship (coming down on the side of Byron as one of the co-authors among a veritable “gay think tank” but preferring to refer to “the Leon poet”), the various manuscripts, and the work’s relevance.
What is Don Leon about? The epic poem surveys the attractions of a high-class (“patrician”) male, including a choirboy (alluding to Byron’s relationship with John Edlestone, who died prematurely); rehearses standard validations of same-sex desire (Anacreon, Plato, Socrates, Plutarch, Horace, Catullus, but also Christian examples, real and literary); recounts travels in search of sexual enlightenment; proffers an argument for homosexuality as a remedy against overpopulation; and hammers home the misery of sodomites: “The panic flight, the suicidal beam, / The knife, the bullet, do they trifles seem?” (998–99). The narrator couples this with the hypocrisy of justice:
“Thou ermined judge, pull off that sable cap!What! Cans’t thou lie, and take thy morning nap?Peep through the casement; see the gallows there:Thy work hangs on it; could not mercy spare?”(1–4) [End Page 105]
At one point, Leon’s wife Annabella, privy to her husband’s tale, asks: “Can man with man hold intercourse of love, / And mar the ends designed by God above?” (1134–44). (Later, as we read in Leon to Annabella, she will leave him because of too much a tergo intercourse during her pregnancy, another way of marring God’s ways.) This is clearly a set up, to which the narrator replies:
“God of the universe, whose laws shall last,When Lords and Commons to their graves have past,Are good and evil, just as man opines,And kens he thy inscrutable designs?”(1401–05)
This most radical argument (for Byron’s time) juxtaposes man-made laws with a higher power, typical in Victorian writers—for example, as in Wilde’s poignant “It is no doubt true that to be filled with an absorbing passion is to surrender the security of one’s lower life, and yet in such surrender there may be gain” (“The Portrait of Mr. W. H.”).
About sixty pages of notes (in the original) follow. They explain contemporary references, such as the Bishop of Clogher, who was indicted for unnatural crime but fled to Scotland, where he died incognito twenty years later. There is the scandalous William Beck-ford, author of Vathek, art collector, Member of Parliament, who got away with sodomy (and pedophilia) because he was filthy rich but who was confined to his fabulous estate of Fonthill Abbey. A similar case involves another Member of Parliament, caught with his breeches down in the company of a soldier, who was tried behind doors and acquitted on the testimony of the Duke of Wellington and other character witnesses (after a repeat arrest, he disappeared from society). We find a perceptive observation that legal contracts tend to be very detailed, while one or two verses in the Scriptures have been taken to condemn gay people to eternal hellfire. Another sentence reads like a spot-on description of Byron: “It does not follow as a natural consequence that pæderasts are mysogynists [sic], or that a culpable indulgence in inclinations for the one sex argues an insensibility to the charms of the other” (63). Finally, the annotator lists the usual suspects in his literary defense of homosexuality—Petronius, Juvenal, Lucian, Shakespeare’s sonnets, even Dante’s sympathetic treatment...