Image: The Shelley Memorial at University College, Oxford (Univ). Photograph Jenner Collins, 2006
[Note: the following entry is repeated in the On the Wilde Side Queer Oxford trail]
Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) was expelled from Univ in 1811, along with his close friend Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862), for circulating a paper on atheism. Shelley’s homoeroticism has only recently been acknowledged as an important dynamic in his life and work. As is so often the case, historians are thwarted by deliberate attempts to hide the facts of sexual nonconformity in the lives of famous figures. After the poet’s early death, Shelley’s translation of Plato’s Symposium—which included an essay on same-sex desire among the ancient Greeks—was mutilated by his widow Mary who wanted to bring it in line with Victorian standards of morality. She changed ‘men’ to ‘human beings’ and ‘love’ to ‘friendship’ and truncated the Alcibiades episode. Many other letters and manuscripts that may have given us greater insight into Percy Shelley’s eroticism are also known to have been purposefully destroyed. Thankfully, some have survived, including a letter that expresses the depth of love that he had for Thomas Hogg whom Shelley referred to as ‘the brother of my soul’. Shelley wrote:
You have chosen me, and we are inseparable. …Are you not he whom I love…? …If I thought we were to be long parted, I should be wretchedly miserable-half-mad! …Will you come; will you share my fortunes, enter into my schemes, love me as I love you, be inseparable, as once I fondly hoped we were? …Oh! How I have loved you! I was even ashamed to tell you how!
The College authorities at Univ recognised the great poet’s importance with the Shelley Memorial, created by the English sculptor Edward Onslow Ford (1852-1901) and housed in a specially built enclosure designed by Basil Champneys. It was inaugurated on 14 June 1893. The monument was commissioned by Shelley’s daughter-in-law, Lady (Jane) Shelley, and was originally intended for the Protestant Cemetery in Rome where the poet’s ashes were interred after he was tragically drowned at sea during a storm on 8 July 1822, less than a month before his thirtieth birthday (his body was cremated in accordance with quarantine laws). The statue, however, was too large for the site and so Lady Shelley offered it to Univ where it was duly accepted, although from the outset there was a marked lack of enthusiasm for the provocative artistic tropes of the object.
Gloriously ambiguous in a number of ways, the languid figure of the drowned poet lies on a marble slab supported by two winged lions. The muses of poetry stand close by.
Onslow Ford, a leading light of the ‘New Sculpture Movement’, created the statue precisely at the time when modernist writers and artists—including several of Oxford’s leading queer avant-gardes such as John Addington Symonds, Algernon Swinburne, and Oscar Wilde—were refashioning Shelley’s life and writings to reflect their profound interest in Greek classicism. Shelley’s memory, his Hellenism, and, in depictions such as Onslow Ford’s monument, his body were used as conduits for modernists to evoke the classical world. Onslow Ford purposefully evokes the visual idiom of the classical male nude with all its homoerotic potentialities, depicting the dead poet naked even though it was documented that Shelley’s body had washed up on the shore clothed. The figure is also decidedly androgynous, echoing a common trope in depictions of Shelley (it has been suggested that Onslow Ford used a young woman as a model, although his son claimed that it had been him). As such, the statue is iconic of the aesthetics and sexual politics of late-Victorian Hellenism, a situation which has only been fully appreciated in recent years.
The housing of the monument in an all-male environment undoubtedly exacerbated the queer tensions of the piece (Univ only accepted female undergraduates from 1979). It has long been the butt of student jokes and pranks, variously being adorned with lipstick and a wig, having its toenails varnished blue, and its enclosure filled with water and goldfish (to name just a few of the japes that the marble Shelley has endured through the years). The power of the piece to raise eyebrows is nicely captured in an amusing, but disparaging, poem titled ‘At Shelley’s Memorial’, published in The Isis on 31 January 1914 (attributed only to ‘J. A. M.’):
Is this our old friend, Percy Bysshe,
Described with such technique and vigour?
Can you not hear the very swish
Of waves against his Attic figure?
How marvellous! What could be Greeker?
I wonder what would Percy Bysshe do
If he could see his fair replica
Stuck on a pedestal with fish-glue!
The College that had sent him down
Raised in his memory this excrescence,
Behold he lies, sans cap, sans gown,
A useless lump of opalescence.
And guileless youths, who come to gloat
On Shelley’s death, begin to shiver,
Get meningitis in the throat
And fatal chills upon the liver.
And there he lies, unique, obscene,
Open to what interpretation?
His face so perfect, so serene,
Fills me with endless irritation.
Stain on the University,
O blot upon its fair escutcheon!
I’d like to smack you where you lie!
And, you know, you’ve not got much on.
Another poem, published in The Isis in the edition dated 4 May 1915, is more serious, but still conveys the passionate feelings evoked by the statue:
TO THE SHELLEY MEMORIAL.
White listless cold recumbent marble form;
White piteous proud ethereal drowned face;
Shelly, thou liest in such sovereign grace
That we can nigh forgive the Spezzian storm
Which reft theeof that witful vivid warm
Enkindling soul, whereunto time and space
Were bonds intolerable and in place
Of breath abnormal gave thee death for norm.
Here in this azure-vaulted calm retreat
Death seems so restful. Shelley,—seems so sweet;
Fearfully therefore, lest it come amiss
That one as I unworthy should do this,
I stoop and leave upon thy marble feet
(Behold) the reverent tribute of a kiss.
Thankfully, more recent authorities have salvaged the work from critical obscurity and today the Shelley Memorial is recognised as a masterpiece of late-Victorian sculpture.
Stephen Spender (1909–1995) attended Univ although he left without taking a degree. Later, in 1973, he was made an honorary fellow of the College. A fascinating account of his life and loves at Oxford can be found in his autobiography World Within World (1951). A poet, novelist, and essayist who concentrated on themes of social injustice and the class struggle in his work, Spender was appointed the seventeenth Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the United States Library of Congress in 1965. Spender’s sexuality has been the subject of debate. His seemingly changing attitudes have caused him to be labelled bisexual, repressed, or simply someone so complex as to resist easy labelling. Many of his friends in his earlier years were gay. Spender himself certainly had many affairs with men, most notably with Tony Hyndman. His marriage to Natasha Litvin in 1941 seems to have marked the end of his homoerotic relationships. Subsequently, he toned down homoerotic allusions in later editions of his poetry.
Celebrated theatre critic, playwright, singer, and author Eric Bentley (b. 1916) is another graduate of Univ. As a theatre critic for The New Republic in the 1950s, Bentley became known for his blunt style of criticism. Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller threatened to sue him for his unfavourable criticisms of their work (they abandoned the attempt). Bentley came out as a gay-identified man in 1969, citing his sexuality as an influence in his theatre work. His queerest play is Lord Alfred’s Lover (1981) which is about the tumultuous relationship between Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. In 1998 Bentley was inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame. He is Univ’s oldest living alumnus.
Radio and television presenter and ‘Professor of Pop’ Paul Gambaccini (b. 1949) studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Univ. Having left Oxford Gambaccini was considering further study in Law at Harvard or Yale but had the opportunity of writing for Rolling Stone magazine as British correspondent. He attributes his broadcasting career to this post and especially an interview in 1973 with Elton John which brought him to the attention of BBC Radio producer John Walters who arranged for him to present on BBC Radio 1. Gambaccini has subsequently worked widely in British radio and television, mainly in relation to music, films, and the arts. He can be heard presenting his weekly America’s Greatest Hits show on Saturday evenings on BBC Radio 2.
Gambaccini came out as gay during the 1980s and has been a strong supporter of LGBT-related charities. In 1995, he was named Philanthropist of the Year by the National Charity Fundraisers for his work on behalf of the Terrence Higgins Trust. He has since returned to Oxford as the News International Visiting Professor of Broadcast Media, delivering a series of lectures in January and February 2009.
Paul Gambaccini writes for Queer Oxford:
My Oxford years were the most important of my life. They also were the most painful. Michelmas term was fine. A keen cyclist, I took in the delights of the city and its surrounds as far as Woodstock and Cowley. The winter was another story. Having been denied an audition at BBC Radio Oxford on the grounds that I was an American and would take the job of a British person, I felt unemployed at the age of twenty-one. While at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire I had worked for four years as a DJ, interviewer and station executive at the largest US radio station run by students. After glorious winters at Dartmouth, capped by 120 inches of snowfall from November 1969 to April 1970, I endured three months of drizzle in Oxford. A two-month postal strike cut me off from almost all friends and relatives back home.
My greatest suffering, however, was emotional. In March 1971, I placed a call to my successor as head of the radio station at Dartmouth. The previous night at the annual station dinner he, too, had been succeeded. I was truly gone from everything that had meant most to me, my friends and the radio station. I experienced what literally is “that sinking feeling”. I realized I had unintentionally changed countries. I intuitively knew I was a solo immigrant.
So began an eighteen-month period of profound sadness and great anxiety. I had lost all the people I had loved in the first 21 years of my life—remember, there was no internet in 1971 and expensive international phone calls had to be booked through the porter’s lodge. I had no idea how I would spend the rest of my life and could not work in radio, my greatest source of happiness.
Enter the key individual in this period of my life, David Burgess. He was both Chaplain and Domestic Bursar of University College, single-handedly managing what belonged to both God and Caesar. In 2008 another Univ old member, Bill Clinton, said to me “David Burgess must be some kind of saint”, and so say all of us. He brought many of us through individually unique but equally distressing crises. Burgess made it possible for me to take a year off, recover from my shock and start over. With David’s help I made University College the pivot point of my life, entering an American student and exiting a national broadcaster. The generous spirit of my college provided me the opportunity to literally change my life.
What does this have to do with gays and lesbians at Oxford? From the above account, the answer should be simple: nothing. There was no gay life at the university in the early seventies. No society existed to offer us solace in our essential loneliness. I knew of no same sex couple in the university. More—or less—than that, I did not know of any gay or lesbian student at any college. Furthermore, there were not, to my knowledge, any gay pubs or clubs in the city. At the time of life when we were emotionally most vulnerable and physically at our sexual peak, we had nowhere to turn. We were forced to rely on ourselves until we could move into a wider world where, thank God, other gay people did exist. My ordeal did not kill me and thus made me stronger, but I would not wish it upon anyone else.
Now re-read Neil Bartlett’s foreword. Neil came up in 1977. His experience was utterly different to mine. The student gay society had been founded in 1975, one year too late for me but just in time for him. Share his joy and discover your own. The opportunities to find yourself and be yourself are infinitely greater than they were 35 years ago. I’m happy for you, but I have to admit something. I envy you so much.
One of Britain’s leading HIV/AIDS campaigners, Ian Kramer (1956-2006), read Classics at Univ in the mid-1970s. In 1976 he was a member of the College’s Series Champions team on University Challenge. Kramer’s fight against HIV/AIDS was tireless. He served as vice-chair of the UK Coalition of People Living with HIV/AIDS, co-chair of the European Network of Positive People, a member of the board of the Global Network of Positive People, and sat on the Department of Health’s steering committee for the National Strategy for Sexual Health and HIV.
Gay-identified journalist and internet entrepreneur Nick Denton (b. 1966) also studied at Univ. After working as a journalist with the Financial Times, he co-founded the social networking site First Tuesday and co-founded Moreover Technologies.
© Ross Brooks, 2020