July 11, 1977 (a Monday)

The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name

By James Kirkup

Christ blessing - Raphael, 1506.

‘Christ Blessing’ – Raphael, 1506.

As they took him from the cross
I, the centurion, took him in my arms–
the tough lean body
of a man no longer young,
beardless, breathless,
but well hung.

He was still warm.
While they prepared the tomb
I kept guard over him.
His mother and the Magdalen
had gone to fetch clean linen
to shroud his nakedness.

I was alone with him.
For the last time
I kissed his mouth. My tongue
found his, bitter with death.
I licked his wound-
the blood was harsh

For the last time
I laid my lips around the tip
of that great cock, the instrument
of our salvation, our eternal joy.
The shaft, still throbbed, anointed
with death’s final ejaculation.

 Christ at the Column - Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Il Sodoma), 1514.

‘Christ at the Column’ – Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Il Sodoma), 1514.

I knew he’d had it off with other men-
with Herod’s guards, with Pontius Pilate,
With John the Baptist, with Paul of Tarsus
with foxy Judas, a great kisser, with
the rest of the Twelve, together and apart.
He loved all men, body, soul and spirit – even me.

So now I took off my uniform, and, naked,
lay together with him in his desolation,
caressing every shadow of his cooling flesh,
hugging him and trying to warm him back to life.
Slowly the fire in his thighs went out,
while I grew hotter with unearthly love.

It was the only way I knew to speak our love’s proud name,
to tell him of my long devotion, my desire, my dread-
something we had never talked about. My spear, wet with blood,
his dear, broken body all open wounds,
and in each wound his side, his back,
his mouth – I came and came and came

as if each coming was my last.
And then the miracle possessed us.
I felt him enter into me, and fiercely spend
his spirit’s final seed within my hole, my soul,
pulse upon pulse, unto the ends of the earth-
he crucified me with him into kingdom come.

Christ at the Column - Donato Bramante,  c. 1490.

‘Christ at the Column’ – Donato Bramante, c. 1490.

-This is the passionate and blissful crucifixion
same-sex lovers suffer, patiently and gladly.
They inflict these loving injuries of joy and grace
one upon the other, till they die of lust and pain
within the horny paradise of one another’s limbs,
with one voice cry to heaven in a last divine release.

Then lie long together, peacefully entwined, with hope
of resurrection, as we did, on that green hill far away.
But before we rose again, they came and took him from me.
They knew what we had done, but felt
no shame or anger. Rather they were glad for us,
and blessed us, as would he, who loved all men.

And after three long, lonely days, like years,
in which I roamed the gardens of my grief
seeking for him, my one friend who had gone from me,
he rose from sleep, at dawn, and showed himself to me before
all others. And took me to him with
the love that now forever dares to speak its name.

Zen stones

'Gay News' issue #96, dated 3 June 1976.

‘Gay News’ issue #96, dated 3 June 1976.

The above poem alluding to Jesus Christ and same-sex attraction was published, along with a drawing by the illustrator Tony Reeves, on page 26 of issue 96 dated 3 June 1976 of the British periodical Gay News. It expresses the fictional love of a Roman Centurion for Jesus and describes him having sex with the Christ’s crucified body. It also suggests Jesus had sex with Pontius Pilate, the disciples, and John the Baptist.

In early November 1976, a certain Mary Whitehouse obtained a copy of the poem and construed it as blasphemous. She announced her intention to bring a private prosecution against the magazine under the Blasphemy Act of 1697. Under Section 8 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act of 1888, intended to protect newspapers from vexatious litigation, this required the leave of a judge in chambers. Leave to bring this prosecution was granted on 9 December 1976. The charges named Gay News Ltd and Denis Lemon as the publishers. A charge against Moore Harness Ltd for distributing was subsequently dropped.

The indictment described the offending publication as “a blasphemous libel concerning the Christian religion, namely an obscene poem and illustration vilifying Christ in his life and in his crucifixion”. The Gay News Fighting Fund was set up in December 1976. Judge Alan King-Hamilton QC heard the trial at the Old Bailey on 4 July 1977, with John Mortimer QC and Geoffrey Robertson representing the accused and John Smyth representing Mary Whitehouse.

'The Dead Christ' - Andrea Mantegna, 1480.

‘The Dead Christ’ – Andrea Mantegna, 1480.

Prosecuting Counsel John Smyth told the court: “It may be said that this is a love poem — it is not, it is a poem about buggery.” The defense argued that far from being “vile” and “perverted” the poem glorified Christ by illustrating that all of mankind could love him. During the six-day trial columnist and TV personality Bernard Levin and novelist Margaret Drabble testified that the Gay News was a responsible paper that did not encourage illegal sexual practices.

On Monday, 11 July 1977, the jury gave their 10-2 guilty verdict in the case of Whitehouse v. Lemon. Gay News Ltd was fined £1,000. Denis Lemon was fined £500 and sentenced to nine months imprisonment suspended. It had been “touch and go”, said the judge, whether he would actually send Denis Lemon to jail.

Mary Whitehouse’s costs of £7,763 were ordered to be paid four-fifths by Gay News Ltd and one-fifth by Lemon. Gay News Ltd and Denis Lemon appealed against conviction and sentence. On 17 March 1978, the Court of Appeal quashed Denis Lemon’s suspended prison sentence but upheld the convictions. Gay News readers voted by a majority of 20 to 1 in favor of appealing to the House of Lords. The Law Lords heard the appeal against conviction and delivered their judgment on 21 February 1979. At issue was whether or not the offense of blasphemous libel required specific intent of committing such a blasphemy. The Lords concluded that intention was not required. The appeal was lost.

Man of Sorrows - Maarten van Heemskerck, 1532.  The artist has depicted Christ with an erection, which according to some scholars' interpretation, is a symbol of his resurrection and lifelong power.

‘Man of Sorrows’ – Maarten van Heemskerck, 1532. The artist has depicted Christ with an erection, which according to some scholars’ interpretation is a symbol of his resurrection and lifelong power.

The European Commission of Human Rights declared the case inadmissible to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights on 7 May 1982. The £26,435 raised by the Gay News Fighting Fund through benefits and donations from the gay community and others, including a £500 donation from Monty Python, was sufficient to cover the costs of the trial and appeals.

On 11 July 2002, a deliberate and well-publicized public reading of the poem took place on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square in central London, but failed to lead to any prosecution. Police officers surrounded the campaigners as a collection of people opposed to the reading attempted to shout as loud as they could to prevent anyone from hearing. The protest passed off without any incidents, with campaigners arguing for blasphemy laws to be scrapped. “We have won an important victory for free speech and the right to protest”, declared human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. The author, James Falconer Kirkup, at the time 84, criticized campaigners because he did not want the poem to be used for “political ends”.

For years, publishing this poem was illegal in the UK, although the poem was and is widely available on the Internet. Whitehouse v. Lemon was the last prosecution for blasphemy in the UK. Britain’s ancient laws of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, which made it illegal to insult Christianity, were finally abolished by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act of 2008.

'Saint Sebastian' - Guido Reni, 1615, currently at Palazzo Russo in Genoa.

‘Saint Sebastian’ – Guido Reni, 1615, currently at Palazzo Russo in Genoa.

The scandal “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name” provoked was out of all proportion to any offense it might have caused to believing Christians, just as the celebrity it achieved was out of all proportion to any merit it might have enjoyed as literature. The poem would probably have been read by only a few hundred people, and perhaps largely forgotten, if it were not for the publicity of the trial.

The poem’s lack of originality is apparent from its title, which is not merely an inverted cliché but one that is a reference to the famous poem by Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), “Two Loves“, which was itself a reference to the Shakespeare sonnet #144, also named “Two Loves.” The imagery of Kirkup’s poem is relentlessly shocking, from the opening verse where we read that the dead Christ has “the tough, lean body of a man no longer young, beardless, breathless, but well hung” to the fifth verse, an enumeration of Christ’s sexual partners (although it clearly is not pornographic because it is not obscene simply for the sake of obscenity). The mention of Paul is particularly inane, since Paul never met Christ and many Christians suspect that his message might have been very different if he had. Moreover, Kirkup betrays his ignorance of the gospel story by leaving out the most likely candidate for “the disciple whom Jesus loved”: Saint John.

Central figures in Bernini's 'Ecstasy of Saint Teresa'.

Central figures in Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’.

Yet, much classic religious art has always been intensely erotic, whether it be Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastian, which was a favorite painting of both Oscar Wilde and Yukio Mishima, or Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, a sculpture which depicts a truth evident to any open-minded reader of the story of Teresa of Avila: that her “raptures” are essentially orgasmic. The two central figures of the swooning nun and the angel with the spear derive from an episode described by the mystical cloistered Discalced Carmelite reformer and nun in her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus (1515–1582). In the passage, she describes being pierced by a seraphim’s spear: “In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with the love of God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it.”

It was a pity that the furor overshadowed Kirkup’s other achievements as a poet and writer, which were considerable. His poem “No More Hiroshimas” [archived here] is particularly moving.

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