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three pairs of lovers with space


Early-20th-century reactions to the theme of boy love in the poetry of E. E. Bradford

C. Caunter, May 2023


Our society’s take on attraction and relationships between minors and older minors or adults has been characterised by moral panic for so long now that it may be hard to imagine that attitudes were ever different. Notions about more tolerant times often reach back all the way to ancient Greece. In fact, we need not go far back in time, or even leave the Anglosphere, to find attitudes that were substantially different from today’s frantic hostility. Putting to one side the fact that girls have tended throughout history to be married much younger than today (and not infrequently to males older than them), the love between boys and men, too, was seen in a much more forgiving light not that long ago.

Bradford E.E. in Paris 1897 or 1898
E. E. Bradford in Paris, 1897 or 1898

As a case study, let’s look at some reviews of poetry collections by English writer Edwin Emmanuel Bradford (1860-1944). Between 1908 and 1930, the notable London firm of Kegan Paul published twelve volumes of his astoundingly frank boy-love poetry. These were widely advertised and reviewed in England, Scotland and Ireland, including in the most prominent newspapers and journals. Bradford’s effusions could not be mistaken either for the mere nostalgic celebration of boyhood or for attraction to adult males, with such lines as:

‘my child-lover thrills [my body] with a kiss’

‘Most men in Woman find the fair ideal: / While some delight / In sober Manhood’s wisdom, courage, might. / But how few kneel // Before the little shrine of Boyhood bright!’

‘If he loved, he’d love a lad, / So he says. / Not a chap as old as dad, / So he says’

‘Alexander Fergusson: / Why, what a name it is! / A mouthful for a bigger one, / I’ll warrant you, than his; / For his is such a little one— / About the size of this. / But though it is a little one / It’s big enough to kiss.’

‘at length, he stood in naked pride, / A boy in beauty, but a man in might’

‘The mere word “carnal” shall not me affright; / Nor will I cease, in Puritans’ despite, / To love the boyish body with the sprite, / And hymn it too.’

‘O then the boy’s my own, / Heart soul and body mine, and mine alone!’

Even if one is aware that the demonisation of friendship and sex between boys and older boys or men only began to take its current shape well after Bradford’s lifetime, it might be supposed that British critics a century ago would have been scandalised by such lines (if only for their expression of same-sex desire), and would have urged the publisher to desist from giving the poet a platform. The excerpts below demonstrate that their actual response was very different. Some had no beef with boy love as the central and explicit theme of Bradford’s oeuvre. Others were less enthused, but very measured in the way they voiced their reservations.

Bradford generally received fulsome praise in his lifetime, whereas more recent commentators have more often been dismissive of his poetry (and disparaging of its theme) and of the ‘Uranian’ school of boy-love poets more broadly. However, the point here is not to show how splendid, middling or dreadful a poet Bradford has been considered to be. The purpose of this compilation is to give an impression of early-20th-century reactions specifically to the theme of boy love in his poetry. I cite all such reactions I have found, whether positive, negative or neutral, giving only the relevant passages. It will be seen that reviewers often referred to Plato and – without providing further explanation – to Platonic love, friendship or fancies. ‘Platonic’ seems to have served as a euphemism for male-male (or man-youth) romance and sexual attraction at least as much as referring to the spiritual, ideal form of love described by Plato. Another frequently used term, ‘friendship’, was a euphemism implying not just friendship but also romantic love and sexual relationships.

Bradford. My Love Is Like All Lovely Things front cover

An essay on Bradford’s life and work, including a discussion of both contemporary and later views on his theme of boy love, is contained in a new anthology from Arcadian Dreams: My Love Is Like All Lovely Things: Selected Poems of E. E. Bradford.

‘Friendship between man and man, and even more, the friendship between man and youths, form the theme of many of Dr Bradford’s poems. He is as alive to the beauty of unsullied youth as was Plato.’
The Westminster Review on Passing the Love of Women and Other Poems (1913), as cited in In Quest of Love and Other Poems.

‘In Passing the Love of Women, the title of his new book of verse, the Rev. E. E. Bradford, D.D., enriches the poetry of friendship by a very generous contribution. Each of the forty or more of the poems deals with the form of love the copyright of which is attributed, more or less accurately, to Plato. Nearly every poet worthy of the name has devoted at least one poem to this among other subjects, but with Dr. Bradford, apparently, there are no other subjects.’
Vivian Carter, ‘Thoughts on Things Read’. The Bystander, 2 April 1913, p. 42.

The following excerpt makes mention of the poem ‘Rudolf’, which includes the lines ‘Boys’ lips were never framed for eloquence: / But one I know makes better use of his / When none are near to spy!’

‘The author’s three charming stanzas to “Rudolf,” and a lyric entitled “Narcissus,” stand from the rest, more effective in their simplicity than some of the classical, ambitious verses.’
‘Passing the Love of Women, and Other Poems.’ The Academy: a Weekly Review of Literature, Learning, Science and Art, Vol. 84, January-June 1913.

‘It seems to us that the keynote of the collection is to be found in the story, here rendered in felicitous verse, of Jupiter and Ganymede, namely, that man’s love for a man, or a youth, is something higher and necessarily more pure than man’s love for woman; it is a delicate theme and we are by no means satisfied with its treatment in the easy flowing lines of Rev. Mr. Bradford.’
‘Passing the Love of Women.’ The Catholic Times and Catholic Opinion, 9 May 1913, p. 3.

‘Mr. Bradford extols “Platonic” love between males to the deprecation of that love which “bards call Desire and Schoolmen Lust.” […] Of “the love of women” the author is ostensibly not qualified to judge, as the above quotations should show; but the verses on individual boys (bathing or otherwise) have occasional charm. […] As for his point of view, he might open his eyes if we told him all we thought about it.’
‘Passing the Love of Women, and Other Poems.’ In Harold Monro (ed.) (1913), Poetry and Drama. Volume I, London: The Poetry Bookshop, p. 256.

‘In a number of skilfully-turned poems—some reminiscent of the sixteenth-century manner—he sings the praises of Platonic love and the charms of boyhood.’
The Western Daily Press (Bristol) on Passing the Love of Women and Other Poems (1913), as cited in In Quest of Love and Other Poems.

‘Dr. Bradford is already the author of a volume of verse similar in tone and construction to this one, entitled Passing the Love of Women. We cannot pretend to admire either the peculiarity of their sentiments or the manner in which they are conveyed; but both are sincere, and many will doubtless be found to disagree with us.’
‘In Quest of Love, and Other Poems.’ The Oxford Magazine, Vol. 32, 1914, p. 378.

Bradford E.E. poem Alexander Fergusson
                            From Lays of Love and Life (1916)

The following seven excerpts reference the long poem ‘In Quest of Love’, which among many other encounters with boys describes the speaker being embraced, caressed and fondled by a Turkish beggar boy in Constantinople (a city Bradford had visited).

‘The title poem is an eloquent disquisition in four-line stanzas on love of different kinds and among different nations. […] virile, well-turned verse.’
The Times on In Quest of Love and Other Poems (1914), as cited in Lays of Love and Life.

‘Rev. E. E. Bradford publishes a narrative poem, “In Quest of Love,” describing his adventures among boys through Europe, Northern Africa and the Near East, together with other homosexual poems of no particular merit, but certainly more daring than the similar ones in his last volume.’
In Harold Monro (ed.) (1914), Poetry and Drama. Volume II, London: The Poetry Bookshop, p. 184.

‘The love between men and youths, which appears frequently in Platonic literature, is the chief matter of the book. In the title poem, written in quatrains, it is presented in many phases and climes.’
Literary World on In Quest of Love and Other Poems (1914), as cited in Lays of Love and Life.

‘This is a well-printed, neatly-bound, little volume of verses, in which the charms of boyhood and youth are extolled in picturesque and melodious lines. The youths of various climes engage the author’s attention.’
‘In Quest of Love.’ The Freeman’s Journal and National Press (Dublin), 25 April 1914, p. 5.

‘The long poem which supplies the title for this volume is devoted to the clerical author’s favourite theme, namely, his personal love for the charms of boyhood. In this instance, the poet wanders far afield, and gives us vivid descriptions, in flowing verse, of the various types of boyhood and youth, in such diverse countries as Finland, Austria, Switzerland, Flanders, Italy, Spain, Algiers, Greece, and Turkey.’
‘In Quest of Love and Other Poems.’ The Publishers’ Circular and Booksellers’ Record, Vol. 100, 1914, p. 590.

‘In a former volume of poetry the Rev. Dr. E. E. Bradford gave some aspects of the exalted friendship between man and man, “passing the love of women,” and his exceptional gifts enabled him to present his subject in a manner that rendered it highly acceptable. The present book, “In Quest of Love, and Other Poems,” (Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., Ltd.), is a worthy companion. In the principal contribution, the author indulges in Platonic fancies respecting his search through different lands. Charming scenes are conjured up, the imaginative skill of the author manifesting true poetic instinct as “through many countries far and near” he tells how he sought to accomplish his object. […] The poem is one to peruse and reperuse, and the portrayal of young, unsullied manhood is a lofty one, well calculated to enlist the sympathies of those who learn the result of his experience.’
‘Dr. Bradford’s Poems.’ The Western Daily Press (Bristol), 27 April 1914, p. 7.

‘Dr Bradford’s new volume takes its title from its opening poem, a thoughtful, yet sprightly and animated piece in the measure of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam,” and with a luminous intellectuality nourished by the study of Plato.’
‘In Quest of Love, and Other Poems.’ The Scotsman, 13 April 1914, p. 2.

‘The author sings especially of love between men and boys.’
‘In Quest of Love, and Other Poems.’ Athenaeum and Literary Chronicle, Issues 4497–4522, 1914, p. 553.

‘How the world wags! Fifteen years ago, or less, Dr. Bradford would probably have found himself hunted out of England for publishing this volume—that is, if any publisher might anywhere have been induced to risk his business on it. Dr. Bradford celebrates the “heavenly” love between men and boys.’
‘In Quest of Love.’ The New Age. A Weekly Review of Politics, Literature, and Art, no. 1128, 23 April 1914, p. 790.

‘The accomplished author of ‘Passing the Love of Women’ returns in this volume to his favourite theme—the preciousness of friendship between man and man, and even more between man and boy.’
The Cork Examiner on In Quest of Love and Other Poems (1914), as cited in Lays of Love and Life.

‘He specialises in pleading for that deep-souled friendship—he calls it love—of man to man and men and boys.’
The Aberdeen Free Press on In Quest of Love and Other Poems (1914), as cited in Lays of Love and Life.

‘Dr. Bradford’s thoughts certainly do not run into the same mould as those of most other ecclesiastical writers! He is sometimes lacking in the odour of sanctity, but then he makes up with fresh air!’
Literary World on Lays of Love and Life (1916), as cited in The New Chivalry and Other Poems.

‘Yet he has vigour, fearlessness, something to say, and a manner of saying it which makes an impression upon the reader. His themes are often unusual’.
‘Lays of Love and Life.’ The Cambridge Review, Vol. 38, 1917, p. 79.

‘Dr. Bradford is of David’s opinion as to some loves ‘passing the love of women,’ and as in previous books he maintains here that clean, healthy boyhood is to him the most attractive and lovable thing on earth.’
Western Morning News on Lays of Love and Life (1916), as cited in The New Chivalry and Other Poems.

Norfolk. Downham Market football team
      School football team in Downham Market, Norfolk, ca. 1932, when Bradford lived nearby

‘Dr. Bradford is an eloquent singer of the friendship of man and man, and man and boy, and of the justice of God. […] The book should be read by all earnest schoolmasters.’
Oxford Magazine on The New Chivalry and Other Poems (1918), as cited in The Romance of Youth and Other Poems.

‘In “The New Chivalry” (Kegan Paul) we have a fresh setting forth, from the pen of the Rev. E. E. Bradford, of his creed of boy-love in preference to the love of women. An infinitely more natural attitude towards young life is found in “The Little God,” by Katharine Howard (Harrap).’
‘Reviews of New Books. Adventurers and Initiates. A Group of Autumn Poets.’ The Birmingham Post, 20 September 1918, p. 3.

‘Yet the subject-matter of many of the poems is unusual. “Boy love,” as Dr. Bradford would interpret it, may have “more in it of Christ than Socrates,” but to find a succession of poems to “Hilary,” “Frederick,” “Frank,” “Will,” and others is not common in English verse. We imagine the boys themselves, if they exist, looking rather red and sheepish. We think on the whole we prefer the ardent robust lustiness of the seventeenth century lyrists.’
‘The New Chivalry and Other Poems.’ The Educational Times, and Journal of the College of Preceptors (London), Vol. 71, part 1, 1919, p. 144.

‘Apart from its literary merit, the courage and honesty with which he faces different questions are worthy of all admiration.’
Literary World on The New Chivalry and Other Poems (1918), as cited in The Romance of Youth and Other Poems.

The following excerpt references ‘A Child of Light’, a rapturous sonnet describing ‘a lovely naked boy’.

‘“A Child of Light” is a wonderful little word picture, full of colour, and “Summer Heat” is also as good as can be. […] If one may say so, however, Dr. Bradford’s sympathies appear to be limited in a way which tends to alienate our own to some extent. It is not the Romance of Youth of which he sings, but the Romance of Boyhood, and that alone, which he perceives and appreciates with reverent tenderness. Can there be no delicate mystery, no Vision Splendid, in the mind of an adolescent girl? Are boys generally—or even very frequently—dreaming Galahads?’
‘The Romance of Youth: Poems by the Rev. E. E. Bradford, D.D.’ The Educational Times, and Journal of the College of Preceptors (London), Volume 73, 1921, p. 42.

‘Mr. Bradford is a lover of boys and he has sought for his inspiration amongst them with great success. He exalts the love of man and man or man and boy over that of man and woman.’
Review of Ralph Rawdon: A Story in Verse, in The Poetry Review: Volume XIV (London), edited by Galloway Kyle, 1923, p. 100.

Bradford E.E. Western Daily Press
                   Review of The True Aristocracy in The Western Daily Press, 1923

‘Dr. Bradford is obviously a lover of boys and he brings out their psychology with considerable success.’
‘The True Aristocracy.’ The Western Daily Press (Bristol), 29 December 1923, p. 8.

‘The writer, Dr E. E. Bradford, is a clergyman, who in a number of previous volumes has hymned the friendship of man, particularly between boys, and held forth the dread warning of the tree of good and evil. This long poem in 51 cantos, traces the spiritual growth of a sensitive boy’s mind, at school and later, especially as influencing his friendships with other boys. Like Plato, Dr Bradford is alive to the beauty of unsullied youth: his religion indeed is tinged with Platonism. His command of rhythm and diction is accomplished, but his poem is commendable mainly for its thoughtful portrayal of the short-lived glory of earnest boyhood.’
‘Modern Verse.’ (Review of The Tree of Knowledge.) Aberdeen Press and Journal, 12 January 1925, p. 3.

‘Dr Bradford is a master of his craft, an accomplished, scholarly workman, with an intimate acquaintance with the ways of boys, and what the foundations are upon which true manhood is built. […] It is a fine little book to put into the hands of a growing school lad. The story itself will entrance him, and the impressions he is sure to receive will be of incalculable character-forming value.’
‘The Tree of Knowledge.’ The Western Daily Press (Bristol), 31 January 1925, p. 9.

‘The Rev. E. E. Bradford, D.D., has written a large number of sonnets, songs, ballads, lays of love and life, stories in verse, and other poems relating to chivalry and the romance of youth. His work is virile, melodious, scholarly, and inculcates high standards of thought and action. Dr. Bradford is a gifted writer on the joys of friendship between man and man, and particularly between grown men and developing adolescents. He has a courageous, adventurous Neo-Platonic outlook on life, and his verses are full of interesting, suggestive records and elevating appeals.’
The Child on The Kingdom Within You and Other Poems (1927), Vol. 17, 1926, pp. 251-2.

At least twice after the appearance of Bradford’s final volume of poetry in 1930, his publisher, Kegan Paul, either reprinted some of his books or (in all likelihood) launched an ad campaign to sell remaining stock. In any event, the following excerpts are from promotional texts that appeared in the weekly Public Opinion in 1940. Kegan Paul specifically drew attention to Bradford’s theme of ‘romantic platonic friendships between men and boys’, expressing confidence that friend and foe alike would find his poetry interesting and enlightening.

‘The remarkable thing about Ralph Rawdon is that everyone finds it interesting. Some people dislike it heartily, but even critics who are quite out of sympathy with its point of view confess there is something attractive about the story. It opens many people’s eyes to a world unknown to them. “I should never have thought boys had such passionate attachments!” some say, but all feel that they have learnt something new.’
‘Ralph Rawdon.’ Public Opinion: A Weekly Review of Current Thought and Activity, Vols. 157-160, 1940, p. 237.

‘The moral of this lively story in verse is that many men are fundamentally unfitted for marriage, and should leave it alone. Often they are naturally attracted to younger men and boys; but they must remember that the choice of friends must be taken seriously. Before an agreeable acquaintance can pass into a lifelong friendship there may be the same misunderstandings, jealousies and disputes as in love.’
[‘Ralph Rawdon.’?] Public Opinion: A Weekly Review of Current Thought and Activity, Vols. 157-160, 1940, p. 14.

Kegan Paul
Many men are ‘naturally attracted to younger men and boys’, wrote Bradford’s publisher Kegan Paul in explaining the poet’s theme. (Kegan Paul became an imprint of Routledge in 1912.)

‘Everybody from the first found this story in verse keenly interesting. None of the critics disagreed about this. It is the tale of a man who found himself quite unsuited for marriage and determined to go in for celibacy and Platonic friendship. The great variety of types of men and boys sketched (as the Glasgow Herald said) with “truth, wit and gentle satire” appealed to all. Though Dr. Bradford seldom appeals to the fair sex, even The Lady confessed that Ralph Rawdon was “A really absorbing story.”’
‘Ralph Rawdon.’ A Weekly Review of Current Thought and Activity · Vols. 157–160, 1940, pp. 287, 303.

The True Aristocracy is perhaps the most characteristic of all Dr. Bradford’s stories in verse. The scene is laid at his favourite little seaport, Belton. There, in this tranquil little earthly paradise you plunge at once into a world of boys. The Roman Catholic paper, The Tablet, has no sympathy with Dr. Bradford’s point of view, but it gave a very long review of this “strange poem” in its Literary Supplement, in which it spoke of it as “the petty and unpleasing history of a boy and his three great friendships.” But it confesses “while he plods along with his tale of the three exasperating boys, he has a true poet’s way of plucking a wild rose from the hedgerow or of making us halt to hear the song of a bird.”’
‘The True Aristocracy.’ Public Opinion: A Weekly Review of Current Thought and Activity, Vols. 157–160, 1940, p. 174.

‘It seems a pity that more people do not buy “The Tree of Knowledge,” for everyone who does so likes it, and wishes he had heard of it before! Of course those who believe in romantic platonic friendships between men and boys like it best, but it appeals to others also. Its reverent but critical attitude with regard to common beliefs is far more helpful to true faith than disturbing. It is full of useful suggestions that clear up difficulties which must trouble all honest thinkers.’
‘The Tree of Knowledge.’ Public Opinion: A Weekly Review of Current Thought and Activity, Vols. 157–160, 1940, p. 157.

How the world wags! It has been argued that critics of yore were typically naive about Bradford’s poetry (and Uranian poetry in general), believing it to be a chaste celebration of boyhood, unrelated to – or at least unconscious of or spurning – physical desire. Conversely, it has also been contended that critics entered into a ‘conspiracy of polite silence’ with the poet as to the obvious tendency of his verses. As the cited excerpts show, in many cases neither characterisation is accurate. Many critics were perfectly clear about Bradford’s attraction to boys, the way others are attracted to women or to men, and referenced it – sometimes plainly, sometimes more ambiguously.

Many accepted the poet’s persuasion as a fact of life and an appropriate theme for poetry. Some considered it a commendably courageous subject; some found Bradford’s philosophy of love edifying and of pedagogical use. And those who were uneasy about his lifelong theme did not tear into him on account of it, the way some modern commentators have (‘grotesquely comical’; ‘The poetry of these paedophiles is atrocious’ – Noël Annan; ‘ludicrous paedophilic poems’ – Bevis Hillier; ‘The recurring characteristics of English ‘boy-worship’ are self-deception, trickery and bad poetry’ – Graham Robb). At any rate, today’s commentators may find there is not much currently being published that needs attacking, for which mainstream outfit would still be found willing to publish and publicise boy-love poetry as outspoken and unapologetic as Bradford’s?




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