Thursday, August 20, 2020

Part 3: The Poet

This post is the third of a three-part series on the life and writings of Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr., founder of the Gibson House Museum. You can read the first part here and the second here.

The mysteries of our lives resolve themselves very slowly with the progress of years. Every decade lifts the curtain, which hides us from ourselves, a little further, and lets a new light upon what was dark and unintelligible.

—Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1896

A portrait of the artist as a young man: independent and well-traveled, Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr. (1874–1954), the bachelor-poet of Boston, achieved early success. His first two books, Two Gentlemen in Touraine (1899) and Among French Inns (1905), both on French

Charles Hammond Gibson, Jr., c. 1920.
travel, were so popular they went into second editions. In Two Gentlemen in Touraine, Gibson explored the art, architecture, and social customs of rural France, depicting it as an enchanted “fairyland,” a greenwood and pastoral escape route in the gay Arcadian literary tradition of the Victorian era—in sharp contrast to the cooler, monochromatic stones of old Beacon Street. As explored in the second blog post in this series, Two Gentlemen in Touraine told a thinly veiled autobiographical tale of initiation into the transatlantic gay subculture of the 1890s, with the Count Maurice Mauny Talvande as guide and mentor. Among French Inns takes the form of a travel book embedded in a comic novel—a farce—containing a wry parody of Isabella Stuart Gardner and John “Jack” Lowell Gardner, Jr. in the character of Mr. and Mrs. James Blodget Wilton.

Gibson’s first love, however, was poetry, and in the first decade of the twentieth century he produced two substantial volumes, The Spirit of Love and Other Poems (1906) and The Wounded Eros (1908). Working closely with the Riverside Press of Houghton Mifflin, he planned to produce a total of four volumes, to be bound as an elegant set, including Odes and Elegies (1908) and Dialogues and Satires (1909). The last two volumes were never produced, although most of the poems were prepared in manuscript.

The Spirit of Love is a comprehensive collection of Gibson’s poetic output from 1896, when he was about twenty-two, to 1902, when he was about twenty-eight. As a young man, he was most likely trying to come to terms with his sexuality in a challenging social and cultural context, and in his poetry he strove to name and honor a love that he did not yet fully understand:

To those who love, yet ne’er have known

Whence their true love hath strangely grown;

To those whose heart do hear withal

Celestial voices sweetly call,

That lift their very souls above;

To all who love, or sad, or gay,

To these I dedicate my lay.


The dominant themes in Gibson’s early work are the mystery of passion and desire, unrequited love, poisoned love, social scorn, the danger of scandal, and the criminalization of love, “. . . strange things that bring this sweet desire, / To draw some other being near the soul.”  In these years, he constructed a literary and sexual persona in the tradition of Oscar Wilde, and one can sense the impact on his writing, in his confessional and sometimes tortured lines, of the 1895

Riverside Press published Gibson's poetry.

Wilde trial in London for “gross indecency.”

But suddenly there came some note of scorn;

And in a moment all was fact again.

               Our sweet imagination still returns

               Into the cold and stilted forms of life.

There are strange moments in our outward march,

When these dull things of earth shall come to pass.


Many of the poems gathered in The Spirit of Love fall squarely within what many scholars have called the “homosexual pastoral tradition,” which includes both classical and modern works and has ranged from ancient Greek poets’ praise of boys in the gymnasia to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and beyond. Gibson’s poetry as a whole includes a wide variety of hints, circumlocutions, and double-voicings, one example being the 1893 poem, “The Green Book,” which reads like an apology for youthful indiscretion:

Youth is ever green and young,

Then guard thy song of youth, when sung

In the spring of life, and say

‘T was but a minstrel’s early lay.


In the nineteenth-century transatlantic gay subculture, the color green could very well have been a reference to Oscar Wilde himself. In 1892, Wilde’s acolytes wore green carnations to the opening night of his play Lady Windermere’s Fan. The green carnation became an emblem of Wilde and his circle. In 1894, author Robert Hichens wrote a notorious (and probably damning)

parody of Wilde, a novel entitled The Green Carnation, which was published by D. Appleton and Company of New York. The Appleton family were friends, and, in fact, related to the Gibsons by marriage.

In 1908, Gibson published a more mature collection, The Wounded Eros, a carefully crafted sonnet sequence with an insightful introduction by the African-American poet, literary critic, anthologist, and fellow Bostonian, William Stanley Braithwaite (1878–1962). Braithwaite would eventually become one of the most important Black literary figures of his time, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with W. E. B. Dubois, Langston Hughes, and other key figures of the Harlem Renaissance. With Charles Gibson, Braithwaite shared a love of English Renaissance poetry and tended toward literary

William Stanley Braithwaite,
from the Boston Globe, 1918.
conservatism rather than modernism. In his introductory essay, Braithwaite, somewhat indirectly, referenced Gibson’s ambiguous stance as both author and narrator of the sonnet sequence, pointing to the precedent of Sir Philip Sidney, whose poetry epitomized homoerotic expression during the Renaissance, as well as the Greek homoerotic tradition. In case his readers missed the point, Braithwaite underscored that The Wounded Eros is “the story of an oblation full of inexplicable shadows,” and noted the “detached aspects” of the poems, even as the emotions they portrayed seemed raw, transparent, and close to the surface. “And while, after a close study of these sonnets, I am convinced of their origin in the imagination—that is to say, there being no likelihood that the story is of any actually known experience—I am impressed with the note of sincerity which will convince the reader of the poet’s serious and honest treatment of his material,” tactfully suggesting that there was little chance that Gibson was referencing direct experience of  heterosexual relationships in his poem.  Echoing this code toward the end of his life, Gibson would describe his identity as “Greek, Eastern or, then again, as Renaissance.”

By 1908, Gibson had shifted, in terms of cultural style, from the hyper-aesthetic mode of Oscar Wilde somewhat closer to the vigorous homoeroticism of Walt Whitman:

How shall I ever thank thee for the boon,

Thou wing├ęd child, that lifted thus my soul,

And quenched the thirst for love, that many a bowl

Of golden wine had failed, alas! too soon,

To satisfy, from eventide to noon?

For I, who lingered near some mossy knoll,

Received thy love-tipped arrow as its goal;

And bare the wound, rejoicing with a tune.

  Then bind, fair one, with love thy wounded swain.

Give him thine eyes, but breathe thy soul as well

Into his welcome heart, that beats with pain,

Lest it should have an hapless tale to tell.

Ah! Spare me that, my love, and in thy train

Shall Heaven be wherever thou mayst dwell!


Charlie Gibson’s poetry can be difficult to access for twenty-first century readers because of its coded language, veiled confessions, exaggerated formalism, and metaphysical eroticism. He was a liminal figure, frozen in time between Edwardian Boston and the advent of literary modernism. But he was certainly not alone, sharing common ground with poets such as Henry Harmon Chamberlin, Louise Chandler Moulton, Amy Lowell, Robert Frost, William Stanley Braithwaite, and, later, S. Foster Damon and John Brooks Wheelwright. Wheelwright’s masterful Mirrors of

John Brooks Wheelwright by Albert Sterner (1863-1946), pencil drawing.
Collection of Todd S. Gernes.
Venus: A Novel in Sonnets, 1914–1938 is perhaps the most apt comparison to Gibson’s Wounded Eros. Like Gibson, Wheelwright was born into a prominent Brahmin family and briefly studied architecture at MIT; he would later collaborate with Walker Evans and Lincoln Kirstein in photographing Boston-area Victorian architecture. While Gibson’s civic profile as Parks Commissioner, literary tastemaker, statesman, and public intellectual trended steadily to the political and cultural right (he was a Roosevelt-Taft-Harding Republican), Wheelwright, who was bisexual, evolved from Boston Brahmin to Trotskyist-socialist-modernist. Wheelwright’s sonnet sequence looks forward to a more minimalist, precise, and severe (though playful) modernism; Gibson unearths from historical memory a miscellany of sonnets, odes, songs, lines, and fragments, objects for his cabinet of curiosities, seedlings for his lovingly cultivated specimen garden.

- Todd S. Gernes, Ph.D. (Associate Professor, Stonehill College)


References

  • Henry Harmon Chamberlin, Poems by Henry Harmon Chamberlin (privately printed, 1911).
  • S. Foster Damon, Tilted Moons (New York & London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1929).
  • Charles Gibson, The Spirt of Love and Other Poems (Boston: published by the author, Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1906).
  • _____. The Wounded Eros: Sonnets by Charles Gibson, with an introduction by William Stanley Braithwaite (Boston: published by the author, Riverside Press, Cambridge, 1908).
  • Robert Hichens, The Green Carnation (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1894).
  • E. Keenaghan, “Gay Poetry,” in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, 4th ed., Roland Greene, et al, eds. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press), 530 – 543.
  • Rictor Norton, "An Era of Idylls," The Homosexual Pastoral Tradition, 20 June 2008.
  • Winfield Townley Scott, “John Wheelwright and His Poetry,” New Mexico Quarterly 24, 2 (1954).
  • Douglass Shand-Tucci, Boston Bohemia, 1881–1900. Ralph Adams Cram: Life and Architecture (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995).
  • Caroline Ticknor, ed., Dr. Holmes’s Boston (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1915).
  • Alan M. Wald, The Revolutionary Imagination: The Poetry and Politics of John Wheelwright and Sherry Mangan (Chapel Hill and London: University of North Carolina Press, 1983).
  • John Wheelwright, Mirrors of Venus: A Novel in Sonnets, 1914–1938 (Boston: Bruce Humphries, 1938).
  • John Wheelwright,” Poetry Foundation website.

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