Buddies that Matter.

Gender and Friendship

"My Stand": Queer Identities in the Poetry of Anna Seward and Thomas Gray

Redfern Jon Barrett, Swansea University, UK

1When we talk of love in our culture, we usually mean sex. When we talk of desire, we usually mean sex. If we are to fall in love with someone we desire, if we wish to dedicate our lives to someone, live with them, share a bed with them – then we better be having sex with them as well. It is one of the fundamental norms of our society that love is intrinsically bound to sexuality.

2Here we will examine two eighteenth-century poets. Anna Seward and Thomas Gray each fell in love and each wrote poetry about their love. The love each of them writes about, however, is nonsexual: it is even anti-sexual. Anna Seward and Thomas Gray wrote about romantic friendship. Both poets strongly believed in same-sex friendship and opposed opposite-sex marriage, a queer desire for which each was willing to sacrifice their well-being and reputation.

3It was Aristotle in the 4th Century BC who explicitly outlined and analysed the social conventions surrounding intimate friendship. In the eighth and ninth books of his Nicomachean Ethics (350BC) he describes friendship as critical to a happy and healthy life: “… Friendship is not only an indispensable, but also a beautiful or noble thing: for we commend those who love their friends …” (Aristotle, 252). In the Ethics Aristotle outlines the three different forms of friendship: those based in utility, those based in pleasure, and those based in mutual regard for one another’s virtue: it is the latter to which he pays the most attention, as the ‘truest’ form of friendship. True friendship, the Ethics maintains, is not available to all, as virtue itself is an inherently rare quality. If one were capable, the most vital facets to true friendship were equality, trust, cohabitation, physical intimacy and exclusivity. If friendship, he argues, is not a unique and personal bond, established in openness and both physical and emotional affection, then it is not true friendship. Equality was utterly crucial, and therefore an equal social status had to be maintained (Aristotle, 293). Of course inter-gendered ‘true’ friendships were not deemed possible, as women were of a considerably lower social status than men – Aristotle compares the relationship between husband and wife to that of the aristocracy to the masses (Aristotle, 273). Friendship in its purest form, therefore, was a purely same-sex phenomenon. Aristotle goes so far as to describe a true friend as a ‘second self’, one whose existence is securely tied to another – they should even be prepared to die for one another (Aristotle, 306).

4Alan Bray’s highly influential study into same-sex friendship, The Friend, charts the course of friendship in Western Europe over the course of several centuries following the arrival of Christianity. Despite the influence of the pagan Aristotle on the ideals of friendship, it remained a vital institution until the eighteenth century. Friends would share beds, wallets and lives. They would kiss and devoted their bodies to one another – as Bray points out, the practice of platonically sharing a bed in such a bond is the origin of the term ‘bedfellow’ (Bray, 153).

5The dawn of the eighteenth century saw fundamental social change. Relations between men started to become taboo, and we see the first cultural references to the ‘molly’ – the effeminate male sodomite: the historian Randolph Trumbach describes how same-sex sexual contact became tied to gender inversion – that is, it became increasingly associated with feminine men and masculine women (Trumbach, 77). Trumbach points out that – for men - the new effeminate associations to same-sex sexual contact carried a great degree of shame: many of those put on trial committed suicide, something men accused of sodomy had not done in previous decades. As he puts it, “Sodomy was now tied to a deviant gender role” (Trumbach, p. 80).

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