Thursday, December 17, 2009

Ideal Man

Edward Carpenter, 1905; photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

The image of his face haunts me. From what I am learning of him in Julian Bell's essay, "The Elegant Optimist," (in the NYRB) everything about him appeals to me.

... [Rowbotham's] subject was the very handsomest of men. He captivated all who saw him, with a grace that ran through his looks, his clothes, his demeanor, even his handwriting. The natty dresser painted in 1894 by his casual friend Roger Fry was written up by other witnesses as "a very beautiful and attractive person," "tall, spare with browned bearded face," and "erect, lithe, athletic in appearance"; an Italian introduced to him in 1909 (the heyday of his international celebrity) spoke for many another witness when he recalled the "vivid, piercing eyes looking deep into mine, the noble lumnous smile." And such beauty has a strange power to linger. Rowbotham quotes Jonathan Cutbill, his presentday literary executor: "Edward Carpenter was an extremely sexy man."

It turns out, then, that the political is the personal. Carpenter's contribution to the cause of the left consisted not so much in what he thought and wrote, still less in what he organized or instigated, but rather in the singularity of his presence. He was neither herocially forceful nor subversively witty, yet his charisma radiated far and wide, whether through his constant kindliness or his dapper line in soft felt hats...


Excerpt from a nice introduction.

In 1868, he received a copy of Walt Whitman's poems Leaves of Grass. Whitman's democratic poetry provided the spark that set Carpenter on the path of socialism and which led to the extraordinary changes in his life...

The pioneer of gay liberation in the USA, Harry Hay, was deeply affected by his discovery of a copy of Carpenter's The Intermediate Sex in a library in 1923, when he was eleven. Hay describes reading the book as an 'earthshaking revelation', which had a profound effect on his life. In 1950 Hay founded the first modern gay political group, the Mattachine Society. In the 1920s, the black American poet Countee Cullen obtained a copy of Carpenter's poetical work Ioläus. He wrote:
'It opened up for me soul windows that had been closed; it threw a noble and evident light on what I had begun to believe, because of what the world believes, ignoble and unnatural. I loved myself in it.'
Throughout his life, Carpenter never ceased to express his esteem for, and indebtedness to, the American democratic poet Walt Whitman, who had provided him with his first great inspiration with Leaves of Grass. In 1888 Whitman wrote about Carpenter in a letter to Horace Traubel:
"Edward was beautiful then — is so now: one of the torch-bearers, as they say: an exemplar of a loftier England: he is not generally known, not wholly a welcome presence, in conventional England: the age is still, while ripe for some things, not ripe for him, for his sort, for us, for the human protest: not ripe though ripening. O Horace, there's a hell of a lot to be done yet: don't you see? A hell of a lot: you fellows coming along now will have your hands full: we're passing a big job on to you."

Beautiful stranger, each day I come upon these fields and woods
In hope of another glimpse of you.
In two weeks and a day I have seen you twice
The moment before I first saw you,
I gazed across a field and mouthed “I love you”
At the day, or me, or nothing in particular, or everything at once.
When I looked at the path again
There you were, on the path of the overlook
Striding in my direction, umbrella in hand.
Brown, curly hair, soft well-trimmed beard.
You smiled, and I smiled
You said hello, and then I hello, as we passed...


P.S. The beard suits you. Thanks so much for the photo.


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