Existentialism and Homosexuality in Gunn’s Early Poetry

Alfred Corn

In the early 1950s, when Thom Gunn began publishing, the reigning ideology among artists who subscribed neither to religion nor Communist politics was Existentialist philosophy. The thinker most often cited as a model was Sartre; and then, because of her connection to him, Simone de Beauvoir. Although Camus had at first been associated with Existentialism, by the late Forties he withdrew from its ranks, whether or not this defection was always known to the general audience. Existentialism developed on the parallel tracks of philosophy and literature, but its influence extended to the non-verbal arts as well. Some of the Abstract Expressionist painters espoused the philosophy and came to consider their work as an exploratory action, not defined in advance by a pre-ordained goal. The canvas recorded a series of choices made in the course of facture-pivotal, collaborative, and cumulative brushstrokes whose meaning became final only when the painting was complete. Some jazz musicians described their performances as Existential as well: beginning with no format or plan, they improvised as they went along, discovering the overall shape and emotional content of the piece gradually and in process. These concrete, aesthetic applications of the new philosophical system may or may not appear sufficiently rigorous to qualify as applied Existentialism, but we can see in them a connection to Sartrean axioms such as, “Existence precedes essence,” or, “man is, before all else, something which propels itself towards a future and is aware that it is doing so..” [from Jean-Paul Sartre, “Existentialism is a humanism,” lecture given in 1943, published in Walter Kaufman, ed., Existentialism from Dostoyevsky to Sartre, Meridian Publishing Company, 1989.]

Thom Gunn had no formal training in philosophy, nor was Existentialism taught at Cambridge during his undergraduate years. Nevertheless, it formed a climate of opinion that no intellectual or artist in or outside the academy would have failed to notice. Some of its prestige came from the high regard accorded in that period to French culture in general, a regard based on a century of extraordinary French achievement: Baudelaire, Symbolism, and Surrealism in poetry; Flaubert, Proust, and Gide in fiction; and Degas, Monet, Gauguin, Matisse, and Picasso in painting. In his autobiographical writings, Gunn speaks of an ecstatic, life-changing experience he calls “the Revelation,” which occurred to him during a trip to France when he was an undergraduate:

And one day, hitch-hiking along a road in France, I experienced a revelation of physical and spiritual freedom that I still refer to in my thoughts as the Revelation. It was like the elimination of some enormous but undefined problem that had been across my way and prevented me from moving forward. But now I suddenly found I had the energy for almost anything.” [“Cambridge in the Fifties,” from The Occasions of Poetry: Essays in Criticism and Autobiography by Thom Gunn, Edited and with an introduction by Clive Wilmer. Faber and Faber, Ltd. 1982, p. 159.]

That “the Revelation” took place in France does not seem accidental. In any case, the same essay goes on to describe Gunn’s development of an aesthetic that drew on, among other sources, France and Sartrean Existentialism. He speaks of

.a crude theory of what I called ‘pose’, based partly on the dramatics of John Donne, somewhat perhaps on Yeats’s theory of the masks, and most strongly on the behaviour of Stendhal’s heroes. I was to find support for it from other sources, notably from some of Shakespeare’s characters, like the Bastard in King John and Coriolanus, and later from Sartre. It was, as you can see, literary in character, but its principal source was the Revelation on the road in France, with its intimations of unbounded energy. The theory of pose was this: everyone plays a part, whether he knows it or not, so he might as well deliberately design a part, or a series of parts, for himself.” [pp. 161-162.]

The “theory of poses,” with its connection to dramatic literature matches statements made by Sartre in the lecture cited above. For example: “Moreover, as Gide has very well said, a sentiment which is play-acting and one which is vital are two things that are hardly distinguishable one from another.” Sartre’s reputation seems, half a century on, to be based mainly on his authorship of plays, including No Exit, Flies, Dirty Hands, and Kean. This last play, which enjoyed a successful London revival in the 2007 season, has as its protagonist the celebrated 19th century Shakespearean actor. Kean not only cites Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” speech, he puts it into action, adopting several personae (or “poses”) during the course of the action, thereby establishing a connection to Existentialist philosophy: the actor (and by extension all humanity) has no essential identity in advance of assuming a role and putting it into play.

In the “Cambridge in the Fifties” essay, Gunn mentions meeting a fellow undergraduate named Tony White: “It was he who first got me to read Sartre’s plays and Camus’s novels.” Gunn then reports receiving a 1954 New Year’s card from White, inscribed with wishes for “panache, logique, espagnolisme, l’imprévu, singularité. from one Étranger to another.” [p. 163.] And in “My Life up to Now” [Gunn, op.cit., p. 173], Gunn characterizes his early beginnings as a poet in the following terms: “Suddenly everything started to feed my imagination. Writing poetry became the act of an existentialist conqueror, excited and aggressive.” In this same essay he makes a further (and final) statement about the influence of Existentialism: “The Sense of Movement, then, was a much more sophisticated book than my first collection, but a much less independent one. There is a lot of Winters in it, a fair amount of Yeats, and a great deal of raw Sartre (strange bedfellows!).” [p. 177]

Autobiographical confirmation that Existentialism contributed to Gunn’s development as a poet might seem to settle the question once and for all, but the component of Gunn’s sexuality needs to be brought in as well. Consider these facts: Before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967, all homosexual acts were illegal in England, though not in France. “Cambridge in the Fifties” mentions that John Holmstrom, one of the friends accompanying Gunn on his second trip to Paris, acquired several Genet novels and smuggled them into England. (Genet was at that date banned in the U.K.) In the essay Gunn doesn’t say whether he read these novels or not. Nor does he speak of the study Saint Genet: comédien et martyr [Saint Genet, actor and martyr] that Sartre published in 1952. No English translation of the book appeared before 1963, but of course Gunn could read French, and the book was in any case widely reviewed and discussed when it first came out.

Far from condemning Genet for his homosexual and criminal activity, Sartre’s study holds him up as an Existential hero, a rugged individualist who ignores Judeo-Christian ethics and finds an outlaw identity for himself not sanctioned by custom or tradition. In this argument, homosexuality is a choice, an act of will that incidentally or purposely establishes the freedom of the choser. No a priori ethical or religious system contributes to the decision; moreover, one of its effects is to nullify those systems. Like all atheists who came after Doestoevsky, Sartre had pondered a statement made by the character Ivan in The Brothers Karamazov: “If there is no God, all things are lawful.” Sartre, too, would locate his own life and aspirations in a metaphysical landscape designated by the famous Nietzsche title Beyond Good and Evil. To subscribe to an atheist and post-ethical moral philosophy doesn’t necessarily mean, though, that the philosopher can always find in himself the will to commit crimes demonstrating indifference to the claims of religion or consensus ethics. Sartre, as far as we know, never committed any crimes, in fact, the stance he first adopted was the secular humanist’s. Yet he did eventually endorse Stalinism and by extension the political violence and murder it entailed. Meanwhile, it’s clear that he considered his views on Genet as respectable, post-ethical opinion, an opinion that might empower others to will for themselves an existence created and acted out “beyond good and evil.”

I’m not arguing that Genet agreed with Sartre’s estimate of his own literary aims or moral convictions; or that Sartre was right to regard homosexuality as the first in a series of choices or acts of will that go on to construct the so-called “homosexual lifestyle.” What does seem plausible to me is that Gunn, hesitant about his sexuality and aware that homosexual encounters were criminal under British law, found in Existentialism a philosophical justification for a sexual propensity already active in his psyche. Because he couldn’t in most social circumstances make his sexual orientation known, he was forced to “pose” as heterosexual. Making a virtue of necessity, Gunn could view this artificial persona as the springboard to assuming other poses not devised in response to legal or social coercion. His “theory of poses,” which emphasized conscious choice in the manufacture of identity, could allow him to be more vivid, more daring, readier to exhibit “panache, logique, espagnolisme, l’imprévu, singularité,” in Tony White’s words.

Gunn’s autobiographical writings give us the portrait of a young man unusually sensitive and rather pliant. If he titled his first book Fighting Terms, a book containing poems with aggressive and often soldierly content, we can understand these as part of a program or strategy of “poses,” the choice and implementation of an identity not innate in the author. And why not? The whole point of Existentialism is freedom from an essence or identity assigned in advance. Apart from the sanctioned murder of warfare, the poems explore other instances of outlawry such as looting and rape. Though Gunn didn’t commit crimes like these, his poems’ presentation of them is neutral and non-judgmental. In a fictive realm beyond good and evil he adopts many imaginative personae and through them, as for himself, discovers credible experiences and emotions.

Actually, “The Wound” describes the assumption of several identities, some at odds with the others. First, the speaker of the characterized monologue or soliloquy tells us he has received a serious head wound (an imagined situation, based on no real incident in Gunn’s life). Then he describes, as though they were his own, experiences of several characters involved in both camps of the Trojan War, not excluding Helen. The poem concludes with a passage from Achilles’s point of view. Of course the Iliad mentions no head wound that the Greek hero received: Homer’s fiction has been further fictionalized. Gunn’s narrator devises these words for Achilles: “I was myself: subject to no man’s breath:/My own commander was my enemy.” This sounds like the radical freedom proposed by Existentialism, yet a mask makes the statement, a mask worn by Gunn’s wounded persona and, therefore, a double mask. Another way of putting things is that Gunn has imposed a “pose” on the poem’s speaker. The narrator posing as Achilles hears of Patroclus’s death and, despite his head wound, calls for armor and makes ready to fight. At which point his partially healed head wound opens again.

Without being explicit, this concluding incident smuggles in a homosexual theme by recalling the celebrated love of Achilles and Patroclus. It also suggests that the “wound” is itself a metaphor for homosexuality. We should compare that metaphor to a similar one in Auden’s “Letter to a Wound,” the fourth section of Part I in The Orators, a work Gunn must have read, given that he is on record as having admired Auden’s early work. [See “An Anglo-American Poet: Interview with Jim Powell,” in Gunn’s Shelf Life, Faber and Faber, 1993, p. 222.] Auden’s persona writes to his “wound” as to a lover and revisits an incident in which he told a prostitute he had no need of her services because he can avail himself of a “friend.” Meanwhile, Gunn’s narrator describes his period of convalescence as a time of “joy,” during which his imagination could range freely and appropriate experience lived by characters other than himself. Using the metaphor of an unhealable wound for homosexuality is of course offensive today, but, at a period when variant sexuality was regarded as a sin, a crime, or an illness, the metaphor wouldn’t have seemed unwarranted. Applying it, we can understand the poem as making a connection between poetry, homosexuality, and the “theory of poses.” It’s helpful here to consider Camus’s Existential fable about Sisyphus, who, condemned by the gods to push a rounded stone up a hill and watch it roll down again, before repeating the process ad infinitum, decides that freedom will again be his if he decides he wills and chooses his relentless task. Likewise, Gunn will “choose” his wound, his sexuality, and allow it to fuel the genesis of poems based on poses. Fighting Terms is composed almost entirely of persona poems, conceived at varying distances from Gunn’s actual personality. “La Prisonnière” is cast in the voice of Proust’s Marcel, though further fictionalized. “Carnal Knowledge” opens with the statement, “Even in bed I pose.” and includes the riddling refrain, “You know I know you know I know you know.” The oblique connection with homosexuality in poems like “The Wound,” “La Prisonnière,” and “Carnal Knowledge” would probably have been lost on most of Gunn’s early readers. That they drew on Existentialist philosophy and literature most likely escaped notice as well. But in the light of Gunn’s autobiographical writings and the poems that came later on, we’re able to understand relevant subtexts and draw useful inferences from them.

It’s not enough simply to accept the comment Gunn made about his second book The Sense of Movement, to the effect that it contained a “great deal of raw Sartre.” Confirmation needs to be found in the poems themselves. Actually, we can begin with the epigraph from Corneille’s Cinna that opens the volume: “Je le suis, je veux l’être.” (“I am that, I choose to be that.”) This is spoken by the Emperor Augustus in the third scene of Act V, immediately after he pronounces one of Corneille’s most famous lines: “Je suis maître de moi comme de l’univers.” (“I am the master of myself just as I am of the whole world.”) Application of these sentiments or convictions to the life of a twentieth-century citizen in a democratic country is dubious. Yet we can see the aptness if we understand it as an exaltation of the will, a seconding of Existentialist concepts. Furthermore, if we substitute “homosexual” for the first “le,” the intention becomes even clearer: “I am homosexual, I want to be that.” Like Camus’s Sisyphus, Gunn decides to affirm his situation rather than lament it, no matter what private or social or legal disadvantages were involved. If he wills and chooses his sexuality, he transforms an innate psychic propensity into an expression of freedom. One reason it’s important to reflect on Gunn’s privileging of the human will is that, in the English poetic tradition, the faculty of willing is generally devalued, regarded as a poor second to unconscious, unpremeditated feeling and action. By contrast, in French tradition la volonté is held in high esteem, partly because it is connected to the conscious faculty of reason and partly because it attests to firmness of character, which enables the human agent to surmount difficulty and suffering in the interest of achieving a goal. It is a virtue associated with ancient Rome, and therefore important in the Latin civilizations that developed in former Roman provinces. We’ve noticed that Gunn singles out several Roman characters in Shakespeare as his models, and Corneille’s Auguste qualifies as yet one more. In some ways, Sartrean Existentialism is merely a more intense development of a central theme in French culture, the culture that produced Louis XIV, Napoleon, Gide, De Gaulle, and Genet. These are personalities constructed on the heroic scale, who take stock, decide who they want to be, and then do whatever it takes to achieve that goal.

Turning to the poems in The Sense of Movement, we find many recurrences to the theme of will: in “The Nature of an Action,” “My cause lay in the will, that opens straight/Upon an act for the most desperate.”; in “The Unsettled Motorcyclist’s Vision of Death,” “My human will cannot submit/To nature, though brought out of it.”; in “Lines from a Book,” “To be insensitive, to steel the will.”; in “Market at Turk,” “.with bootstraps and Marine belt,/reminders of the will.”; in “Julian the Apostate,” “Then strains to lift his bones erect, and fling/To the pure will of exclamation mark.”; in “To Yvor Winters, 1955,” “.and fewer still/Control with the deliberate human will.”; from the same poem, “And, as you do, persistent, tough in will,/Raise from the excellent the better still.”
Throughout the volume will is associated with toughness, with hardness, with assertive self-definition, with combativeness, with satisfying sexual encounters, with the development of a personal and a literary style. The volume’s first poem, “On the Move,” touches on most of these themes and connects them to Existentialist concepts. It’s difficult fifty years on to recapture the surprise or discomfort that greeted the emblematic heroes of this poem. The disproportion between young men who rode motorcycles and traditional heroes such as Achilles or Napoleon is striking. It’s unlikely that many poetry readers of the 1950s would have bothered to see the film The Wild One (1953), directed by Laslo Benedek and starring Marlon Brando at his most magnetic. It depicts the life of rebellious American motorcyclists, giving a more or less accurate picture of what had been going on in California during the decade before the film appeared. Gunn couldn’t have seen it in England, where the film was banned, but quite clearly got to know about it once he had moved to California. It launched a vogue for black leather jackets that has never since entirely been abandoned, and one of Gunn’s author photographs from this period shows him wearing just such a jacket. And how are his heroes described?

On motorcycles, up the road, they come:

Small, black as flies hanging in the heat, the Boys,

Until the distance throws them forth, their hum

Bulges to thunder held by calf and thigh.

Farther on:

Much that is natural to the will must yield.

Men manufacture both machine and soul,

And use what they imperfectly control

To dare a future from the taken routes.

And again:

One joins the movement in a valueless word,

Choosing it, till, both hurler and the hurled,

One moves as well, always toward, toward.


A minute holds them, who have come to go:

The self-defined, astride the created will

They burst away. . .

The poem’s conclusion must be understood as a pause, not an end:

At worst, one is in motion; and at best,

Reaching no absolute, in which to rest,

One is always nearer by not keeping still.

In fact, this is followed by more than two dozen poems, including those cited above as concerned with the theme of will. At this point in the discussion, there’s probably no need to dwell too insistently on the Sartrean character of “On the Move.” Yet it may be clarifying to pause a moment on the term Geworfenheit (“thrownness”), used by Martin Heidegger to describe the human condition of being “thrown” by birth into a life situation that is undergone instead of being chosen. The human task is then to alter or transform given conditions by choice until we arrive at an existence compatible with our deepest identity. Heideggerian philosophy is one of the sources of Sartre’s Existentialism. In the passage above, Gunn describes motorcycle and rider as “hurler and hurled,” a centaur-like fusion of man and machine where both entities control forward motion through a terrain, though neither does so entirely. When Gunn says that the riders are “astride the created will,” he attributes an Existential agency to the machine, and we can’t fail to see a sexual suggestion as well. The ancient sexual content implicit in the figure of the rider and his mount has here been adapted for a riding machine.
There is more. In Elizabethan English, “will” could refer to the penis, and any reader who knows this fact assumes that Gunn, a close student of Shakespeare, also knew it given that Shakespeare made several bawdy puns on his nickname “Will.” That double meaning helps explain the emphasis throughout this volume on hardness and the implementation of desire (in Gunn’s life and poetry, homosexual desire). Yet in an interview Gunn said [Christopher Hennessy, Outside the Lines: Talking with Contemporary Gay Poets, University of Michigan Press, 2005, p. 15], Gunn says he was not aware of the double meaning until the early sixties. Even so, he acknowledges the connection: “Obviously there [is] a sexual connotation to it, like in my first two books Fighting Terms and [sic] Sense of Movement, but I didn’t know this until the sixties.” [Ibid.] So then Gunn did come to see the “sexual connotation” in his use of the word while still denying that he intended it. How to resolve the paradox? Perhaps the double sense of the word “will” was in fact mentioned in Gunn’s undergraduate courses; and then he forgot or repressed that knowledge while composing his early poems. A second possibility is that his recourse to the word in contexts involving sex reflects psychological symbols and archetypes intrinsic to human psychology in the Western tradition. These archetypes originated that double meaning for the Elizabethans, allowing it as well to operate unconsciously for others with no special knowledge of sixteenth-century English diction. I think I can let the case rest here without taking shelter under the embattled critic’s favorite loophole, the Intentional Fallacy.

Incidental to the writing of Gunn’s poems of the late 1950s and into the 1960s was a paradigm shift in what we might regard as the iconic representation of the male homosexual, a shift that began in America. An earlier model was the Aesthetic ideal pioneered by Pater and Wilde, where a sensitive and artistic older man became the pedagogue and sexual partner of a beautiful boy. Both figures were soft, mild-mannered, and refined in speech, or, according to some judges, “effeminate.” But this paradigm began to be supplanted in America and then in Europe when models such as Genet’s fictional characters and actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean came to be perceived as more potent and compelling than the older homosexual archetype. The new paradigm involved two grown men of roughly the same age, affecting working-class clothing like blue jeans, boots, and denim or leather jackets. They used rough, substandard diction and profanity, even if they had been brought up in middle-class environments. Instead of being soft-limbed, they lifted weights to increase muscle mass, and they did not try to be clean-shaven or even especially clean. By the end of the 1960s, they grew mustaches and beards. Any sign associated with masculine gender was accentuated, and working-class occupations and pastimes were valorized more than the middle-class equivalents. We see all of this prefigured in the poem “Market and Turk” cited above, where a male prostitute is described along with his alluring garb, a figure similar to the protagonist of John Rechy’s City of Night, which was published a few years later.

Gunn, a product of the middle class and a gilt-edged university education, participated in this shift partly as an act of will, the application of his “theory of poses” and Existential approaches to identity. We may say its manifestations in the poems of The Sense of Movement don’t extend beyond subject matter; the diction and the approach to poetic form belong to an older, elevated tradition. But in subsequent books, Gunn begins moving toward informal diction, less exacting meter, and a preference for daily experience as opposed to literary allusion. I believe it’s also true that his use of Existentialism began to recede in importance for him, in part because Sartre’s prestige began to decline around 1960. Meanwhile, the liberalizing of societal attitudes, as epitomized in the decriminalization of homosexuality, meant that it was no longer necessary to devise elaborate philosophical justifications for what more and more came to be viewed as a natural and non-pathological behavioral variant. Gunn remained an atheist as an Existentialist must, but he was confronted with fewer and fewer instances where a choice could alter the entire direction of his life. He had forged the main outlines of his identity earlier on. The hard, muscled cuirass of the Roman centurion already existed, embodied in the form of his first books, a suit of armor that could be hung on a wall more for contemplation than actual use. He could become more Californian, more pacific, more hedonist-at least until the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s arrived and drove him back to the stark contrast between life and death, Being and Nothingness.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter