John Lauritsen: The Shelley-Byron Men

Reviewed by Jesse Monteagudo 

    John Lauritsen is “an independent scholar” who has “the freedom to tell  the truth as I see it, without concerns for career or ‘collegiality’.”
    His first contribution to gay studies was 1974's The Early Homosexual  Rights Movement (1864-1935), which he wrote with David Thorstad.  Lauritsen has since written on a variety of topics before he specialized  on the English Romantic poets of the early 19th century, a period that  Will and Ariel Durant called, “next to the age of Elizabeth I, the  brightest flowering in the four centuries of English poetry.”
    In The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein Lauritsen argued that this book was  written by Percy Bysshe Shelley, not by his second wife Mary, and that  “male love is the dominant theme of Frankenstein.” Lauritsen also edited  new editions of Shelley's translations of Plato's The Banquet and  Aeschylus's Oresteia and Prometheus Bound, while at the same time  arguing that Shelley was gay, or at least bisexual.  All these books were  published by Lauritsen's own Pagan Press, which he founded in 1982 to  “publish books of interest to the intelligent gay man.” 
    Much has been written about the same-sex love affairs of George Gordon,  Lord Byron, to convince most people of that poet's bisexuality.  On the  other hand, Shelley scholars still defend their poet's heterosexuality,  since he died while he was still in his twenties and is best remembered  for his two marriages, to Harriet Westbrook and Mary Godwin.  In  Lauritsen's new book, The Shelley-Byron Men: Lost Angels of a Ruined  Paradise the two romantic poets are revealed as centers of a literary  group devoted to “male love” and “the homoerotic ethos of Ancient Greece.” 
    Along with their friends — Thomas Medwin, Edward John Trelawny and  Edward Ellerker Williams — the poets settled in Pisa, Italy (1822),  where they met daily in Byron's Renaissance palace for literary  discussions that lasted well into the night.
    “For too long, biographers have falsified the love lives of the  Shelley-Byron Men.  The time has come to bring them into the light of  day,” Lauritsen noted.  “It is my contention that these five men — Byron,  Shelley, Medwin, Williams, and Trelawny — along with Thomas Love Peacock  and Thomas Jefferson Hogg in England — were drawn together by sexual  affinities, that they discussed male love, and endeavored to liberate it.”
    That those men lived in exile in Italy is no surprise to Lauritsen:  sodomy was then a capital offense in England, while in Italy, as with  other countries influenced by the Napoleonic Code, it was legal.  Williams was Shelley's “inseparable companion” and, according to  Lauritsen, most likely his lover.  The two youths died together in a  boating accident in the Gulf of Spezia on July 8, 1822.  The  Shelley-Byron Men were together for just half a year.
    In The Shelley-Byron Men: Lost Angels of a Ruined Paradise, Lauritsen  does not try to “prove” that Shelley, Byron, et al were “gay” in the  modern sense of the word.  Instead, Lauritsen argued “that male love  represented an important part of their lives and works, with male love  understood as comprising love, sex, and friendship.”
    Like Walt Whitman later in the century, these men worked for the  emancipation of male love, even if they themselves were not “liberated”  as we understand that term today.  Though much of their work was censored  or destroyed after their deaths, “some of their research, translations,  and argumentation (if such there were) went into a Uranian underground  to surface later in the works of others.”
    They realized, as the Action Committee of a gay united front in Germany  declared in 1921, that “in the final analysis, justice for you will be  the fruit only of your own efforts.  The liberation of homosexuals can  only be the work of homosexuals themselves.” This is liberating work  that we must continue every day. 
    The Shelley-Byron Men may be purchased at or directly from  the publisher, Pagan Press (