Homoeroticism in Epipsychidion

    Copyright 2008 by John Lauritsen

    Epipsychidion (1822) is one of Shelley's most problematic poems. A dream-like meditation on ideal love, it espouses Free Love, ridicules the chains of monogamy, and suggests that his lovers could be either female or male.
    Shelley's dedication reads: “Verses addressed to the noble and unfortunate Lady, Emilia V————, now imprisoned in the convent of ————”. This refers to Countess Emilia Viviani, a young woman residing in the Convent of St. Anna, whom Shelley visited a few times and with whom he corresponded briefly. Although many lines of Epipsychidion appear to be addressed to “Emilia”, this may be a red herring. Despite the overactive imagination of Shelley's biographers, there is not the slightest reason to believe that he had an amorous interest in Emilia — never once did he visit her without being chaperoned by his wife and/or Claire Clairmont.
    Epipsychidion is a cryptic poem, a poèm à clef. Critics have exercised themselves by speculating whether Mary Shelley is symbolized by “moon”, Claire Clairmont by “comet”, and so on. Shelley makes it clear in his preface to the poem, labelled as an “Advertisement”, that he is posing puzzles and dealing in mystification. The poem's meaning will be “sufficiently intelligible to a certain class of readers”, but “incomprehensible” to others. Who are those intended readers? Shelley indicated in a letter to his publisher, Ollier, that he desired Epipsychidion to be circulated only to the sunetoi (the initiated, the cognoscenti, the enlightened, the “esoteric few” [Shelley's words]). That gay men might represent Shelley's “certain class of readers” or sunetoi is as reasonable as any other conjecture.
    After 406 cryptic lines, with occasional appeals to “Emilia”, the poem suddenly changes character with a line break and an appeal to “Emily”. The section that follows, addressed to “Emily” rather than “Emilia”, is almost two hundred lines of beautiful and erotic poetry. I suggest the possibility that “Emily” is not a variant of “Emilia”, but stands for Edward Ellerker Williams — Shelley's beloved companion — either as a code name for him or as his nickname. (The men in the Shelley-Byron circle did use feminine nicknames for each other, for example, “Polly” for Dr. John Polidori.) Shelley and Williams met in early January 1821, over a month before the Epipsychidion manuscript was sent to the printer.
    Alternatively, “Emily” may stand for some other male love of Shelley's, or even an imagined and idealized male love. Shelley may have had, and probably did have, love affairs about which we know nothing. This is to be expected: most people, who exercise a modicum of discretion, succeed in keeping their private love lives hidden. In Shelley's case, we should never forget the efforts of his widow Mary and his daughter-in-law Jane to create a myth, to turn him into “a Victorian angel suitable for enshrinement among the gods of respectability and convention.” [Robert Metcalf Smith, The Shelley Legend, 1945] Considering the massive destruction of letters, manuscripts, journal entries, etc. by Mary and Jane Shelley, the absence of evidence means nothing. We can only imagine what they destroyed.
    Throughout the final, “Emily” section of Epipsychidion are references to sailing, which Shelley and Williams enjoyed from the time they met until the time they died together, a year and a half later — references to the mutual attraction of equals — references to soul mates, the myth of Aristophanes. Despite the "lord/lady" terms, the concluding episode resonates with those qualities that are inherent in and peculiar to an all-male relationship.
    Some additional lines, which did not appear in print, were found and printed in 1903 by C.D. Locock; these were then included in the standard edition of Shelley's Poetical Works edited by Thomas Hutchinson. Some of these additional lines are merely rejects, but others are very fine and highly revealing. Shelley indicates that male love is at least a major theme of the poem; that he must “veil” the gender of his “friend”; that he is using trickery, concealment and camouflage. In light of these additional lines, gender cannot simply be assumed: “lady” may really mean “lord”, and “she” may mean “he”. Anything is possible.
    In four highly revealing lines Shelley declares that he has a friend who is also a lover, and that those who are too obtuse to recognize this might find a clue in Shakespeare's sonnets — in which an older man expresses his love for a beautiful younger man:

      If any should be curious to discover
    Whether to you I am a friend or lover,
    Let them read Shakespeare's sonnets, taking thence
    A whetstone for their dull intelligence....

    The ending of Epipsychidion, beginning with “Emily / A ship is floating in the harbour now....”, makes perfect sense if it is addressed to Williams, his friend and sailing companion; it makes very little sense addressed to a young woman in a convent.
    Below are the following: 1) an excerpt from Shelley's “Advertisement” for Epipsychidion, 2) lines 408-591 of Epipsychidion, with footnote annotation to explicate homoerotic references, and 3) the “Passages of the poem, or connected therewith”, which were not printed with Epipsychidion, also with footnote annotation.



The Writer of the following lines died at Florence, as he was preparing for a voyage to one of the wildest of the Sporades, which he had bought, and where he had fitted up the ruins of an old building, and where it was his hope to have realised a scheme of life, suited perhaps to that happier and better world of which he is now an inhabitant, but hardly practicable in this. His life was singular; less on account of the romantic vicissitudes which diversified it, than the ideal tinge which it received from his own character and feelings. The present Poem, like the Vita Nuova of Dante, is sufficiently intelligible to a certain class of readers without a matter-of-fact history of the circumstances to which it relates; and to a certain other class it must ever remain incomprehensible, from a defect of a common organ of perception for the ideas of which it treats....



Percy Bysshe Shelley

Lines 408-591

        Emily, [1]
A ship is floating in the harbour now,
A wind is hovering o'er the mountain's brow;
There is a path on the sea's azure floor,                    
No keel has ever plough'd that path before;
The halcyons brood around the foamless isles; [2]
The treacherous Ocean has forsworn its wiles;
The merry mariners are bold and free:
Say, my heart's sister, wilt thou sail with me? [3]        
Our bark is as an albatross, whose nest
Is a far Eden of the purple East;
And we between her wings will sit, while Night,
And Day, and Storm, and Calm, pursue their flight,
Our ministers, along the boundless Sea,                      
Treading each other's heels, unheededly.
It is an isle under Ionian skies, [4]
Beautiful as a wreck of Paradise, [5]
And, for the harbours are not safe and good,
This land would have remain'd a solitude                    
But for some pastoral people native there,
Who from the Elysian, clear, and golden air [6]
Draw the last spirit of the age of gold,
Simple and spirited; innocent and bold.
The blue Aegean girds this chosen home, [7]                
With ever-changing sound and light and foam,
Kissing the sifted sands, and caverns hoar;
And all the winds wandering along the shore
Undulate with the undulating tide:
There are thick woods where sylvan forms abide;          
And many a fountain, rivulet and pond,
As clear as elemental diamond,
Or serene morning air; and far beyond,
The mossy tracks made by the goats and deer
(Which the rough shepherd treads but once a year)        
Pierce into glades, caverns and bowers, and halls
Built round with ivy, which the waterfalls
Illumining, with sound that never fails
Accompany the noonday nightingales;
And all the place is peopled with sweet airs;                    
The light clear element which the isle wears
Is heavy with the scent of lemon-flowers,
Which floats like mist laden with unseen showers,
And falls upon the eyelids like faint sleep;
And from the moss violets and jonquils peep                    
And dart their arrowy odour through the brain
Till you might faint with that delicious pain.
And every motion, odour, beam and tone,
With that deep music is in unison:
Which is a soul within the soul -- they seem [8]                 
Like echoes of an antenatal dream.
It is an isle 'twixt Heaven, Air, Earth and Sea,
Cradled and hung in clear tranquillity;
Bright as that wandering Eden Lucifer, [9]
Wash'd by the soft blue Oceans of young air.           
It is a favour'd place. Famine or Blight,
Pestilence, War and Earthquake, never light
Upon its mountain-peaks; blind vultures, they
Sail onward far upon their fatal way:
The wingèd storms, chanting their thunder-psalm       
To other lands, leave azure chasms of calm
Over this isle, or weep themselves in dew,
From which its fields and woods ever renew
Their green and golden immortality.
And from the sea there rise, and from the sky              
There fall, clear exhalations, soft and bright,
Veil after veil, each hiding some delight,
Which Sun or Moon or zephyr draw aside,
Till the isle's beauty, like a naked bride
Glowing at once with love and loveliness,                   
Blushes and trembles at its own excess:
Yet, like a buried lamp, a Soul no less
Burns in the heart of this delicious isle,
An atom of th' Eternal, whose own smile
Unfolds itself, and may be felt not seen                         
O'er the gray rocks, blue waves and forests green,
Filling their bare and void interstices.
But the chief marvel of the wilderness
Is a lone dwelling, built by whom or how
None of the rustic island-people know:                          
'Tis not a tower of strength, though with its height
It overtops the woods; but, for delight,
Some wise and tender Ocean-King, ere crime
Had been invented, in the world's young prime, [10]
Rear'd it, a wonder of that simple time,                           
An envy of the isles, a pleasure-house
Made sacred to his sister and his spouse.
It scarce seems now a wreck of human art,
But, as it were, Titanic; in the heart
Of Earth having assum'd its form, then grown             
Out of the mountains, from the living stone,
Lifting itself in caverns light and high:
For all the antique and learned imagery
Has been eras'd, and in the place of it
The ivy and the wild-vine interknit                               
The volumes of their many-twining stems;
Parasite flowers illume with dewy gems
The lampless halls, and when they fade, the sky
Peeps through their winter-woof of tracery
With moonlight patches, or star atoms keen,                  
Or fragments of the day's intense serene;
Working mosaic on their Parian floors.
And, day and night, aloof, from the high towers
And terraces, the Earth and Ocean seem
To sleep in one another's arms, and dream                       
Of waves, flowers, clouds, woods, rocks, and all that we
Read in their smiles, and call reality.

  This isle and house are mine, and I have vow'd
Thee to be lady of the solitude. [11]
And I have fitted up some chambers there                      
Looking towards the golden Eastern air,
And level with the living winds, which flow
Like waves above the living waves below.
I have sent books and music there, and all
Those instruments with which high Spirits call              
The future from its cradle, and the past
Out of its grave, and make the present last
In thoughts and joys which sleep, but cannot die,
Folded within their own eternity.
Our simple life wants little, and true taste                     
Hires not the pale drudge Luxury to waste
The scene it would adorn, and therefore still,
Nature with all her children haunts the hill.
The ring-dove, in the embowering ivy, yet
Keeps up her love-lament, and the owls flit                   
Round the evening tower, and the young stars glance
Between the quick bats in their twilight dance;
The spotted deer bask in the fresh moonlight
Before our gate, and the slow, silent night
Is measur'd by the pants of their calm sleep.                  
Be this our home in life, and when years heap
Their wither'd hours, like leaves, on our decay,
Let us become the overhanging day,
The living soul of this Elysian isle,
Conscious, inseparable, one. Meanwhile                       
We two will rise, and sit, and walk together,
Under the roof of blue Ionian weather,
And wander in the meadows, or ascend
The mossy mountains, where the blue heavens bend
With lightest winds, to touch their paramour;                 
Or linger, where the pebble-paven shore,
Under the quick, faint kisses of the sea,
Trembles and sparkles as with ecstasy —
Possessing and possess'd by all that is
Within that calm circumference of bliss,                       
And by each other, till to love and live
Be one: or, at the noontide hour, arrive
Where some old cavern hoar seems yet to keep
The moonlight of the expir'd night asleep,
Through which the awaken'd day can never peep;          
A veil for our seclusion, close as night's,
Where secure sleep may kill thine innocent lights;
Sleep, the fresh dew of languid love, the rain
Whose drops quench kisses till they burn again.
And we will talk, until thought's melody                          
Become too sweet for utterance, and it die
In words, to live again in looks, which dart [12]
With thrilling tone into the voiceless heart,
Harmonizing silence without a sound.
Our breath shall intermix, our bosoms bound,               
And our veins beat together; and our lips
With other eloquence than words, eclipse
The soul that burns between them, and the wells
Which boil under our being's inmost cells,
The fountains of our deepest life, shall be                      
Confus'd in Passion's golden purity,
As mountain-springs under the morning sun.
We shall become the same, we shall be one
Spirit within two frames, oh! wherefore two?
One passion in twin-hearts, which grows and grew, [13]     
Till like two meteors of expanding flame,
Those spheres instinct with it become the same,
Touch, mingle, are transfigur'd; ever still
Burning, yet ever inconsumable:
In one another's substance finding food,                   
Like flames too pure and light and unimbu'd
To nourish their bright lives with baser prey,
Which point to Heaven and cannot pass away:
One hope within two wills, one will beneath
Two overshadowing minds, one life, one death,             
One Heaven, one Hell, one immortality,
And one annihilation. Woe is me!
The winged words on which my soul would pierce
Into the height of Love's rare Universe,
Are chains of lead around its flight of fire --                 
I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire! [14]



1. Or Edward. In a fragment connected to Epipsychidion, Shelley indicates that he must veil the person to whom Epipsychidion is addressed: “What you are is a thing that I must veil.” [Shelley Poetical Works, ed. Thomas Hutchinson, Oxford UP 1970, p. 426.] If, as seems most likely from the context of these fragments, Shelley veiled the gender of his love object, then “Emily” could be read as “Edward” — his beloved companion, Edward Ellerker Williams.
    Shelley indicated in a letter to his publisher, Ollier, that he desired Epipsychidion to be circulated only to the sunetoi (the initiated, the cognoscenti, the enlightened, the “esoteric few” [Shelley's words]). He may also have circulated to his sunetoi, either through himself or through Ollier, a key to Epipsychidion, indicating that “Emily” should be read as “Edward”, and that masculine words should be substituted for feminine — for example, “heart's sister” should be read as “heart's brother”, “lady” as “lord”, and so on. In terms of metrics, the masculine words read just as well.
    Alternatively, “Emily” may be Edward's nickname. (Like many gay men, the men in the Shelley-Byron circle did use feminine nicknames for each other, for example, “Polly” for Dr. John Polidori.)

2. “Halcyon”. In Greek legend, a fabled bird with the power to calm the wind and waves while nesting at sea during the winter solstice. As adjective: calm and peaceful, prosperous, golden.

3. “heart's sister”. If gender is veiled, then “heart's sister” would really be “heart's brother”. This is one of many references to the “soul of my soul” or soul mate.

4. “Ionian”. Referring to “a Hellenic people of Mycenaean origin that inhabited Attica, the Peloponnesus along the Saronic Gulf.” [American Heritage Dictionary, hereafter AHD] Note that in Jeremy Bentham's circle, which overlapped the Shelley-Byron circle, “attic mode” was a code expression for gay, homosexual. (Louis Crompton. Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th Century England. Berkeley: U of California P. 1985)

5. Compare “Lost Angel of a ruined Paradise!” — referring to John Keats in Shelley's poem Adonais.

6. “Elysian”. Referring to the Elysian Fields — in Greek mythology, the abode of the blessed.

7. “Aegean”. The Aegean Sea is “an arm of the Mediterranean Sea off southeast Europe between Greece and Turkey.” [AHD] Still another reference to Ancient Greece. Whether intentional or not, the iteration of Greek references, in a passage of erotic love poetry, inevitably suggests Greek Love, or love between males.

8. “a soul within the soul”. A possible translation of epipsychidion.

9. “Lucifer”. Once the fairest of the angels. “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!” (Isaiah 14:12) Lucifer, the rebel or apostate angel, has long been a gay symbol. A gay bar in London is named The Fallen Angel.

10. “ere crime / Had been invented...” That is, before a taboo, derived from the Holiness Code of Leviticus, made male love into a sin and a crime.

11. “I have vow'd / Thee to be lady of the solitude.” There is a verbal ambiguity here. Either the line means 1) Shelley has vowed that “Emily” will be his “lady of the solitude”, or 2) Shelley has vowed that he, himself will be “lady of the solitude” to “Emily” (= Edward). If gender is veiled in Epipsychidion, then “lady” could be read as “lord”.

12. “to live again in looks, which dart / With thrilling tone into the voiceless heart”. A favorite theme of Shelley's: the eyes as conveyors of love, which he expressed in his poems, in his “Essay on Love”, and in Frankenstein. (John Lauritsen, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein, Pagan Press 2007)

13. “We shall become the same, we shall be one / Spirit within two frames” From here until the close of the poem, Shelley describes the union of soul mates, the coming-together of two halves of a primal whole, from the speech of Aristophanes in Plato's Symposium. In Shelley's translation of the Symposium (or Banquet):

    If Vulcan should stand over the couch of these persons [male lovers] thus affected as they were reclining together, with his tools, and should say to them, “My good people, what is it that you want with one another?” And if, while they were hesitating what to answer, he should proceed to ask, “Do you not desire the closest union and singleness to exist between you, so that you may never be divided night or day? If so, I will melt you together, and make you grow into one, so that both in life and death ye may be undivided. Consider, is this what you desire? Will it content you if you become that which I propose?” We all know that no one would refuse such an offer, but would at once feel that this was what he had ever sought; and intimately to mix and melt and to be melted together with his beloved, so that one should be made out of two. [Plato: The Banquet, translated by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Pagan Press 2001]

“One passion in twin-hearts”. Compare the the final line of the epitaph that Shelley composed for Edward Williams and himself: “For their two hearts in life were single-hearted.” For more on this epitaph click here.

14. “I pant, I sink, I tremble, I expire!” This is the “death which lovers love” (Boat on the Serchio) — orgasm!


Passages of the Poem, or Connected Therewith

Here, my dear friend, is a new book for you [1]
I have already dedicated two
To other friends, one female and one male, —
What you are, is a thing that I must veil; [2]
What can this be to those who praise or rail?
I never was attached to that great sect
Whose doctrine is that each one should select
Out of the world a mistress or a friend, [3]
And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend
To cold oblivion — though 'tis in the code
Of modern morals, and the beaten road [4]
Which those poor slaves with weary footsteps tread
Who travel to their home among the dead
By the broad highway of the world — and so
With one sad friend, and many a jealous foe,
The dreariest and the longest journey go.

  Free love has this, different from gold and clay,
That to divide is not to take away. [5]
Like ocean, which the general north wind breaks
Into ten thousand waves, and each one makes
A mirror of the moon — like some great glass,
Which did distort whatever form might pass,
Dashed into fragments by a playful child,
Which then reflects its eyes and forehead mild;
Giving for one, which it could ne'er express,
A thousand images of loveliness.

  If I were one whom the loud world held wise,
I should disdain to quote authorities
In commendation of this kind of love: — [6]
Why there is first the God in heaven above,
Who wrote a book called Nature, 'tis to be [7]
Reviewed, I hear, in the next Quarterly;
And Socrates, the Jesus Christ of Greece,
And Jesus Christ Himself, did never cease
To urge all living things to love each other, [8]
And to forgive their mutual faults, and smother
The Devil of disunion in their souls.

I love you! — Listen, O embodied Ray
Of the great Brightness; I must pass away
While you remain, and these light words must be
Tokens by which you may remember me.

  Start not — the thing you are is unbetrayed,
If you are human, and if but the shade
Of some sublimer spirit....

And as to friend or mistress, 'tis a form;
Perhaps I wish you were one. Some declare
You a familiar spirit, as you are;
Others with a           more inhuman
Hint that, though not my wife, you are a woman;
What is the colour of your eyes and hair?
Why, if you were a lady, it were fair [9]
The world should know — but, as I am afraid,
The Quarterly would bait you if betrayed;
And if, as it will be sport to see them stumble
Over all sorts of scandals, hear them mumble
Their litany of curses — some guess right,
And others swear you're a Hermaphrodite; [10]
Like that sweet marble monster of both sexes,
Which looks so sweet and gentle that it vexes
The very soul that the soul is gone
Which lifted from her limbs the veil of stone.

    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

It is a sweet thing, friendship, a dear balm,
A happy and auspicious bird of calm,
Which rides o'er life's ever tumultuous Ocean;
A God that broods o'er chaos in commotion;
A flower which fresh as Lapland roses are,
Lifts its bold head into the world's frore air,
And blooms most radiantly when others die,
Health, hope, and youth, and brief prosperity;
And with the light and odour of its bloom,
Shining within the dungeon and the tomb; [11]
Whose coming is as light and music are
'Mid dissonance and gloom — a star
Which moves not 'mid the moving heavens alone —
A smile among dark frowns — a gentle tone
Among rude voices, a beloved light,
A solitude, a refuge, a delight.
If I had but a friend!  Why, I have three
Even by my own confession; there may be
Some more, for what I know, for 'tis my mind
To call my friends all who are wise and kind, —
And these, Heaven knows, at best are very few;
But none can ever be more dear than you.
Why should they be?  My muse has lost her wings,
Or like a dying swan who soars and sings,
I should describe you in heroic style,
But as it is, are you not void of guile?

A lovely soul, formed to be blessed and bless:
A well of sealed and secret happiness;
A lute which those whom Love has taught to play
Make music on to cheer the roughest day,
And enchant sadness till it sleeps? ....

    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

To the oblivion whither I and thou,
All loving and all lovely, hasten now
With steps, ah, too unequal!  may we meet
In one Elysium or one winding-sheet [12]

  If any should be curious to discover
Whether to you I am a friend or lover,
Let them read Shakespeare's sonnets, taking thence
A whetstone for their dull intelligence
That tears and will not cut, or let them guess [13]
How Diotima, the wise prophetess,
Instructed the instructor, and why he
Rebuked the infant spirit of melody
On Agathon's sweet lips, which as he spoke
Was as the lovely star when morn has broke
The roof of darkness, in the golden dawn,
Half-hidden, and yet beautiful. [14]
                        I'll pawn
My hopes of Heaven — you know what they are worth —
That the presumptuous pedagogues of Earth,
If they could tell the riddle offered here
Would scorn to be, or being to appear
What now they seem and are — but let them chide,
They have few pleasures in the world beside;
Perhaps we should be dull were we not chidden,
Paradise fruits are sweetest when forbidden. [15]
Folly can season Wisdom, Hatred Love.

    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

Farewell, if it can be to say farewell
To those who

    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

  I will not, as most dedicators do,
Assure myself and all the world and you,
That you are faultless — would to God they were
Who taunt me with your love!  I then should wear [16]
These heavy chains of life with a light spirit,
And would to God I were, or even as near it
As you, dear heart. Alas! what are we? Clouds
Driven by the wind in warring multitudes,
Which rain into the bosom of the earth,
And rise again, and in our death and birth,
And through our restless life, take as from heaven
Hues which are not our own, but which are given,
And then withdrawn, and with inconstant glance
Flash from the spirit to the countenance.
There is a Power, a Love, a Joy, a God
Which makes in mortal hearts its brief abode,
A Pythian exhalation, which inspires
Love, only love — a wind which o'er the wires
Of the soul's giant harp
There is a mood which language faints beneath;
You feel it striding, as Almighty Death
His bloodless steed....

    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

And what is that most brief and bright delight
Which rushes through the touch and through the sight,
And stands before the spirit's inmost throne,
A naked Seraph?  None hath ever known.
Its birth is darkness, and its growth desire;
Untameable and fleet and fierce as fire,
Not to be touched but to be felt alone,
It fills the world with glory — and is gone.

    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

It floats with rainbow pinions o'er the stream
Of life, which flows, like a         dream
Into the light of morning, to the grave
As to an ocean....

    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

What is that joy which serene infancy
Perceives not, as the hours content them by,
Each in a chain of blossoms, yet enjoys
The shapes of this new world, in giant toys
Wrought by the busy         ever new?
Remembrance borrows Fancy's glass, to show
These forms more            sincere
Than now they are, than then, perhaps, they were.
When everything familiar seemed to be
Wonderful, and the immortality
Of this great world, which all things must inherit,
Was felt as one with the awakening spirit,
Unconscious of itself, and of the strange
Distinctions which in its proceeding change
It feels and knows, and mourns as if each were
A desolation....

    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

Were it not a sweet refuge, Emily,
For all those exiles from the dull insane [17]
Who vex this pleasant world with pride and pain,
For all that band of sister-spirits known [18]
To one another by a voiceless tone?

    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

If day should part us night will mend division
And if sleep parts us — we will meet in vision
And if life parts us — we will mix in death [19]
Yielding our mite [?] of unreluctant breath
Death cannot part us — we must meet again
In all in nothing in delight in pain:
How, why or when or where — it matters not
So that we share an undivided lot....

    .    .    .    .    .    .    .

And we will move possessing and possessed

Wherever beauty on the earth's bare [?] breast
Lies like the shadow of thy soul — till we
Become one being with the world we see....



1. In my book, The Man Who Wrote Frankenstein (Pagan Press 2007), I argue that Shelley uses friend as a code word for the male lover of another man. For a description of this book click here.

2. “a thing that I must veil”. Shelley here indicates that he must veil the person to whom Epipsychidion is dedicated. How veil? In the context of these lines — in which female is contrasted to male, mistress to friend — the most plausible interpretation is that Shelley veiled the gender of his friend.

3. “I never was attached to that great sect/ Whose doctrine is that each one should select/ Out of the world a mistress or a friend”. In this remarkable passage, Shelley declares both his bisexuality and his allegiance to Free Love, his opposition to obligatory monogamy.  Here mistress and friend are presented as erotic counterparts — and as the counterpart of mistress, friend can only be understood in an erotic sense.

4. “modern morals”. That is, Judeo-Christian morals (which condemn male love) as contrasted with the morals of Ancient Greece (which exalted male love).

5. “Free love....” A forthright affirmation of Free Love.

6. “commendation of this kind of love”. In context, what can “this kind of love” refer to, other than male love, or what Shelley might have called “Uranian Love”?

7. “the God in heaven above, / Who wrote a book called Nature”. Here Shelley rebuts the Roman Catholic dogma that sex between males is a sin against nature (peccatum contra naturam). Male love is part of nature, and therefore cannot be unnatural.

8. The simplest argument: love is good.

9. “Why, if you were a lady...”. The subjunctive implies that Shelley's friend, to whom Epipsychidion is covertly dedicated, is male.

10. “Hermaphrodite”. A mythical being that is both male and female. An old code word for a gay person.

11. “Shining within the dungeon and the tomb.” These and the preceding lines suggest forbidden love, sexual acts punished by imprisonment and death. During Shelley's entire lifetime, men and boys in England were hanged for having sex with each other.

12. “In one Elysium or one winding-sheet.” Shelley's wish that he and his friend be united, in happiness or in death. For a brief essay on this topic, “Shelley's Ashes”, click here.

13. In these four lines Shelley discloses that his friend is his lover. Shakespeare's sonnets, which express the love of an older for a younger man, are unmistakably a gay reference. Note Shelley's contempt for the “dull intelligence” of straight people.

14. These seven lines, beginning with “How Diotima ...”, refer to Plato's Symposium, which Shelley translated in 1818 as The Banquet. Male love is at the core of this dialogue; like Shakespeare's sonnets, the Symposium has for centuries been used by gay men as a coded reference.

15. “Paradise fruits are sweetest when forbidden.” Again the idea of forbidden love.

16. “would to God they were [faultless] / Who taunt me with your love!” Perhaps pure rhetoric; perhaps Shelley actually had been taunted for having a homosexual relationship.

17. “all those exiles from the dull insane” Gay men, who are exiles from the stifling and crazy taboos and conventions of normalcy.

18. “all that band of sister-spirits known / To one another by a voiceless tone”. Or brother-spirits. Gay men are able to identify each other by clues to which straight people are insensible; they have gaydar.

19. “And if life parts us — we will mix in death.” Again, Shelley's wish to be united with his lover in death. For a brief essay on this topic, “Shelley's Ashes”, click here.

Back to Male Love Among the Romantics.