Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Born Today in 1844, Poet, Philosopher and Early Gay Rights Activist Edward Carpenter

Edward Carpenter was born today, August 29, in 1844. He was an English socialist poet, philosopher, anthologist, and early activist for gay rights.

As a philosopher he was particularly known for his publication of Civilisation, Its Cause and Cure in which he proposes that civilization is a form of disease that human societies pass through.

Born in Hove in Sussex, Carpenter was educated at nearby Brighton College where his father was a governor. When he was 10, he displayed a flair for the piano.

His academic ability appeared relatively late in his youth, but was sufficient to earn him a place at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. While there he began to explore his feelings for men. One of the most notable examples of this is his close friendship with Edward Anthony Beck (later Master of Trinity Hall), which, according to Carpenter, had "a touch of romance." Beck eventually ended their friendship, causing Carpenter great emotional heartache. Carpenter graduated as 10th Wrangler in 1868. After university he joined the Church of England as a curate, "as a convention rather than out of deep Conviction."

In the following years he experienced an increasing sense of dissatisfaction with his life in the church and university, and became weary of what he saw as the hypocrisy of Victorian society. He found great solace in reading poetry, later remarking that his discovery of the work of Walt Whitman caused "a profound change" in him.

Carpenter left the church in 1874 and became a lecturer in astronomy, sun worship, the lives of ancient Greek women and music, moving to Leeds as part of University Extension Movement, which was formed by academics who wished to introduce higher education to deprived areas of England. He hoped to lecture to the working classes, but found that his lectures were attended by middle class people, many of whom showed little active interest in the subjects he taught. Disillusioned, he moved to Chesterfield, but finding that town dull, he based himself in nearby Sheffield a year later. Here he finally came into contact with manual workers, and he began to write poetry. His sexual preferences were for working men: "the grimy and oil-besmeared figure of a stoker" or "the thick-thighed hot coarse-fleshed young bricklayer with a strap around his waist."

In Sheffield, Carpenter became increasingly radical. Influenced by a disciple of EngelsHenry Hyndman, he joined the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) and attempted to form a branch in the city. While in the city he worked on a number of projects including highlighting the poor living conditions of industrial workers.

When his father Charles Carpenter died in 1882, he left his son a considerable fortune. This enabled Carpenter to quit his lectureship to start a simpler life of market gardening in Millthorpe, near Barlow, Derbyshire. Carpenter popularized the phrase the "Simple Life" in his essay Simplification of Life in his England's Ideal (1887).

Drawn increasingly to Hindu philosophy, he traveled to India and Ceylon in 1890. Following conversations with the guru Ramaswamy (known as the Gnani) there, he developed the conviction that socialism would bring about a revolution in human consciousness as well as of economic conditions. His account of the travel was published in 1892 as From Adam's Peak to Elephanta: Sketches in Ceylon and India. The book's spiritual explorations would subsequently influence the Russian author Peter Ouspensky, who discusses it extensively in his own book, Tertium Organum (1912). As a result of this trip, Carpenter is also credited with introducing the manufacture of sandals to England.

On his return from India in 1891, he met George Merrill (at right), a working-class man also from Sheffield, 22 years his junior, and the two men struck up a relationship, eventually cohabiting in 1898. Merrill had been raised in the slums of Sheffield and had no formal education. Their relationship endured and they remained partners for the rest of their lives, a fact made all the more extraordinary by the hysteria about homosexuality generated by the Oscar Wilde trial of 1895.

The relationship between Carpenter and Merrill was the template for the relationship between Maurice Hall and Alec Scudder, the gamekeeper in E.M. Forster's novel, Maurice. Carpenter was also a significant influence on the author D. H. Lawrence, whose Lady Chatterley's Lover can be seen as a heterosexualised Maurice.

After the First World War, he had moved to Guildford, Surrey, with Merril. In January 1928, Merrill died suddenly. Carpenter was devastated and he sold their house and lodged for a short time, with his companion and carer Ted Inigan.

In May 1928, Carpenter suffered a paralytic stroke. He lived another 13 months before he died in June 1929, at 84. 

Summer Heat

Sun burning down on back and loins, penetrating the
skin, bathing their flanks in sweat,
Where they lie naked on the warm ground, and the
ferns arch over them,
Out in the woods, and the sweet scent of fir-needles
Blends with the fragrant nearness of their bodies;

In-armed together, murmuring, talking,
Drunk with wine of Eros' lips,
Hourlong, while the great wind rushes in the branches,
And the blue above lies deep beyond the fern-fronds
and fir-tips;

Till, with the midday sun, fierce scorching, smiting,
Up from their woodland lair they leap, and smite,
And strike with wands, and wrestle, and bruise each other,
In savage play and amorous despite.

                                                 —Edward Carpenter

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