Poet, Philosopher, and Pioneering LGBT Rights Advocate Edward Carpenter’s Moving Love Letter of Gratitude to Walt Whitman
“You have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature.”
By Maria Popova
“Loving anybody and being loved by anybody is a tremendous danger, a tremendous responsibility,” James Baldwin observed as he reflected on same-sex love and the courage to “go the way your blood beats” in his most personal interview. The danger, of course, is exponentially greater for those of us whose loves live outside the heteronormative mold, and it increases exponentially as we turn history’s dial back toward the countless generations who paid for our freedom with theirs — tried like Radclyffe Hall or jailed like Oscar Wilde or assassinated like Harvey Milk or obliquely murdered by the government like Alan Turing or, like Emily Dickinson, like Hans Christian Andersen, dying the slow death of living without the possibility of making their deepest love known in anything less coded than fairy tales and verse.
In the epochs before the term “LGBT” came into use, before the radical notion that taking “Pride” in it could replace living with shame about it, hardly any public voice has emboldened more hearts to love whom they love than Walt Whitman in his courageous, uncoded verses celebrating the freedom of the heart.
One dawning July morning in 1870, at the insomniac peal of 4 A.M. — which Baldwin considered the hour of despair, reckoning, and self-redemption — a young English man who would become the philosopher, poet, and early LGBT rights activist Edward Carpenter (August 29, 1844–June 28, 1929) picked up his pen and his courage, and composed an extraordinary letter to Walt Whitman. Carpenter was twenty-five, Whitman fifty-one.
By then, a decade after the release of his epoch-making Leaves of Grass, the American poet was accustomed to adoring letters from strangers — none more beautiful than Anne Gilchrist’s love letters to him, none more surprising than Bram Stoker’s. Though Carpenter’s was laced with genuine artistic admiration and kinship of spirit, it was not a love letter — it was a letter of gratitude, stirring for its splendor of expression and doubly stirring for the palpable soul-depth of its sentiment.
Whitman found the letter, later quoted in Sheila Rowbotham’s excellent biography Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love (public library), to be “beautiful, like a confession.” It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship and fellowship.
At the time, Carpenter was working as a curate for the Church of England after graduating as a theologian from Trinity Hall two years earlier. After telling Whitman that he is leaving the stagnancy of Cambridge to travel north and lecture to working-class men and women, driven by the sense that they are longing “to lay hold of something with a real grasp,” Carpenter commends the poet for his unselfconscious celebration of working-class masculinity. He then relays that the day before, “a young workman with the old divine light in his eyes” had come to his door, and Carpenter had allowed himself to feel overcome by unselfconscious desire; the encounter had inspired him to thank Whitman for the courage to fully inhabit his love of other men. He writes:
You have, as it were, given me a ground for the love of men I thank you continually in my heart. (—And others thank you though they do not say so). For you have made men to be not ashamed of the noblest instinct of their nature. Women are beautiful; but to some, there is that which passes the love of women.
Writing in an era when same-sex love was not only rejected but criminalized, Carpenter adds ruefully:
It is enough to live wherever the divine beauty of love may flash on men; but indeed its real and enduring light seems infinitely far from us in this our day… At the last, it is enough to know that the longed-for realization is possible — will be, has been, is even now somewhere — even though we find it not.
Across the Atlantic, across the cultural and generational abyss, Carpenter and Whitman met seven years later and remained in lifelong correspondence. Carpenter left the church to become a lecturer in astronomy and the music of ancient Greece, a pioneering LGBT rights activist, a correspondent of Gandhi’s, and a close friend of the Indian poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore — the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize, who believed that “relationship is the fundamental truth of this world of appearance.” After returning from India in 1891, Carpenter met the love of his life — a younger working-class man, who became his partner for the rest of his life. The relationship inspired Carpenter to write beautiful works of uncommon insight into the dangers and triumphs of the heart, any heart — what he called “the drama of love and death.”
Complement with Albert Camus’s magnificent letter of gratitude to his childhood teacher, penned shortly after winning the Nobel Prize, then revisit Carpenter on how freedom strengthens togetherness in long-term relationships and Whitman’s deepest-feeling, furthest-seeing poem.
Published June 9, 2020