Dare not speak its name

In Brief

The "love that dare not speak its name" is not a line of "Wilde's," though it certainly applies to him. It was written by his lover Lord Alfred Douglas ("Bosie"), a poet of some accomplishment. Stephen's recollection of the phrase in Proteus solidifies some of the homoerotic suggestions conveyed by his thoughts about Mulligan in Telemachus. In Scylla and Charybdis he applies it to Shakespeare, who wrote most of his sonnets to the younger man with whom he was in love.

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The speaker of Two Loves envisions two young men "walking on a shining plain / Of Golden light," one of them happily singing of the loves of girls and boys, the other sighing. He asks the sad one for his name and is told, "I am Love." The happy one angrily cries, "'He lieth, for his name is Shame, / But I am Love, and I was wont to be / Alone in this fair garden, till he came / Unasked by night; I am true Love, I fill / The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame.'" The sad lover acquiesces: "'Have thy will, / I am the love that dare not speak its name.'"

That acquiescence was confirmed by the sad outcome of the struggle with Douglas' father, the Marquess of Queensberry. Both sides referred to the poem during the trial for libel that Wilde initiated, the Marquess' lawyer as evidence of criminal homosexual activity and Wilde as the expression of a Platonic devotion. Thornton quotes what Wilde said about it: "The 'Love that dare not speak its name' in this century is such a great affection of an elder for a younger man as there was between David and Jonathan. . . . It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. . . . There is nothing unnatural about it. It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an elder and a younger man, when the elder man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope, and glamour of life before him." Wilde lost the libel suit, and then was himself tried for "gross indecency." He served two years in prison doing hard labor.

In Proteus Stephen thinks of the words as he characterizes Mulligan more approvingly than he ever did in Telemachus: "Staunch friend, a brother soul: Wilde's love that dare not speak its name. He now will leave me. And the blame? As I am. As I am. All or not at all." Like the friendship with Cranly in A Portrait of the Artist, Mulligan represents the possibility of an intense same-sex involvement with a slightly older man—a possibility that is in the process of dissolving. The same features characterize Shakespeare's devotion to the young man of the sonnets. In Scylla and Charybdis Stephen talks about how the poet's female lover "spurned him for a lord, his dearmylove." In interior monologue he thinks, "Love that dare not speak its name."

Given the perils of same-sex love speaking its name it is perhaps not surprising that A Portrait, Telemachus, and Proteus, like Shakespeare's sonnets to the young man, should avoid raising the question of sexual desire. But Stephen does address this issue at least glancingly in Scylla and Charybdis, and there he seems clearly uninterested in a sexual relationship with Mulligan. Homosexual love is one in a long line of non-standard sexual practices that he cites as being less censured by taboo than father-son incest: "Sons with mothers, sires with daughters, lesbic sisters, loves that dare not speak their name, nephews with grandmothers, jailbirds with keyholes, queens with prize bulls." When Mulligan "amorously" recounts the answer that Ernest Dowden made to "the charge of pederasty brought against the bard" ("All we can say is that life ran very high in those days"), Stephen thinks, "Catamite."

JH 2016
Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas in 1893. Source: onyourleft.wordpress.com.
Statue of Oscar Wilde by Danny Osborne in Merrion Square, Dublin, unveiled in 1997. Source: Wikimedia Commons.