In John Barton’s introduction to Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets, he describes what he calls “a gaydar moment.” For Canada’s earliest poets, we can only speculate on their sexuality – educated guesses based on their work, their lives, and the context of their times.
The few openly gay literary critics working on Canada’s poets know that we have to be conservative.
Still, Barton and Billeh Nickerson are able to give us two poets whose work was published before the end of World War I, and who may have been gay. Frank Oliver Call (1878-1956) was an Anglophone poet from Quebec’s Eastern Townships who’s thought of as a bridge between traditional and modern poetry in Canada. Émile Nelligan (1879-1941) was one of Quebec’s greatest poets and famous tragic figure.
Meanwhile, another early poet, Elsa Gidlow is the first individual we know about to identify as “homosexual” in the country. She gives us both our first poetry openly about same-sex love, and our first descriptions of Montreal’s queer community. She deserves her own article, and I’ll be devoting the next few entries to her life and the circles she travelled in.
As for Nelligan and Call, neither were “out” publicly – and neither of them are on this list without controversy. Still, their work seems to include what some of us see as a “gay sensibility.” Elements of gay life or gay aesthetic haunt the edges of it. Neither were married, or otherwise connected romantically to any woman. Call incorporated homosexuality clearly into his writing, though in Nelligan’s work there are only suggestive hints. We’ll deal with Nelligan first.
In the bookstore a block from my home, there’s a large photo of Émile Nelligan in the window. It’s the same photo used on every book about Nelligan’s life. And there are many books. While English Canada has largely forgotten its 19th-century poets, Nelligan still looms large in French Canada, as much for the myth of his life as for his work.
Émile Nelligan was born in 1879 to a French-Canadian mother and an Irish immigrant father. He famously didn’t get along with the father. Nelligan was a child prodigy in poetry and knew he wanted to be a poet from an early age. David Nelligan wanted his son to enter a better-paid profession.
Nelligan was first published at age sixteen. He wrote prolifically throughout his teenage years, published (much of it under pseudonyms), gave readings, and was part of the Montreal literary scene.
Then in 1899 – before his 20th birthday – he had a breakdown that is now believed to have been the onset of schizophrenia. He was hospitalized, and never left the hospital. He died in 1941, having spent two-thirds of his life in an asylum. He only became famous after his complete works were published in 1903, and though he had visitors in the hospital, it’s said he never knew that he came to be considered one of French Canada’s greatest poets.
The brief spark of genius followed by more than forty years of insanity meant that Nelligan’s life leant itself easily to myth. The most famous of these myths was that his breakdown was caused by his having an anglophone father and a francophone mother, and could not reconcile the two cultures – an object lesson for nationalists on the danger of mixing cultures, and a metaphor for Quebec in Canada.
Few of Nelligan’s biographers take this theory seriously now. But these days they have to increasingly address another theory – that Émile Nelligan was gay.
Nelligan literary critic Émile J. Talbot summarizes the debate, and provides his own opinion in a discussion of the tension between sexuality and religion in Nelligan’s work:
Armand Laroche, in his play Nelligan blanc (1981), suggested that Nelligan was a homosexual, a condition that, if true, would be sure to heighten his anxiety in matters sexual. This suggestion has since been repeated by others, notably by Aude Nantais and Jean-Joseph Tremblay in their play Nelligan déchiré. There is, however, no textual, biographical, or historical evidence for such a hypothesis, and it has not been endorsed by any scholar of Nelligan. Since homosexuality would not have been a subject of discourse in nineteenth-century Quebec, the absence of evidence itself is not, in itself, proof of the absence of the fact.
Talbot goes on to say, with refreshing honesty, that he will assume Nelligan is straight unless there is evidence to the contrary. He is far from the only scholar to adopt an “innocent until proven gay” position when it comes to understanding historical figures, but he is one of the very few to admit it clearly.
To his credit, he also admits that nothing is known about Nelligan’s sex life, if any. Some of his biographers tell us that he claimed to be celibate, either because he was married to the muse of poetry or because he was a devout Catholic, but there’s no real proof even for this.
I disagree with Talbot that we should assume the heterosexuality of Nelligan without any hard evidence either way. It suggests that queer people were rare birds among Montreal’s poetry scene – and when we get to the next entry, we’ll see that that’s simply not the case.
When academics look at the things that influence a poet’s work, they tend to go to the books they were reading, especially other poets.
All that is good – and supports my point given that those authors for Nelligan were Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Baudelaire. But sometimes it’s worthwhile just to walk in the poet’s footsteps and see what they saw.
Nelligan began going out of long walks at night in the last two years of his life. Nobody knows where he went. And I hope the reader will bear with me as we walk through this literary mystery.
Émile Nelligan’s neighbourhood is remarkably well-preserved. The old greystone attached houses with their carved porches maybe beautiful to those of us raised on glass and concrete, but to Nelligan they were part of an urban jungle that the speakers in his poems always seemed to want to escape. And north, east, and south, it’s old grey stone as far as the eye can see.
If you walk a quarter of a block to the Rue Napoléon, though, and walk a few minutes west, you come to the eastern slope of Mount Royal – the city’s largest park, and a paradise for anyone wanting to get away from the city. There the maple trees and birches that line the streets give way to the trees that fill Nelligan’s poems: yews, cypresses, white poplars. You’ll also see other objects, like statues, that seem to fill what could be called his “park at night” poetry.
Reading Nelligan’s work and walking the park, it feels impossible not to conclude that you’re looking at the places in the park poems – and very likely that Nelligan spent at least part of those long nights wandering the forest that was practically his own backyard. But by the time you get to the trees on that eastern slope, you’ve already entered a place long known to Montrealers in the know as “The Jungle.”
No one knows how old “The Jungle” is. The men who cruise there tend not to write memoirs about it. It looms large in gay fiction in Quebec, and as early as 1954, there was an official study of it. Historian Luther A. Allen tells us that “It is plausible in fact that well before the 1930s, gay cruising had established itself on the trails.”
How much earlier? Parc Mont-Royal’s sister park – Central Park in New York – became a cruising spot almost instantly after it had opened, and Mount Royal in the 1890s was close to the nascent gay neighbourhood in the red-light district on Saint-Laurent, “The Sodom of North America” where there had already been a bust of a brothel of male prostitutes (more on this in a future article). Montreal already had a cruising area on the Champs-Mars behind city hall, but the public had begun to notice it, and the mountain was closer to the red-light district. So it would be very, very surprising if there wasn’t already gay cruising there in the 1890s.
If there was a gay cruising spot on the mountain, and Nelligan was there, did he notice it? For evidence of that, we turn to his poetry. There are frequent references to public sex in parks at night in his poems – the “large parks where Love plays under the trees” (“Rhythms of the Night”). In these places,
The languorous, beautiful yews, and the white poplars that become sad,
Cast shadows over the green nests of love. (“Dream of Fantasy”)
Similar imagery is also called up in “Night Seeds Love”:
The night seeds love, and the Fertility Festival [rogations]
Gets down on its knees with Dream.
Then there’s “Force Back the Dirt Path”:
Force back the trail
Almost being reborn
To our passing shadow.
With all that
Which was from the villa
Among hushed voices
Are here and there knocked over.
In the dead park
Where roams a perfume
Of white night in brown night.”
In another poem –“Under the Satyrs” – he personifies his pain as a person he has clasped to him in “cloistered in the back of old, close pavilions” under “under the darkness of rustic/Trees that emit an opiate perfume.” In a poem from his asylum days, he writes, “On the side of the mountain a spring [of water] sings/A spring of love and of beautiful youth.”
Why all this imagery of parks and darkness and “green nests of love”? Much of this poetry comes out of that period of Nelligan’s life when I suspect he was wandering the mountain behind his house.
Almost all critics have seemed to have assumed that the “green nests of love” were full of heterosexual couples. This strikes a false note with me. Even today – post-sexual-revolution, post-pill, in an age where the parks are better lit and better policed – most women would think twice about following a man onto trails into Parc Mont-Royal at night. Women in Nelligan’s time were even more vulnerable.
Meanwhile, most of the prostitution at the time seemed to be going on in indoors, in the semi-tolerated (heterosexual) brothels in the red-light district. Most arrests for heterosexual prostitution I’ve found in this period in my research took place in “disorderly houses.”
At the same time, most arrests I’ve found for gay sex took place in public. It was tolerated nowhere, so the safest option was the parks and other dark places outdoors – far from everyone.
This concatenation of possibilities doesn’t actually prove anything. But none of these possibilities are farfetched. I’d even argue that it was likely that Nelligan spent at least some of his night walks wandering the mountain behind his house, and the cruising likely already going on up there was mentioned in his poetry – mentions that seem to include him implicitly.
One of the things Nelligan biographers have to wrestle with are the bizarre contradictions in his personality. Several of his biographers tell us that Nelligan was a Catholic so devout he gave up on romance with women, but also a bohemian whose favourite authors were the most irreligious crowd: Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Charles Baudelaire. Réal Bertrand, tells us, “He wanted, more than anything, to imitate Rimbaud.”
These are extremely odd choices for a devout Catholic. Rimbaud, Verlaine, and Baudelaire were enormous critics of the Catholic Church.
There’s another connection between these authors. Rimbaud and Verlaine male lovers who went into exile, and fill the same place in France’s mythology of homosexuality that Oscar Wilde fills for Britain’s. Baudelaire, meanwhile, wrote frankly and openly about lesbianism. All three were required reading for anyone entering Montreal’s gay community just twenty years later, as the next few entries will show.
Then there’s the near-total lack of women in his life – only three or four in his circles of friends, and none of them seem to have been lovers. There’s a Gretchen mentioned in his poetry –a beautiful immigrant from Westphalia in Germany – but no one has ever connected her to a real person, and it’s as likely she’s as much a fiction as the perfect shepherds and beautiful salons in his other poems.
Sometimes, the fact that he wrote about being in love with women in his poems is taken as proof of his heterosexuality. But of course, it was a pretty common strategy for gay men from Marcel Proust to Oscar Wilde to disguise real-life same-sex relationships as heterosexual ones in fiction, and this held true for gay writers well into the 20th century. And even twenty years later, Elsa Gidlow would agonize over whether she should talk openly of her relationships in poetry, when lesbianism wasn’t technically illegal.
Nelligan liked scandal, he liked playing up the role of the rebel youth and the wounded lover – but there’s never a known romance of any kind in his life. It seems a strange gap for such a romantic. Meanwhile, his biographers all feel the need to inform us that all the men in his life – from the poet Louis Dantin to a painter who was a roommate of his friend – were beautiful. Dantin himself calls Nelligan “un éphèbe” – a beautiful young man – in his introduction to his works.
There are also the odd sexual notes in some of his poems written after he was committed to the asylum. In a rewrite of his most famous poem, “Le Vaisseau d’or,” usually taken to be about his insanity, he changes the famous lines, “And the horrific shipwreck sent its hull/To the depths of the Gulf, inescapable coffin” to “And the horrific shipwreck sent its three nudes [the sailors]/To the depths of an abyss in repulsive joy.”
Again, nothing here proves anything. Nelligan may indeed have been a celibate straight teenager, in love with the bohemian way of life.
But the theory that he was gay has a nice Occam ’s Razor feel to it. It explains why he was “celibate” in spite of being a bohemian, and it explains his obsession with Rimbaud and Verlaine and Baudelaire in spite of his Catholicism. It also fits all the imagery around breaking hearts easily into the life of a man who hardly had any women around him at all.
Most scholars just resort to platitudes like “He was a poet” or “He was insane” to explain these contradictions. The theory that he was gay covers all the contradictions much more elegantly. And while that doesn’t make it true, it means that it should not be so easily shoved aside. That Nelligan experts are quick to attack the theory probably tells us more about them than it tells us about our poet.
Frank Oliver Call
If you’re lucky enough to find Frank Oliver Call (1878-1956) mentioned anywhere, he’ll be praised as a “pivotal” figure – and that adjective is always used – between Victorian and Modernist poetry. That’s usually it. This being Canada, even the pivotal figures get forgotten. Call doesn’t have an entry in Canadian Encyclopedia, in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, or Wikipedia – all of which can be trusted to have at least a tiny article on the most minor of Canadian figures.
If you dig deeply enough, you’ll discover a few other things about Call. His parents names were Lorenzo and Sarah, he was educated at what’s now Bishop’s University in Lennoxville, Quebec, McGill University. He also studied in Paris and Marburg, Germany. He taught Modern Languages at Bishop’s, and there he was a mentor to a much more famous poet, Ralph Gustafson. He served in World War I. He had a cottage and a garden in Knowlton, where he specialized in irises and peonies. We also know from the manifesto at the beginning of his second collection of poetry that he wanted to strike a balance between modern and traditional poetry.
What you won’t find are any references to a wife or children, although I did finally in an American biographical dictionary that confirmed he was unmarried – a detail not in any Canadian source I have access to.
Unlike Émile Nelligan, whose personal life has been picked over endlessly in spite of the gaps, Call’s is almost a blank slate for us. The claim that Call was gay comes entirely from his poetry, particularly his anthology of homoerotic verse published in 1944, called Sonnets for Youth that included references to Greek myths such as the myth of Hyacinth. We’ll come back to this collection in a future article.
Interestingly, Call’s sexuality has once again sparked interest in his career. Since his inclusion in Seminal, when he’s discussed at all it’s usually as a gay poet.
During World War I, Call was already publishing. His first collection was In a Belgian Garden (1917) and his newer published poems came out in Acanthus and Wild Grapes. While these two books not as explicitly homoerotic as Sonnets for Youth, there are already hints of what’s coming later.
Beauty in Call’s first two collections is reserved entirely for the male, frequently disturbingly young. He focuses on the beautiful eyes, the “sun-browned skin,” and on their voices. Attractive young men singing appear again and again. His love poetry is quite erotic by the standards of the time, but always in the second person, carefully avoiding any revealing pronouns. And like Britain’s gay war poet Wilfred Owen, Call is very focused on the youth and beauty of the young men sacrificed to the war.
Meanwhile, Call’s poetry is largely an all-boys club. When he promises he’ll “sing of the men of the Homeland,” it certainly seems to be true. Women aren’t absent but they are rare. In his first collection, they are mostly old women or nuns, and strangely disembodied. In his second, Beauty gets personified as a beautiful woman, but none of the more real ones do.
The Work to Be Done
Researching which poets of the 19th century may have been homosexual or bisexual, one runs into the immediate problem that Canadians do very little to remember their poets of the era, even though poetry commanded so much respect in previous centuries.
When Elsa Gidlow describes the Montreal artistic scene a mere twenty years later, homosexuals and bisexuals seem to be a central part of it. We have no key yet to let us into the earlier period when Nelligan was writing, or before. But it is very doubtful that one of the few professions that was kind to homosexuals and bisexuals in the West was lacking queer members, even in Canada.
It certainly wasn’t in Gidlow’s time. In the next two articles, we’re going to look at Gidlow – openly lesbian poet, co-founder of the first Canadian magazine of poetry and gay liberation (in 1917!), and first inside chronicler of a gay community in Canada.
Sources: This may be the first article in this blog I actually have the formal education to back me as an “expert,” since I did my degree in Canadian literature. The first source and inspiration for this article is Seminal: The Anthology of Canada’s Gay Male Poets by John Barton and Billeh Nickerson. For Nelligan’s life I used numerous biographies and scholarly studies. Most useful to me were Réal Bertrand’s Émile Nelligan, Reading Nelligan by Émile J. Talbot, and the description of him by his friend Louis Dantin reprinted in the 2008 Typo editions of his complete works – which is also my source of his poems. I also used Poemes Et Textes D Asile, a collection of his work put out after he was committed to the hospital. All translations here are my own – I’ve tried to be scrupulous. I should note that I’ve tried to err on the conservative side. I haven’t noted that the phrase I translated as “fertility festival” – rogations – is actually a Catholic mutation of the Roman festival of Robigalia, which celebrated the fertility of crops, and (inexplicably) male prostitutes. It is doubtful though not impossible Nelligan knew this, just as it’s doubtful but not impossible that he knew the homoerotic Greek myths surrounding the cypress tree and the swan, which appear frequently in his poems. Dantin dismissed Nelligan’s learning and says he got it all from other poets, but his vocabulary was impressive and includes a great many obscure words you’re not even going to find in most Larousse dictionaries, and obscure facts you’re not going to find in the encyclopedia. For the mountain and “The Jungle,” see “L’Aventure sexuelle clandestine: le cas de mont Royal” by Luther A. Allen in Sortir de l’Ombre: Histoires des Communautés lesbienne et gaie de Montréal. I rounded it out with a trip up the mountain – starting from Nelligan’s home at 3958 avenue Laval – and comparing what I saw with what was in his poetry. The cruising ground on the Champ-Marshas been mentioned in a previous article. A note to anyone researching this subject is that there’s a purely fictional set of notebooks for Nelligan written by Bernard Courteau – but you’ll only learn they’re fiction by reading the endnotes. They make Nelligan seem like a postmodernist who’s read far too much Julia Kristeva, though Courteau claims it’s extensively well-researched -and I was sad to learn they’re fiction as they supported my case quite well. As for Call, researching him almost exhausted my talents, and my schooling had prepared me well for digging up obscure Canadian authors. Tiny biographical blurbs can be readily found online, but they’re vague and copy each other. My best source was a set of primary texts – articles, photos, etc – put up online by his nephew at frankolivercall.org, as well as his own books of poetry and the brief blurb in Seminal. Some details – such as his having been unmarried – can be found in Who Was Who Among North American Authors – no author or editor for this excellent resource, just credited to the Gale Research Company. There was information there not in any other print or online source.