In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the origins of a famous phrase associated with Oscar Wilde
Which writer gave us the expression ‘the love that dare not speak its name’? Oscar Wilde? He gave us many other famous quotations, of course; but although ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ has a link with Wilde, he was not the one who coined that phrase.
Let’s go back to 1895, and to the trial of Oscar Wilde. Having unsuccessfully (and, as it turns out, ill-advisedly) tried to sue the Marquess of Queensberry for libel (the Marquess had left Wilde a calling card at his club which described Wilde as ‘posing as a ponce and somdomite [sic]’), Wilde found himself in the dock a few months later, on a charge of ‘gross indecency’. The Labouchere Amendment in English law had, ten years earlier, criminalised intimate acts between men, and Queensberry’s own son, Lord Alfred Douglas, was in a relationship with Wilde.
At Wilde’s trial, he was asked about a poem called ‘Two Loves’, which included the phrase ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. When asked what this was supposed to mean, Wilde gave a characteristically articulate reply:
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, such as Plato made the very basis of his philosophy, and such as you find in the sonnets of Michelangelo and Shakespeare. It is that deep, spiritual affection that is as pure as it is perfect. It dictates and pervades great works of art like those of Shakespeare and Michelangelo, and those two letters of mine, such as they are. It is in this century misunderstood, so much misunderstood that it may be described as the ‘Love that dare not speak its name,’ and on account of it I am placed where I am now.
Wilde was drawing a parallel between his own relationship with Douglas and the ancient Greek ideal of ‘Platonic love’: it is a love between men, but is not coarse or base or (merely) physical in nature. It usually involves, as Wilde says, an older and younger man. Wilde goes on:
It is beautiful, it is fine, it is the noblest form of affection. 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. That it should be so, the world does not understand. The world mocks at it and sometimes puts one in the pillory for it.
It was an eloquent defence of love between men, but it fell on deaf ears in this late Victorian court of law. Wilde was sentenced to two years’ hard labour; he famously served some of his sentence in Reading Gaol, about which he later wrote his most famous poem (contrary to popular belief, he didn’t actually write the poem while in prison).
But Wilde did not write the poem ‘Two Loves’, which is the source of the phrase ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. It was a poem by Lord Alfred Douglas, written in September 1892 and published in the Oxford magazine The Chameleon in December 1894.
‘Two Loves’ concludes:
A purple robe he wore, o’erwrought in gold
With the device of a great snake, whose breath
Was fiery flame: which when I did behold
I fell a-weeping, and I cried, ‘Sweet youth,
Tell me why, sad and sighing, thou dost rove
These pleasant realms? I pray thee speak me sooth
What is thy name?’ He said, ‘My name is Love.’
Then straight the first did turn himself to me
And cried, ‘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.’
Then sighing, said the other, ‘Have thy will,
I am the Love that dare not speak its name.’
Douglas’s poem is clearly homoerotic: it describes the speaker’s wanderings in a ‘waste garden’ where he encounters a naked ‘youth’:
White as the snow on pathless mountains frore,
Red were his lips as red wine-spilith that dyes
A marble floor, his brow chalcedony.
And he came near me, with his lips uncurled
And kind, and caught my hand and kissed my mouth …
This beguiling guide takes Douglas’s speaker through the garden, where they meet two further youths: one happy, the other sad. They both say they are Love, but the happy youth declares that the sad one should really be called ‘Shame’. Sure enough, when the speaker asks the sad-faced youth why he is said, he gives the answer quoted above: ‘I am the Love that dare not speak its name.’
And thus a phrase was born which would act as code for much of the next century: a euphemism for homosexual love, especially between two men.
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.