In the spring of 1913, Stephen Reynolds went to Havelock Ellis in search of therapy for his homosexuality. Ellis read Reynolds’ book A Poor Man’s House (1911) and recommended it to Edward Carpenter. Carpenter read it, and wrote Reynolds a letter of appreciation. Reynolds, who had been an avid reader of Carpenter’s work for some time, wrote back, delightedly recognising what had caught Carpenter’s attention: ‘I daresay you detected the homogenic basis of it’. (‘Homogenic’ was Carpenter’s word for ‘homosexual’.) They soon arranged to meet in London, and corresponded with each other thereafter. Reynolds went to Carpenter’s Millthorpe in September 1918, and met George Merrill. Carpenter showed him his collection of photos of Taorminan boys.
A Poor Man’s House is about Reynolds’ many friendships with West Country fishermen. Its ‘homogenic basis’ is male affection. If there is homo-eroticism, it is heavily cloaked. The most ardent passages describe the youngest of the male members of the Widger family, with all of whom Reynolds was friendly: ‘John is the youngest, handsomest and most powerfully built of the Widgers; the most independent, most brutal-tongued and most logical, though not, I fancy, the most perceptive’. There is more detail some paragraphs later: ‘Fair-haired, blue-eyed, his clean-shaven face deeply and clearly coloured; a combination of the Saxon bulldog type with the seafaring man’s alertness; his heavy yet lissome frame admirably half-revealed by the simplicity of navy-blue guernsey and trousers,—it is one of the sights of Seacombe to see him walk the length of the Front with his two small boys’. This is the most overtly celebratory passage in the book, and one can understand how Carpenter may have been drawn to it; and, indeed, why Ellis recommended it to him in the first place. The middle-class man’s eye for the working-class man is in evidence here, of course; and Reynolds is aware that when John looks back at him he sees opportunities: ‘The advantages possessed by him—health, strength, clear-headedness, and good looks—he knows how to use, and that without scruple’. Reynolds did not scruple to allow himself to be so used; but it seems clear that he did not make the uses of the youth he must have yearned to.
His therapeutic sessions with Havelock Ellis, two years after the publication of A Poor Man’s House, seem to have enabled him to begin to explore his sexual needs more openly. Meeting Carpenter would further the beneficial effects of the treatment. He wrote a couple of poems in his newly relaxed mood. One of them, ‘Prisoners’, was published in the New Weekly in April 1914. It describes a handcuffed man he had seen on Salisbury station, ‘Slim, upright, fresh-faced, no more than a full-grown boy’. In an awkward expression of sympathy, Reynolds says tears came to his eyes when he caught sight of this youth, ‘just as they will for sick pity / On seeing a beautiful animal maimed or dying, / Or a horse fallen down in a greasy London street, / Helpless, mud-smeared, and dumb’. This patronising expression of sentiment makes more assumptions about the youth than either the poem or the sympathy can bear (‘What was his crime? What does it matter?’), and Reynolds ends the poem with an ostentatious display of his own shame, not only at going home in comfort as the prisoner is hauled off to jail, but also at having failed to make any gesture of solidarity with his plight:
And I more than doubt whether the prison he's gone to
Is any more shameful than that which barred me back
From following the kindlier impulse of the moment,
To grip his handcuffed hand and wish him luck.
(Scoble comments that much of the poem’s power ‘comes also from the evident overtones of Oscar Wilde on Reading station’ [p.565]. It was actually at Clapham Junction that Wilde, under restraint, was spat at by the great British public; but Scoble’s point may well be correct, that Reynolds’ encounter at Salisbury might well have called Wilde to mind.) The poem is a lesser version of Carpenter’s lesser versions of Whitman, but like A Poor Man’s House it has a ‘homogenic basis’ which puts it on a par with so many of those two men’s most intensely felt works.
Christopher Scoble, Fisherman’s Friend: A Life of Stephen Reynolds (Tiverton, Devon: Halsgrove, 2000), pp.564, 653-654, 566.
Stephen Reynolds, A Poor Man’s House (London: Macmillan, 1911), pp.51-52.