‘For me’, writes Dr Coote in his introduction to this Penguin anthology, ‘a gay poem is one that either deals with explicitly gay matters or describes an intense and loving relationship between two people of the same gender.’ ‘Homosexual’, the synonym he has chosen for the title, is a term coined by Karoly Maria Benkert in 1869 to describe behaviour which was beginning to be regarded as a disease after decades of being treated as a crime- in Britain, sodomy (as opposed to intercrurual sex) was a capital offence until 1861. Those who take homosexuality to be a natural variation of human feeling rather than an abnormality will expect to find some love-poems in this book, as well as poems of desire. Both are represented, and, like similar heterosexual verse, a fair proportion is explicit, erotic, sometimes leering.
Coote’s introduction offers a crash course in the history of attitudes to homosexuality that suggests, plausibly enough, the flux of tolerance, prejudice, hypocrisy, taboo and repression from Ancient Greece up until the present era of partial emancipation. He writes with authority, but at times he seems to forget that what