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"A Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name" Poetry Phrase Meaning

JohnMello is a writer, composer, musician, and author of books for children and adults.

Lord Alfred Douglas, left, with his lover Oscar Wilde

Lord Alfred Douglas, left, with his lover Oscar Wilde

This phrase was coined by Lord Alfred Douglas in his poem Two Loves, first printed in the Chameleon in 1894:

  • I am the love that dare not speak its name.

We tend to associate the phrase with Oscar Wilde who was put on trial under charges of indecency and sodomy. Wilde denied the charges, arguing that the love he felt for a younger man (the aforementioned Lord Alfred Douglas) was purely platonic. His defence was so powerful that it resulted in his acquittal.

The love in question is, of course, homosexual love, the love of one man for another, seen as an unnatural and indecent relationship in the latter part of the 19th century. But is that really all there is to it?

Excerpt from Two Loves by Alfred Lord Douglas

I dreamed I stood upon a little hill,
And at my feet there lay a ground, that seemed
Like a waste garden, flowering at its will
With buds and blossoms. There were pools that dreamed
Black and unruffled; there were white lilies
A few, and crocuses, and violets
Purple or pale, snake-like fritillaries
Scarce seen for the rank grass, and through green nets
Blue eyes of shy peryenche winked in the sun.

Read the poem in full here.

Euphemistically Speaking

The phrase has come to be universally recognized as a euphemism for homosexuality. It was written by Douglas in 1894 at the end of the 19th century, when homosexuality was a criminal offence punishable by imprisonment.

During his trial, the prosecutor Charles Gill—who happened to be one of Oscar Wilde's old schoolmates—asked Wilde to explain what the phrase meant. Wilde responded that it was merely the misunderstood affection of an older man for a younger man, citing examples of historical figures from Plato to Michelangelo to Shakespeare to back up his argument:

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. 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.

Two Forms of Love

Douglas' poem is titled Two Loves, and in it he mentions two forms of possible love:

  1. The love between a boy and girl
  2. The love that dare not speak its name

The first "kind" of love he describes as follows:

I am true Love, I fill
The hearts of boy and girl with mutual flame

The second he describes only with the cryptic phrase under discussion, "the love that dare not speak its name." By stressing the fact that there were two kinds of love, he was responsible for stirring up the sentiments of so-called respectable people around him, and for getting Oscar Wilde—the elder of the two in this relationship—into such hot water.

Plato surrounded by young men in his Academy

Plato surrounded by young men in his Academy

Men of Letters

Wilde and Douglas made matters worse by writing letters to each other—letters that often contained intimate suggestions that could be easily misinterpreted or "misunderstood," as Wilde put it. In a letter dated March 1893, Wilde wrote to the younger man:

"You are the divine thing I want, the thing of grace and beauty;"

In another letter dated August 1897 he wrote:

"... our friendship and love will have a different meaning to the world."

With such affectionate terminology bandied about between two members of the same sex, it is little wonder that their relationship created the furore it did. Wilde was acquitted, as mentioned above, only to be convicted later on a second charge and sentenced to two years' hard labor.

It was during this sentence that he penned one of his most notable works, The Ballad of Reading Gaol, of which the following is an oft-quoted stanza:

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword!

Detail from a Greek vase showing two men

Detail from a Greek vase showing two men

It's All Greek

According to ancient Greek society, the love between two men was the highest form of love. Whether we choose to believe that or not, it does tend to point out that the issue is not a new one. Many think the Greeks were one of the most civilized of peoples - and their cultural influence throughout the ages lends credence to the idea.

The concept of love takes on different qualities when related to the arts. For instance, it's possible for a sculptor to create the perfect image of the human body, male or female, without being put in prison for doing so. Perhaps the same open-minded attitude should be applied broadly across the whole range of artistic endeavors, including poetry, prose, music, dance, or any other form of expression.

Homophobia Still Rampant Today

Wilde and Douglas were very much victims of their time, a time when anything unusual or out of the ordinary was often viewed with suspicion. But have things gotten any better?

Apparently not. In his book In One Person, author John Irving highlights changing attitudes to sexuality in the latter half of the 20th century, revealing how at times homosexuality has been more acceptable than at others. In the United States, recent controversy has also surrounded same-sex marriages.

An article in the i newspaper by Jerome Taylor (April 4, 2013) relates how lesbians seeking asylum in the United Kingdom are treated by immigration officials and tribunal judges. Questions asked of asylum seekers, who claim their sexuality results in persecution in their own country, include the following:

  • "Do you use sex toys?"
  • "Why have you not attended a Pride march?"

And the best of the bunch:

  • "Have you ever read Oscar Wilde?"

You might expect such ignorance and prejudice from ill-informed or uneducated members of society, but not from officials acting on behalf of the government of a democratic and multicultural country. It simply serves to illustrate the fact that, despite huge leaps in our understanding and acceptance of issues relating to sex, there’s still a long way to go.


Kyotee on March 21, 2017:

This whole thing hurts me.

I watched the movie recently, and my heart was warmed at the ending. But I read more into it. It really was a sad story. I take advantage of life today, people being as accepting (or more censored) than early times. But I love the poetry from both of them. Love the article.

JohnMello (author) from England on May 31, 2015:

Thanks Kristen for reading and voting up!

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on May 31, 2015:

This was an interesting hub from you, John. It was well written and well thought out. Voted up!

Huntgoddess from Midwest U.S.A. on May 09, 2014:

Yes --- sadly :-(

At least Lord Alfred had a strong motivation because of the norms at the time.

But Anne Heche?? What's HER excuse?

Gold-digger. Opportunist.

JohnMello (author) from England on May 07, 2014:

Yes, the more things change...

Huntgoddess from Midwest U.S.A. on May 07, 2014:

When I asked why he wrote it, I meant that to prove that he was not acquitted, but I had not yet read the entire Hub. DOH!

That's why I said, "Oops, hadn't read far enough yet."

Well, I'm all mixed up here, as you can see.

Didn't I read somewhere that Lord Alfred actually got married to a woman and then snubbed Wilde, pretending they didn't even know each other.

Sheesh! Just like Anne Heche, right?

JohnMello (author) from England on May 06, 2014:

He was acquitted, but then retried and found guilty on charges of indecency. As to why he wrote the poem, you'd have to ask him... although it seems clear his time in jail made a huge impact. Thanks for reading!

Huntgoddess from Midwest U.S.A. on May 06, 2014:

But, what did Oscar Wilde go to jail for, if he was acquitted?

Why did he write the "Ballad of Reading Gaol" ?

Yet each man kills the thing he loves. By each let this be heard.

Cowards do it with a kiss. Brave men with a sword.

Ooops, hadn't read far enough yet. Sorry I mangled that part of the poem! Just quoting from memory.

I was raised by gay people. I was born in 1948. I grew up listening to stories about Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred.

JohnMello (author) from England on July 10, 2013:

Thanks LKMore01 - appreciate your comments!

LKMore01 on July 09, 2013:

that should be "researched"

LKMore01 on July 09, 2013:


This is such a wonderfully research and fascinating HUB. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

JohnMello (author) from England on April 08, 2013:

Thanks just helen!

just helen from Dartmoor UK on April 08, 2013:

This is a beautiful, intelligent, thoughtful and well researched hub, John. Thank you for sharing it with us. I hope it will provide food for thought for many.