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Featured Poem: 'The Colour of His Hair' by A. E. Housman

September 7, 2009
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Last Friday was the anniversary of the publication of the Wolfenden report (4th September 1957), which recommended that homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be considered a criminal offence. The day before, 3rd September, was of course the 70th anniversary of the declaration of war against Nazi Germany.

The connection? A British mathematician, cryptanalyst and computer scientist, Alan Turing: the man whose work at Bletchley Park led to the cracking of the German Enigma codes and who, in doing so, arguably contributed more to the Allied war effort than any other human being. Tragically, after the war Turing was outed as a homosexual, criminally prosecuted and given a humiliating choice between imprisonment or chemical castration. He chose the latter, and later committed suicide by eating an apple he had laced with cyanide.

Thousands recently signed a petition for Turing to be given a posthumous apology by the Prime Minister.

So for this week’s poem I have chosen ‘The Colour of His Hair’ by A. E. Housman. It was written at the time of the trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde for ‘gross indecency’, but not published, due to the prevailing attitudes of the day, until after Housman’s death. It needs no analysis. Its lines (‘fourteeners’) are long and proud and want to be chanted.

 

The Colour of His Hair

Oh who is that young sinner with the handcuffs on his wrists?
And what has he been after, that they groan and shake their fists?
And wherefore is he wearing such a conscience-stricken air?
Oh they’re taking him to prison for the colour of his hair.

‘Tis a shame to human nature, such a head of hair as his;
In the good old time ’twas hanging for the colour that it is;
Though hanging isn’t bad enough and flaying would be fair
For the nameless and abominable colour of his hair.

Oh a deal of pains he’s taken and a pretty price he’s paid
To hide his poll or dye it of a mentionable shade;
But they’ve pulled the beggar’s hat off for the world to see and stare,
And they’re haling him to justice for the colour of his hair.

Now ’tis oakum for his fingers and the treadmill for his feet,
And the quarry-gang on Portland in the cold and in the heat,
And between his spells of labour in the time he has to spare
He can curse the God that made him for the colour of his hair.

A. E. Housman (1859 – 1936)

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Sue Garner-Jones permalink
    September 7, 2009 5:07 pm

    Mark this is simply beautiful and your introduction moved me more than I can say. How awful to think that such beauty was broken like the ‘butterfly on the wheel’ as has so often been said: bravo to you with all my heart for recalling such a hero.

  2. Sue Garner-Jones permalink
    September 8, 2009 12:39 am

    Just signed the petition for Turing’s pardon, Mark, without your prompt, I wouldn’t have had the privilege of doing so: thank you.

  3. Mark permalink
    September 8, 2009 1:58 pm

    Sue – thanks for your kind comments. It is a beautiful poem – and, I think, a very worthwhile petition.

  4. jane davis permalink
    September 8, 2009 4:17 pm

    I had heard of Turing but didn’t know about his homosexuality, prosecution, or suicide. What a terrible and powerful story – it would be a good thing for someone to write a play about, don’t you think, Mark? Thansk for this moving post.

  5. Sue Garner-Jones permalink
    September 9, 2009 1:36 am

    There is a wonderful play by Hugh Whitemore, ‘Breaking the Code’ (1986):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaking_the_Code

    It was adapted for television in 1996: both versions starred Derek Jacobi.

    Sadly, it’s not available on dvd as far as I know but there is an acting script of the play available from Amazon.

  6. Sue Garner-Jones permalink
    September 9, 2009 1:14 pm

    There is a wonderful play by Hugh Whitemore, ‘Breaking the Code’ (1986):

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breaking_the_Code

    It was adapted for television in 1996: both versions starred Derek Jacobi.

    Sadly, it’s not available on dvd as far as I know but there is an acting script of the play available from Amazon.

  7. Sue Garner-Jones permalink
    September 11, 2009 1:41 pm

    Hi Mark,

    After your moving post, I signed the petition, as you may have, for a Government apology for Alan Turing and recognition of his contribution. This morning I received a copy of a letter from the Prime Minister doing just that so the petition has been successful in some small measure.

    Please contact me if you did not recceive a letter and want to publish it.

    Thanks for giving me this tremendous opportunity,

    Sue

  8. July 31, 2012 8:16 pm

    Cool poem

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