I, Lover

I, Lover
By Elsa Gidlow – 1898-1986

I shall never have any fear of love,
Not of its depth nor its uttermost height,
Its exquisite pain and its terrible delight.
I shall never have any fear of love.

I shall never hesitate to go down
Into the fastness of its abyss
Nor shrink from the cruelty of its awful kiss.
I shall never have any fear of love.

Never shall I dread love’s strength
Nor any pain it might give.
Through all the years I may live
I shall never have any fear of love.

I shall never draw back from love
Through fear of its vast pain
But build joy of it and count it again.
I shall never have any fear of love.

I shall never tremble nor flinch
From love’s moulding touch:
I have loved too terribly and too much
Ever to have any fear of love.

About the Poem

Today’s poem is by the early 20th century poet Elsa Gidlow, who famously came out as a lesbian in her autobiography. “I, Lover” originally appeared in On a Grey Thread (Will Ransom, 1923). In this poem, we see the speaker acknowledge the risk of love. But we also see her courage to commit to risking her heart again and again, no matter what the consequences. While it is a lesbian poem, I think it is universal for all LGBTQ+ love. It is an inspirational poem about not fearing who we love and shows Gidlow’s openness with her sexuality. I think it is a goal of all of us to “never have any fear of love.”

If you read “I, Lover” aloud, as poems are meant to be read, it would not work unless you started with the words, I, lover. It converts a shout into the void into a personal promise. A beloved is swearing fealty to love, to enter into a relationship unafraid of stinging reprisals of heartbreak. It is a weighty vow we are witnessing, and as we recite it, we become part of it.

About the Poet

Portrait of Elsa Gidlow, circa 1970s.
(GLBT Historical Society)

Elsa Gidlow, known to many as the “poet-warrior,” was unabashedly visible as an independent woman, a lesbian, a writer, and a bohemian-anarchist at a time when such visibility was both unusual and potentially dangerous. Gidlow was born on December 29, 1898, in Yorkshire, England. She was the eldest of seven children and immigrated with her family to a town near Montreal when she was six. Gidlow grew up in poverty and was largely self-educated. Throughout her career, despite often surviving on a meager income, she would struggle to support her family, including three siblings who suffered with mental illness, while maintaining her commitment to writing. 

In 1920, after spending some time in Montreal’s art circles, Gidlow moved to Manhattan. Gidlow began her career as a freelance journalist and co-published the first North American newspaper that openly celebrated and discussed LGBTQ+ lives and issues within the community. After moving to Manhattan in the 1920s, she became poetry editor at Pearson’s Magazine. Six years later, she moved to San Francisco, where she befriended several poets, as well as the journalists and activists Phyllis Lyon and Del Martin—the first gay couple to be legally wed in California. 

In the early 1950s, Gidlow was investigated as a suspected Communist, though she identified as an anarchist, and was forced to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). At the time, Gidlow lived openly in a relationship with Isabel Grenfell Quallo, a biracial woman. Her cohabiting in an interracial, lesbian relationship may have provoked the investigation as much as her politics. Indeed, when she was questioned by the HUAC, she had nothing good to say about Communism, since her own political sympathies lay with the anarchists, who considered Marxism just another oppressive ideology.

Gidlow published around a dozen books of poetry and prose, some of which were self-published and released with a limited number of copies. Many of her works are currently out of print. Her poetry book, On a Grey Thread is, historians believe, the first collection of openly lesbian love poetry published in North America. Her autobiography, Elsa: I Come With My Songs (Booklegger Press, 1986), was the first lesbian autobiography not published under a pseudonym.

In 1954, Gidlow purchased a ranch at Muir Woods, north of San Francisco, called Druid Heights, which she used both as her personal residence and as a retreat for artists, bohemians, and feminists. Beat poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder were among the ranch’s various famous guests and residents. In 1962, Gidlow co-founded, with British philosopher and writer Alan Watts, the Society of Comparative Philosophy. In 1977, she appeared in Peter Adair’s 1977 documentary Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, which featured LGBTQ+ individuals from a range of classes, ethnicities, and professional backgrounds. 

Gidlow died at home on June 8, 1986. Her ashes are interred near the Moon Temple at Druid Heights.

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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