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

Written by jen, 7th September 2009

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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