Readers will likely be familiar with Aleister Crowley, the notorious English occultist, bisexual libertine, recreational drug user, founder of the Thelemic religion, leader of the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.), and all-around scary wicked person. Those familiar with Crowley strictly through his esoteric writings, however, may be interested to know that one the “Great Beast’s” first forays into publishing consisted of a perverse little volume of erotic poetry entitled White Stains.
It was issued in Amsterdam in 1898 by Leonard Smithers; a leading publisher of English pornography, but also of controversial literature. His clients included Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Symons, and Oscar Wilde. White Stains was published in a print run of one hundred copies which, according to rumors in the book world, Crowley is said to have white-stained himself. Most of these were destroyed in 1924 by British Customs; the surviving first editions currently sell for around $4,000 – $10,000.
The authorship of White Stains was attributed to George Archibald Bishop, a “neuropath of the second empire;” Bishop being the family name of Crowley’s hated, fundamentalist uncle. A lyrical exploration of every sexual taboo from bestiality to pederasty to necrophilia, Crowley conceived it as a literary response to Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis. “The thesis of von Krafft-Ebing’s book was that sexual aberrations were the result of physiological disease,” says an essayist at lashtal.com, but Crowley…
“…was of the opinion that any such aberration were psychological in nature and turned to artistic expression to make his point. Crowley states [in his 1989 Confessions] “I therefore invented a poet who went wrong, who began with normal innocent enthusiasms, and gradually developed various vices. He ends by being stricken with disease and madness, culminating in murder. In his poems he describes his downfall, always explaining the psychology of each act.”
True to form, Crowley saw fit to invoke the blessing of the Virgin Mary in the prefatory sonnet to this work. Let’s look at some excerpts.
In “Necrophilia,” Crowley elegises the luxury of flesh decaying and bowels torn:
Void of the ecstasies of Art
It were in life to have lain by thee,
And felt thy kisses rain on me,
And the hot beating of thy heart,
When thy warm sweat should leave me cold,
And my worn soul find out no bliss
In the obscenities I kiss,
And the things shameful that I hold.
My nostrils sniff the luxury
Of flesh decaying, bowels torn
Of festive worms, like Venus, born
Of entrails foaming like the sea.
Yea, thou art dead. Thy buttocks now
Are swan-soft, and thou sweatest not;
And hast a strange desire begot
In me, to lick thy bloody brow;
To gnaw thy hollow cheeks, and pull
Thy lustful tongue from out its sheath;
To wallow in the bowels of death,
And rip thy belly, and fill full
My hands with all putridities;
To chew thy dainty testicles;
To revel with the worms in Hell’s
Delight in such obscenities;
To pour within thine heart the seed
Mingled with poisonous discharge
From a swollen gland, inflamed and large
With gonorrhoea’s delicious breed;
To probe thy belly, and to drink
The godless fluids, and the pool
Of rank putrescence from the stool
Thy hanged corpse gave, whose luscious stink
Excites these songs sublime. The rod
Gains new desire; dive, howl, cling, suck,
Rave, shreik, and chew; excite the fuck,
Hold me, I come! I’m dead! My God!
“To My First-Born” celebrates wholesome pride of a father-to-be:
To My First-Born
At last a father! In Mathilde’s womb
The poison quickens, and the tare-seeds shoot;
On my old upas-tree a bastard fruit
Is grafted. One more generation’s doom
Fixes its fangs. Crime’s flame, disease’s gloom,
Are thy birth-dower. Another prostitute
Predestined, born man, damned to grow a brute!
Another travels tainted to the tomb!
My sin, my madness, in thy blood are set,
A vile imperishable coronet,
To hound thee into hell! God spits at thee
The curse thy parents earned. Revenge be thine!
Kiss Lust, kill Truth, and worship at Sin’s shrine.
And foul His face with dung — thy infamy!
And finally, “Suggested Additiona Stanzas for ‘a Ballad of Burdens’” was a PSA, of sorts:
Suggested Additional Stanzas
for ‘A Ballad of Burdens’
The burden of caught clap. How sore it is!
A burden of sad shameful suffering,
The bitter bastard of a bloody kiss,
The Parthian arrow poisoned from Love’s sling!
Lo, sweet Lord Christ, thou knowest how sore a thing
Is a cock crooked and consumed of fire
Shooting out venomous sap that hath a sting!
This is the end of every man’s desire.
The burden of bought boys. Behold, dear Lord,
How plump their buttocks be, lift up Thine eyes,
See how their cocks stand at an amorous word,
How their lips suck out life until love dies,
See, Lord, Thou knowest, how wearily one lies
Cursing the lusts that fail, the deeds that tire;
Shrunk is San Cresce to a sorry size.
This is the end of every man’s desire.
Crowley, Aleister. White Stains. 1898.
Norton, Rictor. A History of Homoerotica: Aleister Crowley’s White Stains. 1977.
Symonds, John. Introduction to the 1973 edition of White Stains. 1973.