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Alcuin of Tours, c. 735- 804


Alcuin was a leading figure in the Carolingian renaissance of the late 7th and early 8th centuries. The poet, who was a teacher also, knew his students by pet names such as "Cuckoo". It is sometimes asserted that Alcuin's writings reflect classical models, and were exercises rather than representations of his own thought. What must be noted is that there were many possible classical models to imitate - it is why a writer chooses some and not others that is interesting.

John Boswell, in Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, (Chicago: 1980), writes:

A distinctly erotic element...is notable in the circle of friends presided over by Alcuin at the court of Charlemagne. This group included some of the most brilliant scholars of the day (Theodule of Orleans, Anglibert, Einhard, et al,), but the erotic element subsisted principally between Alcuin and his pupils. Intimates of this circle of masculine friendship were known to each other by pet names, most of them derived from classical allusions, many from Vergil's eclogues... A particularly famous poem is addressed to a pupil whom Alcuin calls "Daphnis" and laments the departure of another young student, "Dodo", who is referred to in the poem as their "cuckoo"....The prominence of love in Alcuin's writings, all of which are addressed to other males, is striking...

One expects hyperbole in poetry, but even in Alcuin's prose correspondence there is an element which can scarcely be called anything but passionate. He wrote to a friend (a bishop...):-

"I think of your love and friendship with such sweet
memories, reverend bishop, that I long for that lovely
time when I may be able to clutch the neck of your
sweetness with the fingers of my desires. Alas, if only
it were granted to me, as it was to Habakkuk [Dan.
14:32-38], to be transported to you, how I would sink
into your embraces,...how much would I cover, with
tightly pressed lips, not only your eyes, ears and
mouth, but also your every finger and toe, not once but
many a time."

Lament for a Cuckoo

O cuckoo that sang to us and art fled,
Where'er thou wanderest, on whatever shore
Thou lingerest now, all men bewail thee dead,
They say our cuckoo will return no more.
Ah, let him come again, he must not die,
Let him return with the returning spring,
And waken all the songs he used to sing.
but will he come again? I know not, I.

I fear the dark see breaks above his head,
Caught in the whirlpool, dead beneath the waves,
Sorrow for me, if that ill god of wine
Hath drowned him deep where young things find their graves.
But if he lives yet, surely he will come,
Back to the kindly nest, from fierce crows.
Cuckoo, what took you from the nesting place?
But will he come again? That no man knows.

If you love sings, cuckoo, then come again,
Come again, come again, quick, pray you come.
Cuckoo, delay not, hasten thee home again,
Daphnis who loveth thee longs for his own.
Now spring is here again, wake from thy sleeping.
Alcuin the old man thinks long for thee.
Through the green meadows go the oxen grazing;
Only the cuckoo is not. Where is her?

Wail for the cuckoo, every where bewail him,
Joyous he left us: shall he grieving come?
let him come grieving, if he will but come again,
Yea, we shall weep with him, moan for his moan.
Unless a rock begat thee, thou wilt weep with us.
How canst thou not, thyself remembering?
Shall not the father weep the son he lost him,
Brother for brother still be sorrowing?

Once were we three, with but one heart among us.
Scare are we two, now that the third is fled.
Fled is he, fled is he, but the grief remaineth;
Bitter the weeping, for so dear a head.
Send a song after him, send a song of sorrow,
Songs bring the cuckoo home, or so they tell
Yet be thou happy, wheresoe'er thou wanderest
Sometimes remember us, Love, fare you well.

trans. Helen Waddell, in Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse, ed. Stephen Coote, (Harmondsworth: Allen Lane, Penguin, 1983), 112-114