Declan Kavanagh

University of Kent

[View or download a PDF of this paper]

He started up a Fop, and, fond of show,

Look’d like another HERCULES, turn’d Beau.[1]

In his essay, ‘Performing “Akimbo”: Queer pride and epistemological prejudice’ (1994), Thomas A. King outlines how Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay ‘Notes on Camp’ ‘took for granted the eighteenth century’s polarization of surface and content, artifice and nature, frivolity and sincerity’.[2] Sontag’s description of the ‘basic camp maneuver as the blocking out or emptying a thing of its content’, according to King, fails to acknowledge that the very issue of surface and depth was energetically interrogated throughout the period.[3] Rather than an apolitical performative mode, King argues that the camp displays of early eighteenth-century sodomites, such as the mollies, might instead be read as ‘political practices [which] deploy[ed] the surfaces of the body oppositionally against the accruing bourgeois capacity for shaping … the subject through his or her interiority’.[4] Following on from King’s querying of Sontag, my presentation departs from the subject of the camp queer to examine how the discourse of camp informed constructions of the heteronormative in the period. An ambient xenophobia, along with a steady anti-effeminate rhetoric, exercised shaping influences on Charles Churchill (1732-1764) more profoundly than on any other eighteenth-century satirist. Characterizing his authorial self as a foppish Hercules in his poem Independence (1764) counts as just one instance of Churchill’s camp re-appropriation of the anti- effeminate criticism that was levelled at his newfound creative and financial independence.

Churchill’s poetry actively interrogates divisions between surface and content, artifice and nature, frivolity and sincerity. Critics have consistently noted how the body, in particular the poet’s own mass, literally and figuratively weighs in on the poems. Raymond J. Smith remarks that “Churchill’s energy was in direct proportion to his size”, while Conrad Brunström views “Churchill’s proud physicality [as] part of a rhetorical moment that celebrates blunt Englishness”.[5] Churchill’s ursine characteristics were a source of pride, and moreover, a confirmation of his own embodied substantiality. As a result of his mocking of the artist in An Epistle to William Hogarth (1763), Hogarth would be prompted into caricaturing Churchill as a bear in tattered clerical dress in: “The Bruiser, C. Churchill (once Reverend!) in the character of a Russian Hercules”, published 1st August 1763.[6]

Hogarth's portrait of Churchill, 'The Bruiser'
William Hogarth (1697-1764). The Bruiser 1763. Print. 376 x 282 mm. London. British Museum
Churchill responded in his poem Independence by announcing the aged (though at that time still very much alive) Hogarth’s death and recuperating the image of tattered clerical bands with pride.[7] Hogarth’s depiction of Churchill as ‘The Bruiser’ betrays the way in which a straight-camp aesthetic is always open to its own undoing; machismo is dangerously campy; as a performance it enfolds the potential to be undermined by its own success. The political arena is one such space in which machismo is notably campy. The alarming spectacle of real estate tycoon Donald Trump’s campaign to secure the Republican presidential nomination is a daily reminder of the emasculating effect of straight camp performance.

Watching any recording of Trump’s speeches, we are reminded of his hand gestures, facial expressions, and cosmetic interventions all register as excessive cultivations of camp surface over meaningful depth. All masculinity is by definition camp, however, straight men risk being unmanned by their attempts to maintain masculinity in ways that gay men do not.

In Independence, Churchill pits the robust physicality of the bard against the slight frame of the Lord; bardic depth wins out over the camp surface of aristocratic display. However, whilst the Bard’s physicality may seem stable, the speaker reveals throughout the poem that such stability is in fact in flux. There is a movement from the position of cleric to that of dandy, from “graver fool” to fop, until the Bard seemingly settles into the category of a “HERCULES, turn’d Beau”.[8] The figure of the Bard incorporates and therefore disarms the potential effeminacy of the fop. Oddly enough, Churchill adopts the decidedly queer tactic of taking a negative cartoon of himself and consciously inhabiting and owning it:

Brown Cassock which had once been black,

Which hung in tatters on his brawny back,

A sight most strange and awkward to behold

He threw a covering of Blue and Gold.[9]


The fashionable covering of blue and gold, foppish as it is, is proudly displayed by Churchill as part of his decidedly unfashionable autonomous social position. As Brunström notes, Churchill celebrated his own failures and the criticism that was levelled at him as a way of “forstall[ing] serious satiric opposition”.[10] As a decidedly anti-effeminate poet, he was often criticised for his own foppish literary ambitions. Samuel Foote satirised the incongruity between Churchill’s literary life and clerical office in the figure of Manly in a revision of his play, Taste, performed at Drury Lane on April 6th, 1761. Not surprisingly then, the type of masculinity that Churchill’s Bard embodies has a capacity that effectively neutralises any emasculating threat. Camping it up in foppish dress is a way of paradoxically invigorating one’s masculinity. Furthermore, the Bard’s free movement between various social roles presents a straight camp that is distinguished for its mastery of surfaces.

In Independence, Churchill locates the effeminacy of the aristocratic elite as a condition of the present, projecting backward to a time when the Lord was, among other things, “Plain in his dress, and in his manners plain”.[11] Patronage is bound up with an effeminate sense of fashion, and Lords “keep a Bard, just as they keep a Whore”.[12] The poem clearly presents the deficiencies of the ruling elite as a failure of the proper regulation of the sexual body. Intriguingly, when threatened, Churchill’s bard, though “still at large, and Independent” is but a “melting mass of flesh”.[13] Campy surface is surpassed here as straight camp surface gives way to spiritual transcendence. The bodily masculinity, presented to the reader earlier, is oddly no longer tangible and what finally resists and eludes the control of the ruling elite is the Bard’s “Soul”.[14] This soul or spirit promises a transcendence of the bodily, along with the virtual formation of a patriotic community:

O my poor COUNTRY — weak and overpow’r’d

By thine own Sons — eat to the bone — devour’d

By Vipers, which, in thine own entrails bred,

Prey on thy life, and with thy blood are fed,

With unavailing grief thy wrongs I see,

And, for myself not feeling, feel for Thee.

I grieve, but can’t despair — for, Lo, at hand

FREEDOM presents a choice, but faithful band

Of Loyal PATRIOTS, Men who greatly dare

In such a noble cause, Men fit to bear

The weight of Empires; Fortune, Rank, and Sense,

Virtue and knowledge, leagu’d with Eloquence,

March in their ranks; FREEDOM from file to file

Darts her delighted eye, and with a smile

Approves her honest Sons, whilst down her cheek,

As ’twere by stealth (her heart too full to speak)

One Tear in silence creeps, one honest Tear,

And seems to say, Why is not GRANBY here?[15]


In this penultimate stanza, the English body-politic is “devour’d” by vipers resting in its very bowels, an image that suggestively conflates a triumvirate of aggressors: aristocrats, Scots, and sodomites. An abstracted Freedom knowingly approves of Churchill’s independent patriots, who long for the imminent return of the Marquis of Granby, the military commander who replaced the disgraced George Sackville. In this way, Granby links the patriots of Independence with the woman-lover patriot of The Times (1764) by embodying properly manly patriotic virtue.

In the final stanza, Churchill, in a militant tone, advises these men to “Be as One Man”, a call for solidarity and, in a way, for male gender conformity.[16] The organisation of this group of men is based on their authentic maleness, on their secure sense of their own English masculinity and shared heteroreroticism:


Be as One Man — CONCORD success ensures —

There’s not an English heart but what is Your’s.

Go forth — and VIRTUE, ever in your sight,

Shall be your guide by day, your guard by night —

Go forth — the Champions of your native land,

And may the battle prosper in your hand —

It may, it Must — Ye cannot be withstood —

Be your Hearts honest, as your Cause is good.[17]


Paradoxically, Churchill’s anti-effeminate satire calls for men to join closer together. Offering the obverse of the Scottish shepherds’ relationship with the Goddess Famine in his mock-pastoral, The Prophecy of Famine: A Scot’s Pastoral (1763), Churchill figures England here as the injured mother in this stanza, in need of help from her “duteous” sons. The bardic freedom that opened the poem is here broadened out in an imagining of the patriotic bonds shared by a minority of independent men. Independence condemns the aristocratic elite as campy, while simultaneously situating the ‘middling sort’ of man as the true bearer of a patriotic masculinity, which although equally campy, is reassuringly shown to have hidden depth.



[1] Douglas Grant, ed., The Poetical Works of Charles Churchill (Oxford: Clarendon, 1956), 417.

[2] Thomas A. King, ‘Performing “Akimbo”: Queer pride and epistemological prejudice’, in Moe Meyer (ed.) The Politics and Poetics of Camp (London and New York: Routledge, 1994), 23.

[3] Ibid., 23-24.

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] Raymond J. Smith, Charles Churchill (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977), 14; Conrad Brunström, “‘Be Male And Female Still’: An ABC of Hyperbolic Masculinity in the Eighteenth Century”, in Presenting Gender: Changing Sex in Early Modern Culture, Chris Mounsey, ed. (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2001), 44.

[6] Grant, 518-19.

[7] Ibid, 417. Link to “Independence” via Accessed 22 March 2016.

[8] Ibid, 417.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Brunström, “‘Be Male And Female Still’”, 43.

[11] Grant, 419.

[12] Ibid., 423.

[13] Ibid., 427.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 427-428.

[16] Ibid., 428.

[17] Ibid.