20 OCTOBER 1984, Page 23

Sir: Mr Dhiren Bhagat says that the poem he quotes

refers to homosexuality. The only reference the poet makes to the man's sexual tastes is to say that he is going to be married. We must suppose therefore that he is heterosexual. Mr Bhagat has fallen into the common error (what Toynbee calls the 'egocentric illusion') of supposing that writers in earlier centuries held the same preconceptions as are generally held today. These days if a person is effeminate, it is usually presumed that he is homosexual, and so Mr Bhagat presumes that Kendall held the same view.

It seems to me, however, that prior to this century, the common prejudice was that effeminacy sprang from excessive heterosexuality. A real man, it was felt, spent his time in manly pursuits like warfare and had as little to do with women as possible. Be too interested in and spend too much time in the company of women and you were sure to acquire effeminate characteristics.

There is a good example of this in Herman Melville's novel White-Jacket. In this Melville pokes fun at a naval officer of effeminate habits and appearance whom he nicknames `Salvagee'. He concludes by advising Salvagee that he would be happier at a lady's tea-table than on the deck of a man-o'-war. Rather the opposite conclu- sion we should come to, if we supposed Salvagee to be homosexual.

This example is significant, because later in the book Melville makes some guarded references to homosexuality on board ship, but he does so in shocked and condemna- tory tones, while the references to Sal- vagee are good-humoured and light- hearted. Clearly he saw no connection between the two.

Does not Aubrey say that John Milton was so pretty in appearance and delicate in habits that he was known. as 'The Lady of Christ's College'? Was he, do you suppose, implying that Milton was homosexual? Francis Rowan

23 Portmarnock Grove, Portmarnock, Co Dublin, Ireland