Filthy Britten

“O arsehole, scrotum, penis, bless ye the Lord.” Valentine Cunningham reveals what the Latin bits in The Turn of the Screw really mean

Some of the oldest passages in the libretto of Benjamin Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw are the Latin bits - the most cryptic parts of what is a rather mysterious work. The opera is based on Henry James's cryptic 1890s mystery story about a brother and sister, young Miles and Flora, who seem, somehow, to be in corrupt thrall to the ghosts of family servants Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. James narrates the moral horrors through a governess who may even be fantasising the whole thing. Doubt and mystery are the very essence of this Jamesian venture into issues of child corruption, and they are central to Britten's version of it so much so that Britten beefed up the mysteriousness by adding in the Latin sections, and never translating them into English.

What is startling is that these passages have never been properly decrypted in the whole course of the Britten Screw's history. The army of Britten scholars and musicologists has kept them at arm's length. Even those many music historians eager to demystify Britten's life in his works, and uncover the homosexual narrative at their heart, have lacked curiosity about what is actually being sung at these textually darkened moments. They have left their Latin dictionaries in Britten's closet.

There are three main chunks of Latin in the libretto: the children's Latin lesson, given by the governess; Miles's singing of a Latin rhyme called Malo, Malo; and a weird benedicite in a version not known to the Anglican prayer book. During his Latin lesson Miles sings a rhyming clutch of masculine Latin nouns:

"To the masculine are assigned...

amnis, axis, caulis, collis,
clunis, crinis, fascis, follis,
fustis, ignis, orbis, ensis,
panis, piscis, postis, mensis,
torris, unguis and canalis,
vectis, vermis, and natalis . . .
sanguis, pelvis, cucumis,
lapis, cassis, manis, glis."

These are some of the memory-aiding verses that helped you learn the gender of Latin nouns, from the back of Benjamin Hall Kennedy's standard Victorian schoolbook, the Shorter Latin Primer. Britten gave his librettist Myfanwy Piper these words from the copy of Kennedy he borrowed from Richard Kihl, a young acquaintance in the Suffolk town of Aldeburgh who had used it at Sizewell Hall School.

The Primer glosses these nouns of masculine gender into English: river, axle, stalk, hill, hind-leg, etc. These glosses are Kennedy's cover, as well as extending his coy jesting. But hind-leg for clunis? Clunis my arse, you might say. Clunis is anus, arsehole (its plural, clunes, means buttocks). Caulis (cabbage stalk) was Latin slang for a penis, follis (bellows, punchbag) slang for scrotum, vectis (crowbar) a low term for penis, cucumis (cucumber) another jokily penile term. And the list goes on, packed with suggestive phallic objects: fascis (bunch of sticks), fustis (knobbed stick), ensis (sword), torris (firebrand), canalis (waterpipe). The diminutive of vermis (worm) was vermiculus, another slang term for penis. Kennedy was playing schoolmaster funnies, a camp semaphore to other Latin masters in the linguistic know, and not least to the many boy-fanciers among them (they were always getting sacked for paedophiliac excesses). The allusiveness, just safe enough, was cannily endorsed by Britten. He was knowingly signalling to his gay friends, men like WH Auden, who had all been through the Kennedy mill and many of whom, like Auden, had taught in boys' schools.

All this gives real point to the libretto's strange benedicite, also sung by Miles:

"O amnis, axis, caulis, collis, clunis, crinis, fascis, folks, bless ye the Lord:"

This has long been accepted as being in some way blasphemous. Exactly how becomes clear when you translate it: "O arsehole, scrotum, penis, bless ye the Lord:" It becomes a gay Christian male's earnest claim for a kind of sanctity of the gay male body, unrecognised by Britten's church. And this helps grant meaning to the otherwise most mysterious Malo, Malo song:

"Malo, malo, malo I would rather be,
malo, malo, malo in an apple tree,
malo, malo, malo than a naughty boy,
malo, malo, malo in adversity."

This rhyme was librettist Piper's contribution to the Screws Latinisings. It was from "an old grammar" belonging to her aunt (probably HT Riley's Dictionary of Latin Quotations), and was to help boys distinguish the verb malo (I wish) from the nouns malus (apple tree), malum (apple) and malum (evil, adversity), and from the adjective malus (bad, wicked, noxious).

Suddenly, if you know your Latin, you hear this boy - the object of Quinn's apparently dubious attentions and a child who has been expelled from school for some nameless "sin" singing that he would rather be elsewhere, is desirous of otherness, wants not to be labelled a naughty boy, but is still anxious about "adversity" and being the agent or recipient of ill. He wants to be up an apple tree, the boy scrumper, a minor transgressor we can all tolerate. But there is also a more dramatic suggestion of a gender-crossed Eve, the temptress whose apple induced Adam into sexual fall.

This boy becomes, once you decrypt the Latin, a main part of Britten's protracted fantasy of the compliant boyish other, the male respondent envisaged again and again in his versions of lyrics by Auden, Rimbaud and the other gay poets he loved to set (and to have his lover Peter Pears sing). This Miles is central to the opera's studied sequence of guarded cries for the child to be left alone by the rule-making heterosexual world of governess, school and church, for recognition of boyish same sex yearnings and adult gay male desires, for a place within Christianity for sexualities deemed aberrant and heterodox, O arsehole, scrotum, penis, bless ye the Lord.

It's easy to see why Britten might have been attracted to this "queer" story - the author's own word -for James's Screw truly queered the novel's traditional pitch in every sense. Its narrative hesitations and modernist kind (the story will not tell in any old-fashioned, straightforward manner) dragged along with them huge moral challenges. Who will tell what is right, what is wrong, what is evil? And which authority - law, state, church, bourgeois code - has real authority to judge? Such resistances were meat and drink to Britten, a socialist rebelling against his upper-middle-class matrix, an Anglican believer transgressing his church's sexual rules, a practising homosexual whose daily newspaper in the 1950s was full of prominent gay men being sent down because of their sexual outlawries.

And James's scepticism was even more attractive to this lover of young boys because it focused its moral challenges just where Britten most wanted them, en the question of the sexual corruption of children. What exactly, James keeps asking, is youthful corruption? Who is to judge whether Miles and Flora, especially little Miles, have been corrupted by Quint and Jessel? And all this radical undercutting was, of course, being done cryptically. James's questions remain questions. The unspoken and unspeakable are broached, but never outspokenly.

We are left guessing about the actual nature of Miles's bad behaviour at school, and Quint's hold over and attraction to him. James was providing useful lessons in how to both utter your counsel and keep it to yourself and the few chums who might have ears to hear it.

Britten seems to be saying that we did not get his earlier point, that we are failing to see what he meant by his Michelangelo and Auden settings, and is asking us to see it now. Except that he cannot say it right out. This was, after all, 1954. Lord Montague and other prominent gay men had recently gone to jail for indecency. Hence the resort to Latin. After all, it was the quietly veiled caulis, clunis and follis that were to praise the Lord. And it would seem that only the trusties, Britten's classics-educated friends, had ears to hear that. Britten, meanwhile, kept his marked-up copy of Kihl's Primer by him. It has been in the Britten-Pears Library collection all this time. Unread.

Valentine Cunningham is a professor of English at the University of Oxford. The Turn of the Screw is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2, from Monday [7 January 2002]. Box office: 0207 304 4000. [Guardian Saturday 5 January 2002]

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