Michael Arditti

A gay journey of self-discovery

The poet Seán Hewitt describes his long quest for the authentic life and the four people who helped him on his journey to selfhood

A gay journey of self-discovery
Portrait of Gerard Manley Hopkins, one of Seán Hewitt’s guides to self-discovery. [Getty Images]
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All Down Darkness Wide: A Memoir

Seán Hewitt

Cape, pp. 240, £14.99

Seán Hewitt, born in 1990, realised that he was gay at a very early age. ‘A kind, large woman’ who was babysitting him told him that it was wrong. ‘I was perhaps only six or seven at the time, but she knew. I knew it too. It was as if she had peered into the deep, secret part of my soul and seen what I was hiding.’

Alongside the precocious knowledge came desperate attempts to conceal the truth. Hewitt adopted alien ways of being: ‘I regulated myself; I policed myself.’ As an adolescent, he spread rumours about his exploits with girls. He even watched heterosexual porn on the sitting room television in the hope that his classmates would spot him from the street. By the time he went to university his armour was so deeply embedded that it was indistinguishable from his skin.

All Down Darkness Wide is his account of his quest for an authentic life. It is poignant and painful, rigorous and sensual, focussing on the four people who helped him on his journey to selfhood. Two are lovers: Jack, a PhD student, whom he first visits for a troilist tryst in Cambridge; and Elias, a Swedish backpacker, whom he meets in Colombia. Two are poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins and Karin Boye.

None of these guides and guardians lived untroubled lives. Both Hopkins and Boye died in their early forties. Hopkins, unable to express his love for men, was wracked with guilt about his desires and the particular sacrilege of eroticising ‘the muscular body of Christ on the crucifix’. Boye’s romantic life was convoluted. Her suicide was followed within days by that of her long term partner Margot. Then, weeks later, Anita, the woman for whom she’d left Margot, succumbed to cancer. Likewise, Jack died in his mid-twenties and Elias suffered from clinical depression. Nevertheless, out of all this pain, Hewitt has forged a life-enhancing memoir.

Its main focus is Elias, who at first seems to be Hewitt’s romantic ideal, his spontaneity and athleticism being everything that he himself lacks. When Elias returns his affection, Hewitt feels ‘as though I had pulled some figment of a dream back into real life with me’. He moves to Elias’s home town of Gothenburg, where the dream soon turns sour. Elias becomes increasingly withdrawn, and on his 27th birthday attempts suicide. He is saved, and for the next three years Hewitt’s life is both devoted to his care and dominated by the fear that he will try again, this time successfully.

Hewitt is unsparing in his depiction of the maelstrom of emotions experienced in looking after someone with depression: someone who ‘was both the man I loved and the person who wanted to kill the man I loved’. He acknowledges the selfish element in his need for Elias to be cured: ‘The two of us were so intertwined, our lives by this point so intimately connected, that I couldn’t survive the losing of him.’ When they ultimately split up, he plunges into a cycle of fleeting, anonymous encounters, until, recognising their futility, he loses ‘the desire for what is dangerous’ and discovers a new strength within himself.

Hewitt goes on to have a successful career as a poet and academic. He gives no hint of what became of Elias, which, while it may be for reasons of discretion, is frustrating to the reader who has invested so much in his story. That apart, this book stands alongside Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast as an outstanding chronicle of a gay poet’s journey of self-discovery.