Comfort, Alex(ander)

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COMFORT, Alex(ander)

Nationality: British. Born: London, 10 February 1920. Education: Highgate School, London, 1932–36; Trinity College, Cambridge (Styring scholar; Senior scholar), 1938–40, M.B., B.Ch. 1944, M.A. 1945; London Hospital (Scholar), M.R.C.S. and L.R.C.P. 1944, D.C.H. 1945, Ph.D. in biochemistry 1949, D.Sc. in gerontology 1963. Family: Married 1) Ruth Muriel Harris in 1943 (marriage dissolved 1973), one son; 2) Jane Tristram Henderson in 1973 (died 1991). Career: House physician, London Hospital, 1944; resident medical officer, Royal Waterloo Hospital, London, 1944–45; lecturer in physiology, 1945–51; honorary research associate, department of zoology, 1951–73, and director of research on the biology of aging, 1966–73, University College, London; lecturer in psychiatry, Stanford University, California, 1974–83; senior fellow, Institute for Higher Studies, Santa Barbara, California, from 1975; professor of pathology, University of California School of Medicine, Irvine, 1976–78; consultant psychiatrist, Brentwood Hospital, Los Angeles, 1978–81; adjunct professor, Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, from 1980; consultant, Ventura County Hospital (Medical Education), California, from 1981. Editor, with Peter Wells, Poetry Folios, Barnet, Hertfordshire, 1942–46. President, British Society for Research on Ageing, 1967. Awards: Nuffield research fellowship, 1952; Ciba Foundation prize, 1958; Borestone Mountain poetry award, 1962; Karger memorial prize in gerontology, 1969. Address: Chacombe House, Chacombe Near Banbury, Oxon OX17 2SL, England. Died: 29 March 2000.



France and Other Poems. London, Favil Press, 1941.

Three New Poets, with Roy McFadden and Ian Serraillier. Billericay, Essex, Grey Walls Press, 1942.

A Wreath for the Living. London, Routledge, 1942.

Elegies. London. Routledge, 1944.

The Song of Lazarus. Barnet, Hertfordshire, Poetry Folios, and New York, Viking Press, 1945.

The Signal to Engage. London, Routledge, 1947.

And All but He Departed. London, Routledge, 1951.

Haste to the Wedding. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1962; Chester Springs, Pennsylvania, Dufour, 1964.

Poems for Jane. London, Mitchell Beazley, and New York, Crown, 1979.

Mikrokosmos. London, Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994.


Into Egypt: A Miracle Play. Billericay, Essex, Grey Walls Press, 1942.

Cities of the Plain: A Democratic Melodrama. London, Grey Walls Press, 1943.

Television Play: The Great Agrippa, 1968.


The Silver River, Being the Diary of a Schoolboy in the South Atlantic, 1936. London, Chapman and Hall, 1938.

No Such Liberty. London, Chapman and Hall, 1941.

The Almond Tree: A Legend. London, Chapman and Hall, 1942.

The Power House. London, Routledge, 1944; New York, Viking Press, 1945.

On This Side Nothing. London, Routledge, and New York, Viking Press, 1949.

A Giant's Strength. London, Routledge, 1952.

Come Out to Play. London, Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1961; New York, Crown, 1975.

Tetrarch. Boulder, Colorado, Shambhala, 1980; London, Wildwood House, 1981.

Imperial Patient: The Memoirs of Nero's Doctor. London, Duck-worth, 1987.

The Philosophers. London, Duckworth, 1989.

Short Stories

Letters from an Outpost. London, Routledge, 1947.


Peace and Disobedience. London, Peace News, 1946.

Art and Social Responsibility: Lectures on the Ideology of Romanticism. London, Falcon Press, 1946.

The Novel and Our Time. Letchworth, Hertfordshire, Phoenix House, and Denver, Swallow, 1948.

Barbarism and Sexual Freedom: Six Lectures on the Sociology of Sex from the Standpoint of Anarchism. London, Freedom Press, 1948.

First-Year Physiological Techniques. London, Staples Press, 1948.

The Pattern of the Future. London, Routledge, and New York, Macmillan, 1949.

The Right Thing to Do, Together with the Wrong Thing to Do. London, Peace News, 1949.

Authority and Delinquency in the Modern State: A Criminological Approach to the Problem of Power. London, Routledge, 1950; revised edition, as Authority and Delinquency, London, Sphere, 1970.

Sexual Behavior in Society. London, Duckworth, and New York, Viking Press, 1950; revised edition, as Sex in Society, Duckworth, 1963; New York, Citadel Press, 1966.

Deliquency (lecture). London, Freedom Press, 1951.

Social Responsibility in Science and Art. London, Peace News, 1952.

The Biology of Senescence. London, Routledge, and New York, Rinehart, 1956; revised edition, as Ageing: The Biology of Senescence, 1964; revised edition, as The Biology of Senescense, Edinburgh, Churchill Livingston, and New York, Elsevier, 1979.

Darwin and the Naked Lady: Discursive Essays on Biology and Art. London, Routledge, 1961; New York, Braziller, 1962.

The Process of Ageing. New York, New American Library, 1964; London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1965.

The Nature of Human Nature. New York, Harper, 1965; as Nature and Human Nature, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1966.

The Anxiety Makers: Some Curious Preoccupations of the Medical Profession. London, Nelson, 1967.

What Rough Beast? and What Is a Doctor? (lectures). Vancouver, Pendejo Press, 1971.

The Joy of Sex: A Gourmet's Guide to Love Making. New York, Crown, 1972; London, quartet, 1973; revised edition, New York, Pocket Books, 1987.

More Joy: A Sequel to "The Joy of Sex." London, Mitchell Beazley, 1973; New York, Crown, 1974; revised edition, 1987.

A Good Age. New York, Crown, 1976; London, Mitchell Beazley, 1977.

The Facts of Love: Living, Loving, and Growing Up (for children), with Jane Comfort. New York, Crown, 1979; London, Mitchell Beazley, 1980.

I and That: Notes on the Biology of Religion. London, Mitchell Beazley, and New York, Crown 1979.

What Is a Doctor? Essays on Medicine and Human Natural History. Philadelphia, Stickley, 1980.

Practice of Geriatric Psychiatry. New York, Elsevier, 1980.

What about Alcohol? (textbook), with Jane Comfort. Burlington, North Carolina, Carolina Biological Supply Company, 1983.

Reality and Empathy; Physics, Mind, and Science in the 21st Century. Albany, State University of New York Press, 1984.

Say Yes to Old Age: Developing a Positive Attitude toward Aging. New York, Crown, 1990.

Science, Religion and Scientism. N.p., South Place Ethical Society, 1990.

The New Joy of Sex. New York, Crown, 1991.

Against Power and Death: The Anarchist Articles and Pamphlets of Alex Comfort. London, Freedom Press, 1994.

Sexual Positions. London, Mitchell Beazley, and New York, Crown, 1997.

Kisses and Caresses. London, Mitchell Beazley, 1997.

Sexual Fantasies. London, Mitchell Beazley, 1997.

Sexual Foreplay. London, Mitchell Beazley, and New York, Crown, 1997.

Editor, with Robert Greacen, Lyra: An Anthology of New Lyric. Billericay, Essex, Grey Walls Press, 1942.

Editor, with John Bayliss, New Road 1943 and 1944: New Directions in European Art and Letters. London, Grey Walls Press, 2 vols., 1943–44.

Editor, History of Erotic Art 1. London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York, Putnam, 1969.

Editor, Sexual Consequences of Disability. Philadelphia, Stickley, 1978.

Translator, with Allan Ross Macdougall, The Triumph of Death, by C.F. Ramuz. London, Routledge, 1946.

Translator, The Koka Shastra. London, Allen and Unwin, 1964; New York, Stein and Day, 1965.

Translator, The Illustrated Koka Shastra: Medieval Indian Writings on Love Based on the Kama Sutra. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1997.


Bibliography: "Alexander Comfort: A Bibliography in Progress" by D. Callaghan, in West Coast Review (Burnaby, British Columbia), 1969.

Critical Studies: The Freedom of Poetry by Derek Stanford, London, Falcon Press, 1947; "The Scientific Humanism of Alex Comfort" by Wayne Burns, in The Humanist 11 (London), November-December 1951; "The Anarchism of Alex Comfort" by John Ellerby, "Sex, Kicks and Comfort" by Charles Radcliffe, and "Alex Comfort's Art and Scope" by Harold Drasdo, all in Anarchy 33 (London), November 1963; Alex Comfort by Arthur E. Salmon, Boston, Twayne, 1978.

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Alex Comfort's best-known poems are concerned with sexual love, with a sometimes tender, sometimes bawdy exploration of the sexual impulse in men and women. If other poets have occasionally explored this subject, Comfort is, apart from his contemporary Gavin Ewart, the only poet who is known almost exclusively for it. This is partly because of his extrapoetic writing, often about sexual psychology and physiology, and partly through the continual anthologizing of his fine poem "For Ruth" ("There is a white mare that my love keeps/unridden in a hillside meadow &").

Comfort's earlier poems, owing much to T.S. Eliot, often consisted of meditations on death, not only on violent death in war, as in the 1944 Elegies, but also on death as seen lurking in natural landscapes: "The condemned cell of the woods lies round our doors,/the trees are bars, and barbs the bramble carries &" Comfort's subsequent war poems, in The Signal to Engage, were as bitter as those of Siegfried Sassoon a generation earlier. But it was later, in the 1960s, that Comfort found the theme and the style, sometimes extrovert, sometimes interior, that enabled him to write the poems in which he is seen at his most amusing, accomplished, and wise. His range within this theme is considerable and ranges from the lyrical to the epigrammatic ("Babies' and lovers' toes express/ecstasies of wantonness./That's a language which we lose/with the trick of wearing shoes").

Comfort's technical range is not great, but he commands a technique that enables him to make his points in a sinewy and terse language that is only occasionally marred by sentimentality. His anecdotes—often telling a short story that might have appealed to Guy de Maupassant—are succinct, and if he turns his hand to a purposely made piece, as in Haste to the Wedding, the note is never false.

Comfort's attitude toward love, increasingly shared by his younger readers, is celebrated in poetry like none that has been written since the Restoration. It is direct and uncompromising, with a note of wholehearted enjoyment. He is tired of "the best pentameters," of "eloquence overdone": "That first act of our own/is still the best act left. Let's go to bed." Of course this means that there are limitations, and Comfort has perhaps never wholly recaptured the tenderness of "For Ruth." But while many other poets have written single poems of considerable beauty, not so many have written, for instance, a complaining elegy on bed manufacturers: "Surely the trade has one Stradivarius?/If not, I know why in Neolithic days/the Goddess was steatopygic./For the meantime let us unroll the rug."

Comfort's later love poems succeed perhaps because they lack the painful intensity of longing that pierces the verse of poets both less happy as lovers and more intent on their poetry. Comfort's verse celebrates, not mourns or yearns. His words "serve to fill the space/between meeting and meeting— /this is the eloquent thing/that they are celebrating/and nothing that we write/myself or any other/matches the fine content/of what we do together."

—Derek Parker