The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939
About the House
“Art is born of humiliation,” said the young Auden to the young hopeful Spender. And we saw in the first of these three essays how he continued to believe this.1 He thought of the Sonnets as a private record of Shakespeare’s humiliation at the hands of both the young man and the Dark Lady, for the sonnets addressed to her are “concerned with that most humiliating of all erotic experiences, sexu-al infatuation.” “Simple lust,” said Auden,
is impersonal, that is to say the pursuer regards himself as a person but the object of his pursuit as a thing, to whose personal qualities, if she has any, he is indifferent, and, if he succeeds, he expects to be able to make a safe getaway as soon as he becomes bored. Sometimes, however, he gets trapped. Instead of becoming bored, he becomes sexually obsessed, and the girl, instead of conveniently remaining an object, becomes a real person to him, but a person whom he not only does not love, he actively dislikes.
And Auden adds that “no other poet, not even Catullus, has described the anguish, self-contempt, and rage produced by this unfortunate condition so well as Shakespeare in some of these sonnets.”
As for the young man:
The impression we get of his friend is one of a young man who was not really very nice, very conscious of his good looks, able to switch on the charm at any moment, but essentially frivolous, cold-hearted, and self-centered, aware, probably, that he had some power over Shakespeare—if he thought about it at all, no doubt he gave it a cynical explanation—but with no conception of the intensity of the feelings he had, unwittingly, aroused. Somebody, in fact, rather like Bassanio in The Merchant of Venice.
Auden thought that the Sonnets told the story “of an agonized struggle by Shakespeare to preserve the glory of the vision he had been granted in a relationship, lasting at least three years, with a person who seemed intent by his actions upon covering the vision with dirt.”
More than one reader has sensed in these lines a bitterness deriving from Auden’s own circumstances with Chester Kallman, his lover, with whom he continued to live for at least part of the year long after their sexual relations had ceased. Auden considered himself married to Kallman, but, since his friend had turned elsewhere for sex, he came to make his own sexual arrangements too. Since Auden is often depicted as the suffering victim in this relationship, it is worth pointing out that, if he had been attacking Kallman in his depiction of the young man in the Sonnets, he would (a) have been casting himself as Shakespeare, and (b) have been mounting an attack which would have been very hard for Kallman to counter. And how could you live happily with someone who attacks you in print?
Auden was powerfully aware of the difficulty involved in being on the receiving end of an intensely felt love, and you may remember that in his definition of the Vision of Eros he more or less excluded the possibility that the vision could be mutual. Beatrice, had she lived, could never have, as it were, reciprocated Dante’s experience of her. As Auden put it: “The story of Tristan and Isolde is a myth, not an instance of what can historically occur.” Auden also felt that the vision he was talking about could not long survive an actual sexual relationship. In a letter to David Luke, he emphasizes that “all the authorities agree that the vision cannot survive any prolonged sexual relations.” But he doesn’t say who all these authorities are.
Actually the story Shakespeare’s Sonnets tell, if they do tell a story, seems to me to be of relevance to Auden’s life in a way he might not have acknowledged. You will remember that the conclusion of Sonnet 20 proposes that the young man should grant the poet his love, while bestowing his sexual attention on women: “Since she prick’d thee out for women’s pleasure,” says the poet, “Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.” The poet thinks he can split love in two, but this plan gets its comeuppance when the young man goes anywhere near the Dark Lady. In his own life, Auden felt that having made his commitment he should stick to it. If Kallman had shifted his sexual attentions elsewhere, perhaps Auden could still have his love in the important sense. He was not to waver from this unhappy ambition for the next, the last, thirty years of his life.
Sometimes in his poetry he expresses a stoic resignation:
Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.
How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
Admirer as I think I am
Of stars that do not give a damn,
I cannot, now I see them, say
I missed one terribly all day.
Were all stars to disappear or die,
I should learn to look at an empty sky
And feel its total dark sublime,
Though this might take me a little time.
(“The More Loving One”)
This is one of those poems which was probably not much liked when it came out in 1958, but which hangs around, and reverberates, largely because of that couplet:
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.
A thought that anyone might wish to take consolation from at some point in life.
But Auden was not always stoical or resigned in this way. His jealousy had been stirred by Kallman to such an extent that at one point—or so he believed—he came within an ace of strangling him. And that fury returned to haunt him.
Make this night loveable,
Moon, and with eye single
Looking down from up there
Bless me, One especial
And friends everywhere.
With a cloudless brightness
Surround our absences;
Innocent be our sleeps,
Watched by great still spaces,
White hills, glittering deeps.
Parted by circumstance,
Grant each your indulgence
That we may meet in dreams
For talk, for dalliance,
By warm hearths, by cool streams.
Shine lest tonight any,
In the dark suddenly,
Wake alone in a bed
To hear his own fury
Wishing his love were dead.
(“Five Songs,” V)
To be in love and wish your lover dead, to be in love and know that you have to conceal it, to be in the grip of a sexual obsession with someone you discover you dislike—all these humiliating experiences turn up in Auden’s work, and it is worth noting that the humiliation did not begin with Kallman. From the earliest of Auden’s published lyrics we are invited to see love as transitory:
Nor speech is close nor fingers numb,
If love not seldom has received
An unjust answer, was deceived.
I, decent with the seasons, move
Different, or with a different love.
The lover behaves decently in the sense that he changes and accepts change. This is the behavior of nature. Love is seasonal. And it happens that in Auden’s early poetry an incantatory style can create an effect of beauty while the subject under discussion might be something the reader, if he only understood it better, might be shocked by. It was Christopher Isherwood in Christopher and His Kind (1976) who explained that Auden had written a beautiful poem, just to please Isherwood, about a boyfriend of Isherwood’s known as Bubi:
Before this loved one
Was that one and that one,
And ghost’s adversity,
Whose pleasing name
Was neighbourly shame.
Before this last one
Was much to be done,
Frontiers to cross
As clothes grew worse,
And coins to pass
In a cheaper house,
Before this last one,
Before this loved one.
(“This Loved One”)
Perhaps it would always have been clear to the reader that there was something going on here which was not quite right—that, as the second stanza puts it, this love affair was “no real meeting,” “a backward love.” Perhaps also those frontiers to cross as clothes grew worse and coins to pass in a cheaper house suggested that what was going on was not, as it were, entirely respectable. But whether the words “rent boy” or “male prostitute” or “promiscuous sex” came to mind among the original readers of the poem is another question. Such words seem to come from a very different vocabulary from that of the poem.
Much of Auden’s early poetry was written in a kind of code, and this was a source of its bewitching power. Readers of poetry divide into two kinds: those who, confronted with what appears to be like a code, insist that they must crack it, and those who are happy to listen to the spell, without inquiring too closely what it might mean.
Garlic and sapphires in the mud
Clot the bedded axle-tree
—as Eliot so aptly put it in Burnt Norton. But what does it mean?
The trilling wire in the blood
Sings below inveterate scars
And reconciles forgotten wars.
What is a trilling wire? Some people have to know the answer. Others don’t. (I think a trilling wire is a telegram people used to send to Professor Lionel Trilling, begging for his help in elucidating passages like these.)
What Auden wrote in code—to the extent that his circle might possess a key to the code while the general public did not—would have been read within his circle with the sense of pleasure and privilege enjoyed by the initiate; perhaps too as a joke on the general public. How many readers do you think understood the dedication of Poems (1930) as having a sexual meaning?
Let us honour if we can
The vertical man
Though we value none
But the horizontal one.
And would they have been right to do so? Does it mean: let us try to honor the living, although it is the dead we value? (An odd message, surely.) Or honor man in his active mode, though we value only the—what? The unconscious, the contemplative man?
A poem may be at the same time transparent and undisclosing, en code and en clair:
Dear, though the night is gone,
The dream still haunts to-day,
That brought us to a room
Cavernous, lofty as
A railway terminus,
And crowded in that gloom
Were beds, and we in one
In a far corner lay.
Our whisper woke no clocks,
We kissed and I was glad
At everything you did,
Indifferent to those
Who sat with hostile eyes
In pairs on every bed,
Arms round each other’s necks,
Inert and vaguely sad.
O but what worm of guilt
Or what malignant doubt
Am I the victim of,
That you then, unabashed,
Did what I never wished,
Confessed another love;
And I, submissive, felt
Unwanted and went out.
(“Twelve Songs,” IV)
Our pronouns have preserved a tact which allows Auden to write a poem in this way without specifying what sexes are involved. And there is generosity in this, since any reader can be the lover, the speaker of this poem. It is based on a dream of Auden’s about a particular male lover. Read as a poem about two men, it yields further meanings, hitherto perhaps concealed: the hostility of the other lovers comes across as the hostility of society, while the location of the dream in a railway terminus has associations with a particular kind of transient affair. But of course the fear expressed by the whole dream—the fear of being unwanted—is universal.
The speaker in the poem, on the other hand, has dreamed the dream and is aware not only of the miserable feeling of being unwanted, but also of having created the scenario, which implies that he might in some guilty way wish the affair with the lover to end. Likewise in “Lay your sleeping head, my love” it is the speaker, the poet, whose arm is faithless. It is the speaker who, while wishing to preserve the beautiful moment, is aware that it may pass on the stroke of midnight. And this sense of transience is not unwelcome—it is merely defied for the time being. This is the early Auden, the Auden of the Thirties, speaking. He may have suffered. He may have been humiliated, and his art may have come from this humiliation. But he could still, generally speaking, display a happy optimism in the matter of love.
This song was written for Benjamin Britten:
Underneath an abject willow,
Lover, sulk no more:
Act from thought should quickly follow.
What is thinking for?
Your unique and moping station
Proves you cold;
Stand up and fold
Your map of desolation.
Bells that toll across the meadows
From the sombre spire
Toll for these unloving shadows
Love does not require.
All that lives may love; why longer
Bow to loss
With arms across?
Strike and you shall conquer.
Geese in flocks above you flying.
Their direction know,
Icy brooks beneath you flowing,
To their ocean go.
Dark and dull is your distraction:
Walk then, come,
No longer numb
Into your satisfaction.
Just over half a dozen years after composing this, Auden, in 1943, wrote to Elizabeth Mayer that “being Anders wie die Andern”—he meant “Anders als die Andern,” different from the others (it was the title of a film about homosexuality made in 1919)—“has its troubles. There are days when the knowledge that there will never be a place which I can call home, that there will never be a person with whom I shall be one flesh, seems more than I can bear, and if it wasn’t for you, and a few—how few—like you, I don’t think I could.” Auden was not usually given to self-pity, and one is pulled up by the assertion that there would never be a place he could call home. He had lived, it is true, a peripatetic life—as a teacher and writer—but nothing so fractured as to mark him out from the rest of humanity in this respect.
And yet it may be that Auden seriously believed that he was somehow condemned to be homeless. Even when he bought his house in Austria in 1957 and began to write the series of poems about it that were gathered in About the House, the series was called “Thanksgiving for a Habitat,” as if the use of the word “home” might be somewhat pushing it. And in the dozen poems in the series, the word seldom crops up:
and love, sing all the birds, are what matter: what I dared not hope for or fight for
is, in my fifties, mine, a toft-and-croft
where I needn’t, ever, be at home to
those I am not at home with, not a cradle, a magic Eden without clocks,
and not a windowless grave, but a place
I may go both in and out of.
The second use of the word “home” is in the final poem, addressed to Kallman, which is about the living room. It simply says that “every home should be a fortress,/equipped with all the very latest engines/for keeping Nature at bay.” He is referring to the fact that the living room had small windows, which he liked to keep tight shut.
To define one’s home so baldly as “a place/I may go both in and out of” seems extremely odd until we turn to John Fuller’s commentary, which gives us the reference to George Macdonald’s Lilith. It comes from the advice a raven gives to Mr. Vane:
“The only way to come to know where you are is to begin to make yourself at home.”
“How am I to begin that when everything is so strange?”
“By doing something.”
“Anything; and the sooner you begin the better! for until you are at home, you will find it as difficult to get out as it is to get in…. Home, as you may or may not know, is the only place where you may go out and in. There are places you can go into, and places you can go out of; but the one place if you do but find it, where you may go out and in both, is home.”2
The commentary suggests for Fuller that “what the quotation does not say, but which Auden may well have had in mind (significantly in the context of a poem about certain death and illusory Edens) is that the one place that you only come out of is the womb, and the one place you only go into is the tomb.” Auden’s riddling use of an anyway riddling Macdonald is an indication that there was some significance in his suppression of the subject “home.”
One may ask why Auden should be under the illusion—or burdened with the belief—that he had not had a home before moving to Austria. He had never been under any illusion about having roots—his roots, if he had had them, would have been in Birmingham. His mythical north of England (which began at Crewe station in that city), to which he often referred and returned in prose and verse, was well understood to be a place of his own invention. Nothing would have been simpler than to hop on a train to Carlisle, if hopping on that train would have met the need for home. But there was a forward impulse in Auden’s life that involved renunciation. He had renounced in his poetry a certain kind of rhetoric. He had renounced political engagement. He had really renounced England, and that was not forgiven him.
I think also that this forward impulse of renunciation is reflected in the feeling he would have, after finishing a poem, that he would never be able to write another line again—as if by the end of each poem all his talent had been evacuated. And then there was a feeling, once when he was preparing a book of collected poems in New York, that he would put them all together in a book because he never wanted to write like that again. He would be shot of them.
When Auden did go back, the upshot was often unhappy. This was true both of the trip to England he made at the end of the war, and of his attempt to move back to Oxford in the last year of his life. It is true also that when he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, he was terrified of giving his inaugural lecture. According to Richard Davenport-Hines’s biography, it was partly the animosity that his election to this chair had aroused which gave him the dark-night-of-the-soul experience out of which he wrote “There Will Be No Peace”:
Though mild clear weather
Smile again on the shire of your esteem
And its colors come back, the storm has changed you: You will not forget, ever,
The darkness blotting out hope, the gale Prophesying your downfall.
You must live with your knowledge.
Way back, beyond, outside of you are others,
In moonless absences you never heard of, Who have certainly heard of you,
Beings of unknown number and gender: And they do not like you.
What have you done to them?
Nothing? Nothing is not an answer:
You will come to believe—how can you help it?—That you did, you did do something;
You will find yourself wishing you could make them laugh, You will long for their friendship.
There will be no peace.
Fight back, then, with such courage as you have
And every unchivalrous dodge you know of, Clear in your conscience on this:
Their cause, if they had one, is nothing to them now; They hate for hate’s sake.
Nobody seemed to like this poem at the time. Thom Gunn wrote that it was “the worst of Auden’s poems I have seen in book form.” And even Edward Mendelson says it was “perhaps the least successful poem he had written in fifteen years,” that Auden “did not translate or universalize the experience that had prompted it into something accessible to a sympathetic reader.”3 Auden said: “I don’t know why critics have disliked this poem so much. However, I can’t be objective about it, since it is one of the most purely personal poems I have ever written. It was an attempt to describe a very unpleasant dark-night-of-the-soul sort of experience which for several months in 1956 attacked me.” And he later identified the theme as paranoia.
Actually there seems to me to be something universally appreciable in the idea that there are beings out there who hate you, people unknown to you who have a longstanding inexplicable grudge against you. If it were not so, one’s heart would not miss a beat in those innumerable films when the hero comes home to find his favorite cat nailed to the door, or his house sprayed with slogans.
We can take “There Will Be No Peace” as an evocation of the visceral dislike Auden encountered in Britain. We can also see it as a study of forces encountered within, forces that urge one to admit an unfounded guilt and to go for the humiliation of appeasement. That awareness in Auden, mentioned in the previous essay, of the proximity of the power of the poet’s rhetoric to the power of the dictator was a longstanding theme. Terrifying powers work within us, or are carrying out their work through us, Auden thought. He said in 1940:
Jung hardly went far enough when he said “Hitler is the unconscious of every German”; he comes uncomfortably near being the unconscious of most of us. The shock of discovering through Freud and Marx that when we thought we were being perfectly responsible, logical, and loving we were nothing of the kind, has led us to believe that responsibility and logic and love are meaningless words; instead of bringing us to repentance, it has brought us to nihilistic despair.
Here is a poem written at that time which was first called “The Crisis” and is now called “They”:
Where do they come from? Those whom we so much dread,
as on our dearest location falls the chill
of their crooked wing and endangers
the melting friend, the aqueduct, the flower.
Terrible Presences that the ponds reflect
back at the famous and, when the blond boy
bites eagerly into the shining
apple, emerge in their shocking fury,
and we realize the woods are deaf and the sky
nurses no one, and we are awake and these,
like farmers, have purpose and knowledge,
but towards us their hate is directed.
We are the barren pastures to which they bring
the resentment of outcasts; on us they work
out their despair; they wear our weeping
as the disgraceful badge of their exile.
We have conjured them here like a lying map;
desiring the extravagant joy of life,
we lured with a mirage of orchards,
fat in the lazy climate of refuge.
Our money sang like streams on the aloof peaks
of our thinking that beckoned them on like girls;
our culture like a West of wonder
shone a solemn promise in their faces.
We expected the beautiful or the wise,
ready to see a charm in our childish fibs,
pleased to find nothing but stones, and
able at once to create a garden.
But those who come are not even children with
the big indiscriminate eyes we had lost,
occupying our narrow spaces
with their anarchist vivid abandon.
They arrive, already adroit, having learned
restraint at the table of a father’s rage;
in a mother’s distorting mirror
they discovered the Meaning of Knowing.
For a future of marriage nevertheless
the bed is prepared; though all our whiteness shrinks
from the hairy and clumsy bridegroom,
we conceive in the shuddering instant.
For the barren must wish to bear though the Spring
punish; and the crooked that dreads to be straight
cannot alter its prayer but summons
out of the dark a horrible rector.
The tawny and vigorous tiger can move
with style through the borough of murder; the ape
is really at home in the parish
of grimacing and licking: but we have
failed as their pupils. Our tears well from a love
we have never outgrown; our armies predict
more than we hope; even our armies
have to express our need for forgiveness.
Quite a lot of “trilling wires” here, enough to provoke E.R. Dodds’s wife, Annie Dodds, to ask Auden what crisis he was referring to. He replied: “‘The Crisis’ is just the spiritual crisis of our time, i.e. the division between the reason and the heart, the individual and the collective, the liberal ineffective highbrow and the brutal practical demagogue like Hitler and Huey Long.”
The powers that suddenly and terrifyingly appear are, as Mendelson glosses them,
the chthonic powers that our intellectual pride has banished from ourselves, and they exist, paradoxically, because we banished them. Evolutionary and erotic instincts were inseparable from the whole being of a lower animal; they took on separate existence only when we human beings divided ourselves into proletarian Matter and aristocratic Idea, and excluded from both the instincts that had once informed the whole.
Auden believed that though we are under the illusion that we live and act, we are in fact “lived”—unknown and irrational forces work through us.
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.
It is their to-morrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends: but existence is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.
That comes from an elegy for the German poet Ernst Toller, who had committed suicide in New York in 1939 (which explains the reference to the powers directing “even our hand”). While Auden was contemplating these powers, and the awful way they seemed to be shaping the destiny of Europe, while he was trying to shake off one way of thinking and explore another—shake off a way of thinking based on the belief in the inevitability of human progress, explore a way of thinking suggested to him by the theologies of the time—while he was doing this, and writing the poems which came out of his contemplation of the war and its meaning—Auden would have thought that he was doing what he was set on earth to do. He had written in 1938:
The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. I do not know if such increased awareness makes us more moral or more efficient;I hope not.
I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive, which is why, perhaps, all totalitarian theories of the State, from Plato’s downwards, have deeply distrusted the arts. They notice and say too much, and the neighbours start talking.
So if Auden was working (as he always was), he felt that he was doing the right thing. He had a gift, and he was at this time particularly conscious of his responsibilities toward it. Mendelson quotes a stanza from one of the poems Auden refused to republish in his 1945 collection, “Pascal”:
Yet like a lucky orphan he had been discovered
And instantly adopted by a Gift;
And she became the sensible protector
Who found a passage through the caves of accusation,
And even in the canyon of distress was able
To use the echo of his weakness as a proof
That joy was probable and took the place
Of the poor lust and hunger he had never known.
The Gift is your protector against your accusers.
When Golo Mann first met Auden in Switzerland in 1935, his manner was, Mann later put it,
appealingly awkward, but at the same time self-confident. If one studied him closer, he had the air of one who was used to being primus inter pares, one might even say a triumphant air, so long as this does not suggest anything exaggerated or theatrical.
Mann goes on to say:
He was the most intelligent man I have known, or rather, because “intelligence” only suggests insight and understanding, the cleverest, with a cleverness which was essentially creative. He thought truths out for himself. Many of them could have been expanded into whole books. But he only presented them, in his own particular way, unsystematically. So there is no Auden “philosophy.”
Golo Mann later shared that famous house in Brooklyn Heights with Auden, along with Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Paul and Jane Bowles, and Gypsy Rose Lee. Mann tells us:
Benjamin Britten soon left Brooklyn and returned to England, presumably because he did not wish to remain far away from his native country in time of war. Auden remained. This did not endear him to his countrymen, soon to be his ex-countrymen. When I showed him a hostile article in an English paper and said it required some reply from him, he cut me short: “There is no point.” It was another example of his independence, self-confidence and pride. He knew that he would survive such a crisis, best of all by taking no notice of it.
Mann means that Auden knew he would survive being attacked in the press, not, as might at first seem, that he knew he would survive the war best by taking no notice of it. Auden’s “There is no point” might be taken to mean, “Whatever I say in my defense will be useless.” And that has certainly proved the case, since the accusation of cowardice pursued him all his life, and afterward too. In the first of these Auden essays I traced an irritating little scholarly tradition, which began by calling Auden a hypocrite and ended up detecting what Katherine Duncan Jones described as “a characteristic instance of [his] cowardice.”
Ursula Niebuhr, the theologian wife of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a man who was critical of pacifism, gives an account of Auden’s commencement address at Smith College in 1940, from part of which I have already quoted. Auden called his address a sermon, but he put the text of the sermon at the end. It is from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:
The only courage that is demanded of us: [is] to have courage for the most extraordinary, the most singular, and the most inexplicable that we may encounter…. Only he or she who is ready for everything…will live the relation to another as something alive…. We must always hold to what is difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most hostile will become what we most trust and find most faithful…. Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
And Ursula Niebuhr goes on to recall how Auden
wrote sympathetically about Rilke’s negative reaction to the First World War. “Not to understand: yes, that was my entire occupation in these years”; and commented on these words of Rilke, “To be conscious but to refuse to understand, is a positive act that calls for courage of the highest order.” But he admitted that, “It may at the time be difficult for the outsider…to distinguish it from selfish or cowardly indifference.” For him, Rilke was the writer to whom to turn, “for strength to resist the treacherous temptations that approach us disguised as righteous duties.”
I think of Blake’s question:
Thou hast a lap full of seed
And this is a fine country.
Why dost thou not cast thy seed
And live in it merrily.
To which the answer must be: if only it were as easy as that. If only what the question supposes were true. Auden had the greatest gifts of any of our poets in the twentieth century, the greatest lap full of seed. And it was given him to know this, and to doubt it, to know and to doubt it. The sense of being primus inter pares, the sense of always being the youngest person in the room, the spirit that could say to posterity “You did not live in our time—be sorry”: all this was given him. And then, to be conscious but to refuse to understand, to live not in a fine but in a lean country, to hold to what was most difficult, to face that which was most hostile—this too was given him. To make mistakes, to cling to impossible ideals, to fail, to find himself hated, to know humiliation—this too was given him. To find himself wronged or in the wrong, to find his courage taken for cowardice, to find himself human, in short—all this was given him. “Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us,” and perhaps that forward impulse of renunciation implied a gesture toward the terrible. This was where his Gift had brought him, to this lean country and to these caves of accusation.
—This is the last of three articleson W.H. Auden.