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)
"Auden and Shakespeare," The New York Review, March 23, 2000.↩
“Auden and Shakespeare,” The New York Review, March 23, 2000.↩