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Auden at Home

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:

   …Territory, status,

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.”

What?”

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.

  1. 2

    John Fuller, W.H. Auden: A Commentary (Princeton University Press, 1998), p. 273.

  2. 3

    Edward Mendelson, Later Auden (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), p. 406.

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