Auden strongly disapproved of revelations of the intimate lives of poets. This in no way spoiled his delight in reading them. Perhaps his belief that the enjoyment was sinful added to the pleasure. His love of decisive moral distinctions made the sinner who knew he was doing wrong more acceptable to him than one who sinned ignorantly or—even worse—indifferently. He himself was quite happily ashamed of his interest in posthumous gossip about private lives (just as he frowned upon wicked book reviews of other writers’ works, and read them with enthusiasm—“Chester and I very much enjoyed your article,” he said, sternly and reproachfully to the writer of one such review, adding, “Very bitchy”).
The division of public from private was of the greatest importance to Auden. In this distinction lay for him the foundation of literary morality, and he tried without success to make it consistent. His own poetry attempts to wear a public face: even the love lyrics avoid that air of mystery which hints at a private interpretation. Their meanings lie open on the surface: the mystery is hidden, lies in regions more profound. In the same way what is most idiosyncratic and most personal about Auden’s poetry seems at first sight to be merely a matter of technique, a part of his craft. The elaborate technical mastery has, as one of its functions, the erection of a barrier.
But no poem could ever become completely public for him. He refused to admit the public nature of publication. His poems always remained his private property, he felt, to withdraw as he pleased, to alter, to suppress. No one has ever taken so ethical a view of copyright as Auden.
I once told him about going up to speak to Marianne Moore (whom I had never met) after she had given a reading of some of her poems, to tell her that I regretted a poem she had left out of her collected poems: it had a beautiful comparison of the swan to the mathematician’s sign “greater-than” bearing its point upon the lake, and it ended with, “An arrow turned inward has no chance of peace” (a line I am no longer certain I care for so much). “I am glad you liked that poem,” said Miss Moore, “I liked it too, but James Laughlin didn’t, so I left it out.” When I told this to Auden, I had forgotten that he was sensitive about the revisions and suppressions he had performed on his own work. He was very indignant at my story, and curiously, most indignant at Miss Moore’s reaction, which he must have felt had compromised her fellow poets.
When I said that there were writers and composers, like Schumann, whose revisions fell below the standard of their original inspiration, he replied that quality had nothing to do with it: the work belonged even after publication to the author. He felt I had gone beyond what was permissible in playing Schumann’s original versions. A suppressed version had no right to exist: to read it was almost to pry into the author’s life, to force into light that which he had chosen to hide. Public and private were absolutely separate for Auden, but each could be transformed into the other by an act of will, which was always a moral decision.
Having made this apparently absolute distinction, Auden was able to play light-heartedly with the relation between the public and private. Toward the end of his life it became clear that it was the forbidden, the private aspects of a writer’s life that interested him: he reviewed editions of letters and diaries with greater relish than anything else. “Would I have liked him?” is a question he asked himself before any other about poets and novelists of the past.
Nowhere was this ambiguity more important than in his attitude to his own brilliantly pornographic poem, “The Platonic Blow.” He was outraged by its unauthorized printing in an underground publication in America. “That poem ascribed to me…” he started by calling it, and a few sentences later was discussing it as his own with justifiable pride. Every poet except Wordsworth has written some verse that was either obscene or scatological, he claimed. But most verse of this kind in the work of other major poets is satirical or comic, and “The Platonic Blow” is neither. It is as straightforward and dispassionate as Leonardo’s drawings of sexual intercourse, except that in Auden’s case the intention is clearly to excite.
“The Platonic Blow” was private, never intended for publication; it presents itself, however, as public, a first-person narrative of complete impersonality and complete indiscretion. Nothing would identify it as Auden’s except its virtuoso style; only the extraordinarily detailed realism creates the illusion—as in Defoe—that the author was there.
Auden was pleased to have been the first (not only in this poem, but also in some signed reviews) to introduce certain out-of-the-way homosexual slang expressions into written English. This insurgence of his private world into the public one is the obverse of his play with words in the published poems. There he sometimes used words that he appears to have invented for their onomatopoeic value: “sossing through seamless waters”; “shrunk to a soodling thread.” But both “soss” and “soodle” are public, to be found in the OED, a book Auden read in the large thirteen-volume edition until his copy fell apart. (He was looking for a new one when he left New York for Oxford.) There are, in fact, no neologisms in Auden.
His distinction of public and private was—like most of his views on ethics—a game played with the utmost seriousness in which he decided all the rules. What was important to him was not to cheat once the rules were made. Having classified unpunctuality as a serious crime (along with speeding, drinking before five o’clock, and neologism), he once turned up an hour early for Christmas dinner, explaining apologetically that cabs were difficult to find in his part of town and he had started to look for one well in advance in order not to be late.
Morality is always a public affair, but for Auden it had to be the result of a directly personal, private, even arbitrary decision. Perhaps this is why in his poetry his grand public manner has such an oddly personal tone, and can speak to us so intimately.
December 12, 1974