Although Auden’s engagement with Shakespeare produced the most wonderful and surprising results, both in prose and in verse, it is not to be supposed that, during his lifetime, he was always listened to on the subject with sympathy or even respect. Throughout his adult life, Auden enjoyed celebrity as a poet, but that celebrity did not automatically entitle him to assume the august mantle of critic and teacher. Here he is, glimpsed through the memoir of Charles H. Miller, at Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1941:

When he got to Shakespeare, he drew blackboard diagrams to show that Othello was stupid and that Iago was the most honest character in the play. I wasn’t the only student to be put off, or let down, by his seeming flippancy toward Shakespeare; few of us had known so unorthodox a teacher, and none of us had known such a presence with such methods.

And here is the same witness, five years later, in New York:

At the New School lecture on Shakespeare, Amalia and I sat down front, as we had in Angell Hall in Ann Arbor. We smiled knowingly when Wystan made conscious efforts to be “original” about Shakespeare’s plays, and we weren’t surprised when a few elderly academics got up and walked out in protest at Wystan’s lack of humility before the Bard.1

Charlie and Amalia, newly married college friends, smiling knowingly at each other with Wystan up there on the platform—good old Wystan—and the elderly academics walking out: it is a charming and believable scene. People normally write in memoirs about the experiences that made a real impact on them in life. Here, more valuably, we have a description of somebody making absolutely no impact whatever.

Charlie Miller knew Auden very well: he shared a house with him on campus, cooked for him, told him his nightmares, showed him his journals, liked, admired him even, kept a useful record of his conversation, thought of his English 135 class that year in Michigan as “an individual monument.” But he seems never to have taken Auden seriously as a critic of Shakespeare, either in his youth or at the time he was writing his book.

And you can see why. You can see how an offense had been committed against the decorums. The students listened attentively, but suspected they were being taken for a ride. How could Iago be shown, by diagrams, to be the most honest character in the play? Well, we no longer have the diagrams, but we do seem to have the remainder of the argument in Auden’s essay on Othello, “The Joker in the Pack.” Everything that Iago says to Othello, Auden argues,

is designed to bring to Othello’s consciousness what he has already guessed is there. Accordingly, he has no need to tell lies. Even his speech, “I lay with Cassio lately,” can be a truthful account of something which actually happened: from what we know of Cassio, he might very well have such a dream as Iago reports.2

In fact, Iago does tell some definite lies, but rather fewer than you’d expect. He is economical with the untruth.

Auden loved expressing himself aphoristically, and often an aphorism is a statement which is only true if handled with a certain sympathy. Auden said: “Every woman wants to play Hamlet, just as every man wants to play Lady Bracknell.” The comic effect comes from the disparity in the level of ambition between woman and man: cross-dressing suggests to the one the opportunity to satisfy the highest cravings of the spirit, to the other nothing grander than the opportunity to camp it up.

One evening in Michigan, Auden talked to Charlie Miller about Shakespeare. He said:

When a director seeks an actor to play the role of Hamlet, he may as well go out on the street and take the first person who comes along. Because the role doesn’t require an actor. One has only to recite Hamlet’s speeches, which are instruction and arguments to himself on how to act the roles he decides to play.3

Of course the role does in fact require an actor, someone with the stamina, the voice, the fencing skill, and so forth. But if Auden is taken as meaning that the actor will find no great mystery in how to play the part, so long as he pays attention to the internal directions—that is, to the pointers given by the author within the speeches themselves—this is profoundly true, not only of Hamlet but of Shakespeare in general.

Quite how many worthwhile performances of Shakespeare Auden would have seen, I do not know. Probably not many. In 1939 he expressed the belief that The Merry Wives of Windsor and All’s Well that Ends Well were about subjects with which Shakespeare could do nothing. “Genius,” he wrote,


is rarely as artistically successful as talent. Had his range and power of expression been less, [Shakespeare] would have been a better writer for the theater. In Troilus and Cressida and Measure for Measure, for example, what he is interested in expressing, the vastness of human corruption, is a lyrical not a dramatic theme, and is more than the plots and characters can bear.

With the exception of The Merry Wives of Windsor, all these plays used to be seen as presenting problems. Measure for Measure, for instance, was much disliked, and considered a dramatic failure, and it has only been in the latter part of this century that imaginative directors such as Peter Brook and Jonathan Miller have had a success with it. Auden’s dismissal of such pieces is conventional rather than odd.

What is odd is the habit of mind in Auden that considers, say, the character of Falstaff, finds him out of place in Henry IV, imagines Falstaff out of the play and in the audience watching the play without him, commends Queen Elizabeth’s perceptiveness in wanting to see Falstaff in a comedy, and finds that Falstaff only really becomes a fully achieved character in Verdi’s opera. Or finds Iago’s motivation more fully explicated in Boito’s libretto than in Shakespeare’s play. As if Falstaff and Iago are preexistent essences. Falstaff has to wait around for Verdi in order to find his essence truly expressed.

Auden’s playfulness might have been better appreciated by his students if the word “ludic” had enjoyed an earlier vogue, and someone could have whispered in their ears: this isn’t irreverence—this is ludicity. But of course an essay like “The Joker in the Pack” goes well beyond the ludic. As it develops its notion of Iago as practical joker, and then, by a surprise maneuver, presents the sinister practical joker as a scientific inquirer, the piece converts itself into a moral essay of plain earnestness: an attack on society’s acceptance of our right to knowledge at whatever cost, from the gossip column to the cobalt bomb.

A horror of public gossip, a dislike for the glib intrusion on another’s private life, seems to have crept over Auden in his later years, and it provides the theme for both the opening and the conclusion of his essay on Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which forms the introduction to the Signet Classics edition, where he attacks the blurring of the borderline between the desire for truth and idle curiosity, arguing that

a great deal of what today passes for scholarly research is an activity no different from that of reading somebody’s private correspondence when he is out of the room, and it doesn’t really make it morally any better if he is out of the room because he is in his grave.

When the Sonnets were first printed by Thomas Thorpe (described by Stephen Booth as a small-time entrepreneur who specialized in acquiring manuscripts and arranging for them to be printed) in 1609, they had a dedication signed “T.T.” and addressed “to the Onelie begetter of these insuing Sonnets Mr. W.H.” Auden had come to believe that the Sonnets had been procured by the “Onelie begetter,” that this was the meaning of Thorpe’s dedication, and that they had been published without Shakespeare’s permission.

How the sonnets came to be published—whether Shakespeare gave copies to some friend who betrayed him, or whether some enemy stole them—we shall probably never know. Of one thing I am certain: Shakespeare must have been horrified when they were published.

In other words, Auden believed the Sonnets to be an intimate record of the poet’s involvement with a young man and a woman, and that both of these affairs were, in different ways, extremely intense. But what Auden did not wish to say was that Shakespeare’s love for the young man was homosexual. He did not want to use the word—or indeed the word “heterosexual”—about the kind of love he felt was involved.

In a passage which has since become notorious, Auden tries to avoid two interpretational fallacies:

Confronted with the extremely odd story [the Sonnets] tell, with the fact that, in so many of them, Shakespeare addresses a young man in terms of passionate devotion, the sound and sensible citizen, alarmed at the thought that our Top-Bard could have any experience with which he is unfamiliar, has either been shocked and wished that Shakespeare had never written them, or, in defiance of common sense, tried to persuade himself that Shakespeare was merely expressing in somewhat hyperbolic terms, such as an Elizabethan poet might be expected to use, what any normal man feels for a friend of his own sex. The homosexual reader, on the other hand, determined to secure our Top-Bard as a patron saint of the Homintern, has been uncritically enthusiastic about the first one hundred and twenty-six of the sonnets, and preferred to ignore those to the Dark Lady in which the relationship is unequivocally sexual, and the fact that Shakespeare was a married man and a father.

The expression “Homintern,” formed by analogy with Comintern, was one which Auden had been wanting to get into print for decades. It was supposed to refer to an international conspiracy of buggers, to any one of whom being a member of the Homintern would be like being one of the elect. Co-opting Shakespeare would be good for the prestige of the club, but Auden was reluctant to admit him to full membership.


In Such is My Love, a study of the Sonnets published in 1985, Joseph Pequigney criticized Auden’s “eccentric and unpersuasive critical performance” in his essay, and contrasted the public disavowal with a remark Auden made during an evening at the Stravinskys’ in 1964. Auden, according to Robert Craft, had said, “It won’t do just yet to admit that the top Bard was in the homintern….” Actually that is not the whole of what Auden said, but I shall come back to that. Pequigney argues that this statement, if accurate,

is startling, and less for what it says than for gainsaying the stand taken in the Signet introduction, which was written at about the same time. If Auden did not believe what he wrote there and prudently falsified his opinion—and we can never be certain which of the two views he held—we have not necessarily the only instance of a discrepancy between what an expositor wrote and what he privately thought, but it is the only instance I know of where the discrepancy can be documented as being at least feasible.

This notion of Auden’s two-facedness, somewhat tentatively formulated by Pequigney, has been expressed more sharply since. Bruce R. Smith, in Homosexual Desire in Shakespeare’s England (1991), complains:

In a preface that has been read by tens of thousands of undergraduates W.H. Auden…insists on the sonnets’ “mystical” and idealistic view of the young man and derides attempts to claim Shakespeare for “the Homintern.” Yet Auden himself is reported to have confessed to a gathering at Igor Stravinsky’s apartment, in the very year he wrote the preface, that “it won’t do just yet to admit that the top Bard was in the homintern.” If the report is true, Auden’s hypocrisy has had especially unfortunate results….

Auden, Smith complains, has since been cited as an authority on the matter. Next comes Marjorie Garber, who, in a book called Vice Versa (1995), regurgitates Pequigney and Bruce Smith, concluding that

to say publicly that Shakespeare was, or might have been, homosexual—had, or might have had, male lovers—was dangerous in 1964. The “top Bard” had to be above rebuke, which meant that he had to be heterosexual.

Most recently we have Katherine Duncan-Jones, in the introduction to her New Arden edition of the Sonnets:4

Though anyone with a knowledge of Auden’s biography might expect him to celebrate and endorse the homoerotic character of 1-126, he was absolutely determined not to do so, at least publicly. In his 1964 Signet edition Auden claimed—as G. Wilson Knight had done—that the primary experience explored in the Sonnets was “mystical,” and he was extremely scathing about putative readers of homosexual inclinations who might be “determined to secure our Top-bard as the patron saint of the Homintern.” Yet his public adoption of this position seem to have been a characteristic instance of Auden’s cowardice, for he later confessed to friends that a public account of Shakespeare (evidently equated by Auden with the speaker in the Sonnets) as homosexual “won’t do just yet.” Perhaps Auden was referring to the changes in legislation then under discussion: Parliament finally decriminalized homosexual acts in 1967.

And Duncan-Jones concludes:

Consequent changes of attitude have been slow to take effect. Not until the American Joseph Pequigney’s Such is My Love in 1985 was a homoerotic reading of Shakespeare’s Sonnets positively and systematically championed.

You see how the charges have been firmed up with each repetition of the indictment, so that what began as a “startling discrepancy” has hardened into a characteristic instance of cowardice. Auden may not have dared yet to be frank about Shakespeare’s sexuality, Duncan-Jones surprisingly suggests, because the law on homosexual acts had not yet been reformed in Britain. But Auden was in the US, and anyway talking about a long-dead man. It is amazing that Garber should think it “dangerous” to call Shakespeare a homosexual in 1964. Auden’s sexual tastes were well known to those who employed him. What possible danger could there be?

And if Auden was characteristically a coward in these matters, why would he have voluntarily published, in 1961, his preface to Cavafy’s poems, in which he states quite simply:

Cavafy was a homosexual, and his erotic poems make no attempt to conceal the fact. Poems made by human beings are no more exempt from moral judgment than acts done by human beings, but the moral criterion is not the same. One duty of a poem, among others, is to bear witness to the truth. A moral witness is one who gives true testimony to the best of his ability in order that the court (or the reader) shall be in a better position to judge the case justly; an immoral witness is one who tells half-truths or downright lies: but it is not the witness’s business to pass verdict.

And Auden goes on, in a way I take to be characteristic:

As a witness, Cavafy is exceptionally honest. He neither bowdlerizes nor glamorizes nor giggles. The erotic world he depicts is one of casual pickups and short-lived affairs. Love, there, is rarely more than physical passion, and when tenderer emotions do exist, they are almost always one-sided. At the same time, he refuses to pretend that his memories of sensual pleasure are unhappy or spoiled by feelings of guilt. One can feel guilty about one’s relation to other persons—one has treated them badly or made them unhappy—but nobody, whatever his moral convictions, can honestly regret a moment of physical pleasure as such.5

I don’t think the author of that last remark had hang-ups, public or private, about Shakespeare’s sexuality.

And anyway, what did Auden say, that night at the Stravinskys’? He said, according to Robert Craft, that “it won’t do just yet to admit that the top Bard was in the homintern or, for that matter, that Beethoven was queer.” But nobody seriously thinks that Beethoven was queer. Was Auden trying to provoke Stravinsky with the thought that all top-flight artists were in the Homintern? Possibly that was the drift of his joke, since he also that evening said that Rilke was “the greatest Lesbian poet since Sappho.”6

Could Auden conceivably have been drunk? Well, he did burst into song from time to time. He sang, very melodiously, bits of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, and he did consume a jug of Gibsons before the meal (a Gibson being a very strong martini with a pickled onion in the bottom—and Auden was quite particular about the onion), a bottle of champagne during, and a whole bottle of Cherry Heering afterward, prompting Craft to wonder whether he was under the impression it was Chianti. Vera Stravinsky said of Auden after this performance: “He must have multiple stomachs like a cow, the gin going to the omasum, while the wine stops in the reticulum, and the kerosene stays in the rumen.” Stravinsky was impressed by Auden’s liver power but said that “livers learn, of course, and Wystan’s would naturally be the most intelligent in town.”

I am aware that to point out that Auden might have been high as a kite when he was holding forth at the Stravinskys’ of an evening will do little to redeem him in the eyes of the critical tradition I have traced. For his chief sin is not what he said in the evening but what he had written in the sober morning. Auden was disobliging. The poet from whom one might have expected a “celebration” and “endorsement,” a “positive” and “systematic” championing of the homoerotic Shakespeare had let the side down. Of all people, Auden should have known better.

It should be said of these critics that, with the exception of Pequigney, who comes across as an orthodox and devoted Freudian, they inhabit a theoretical world which was quite unknown to Auden, since it really only came into being after his death. They use the weapons of this theory when it suits them, but they also have a habit of paying verbal homage to a whole lot they don’t believe in, and which they ignore when convenient.

I think that Auden would have been interested in Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, which appeared in French three years after his death, and which made the fruitful proposal that the modern conception of homosexuality was a nineteenth-century invention. Sodomy had previously been conceived juridically as a series of forbidden acts which anyone might commit. The sodomite had been, says Foucault, a temporary aberration, whereas

the nineteenth-century homosexual became a personage, a past, a case history, and a childhood, in addition to being a type of life, a life form, and a morphology, with an indiscreet anatomy and possibly a mysterious physiology. Nothing that went into his total composition was unaffected by his sexuality. It was everywhere present in him: at the root of all his actions because it was their insidious and indefinitely active principle; written immodestly on his face and body because it was a secret that gave itself away. It was consubstantial with him, less as a habitual sin than as a singular nature. We must not forget that the psychological, psychiatric, medical category of homosexuality was constituted from the moment it was categorized—Westphal’s famous article of 1870 on “contrary sexual sensations” can stand as its date of birth—less by a type of sexual relations than by a certain quality of sensibility, a certain way of inverting the masculine and the feminine in oneself.

This “interior androgyny,” this “hermaphrodism of the soul,” was a new conception in 1870, and if it was a new conception it must follow that, even if there were men and women in Renaissance England who were in some medical, physiological, or morphological way identical with the modern homosexual, their understanding of themselves would be entirely different from that of—to take a striking recent incident—the sixteen-year-old boy who sued his school on the grounds that, he being gay, the school should have done more to protect him from bullying on that count. Auden himself, born in 1907, could never at the age of sixteen have come to such a conclusion about his fixed sensibility (let alone his rights), but he did perhaps belong to the first generation of children who could—given the right library, which of course Auden’s father did indeed possess—have researched the recent theories of sexuality for themselves. He could have read Havelock Ellis’s Sexual Inversion (1897) but he died too young to read a work such as Alan Bray’s Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1982), which begins with a polite but wholesale rejection of Ellis, whose

deliberately sober prose barely disguises a captivating and persuasive picture of the place homosexuality occupied in the Renaissance, and this has acquired an extraordinary currency since the days of the sexual radicals at the turn of the century, of which [whom] Ellis was one. Its core is a catalogue of the homosexual poets and painters, philosophers and statesmen of the Renaissance: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, these together with a glittering array of Renaissance aristocrats and monarchs and a host of lesser artists are the stuff of which this picture is made. The dark constraints of the monkish Middle Ages were past: sexual and artistic freedom went hand in hand…. Its slender foundation is an uncritically simple reading of the literature of the time; and it significantly takes no account of the considerable evidence for the deep horror with which homosexuality was widely regarded. It was brilliant propaganda, but it was not sober history.

This kind of brilliant propaganda, which Auden would have read in his teens at the same time as he was making his first acquaintance with the works of Freud, includes such literary works as the foundation stone of queer Sonnet theory, Oscar Wilde’s “The Portrait of Mr. W.H.,” which Auden in later life described as “shy-making”—that is, deeply embarrassing. Of course, among the books we find most embarrassing in later life are those which meant most to us at a certain point in our vulnerable youth, and whose glaring faults we now suddenly perceive. Auden may well once have had a high opinion of Wilde’s short story. He later agreed with one of its propositions, as we shall see.

I wonder what Auden would have thought of Alan Bray’s argument that to talk of any individual in the Renaissance as having been “a homosexual” is “an anachronism and ruinously misleading.” Auden refers to both Marlowe and Richard Barnfield as homosexuals, but I think he would have been interested, rather than put out, to be told, as Bray tells us, that Barnfield’s commonplace book, not intended for publication, is “both robustly pornographic and entirely heterosexual.”

And how do you suppose Auden would have responded to Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay in Between Men7 (the book, we are told by its jacket, that “turned queer theory from a latent to a manifest discipline”), which refers to the fair youth sonnets as heterosexual? At one point Sedgwick imagines the objection: “If all this is heterosexual, the commonsensical reader may ask, then what on earth does it take to be homosexual?” And she provides the answer:

One thing it takes is a cultural context that defines the homosexual as against the heterosexual. My point is obviously not to deny or de-emphasize the love between men in the Sonnets, the intense and often genitally oriented language that describes that love, or even the possibility that the love described may have been genitally acted out…. I am saying that within the world sketched in these sonnets, there is not an equal opposition or a choice posited between two such institutions as homosexuality (under whatever name) and heterosexuality. The Sonnets present a male-male love that, like the love of the Greeks, is set firmly within a structure of institutionalized social relations that are carried out via women: marriage, name, family, loyalty to progenitors and to posterity, all depend on the youth’s making a particular use of women that is not, in the abstract, seen as opposing, denying, or detracting from his bond to the speaker.

This is written very much in the same spirit as Foucault and Bray, and I think Auden would have seen this as a good description of the state of affairs depicted in the Sonnets.

A great thing to remember about these recent readings of the Sonnets is that you cannot mix and match—you cannot take a point from one and marry it to a point from the other. Pequigney cannot be made to work with spare parts from Duncan-Jones or Sedgwick. The spare parts won’t fit. For instance, Sedgwick believes that the finer points of the sexual discourse of the period have been lost forever: we cannot be certain about implications and equivocations. Pequigney, the maximalist, believes that by broadening our attention to bawdy language (that is, by admitting that the same bawdy term might be used in a homosexual as well as heterosexual context), and by paying attention to the insights of Freud, you can find out what went on between the poet and the young man (including anal sex).

Sonnet 33 (“Full many a glorious morning have I seen”), in which the morning sun shines first, before it “Anon permits the basest clouds to ride/With ugly rack on his celestial face,” is for Pequigney evidence that the young man, after spending an hour in Shakespeare’s company, went off and permitted some base fellow to “ride upon his face”—that is, he went off and gave someone a blow job. This reading is not reflected in the New Arden edition. Not surprisingly. For Duncan-Jones thinks that the Sonnets are dedicated, with Shakespeare’s authorization, and in expectation of a reward which she estimates at something between å£5 and å£10, to the Earl of Pembroke, who is or was the object of Shakespeare’s love. It surely follows that, however tough they are on the earl, the sentiments expressed must be publishable. How could Shakespeare expect Pembroke to be pleased at being publicly accused of being the passive partner in oral sex with a commoner? This would have ranked as a most disgraceful allegation, enough to put both Shakespeare and his publisher Thorpe in grave danger. Oddly enough, if Pequigney’s reading had merit, Auden, who believed Shakespeare would have been horrified at the publication of his poems, could just about have accepted it. But Duncan-Jones, who otherwise commends Pequigney as positive and systematic, cannot possibly do so.

Still, the New Arden edition does leave one wondering what Pembroke would have thought about Sonnet 20 (“A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted”). This is the sonnet which establishes the androgynous beauty of the young man, and which seems to make explicit the extent of the poet’s interest in him. The conceit is that he was first intended to be a woman, but then nature fell in love with him and gave him a penis, thereby frustrating any sexual ambition on the part of the poet.

A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted
Hast thou, the master mistress of my passion;
A woman’s gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women’s fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Which steals men’s eyes and women’s souls amazeth;
And for a woman wert thou first created,
Till nature as she wrought thee fell a-doting,
And by addition me of thee defeated,
By adding one thing to my purpose nothing:
But since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure,
Mine be thy love, and thy love’s use their treasure.

In the last six lines, nature, by the way, is seen, in the primary sense, as a gardener, who takes the young man, as a seedling, and “pricks [him] out”—that is to say, with a wooden prick or dibbler, she plants him out (sense 22 in the OED).

It seems to be universally agreed that there is a double entendre: “since she pricked thee out for women’s pleasure” meaning “since she fitted thee out with a prick, for the pleasure of women.” The last line of the son-net seems to mean: give me your love, but let women enjoy sexual relations with you. This is the kind of division of the spoils that Eve Sedgwick suggested in the passage quoted earlier—a male-male love in a world whose “institutionalized social relations are carried out via women.” I tend to believe that, if the Sonnets have a story to tell, it is the story of the unrealistic nature of this proposal to divide the spoils.

I think most people feel that Sonnet 20 is odd, and striking, and takes some explaining. Auden, who talks about the Vision of Eros, makes quite clear what his critics forget, that

the medium of the Vision is… undoubtedly erotic. Nobody who was unconscious of an erotic interest on his part would use the frank, if not brutal, sexual image which Shakespeare employs in speaking of his friend’s exclusive interest in women.

And he quotes the final couplet of the sonnet.

The New Arden edition tells us that “the naivety of the sonnet is too simple to be believed (‘because we are both men we can have no sexual congress’)”; also that the language is too “slippery and self-subverting” to be trusted. When nature adds “one thing to my purpose nothing,” the added feature, the penis, is in the primary sense “of no value to the loving poet,” but since the word “nothing” can allude to the female genitalia, there would be a paradox that “the one thing that nature added is, for my purposes, equivalent to a woman’s sexual parts.” So, according to the New Arden edition, Shakespeare is saying publicly to the Earl of Pembroke, albeit in a slippery way, Nature has given you a penis which, for my purposes, is, or could be, a vagina.

I may be obtuse, but I don’t get it.

The mention by Eve Sedgwick of the Greeks reminds me of a distinction made by Kenneth Dover in his study Greek Homosexuality.8 According to Dover, there is no sense in the sources available that there was anything wrong for the Greeks in an older man being attracted to a beautiful youth, nothing wrong, that is, in feeling an explicitly sexual attraction. What was wrong, in the view of Socrates, was the yielding to the feeling. And if we return for a moment to Foucault’s distinction between homosexuality before and after 1870, one supposes that it could at least be that in Shakespeare’s day, when an older man found himself attracted to a beautiful youth, he might feel nothing wrong in the attraction itself, however much he might fear the consequences of yielding to physical temptation. Whereas, after 1870 or thereabouts, the desire alone might set off an alarm bell. A man might feel: Oh my god, I’m an invert, a Uranian, an Urning—or whatever.

Whether or not we believe the Sonnets to have been authorized by Shakespeare for publication, or filched from him by treachery, the fact was that they were publishable, were indeed published, and no traceable scandal ensued. One may hypothesize that they were read in shocked disbelief—as they were in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—and that the Earl of Pembroke threw his copy across the room. But that is as far as rational hypothesis can take us. Unless a commentator feels that he or she has cracked a code in them, making them comprehensible in a way not available to Shakespeare’s contemporaries (and of course there have been commentators who have thought exactly that), then exegesis must be influenced by the thought: these are publishable sentiments for the period.

Auden read the Sonnets at an early age, according to Richard Davenport-Hines,9 in order to make sense of his feelings for a fellow undergraduate, Bill McElwee, perhaps some time around 1926. McElwee was very fond of Auden, but not in the way Auden hoped. Later, in Berlin, Auden had an affair with a Hamburg sailor called Gerhart Meyer, whose name resounds in the poem “1929”:

So I remember all of those whose death
Is necessary condition of the season’s putting forth,
Who, sorry in this time, look only back
To Christmas intimacy, a winter dialogue
Fading in silence, leaving them in tears.
And recent particulars come to mind:
The death by cancer of a once hated master,
A friend’s analysis of his own failure,
Listened to at intervals throughout the winter
At different hours in different rooms.
But always with success of others for comparison,
The happiness, for instance, of my friend Kurt Groote,
Absence of fear in Gerhart Meyer
From the sea, the truly strong man.

Gerhart Meyer was a hustler who, within a short while of getting to know Auden, proposed that they take a trip together to Hamburg. For the journey, Auden packed Donne, the Sonnets, and Lear. Meyer had the capacity for making Auden intensely jealous, whether with girls on the train or with a lover or client in Hamburg. Abandoned by Meyer, Auden found himself awake most of the night. He writes in his journal:

First I posture before the glass, trying to persuade myself, but in vain, that I am up to his physical level. Then I read the Sonnets to prove my superiority in sensibility. Every time I hear the taxi I go to the window but it’s only a whore returning. At three the porter comes and takes away my key locking the door. By five I am convinced Gerhart has run off with my money.

Quarrels ensue. Gerhart is always going off with whores and is demanding of presents. Within ten days, the following exchange is enough to disillusion Auden. He says: “I should like to take you to the mountains with me.” Gerhart replies: “I don’t like mountains. I only like towns where there are shops.” Auden thinks: “This is the revolt of the symbol. The disobedience of the day-dream. From that moment I love him less….”10

And indeed from that moment Gerhart disappears from Auden’s journal. But the way he is written off contains, as David Luke, who found the journal among Auden’s possessions at Christ Church after his death, points out, the germs of the idea which Auden was later to formulate about the Sonnets, three and a half decades later. Auden wrote on the last day of the affair:

When someone begins to lose the glamour they had for us on our first meeting them, we tell ourselves that we have been deceived, that our fantasy cast a halo over them which they are unworthy to bear. It is always possible however that the reverse is the case; that our disappointment is due to a failure of our own sensibility which lacks the strength to maintain itself at the acuteness with which it began. People may really be what we first thought them, and what we subsequently think of as the disappointing reality, the person obscured by the staleness of our senses.

When Auden’s critics deride him for treating Shakespeare’s experience in the Sonnets as mystical, they sometimes give the impression that this is to undermine the reality of the experience. But that is to misunderstand Auden. As David Luke comments:

The theory of love here proposed in passing by the 22-year-old Auden, a theory which remained with him during those thirty-five years and indeed for the rest of his life, rests on an essentialist view of the human person, deriving ultimately from Plato, which is now out of fashion. The lover, it suggests, perceives the beloved as he or she “really” is; the eyes of love are not blind but visionary, they behold a deeper, “more real” reality, but only while the passion of love is sustained. When that fades, the vision fades with it into the lesser light of common day.

The echo of Wordsworth here is not accidental, for Auden thought that “natural mystical experiences” are described in certain of Wordsworth’s poems, in Plato’s Symposium, in Dante’s La Vita Nuova, and in Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Auden does not tack Shakespeare’s name onto this list in order to rescue his respectability. He does so in order to underline the mystery of the experience described. Echoing his earlier views, he says that

whatever the contents of the [mystical] experience, the subject is absolutely convinced that it is a revelation of reality. When it is over, he does not say, as one says when one awakes from a dream: “Now I am awake and conscious again of the real world.” He says, rather: “For a while the veil was lifted and a reality revealed which in my ‘normal’ state is hidden from me.”

What is striking about Auden’s attitude toward the primary experience of love as expressed in the Sonnets is not its inconsistency with so much as its rootedness in his experience, not his hypocrisy so much as the longevity of his ideas. For instance, the notion that things go wrong with Gerhart Meyer when the symbol revolts, when the daydream becomes disobedient, retains its associative force for Auden in the conversations recorded by the poet Howard Griffin in the late Forties and early Fifties. It is here, incidentally, that we learn that Auden thought it likely, as Oscar Wilde had proposed, that the young man of the Sonnets was an actor. “To Shakespeare,” he says, “W.H. stands for change…. Of course, in those days boys assumed women’s parts often to great effect for, since they were able to do so for only a few years, this volatility added a kind of pathos to the performance and compelled a healthy detachment on the part of the audience.”11

It is the fleeting nature of beauty, Auden says, that makes it moving to others, and “One should take it as a momentary thing. To become preoccupied with it means a neurosis.”

Again and again, the conversation with Griffin touches on the parallel between the relationship between Shakespeare and the young men, and that between Socrates and Alcibiades. Auden says: “According to Socrates physical beauty may cause in some men a memory of divine beauty. In poets and artists the sight even of earthly beauty may bring about a noble madness.” The situation between Alcibiades and Socrates “embodies the endless war between external and inward beauty. You remember at the conclusion of the Symposium Alcibiades compares Socrates to the statuettes of Silenus sold in shops, which open to reveal images of the gods inside.” A little later, when he returns to the theme, Griffin interjects that “Socrates did not try to control Alcibiades, to mold him. Alcibiades wished to be his pupil but Socrates saw in his friend an inability to master himself.” Auden replies:

Yes, this situation with W.H. seems to be the one thing Shakespeare cannot be objective about. The plays as distinct from the sonnets neatly illustrate the difference between speaking and speaking out. That people have found it needful to use the tautology “speaking out” shows that speech instead of affording a medium of communication has become—largely—a device of strategy and evasion. Much conversation has fallen to the plane of sales talk or the newspaper paragraph. On the rare times when people try to find words for what they feel, we say that they speak out. In the sonnets—particularly such ones as CX or CXXIX—Shakespeare speaks out, whereas in the plays he just speaks—beautifully, divinely of course. In Macbeth and Hamlet he is creating a world of language but in the Sonnets he desperately tries to do that which is forbidden: to create a human being. With the ardor of a Paracelsus, who incidentally was a contemporary, he mixes words as if they were chemicals that might bring forth homunculus. Evidently he has selected someone at a stage of possibility. He wants to make an image so the person will not be a dream but rather someone he knows as he knows his own interest. He wishes the other to have a free will yet his free will is to be the same as Shakespeare’s. Of course great anxiety and bad behavior result when the poet’s will is crossed as it is bound to be. This type of relationship needs a lot of testing to see if the magic is working. Sonnets like the CXXXVII show us that in this case the test did not work.

The symbol has revolted, the daydream has disobeyed. And this, as Auden knew, was something that must always eventually happen.

This is the first of three articles on Auden.

This Issue

March 23, 2000