Auden at Home

Collected Poems

by W.H. Auden, edited by Edward Mendelson
Vintage, 926 pp., $22.50 (paper)

The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939

edited by Edward Mendelson
Faber and Faber, 496 pp., $33.95 (paper)

About the House

by W.H. Auden
Random House, 94 pp.

“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…

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