Auden in the 21st Century (on The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Poems, Volume I: 1927–1939 and Volume II: 1940–1973, edited by Edward Mendelson)

When W. H. Auden visited wartime Shanghai with Christopher Isherwood in 1938, they took breaks from “their social consciences” to frequent a bathhouse where they were “erotically soaped and massaged by young men”:

You could pick your attendants, and many of them were beautiful. Those who were temporarily disengaged would watch the action, with giggles, through peepholes in the walls of the bathrooms. What made the experience pleasingly exotic was that tea was served to the customer throughout; even in the midst of an embrace, the attendant would disengage one hand, pour a cupful, and raise it, tenderly but firmly, to the customer’s lips. If you refused the tea at first, the attendant went on offering it until you accepted.

Isherwood published this passage in Christopher and His Kind in 1976, three years after Auden’s death, when it was recently possible for reputable writers to speak of such “exotic” matters in public. I remember, as a shy eighteen-year-old, asking the curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard about the book Auden and Isherwood co-authored following their travels, Journey to a War (1939). What was I looking for? I knew better than to expect that Auden’s contribution, mostly a sonnet sequence called “In Time of War,” would be open about his experiences in a male brothel. Since I was hoping to visit China, I wanted some sense of how a gifted poetic mind—“the greatest mind of the twentieth century,” according to Joseph Brodsky—transmuted the setting and culture into poetry. Of course, my curiosity was also prurient and identity-driven; I was interested because I was gay and of Chinese ancestry, because I was vaguely flattered that the great gay English poet had had dalliances with Chinese men as a young man, and because I wanted some taste of pre-revolutionary Chinese decadence, of tea and embraces, which would be sorely missing in the puritanical China that I encountered as an American teacher in the 1980s. This is one of Auden’s China sonnets:

Here war is simple like a monument:
A telephone is speaking to a man;
Flags on a map assert that troops were sent;
A boy brings milk in bowls. There is a plan

For living men in terror of their lives,
Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon,
And can be lost and are, and miss their wives,
And, unlike an idea, can die too soon.

But ideas can be true although men die,
And we can watch a thousand faces
Made active by one lie:

And maps can really point to places
Where life is evil now:
Nanking; Dachau.

Aside from the powerful juxtaposition of Nanking with Dachau (at the time a concentration camp without Holocaust connotations), he barely mentions China. The boy who brings milk in bowls may or may not be a specifically Chinese detail.
The careful iambs of the slightly cumbrous “Who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon” distances the “terror” of the war that is being invoked, which has been institutionalized, made into a monument. From a safe distance of maps and contingency plans, the poem contemplates a generalized war’s general iniquity, where “a thousand faces” can enact a single ideological lie, which may as well be the lie of Nazism as that of Japanese militarism. 

If I was disappointed as a teenager that Auden refused to write a travelogue in poetic form, I began to hear how the events of his era entered his work. He was seeking to embody the public voice of a historical present, what Jahan Ramazani calls his “ironic and disenchanting discourse meant to undo state and capitalist ideologies.” This voice is forthright, authoritative, cosmopolitan, disabused: “But ideas can be true although men die.” Auden’s speaker is Auden, the young English poet acclaimed as the voice of his generation, but he speaks for England as well . . . and the common citizen, and civilization, and History. In this universalized extension of poetic self, it matters little where we are. We could be in Brussels, where he wrote the sonnets, or in New York City, where he would soon move. In fact, in a few months—after a visit to a gay bar, the Dizzy Club, that he would immortalize as “one of the dives on 52nd Street”—Auden would write about the public voice of the poet, which combats the lies of “folded” newspapers, of l’homme moyen sensuel and the powerful in their lofty edifices:

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street 

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

I quote this stanza from Auden’s most famous poem, “September 1, 1939,” set on the day of the Nazi invasion of Poland, because it is representative of the poem’s anguished beauty and moral urgency and because it contains its most disputed line, “We must love one another or die,” which led Auden to call it “the most dishonest poem I have ever written.” The repercussions from Auden’s decision to revise, criticize, and disown some of his most admired work—he removed the poem completely from his oeuvre in 1957 after revising the line into the insipidly literal “We must love one another and die”—have filtered down to this day, forcing nearly every commentary to recapitulate the history of his rejection of his own poem. 

Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor and editor of his oeuvre, began the process of restoration simply by refusing to stand in the way of the poems. As early as 1979, he met a pent-up demand by including “September 1, 1939,” “Spain,” and other rejected or altered poems in his own edition of Selected Poems, a volume that I reread until it collapsed into a pile of yellowed, dog-eared pages. Mendelson’s magisterial new reference edition, The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Poems, Volume i, 1927–1939, and Volume ii, 1940–1973, offers all of the original versions of poems as Auden first published them in book form, important revisions, and a plethora of textual notes, publishing histories, indices, juvenilia, and “posthumous” poems, which Auden meant to publish but never got around to doing. The notes on “September 1, 1939,” for example, offer a summary of Auden’s refusal to reprint as well as two stanzas canceled prior to the October 1939 publication in The New Republic. That the stanzas were justifiably canceled—they obviously lack the specificity and verve of the rest of the poemindicates Auden’s unencumbered sense of what made the poem work at the time of its appearance, which changed as public approbation lent a disproportionate weight to the power it ostensibly held to sway readers’ minds. 

As we mark the fiftieth anniversary of Auden’s death, the appearance of these two volumes is an occasion to gaze anew at his work, undaunted by the voluminous commentary and opinion from the divergent context of his era. Take the line “We must love one another or die.” The equation of Love with Hunger as a craving, a biological compulsion, rather than as a “gift voluntarily offered to another as a form of forgiveness,” in Mendelson’s words, struck Auden, especially after his conversion to a personal form of his childhood Anglicanism, as a double mendacity, since “love thy neighbor” or agape was a moral choice, not a thoughtless compulsion, and since, unlike the absence of nutrition, the absence of love wouldn’t cause us to die. But it’s clear from another line of the stanza, the equally non-literal “no one exists alone” (hermits and others, of course, manage to do so all the time), that the equation of love with hunger is meant to emphasize the force of our need for human community, that we are born, reared, survive, and thrive through our reliance on others. 

What Stephanie Burt said about Auden’s suppression of “September 1, 1939,” that it was an “avulsion” from “a role in which the poet speaks to, of, and for a community,” is closer to the mark. Although Auden wrote many kinds of poems in his career—“Be subtle, various, ornamental, clever,” he adjures in a later poem—he moved away from his youthful leftist political commitment, in which poetic rhetoric was a potentially powerful tool for collective amelioration (“I’ll get a job in a factory / I’ll live with working boys”), to a liberal, humanist appreciation for the dangers of such rhetoric, which led him to a more orderly, Augustan poetic mode, one that had a less directly assertive yet still public wit: “To set in order—that’s the task / Both Eros and Apollo ask.” But it seems unlikely that whatever danger Auden thought “September 1, 1939” presented to its postwar readers could lead them astray in any way that was opposed to the unexceptionable moral tenets of the poem, where we must guard against “the error bred in the bone” that craves not “universal love / But to be loved alone.” Most people desire various forms of love, eros and agape, selfish and communal, as well as storge and amour propre and more, and fail or succeed to find them, all with or without the impetus of literature. I find it hard to imagine the poem, whose overall tone is one of ruminative moral exigency, persuading readers to change their conception of love into thoughtless appetite, although I can envision it making them more thoughtful about the work they must undertake to combat fascism. What they decide to do with the ethical impulse that the poem espouses—its call for “the Just,” the right-minded, the anti-fascist, to show “an affirming flame” in the face of “negation and despair”—is, of course, up to them. Poetry makes nothing happen but what its readers choose to make happen. As Auden says in “New Year Letter,” “each life must decide / To what and how it be applied.” 

Auden once told a friend who complained about his decision to drop “September 1, 1939” from his oeuvre that she should respect his wishes because it was “a professional’s judgment.” The phrase is an odd locution because no one in his heyday or ours, not even the T. S. Eliot who filled a 14,000-seat stadium, made a living from poetry alone. What Auden meant was a humbler version of something like, “Trust my opinion, my dear, because I am the author, the Great Poet himself, whose ideas are sacrosanct.” This sort of peremptory claim—Stevens and Whitman didn’t have “any ear for language,” “[D. H.] Lawrence was a solipsist,” “Proust, like Wilde, never got past the aesthetic stage of religion”—was common among leading intellectuals of his era and hasn’t worn well, prompting the skeptical reader to find dull passages and decided misses in Auden’s own oeuvre. For example, his occasional poem about another controversial reviser, “A Mosaic for Marianne Moore,” doesn’t begin to suggest what is distinctive about Moore’s work, reducing her to a few genial eccentricities and some of the animals that are her putative subjects. 

To try to revoke a published poem’s existence is futile anyway; it was futile during Auden and Moore’s lifetimes, with library stacks and word of mouth, and it’s even more futile now, when any phone can post a poem to countless readers to come. That readers have chosen the poem in times of crisis, reciting and discussing “September 1, 1939” in heartfelt ways after 9/11 and the invasion of Ukraine, attests to its consolatory power and grace. What I admire most is the ineffable rightness of the poem’s lyricism in expressing apparently timeless matters of public calamity and personal volition, of war, dictatorship, fascism, and civic duty, not from a template of dogmatic, ideological rhetoric but from a plangent, subterranean realm of privacy and individuality—“Faces along the bar / Cling to the average day”—whose tools of persuasion are prayerful eloquence (“May I, composed like them, / Of Eros and of dust”), resonant historical generalization (“The enlightenment driven away”), and cognitive music as expressed in straightforward but virtuosic metered language (“As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade”). 


Seamus Heaney regretted, in justly measured tones, “the passing from Auden’s poetry of an element of the uncanny, a trace of the Ralegh frisson, of the language’s ‘chief woe, world-sorrow.’ ” If each generation must renew the best poets of a previous generation within the truth of our changed reality and desires, we would do well to search for what Heaney found abundant in early Auden and lacking in the later poems: that “uncanny” poetic energy, that word-by-word emotional estrangement that poetry induces in the reader, Ralegh’s premonitory grief—“It frets the halter, and it chokes the child”—or Hopkins’s world-sorrow: “All life death does end and each day dies with sleep.” Like Heaney (and Randall Jarrell and Philip Larkin before him), I am partial to the lyrical sunburst of Auden’s early work, with its “bewildered and unsettling visions” of the shock and insularity of the twentieth century, but I find frissons of uncanniness and world-sorrow throughout his poetry, early and late.

If I were the poet-curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room and my earnest eighteen-year-old self approached now with some dull question (“Do you have Journey to a War?”), I’d ask him instead if he’d read any Auden and, if he muttered, “Just a little,” I’d direct him to reread or even memorize the justly renowned poems—I follow the titles of the versions in Mendelson’s Collected Edition—“September 1, 1939,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” and “In Praise of Limestone”: 

           when I try to imagine a faultless love

Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur

Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape. 

If the last two poems whetted the reader’s appetite for great love (or love-adjacent) poems, I’d recommend “As I walked out one evening,” “Funeral Blues,” “The More Loving One,” “This lunar beauty,” “A shilling life will give you all the facts,” “From the very first coming down,” “What’s in your mind, my dove, my coney,” “Are You There?,” “Before this loved one,” and “Dichtung und Wahrheit.” If the last poem intrigued with its Wittgensteinian apothegms, I’d mention Auden’s lyrical summations of some literary and intellectual figures that helped to form the cognitive texture of his work: “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” “In Memory of Ernst Toller,” “Rimbaud,” “Herman Melville,” “At the Grave of Henry James,” and “In Memory of Sigmund Freud.” I’d encourage the reader to commence a lifelong journey with the four major long poems of the 1940s, with their passages of heightened eloquence, as in this speech from Prospero to Ariel in “The Sea and the Mirror”: 

Now, Ariel, I am that I am, your late and lonely master,

            Who knows now what magic is;—the power to enchant

That comes from disillusion. What the books can teach one

            Is that most desires end up in stinking ponds,

But we have only to learn to sit still and give no orders,

            To make you offer us your echo and your mirror;

We have only to believe you, then you dare not lie;

            To ask for nothing, and at once from your calm eyes,

With their lucid proof of apprehension and disorder,

            All we are not stares back at what we are. 

My order of preference would be “The Sea and the Mirror,” “New Year Letter,” “The Age of Anxiety,” and “For the Time Being,” each poem surrendering new rifts of ore each time I explore them. Should the reader find that “For the Time Being” partakes too obtrusively of Auden’s Christianity (a less significant barrier in his poetry than in his prose), I’d suggest as antidote the poem on the hour of Christ’s crucifixion (3 pm), “Nones,” which summons an affecting desolation even for those who don’t share the faith:

           The shops will re-open at four,

The empty blue bus in the empty pink square

            Fill up and drive off: we have time

To misrepresent, excuse, deny,

            Mythify, use this event

While, under a hotel bed, in prison,

            Down wrong turnings, its meaning

Waits for our lives.

If I strayed too far from my original charge, to nurture my reader’s interest in Auden, I’d return to what Heaney calls his “tremblingly delicious power” to enchant, as in “Look, stranger, at this island now,” “May with its light behaving,” and “Out on the lawn I lie in bed,” which describes a casual gathering at the English school where Auden taught that led to his “vision of agape” and religious conversion: 

Equal with colleagues in a ring

I sit on each calm evening, 

          Enchanted as the flowers

The opening light draws out of hiding

From leaves with all its dove-like pleading

          Its logic and its powers.


That later we, though parted then

May still recall these evenings when

          Fear gave his watch no look;

The lion griefs loped from the shade

And on our knees their muzzles laid,

          And Death put down his book.

I’d emphasize that this is just a beginning, that other poetic Audens await the receptive reader: the often enigmatic yet gorgeous early lyrics (“Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,” “Doom is dark and deeper than any sea-dingle,” “The Cultural Presupposition”), classical meditations (“The Fall of Rome,” “The Shield of Achilles”), rhyming ballads (“Miss Gee,” “Refugee Blues”), ludic contrivances (“Hell is neither here nor there,” “You”), conceptually abstract yet insinuating sonnets and villanelles (“The Third Temptation,” “But I Can’t”), landscape scenes (“Plains,” “Ischia”), political-historical larks and epigrams (“T the Great,” “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” “August 1968”), ars poetica (“The Truest Poetry Is the Most Feigning”), paeans to Pax Americana at its apex (“Under Which Lyre,” “Fleet Visit”), and scientific musings (“A New Year Greeting,” “Progress?”). Since my young doppelgänger is gay himself, I’d suggest a gay-themed poem, but Auden didn’t write any good ones: “The Platonic Blow,” an unpublished pornographic poem not included in Mendelson’s edition, has some lewd energy, but alternates among the stimulating, banal, and mechanical, and “Glad,” which is included, concerns a male sex worker, like the young men in the Shanghai teahouse. While not pornographic, it is revealing but uninspired:

Glad, though, we began that way,

That our life-paths crossed,

Like characters in Hardy, 

At a moment when 

You were in need of money

And I wanted sex.

Studying English literature with professors who came of age in a mid-twentieth-
century landscape of T. S. Eliot and the New Criticism, with only a few arriving from the theoretical swell of post-structuralism and deconstructionism that followed, the eighteen-year-old I was, browsing the bookshelves in the Woodberry Poetry Room, would have felt his interest in work related to his identities—being gay or Chinese—to be an encumbrance, even a source of shame, because the most acclaimed poets in the language, like Auden, seemed to arise from some monochrome space of cultural universality—“a feeling that the whole of the literature from Homer . . . composes a single order” (Eliot)—where critics aspired to an ideal of objective interpretation without reference to any arbitrary personal interests. In the fragile social openness of the twenty-first century, I can hope to be liberated from externally imposed uncertainties about my sexuality and ancestral culture, knowing that identity influences all interpretation, because the ways in which others perceive my identities and the ways in which I engender interests through them (like my teenage desire to read about Auden’s gay time in China) all shape the cognitive sphere I inhabit. The dangers are imbalance and exclusion, identity as the be-all and end-all, a new provinciality fixed in the primacy of my own tribes. The rewards are an opening to other people’s otherness, an expansion of the circumference of my tolerance, a personal pride that can lift morale to the threshold necessary for creative expression, and a redefinition of lives and works I thought I had comprehended. In Appropriate (2021), Paisley Rekdal discusses how some writers attempt to appropriate the identity of another culture for their own work and fail because they lack the “essence” of that identity. “To possess this particular essence,” she writes, “would suggest the possessor be able to enter into that culture and perform the stories and arts of that identity fluidly.” But what of someone like Auden, who possessed, at certain periods in his private life, an almost stereotypical identity as a cultured gay man (camp, opera, Fire Island), but was unable in his published poetry to “perform” the stories and art forms, except elliptically, due to the repression of his era? How to excavate and restore these paramount aspects of his life?

Even someone averse to public espousals of sexual identity, Elizabeth Bishop, mentioned Auden’s sexuality in her 1973 eulogy in The Harvard Advocate:

His then leftist politics, his ominous landscape, his intimations of betrayed loves, war on its way, disasters and death, matched exactly the mood of our late-depression and post-depression youth. We admired his apparent toughness, his sexual courage—actually more honest than Ginsberg’s, say, is now, while still giving expression to technically dazzling poetry.

More closeted in both verse and life than Auden himself, Bishop may have quibbled about the author of “Howl” not because she thought Auden was truly superior in “sexual courage” but because the name “Ginsberg” was convenient shorthand for the more indecorous term “homosexual” and because Auden found a way of expressing his sexuality that she could countenance: reasonably open in literary circles and his private life without unbalancing the “technically dazzling poetry.” As early as 1938, George Orwell, angry about the phrase in Auden’s poem on the Spanish Civil War about “necessary murder,” attacked him publicly as an elitist “pansy,” and in 1946, Edmund Wilson described him privately as “homosexual to an almost fanatical degree.” For queer readers of the pre-Stonewall era attuned to the open literary secret of Auden’s sexuality, his lyrical poems, with their “intimations of betrayed loves,” would feel revelatory, not only “Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm” but “through doorway voices / Of new men making another love” and “You shall love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart.” 

While Auden privately used the word “queer” to signal the otherness of his sexuality—he explained to a woman with whom he’d had a brief affair in 1947 that he was “queer”—he sometimes preferred the equally pejorative “crook,” as in the inscription he wrote for Isherwood in a Robert Bridges book: 

He isn’t like us

He isn’t a crook

The man was a heter

Who wrote this book. 

Although he shared the psychoanalytic view of the time that homosexuality was a developmental regression, a “backward love,” his emphasis in his religious faith was always the notion that one should love one’s neighbor (“O every day in sleep and labor / Our life and death are with our neighbor”), which allayed rather than exacerbated his difficulties with his homosexuality. Of his heterosexual affair, he ultimately decided that it was a “sin” not because of his homosexuality but because, in Mendelson’s words, “it was inherently unequal; he could not love a woman with the same degree of bodily love that she could offer him.” Befitting a poet, his difficulties with homosexuality had more to do with the “symbolic magic” of “abnormal” sex roles. In rather prurient public speculation about J. R. Ackerley’s erotic preferences in a review from 1969, he states that the “two commonest classes of homosexuals” are “orals” and “anals” who play, respectively, Son-and-Mother [sic] and Husband-and-Wife. It doesn’t occur to him that homosexuals can fluctuate among different roles, sometimes during the same sex act.

Most of the love poems, like “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” were meant to be read without knowledge of Auden’s sexuality and don’t depend on it for their beauty. In his discussion of “Before this loved one,” which Auden wrote in 1929 as tribute to one of Christopher Isherwood’s German rent boys, James Fenton notes the disparity between the subject matter—“no real meeting,” “backward love”—and the lack of gendered queerness in the poem: “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.” But because we possess this vocabulary now and have a fuller sense of Auden’s sexuality, which writers like Fenton have investigated and interpreted, we can have a different response from the readers of his time, providing another context—queered, unencumbered by the repressions of his era—to discover unforeseen complexities.

Take the sparklingly lucid prose poem “Dichtung und Wahrheit” (or “Poetry and Truth,” from the title of Goethe’s autobiography), which Mendelson calls the “happiest of his love poems.” This judgment is true to the tonality of the poem, joyfully analytical in the probing, probative manner of Auden at his most exhaustively cerebral. And yet I find it to be one of his saddest poems. 

Subtitled “An Unwritten Poem,” “Dichtung und Wahrheit” was composed in 1959, when Auden was in his early fifties and in what he considered a marriage with Chester Kallman that began in 1939 and lasted until Auden’s death, although their relationship had been sexless since 1941 and emotionally distant at times as well. While they would both find other sexual partners, only rarely did Auden meet prospects, erotic or platonic, with whom he desired a deeper connection. Elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, he befriended a twenty-something graduate student and future sociologist named Adrian Poole, who would visit him at his new summer home in Kirchstetten, Austria. The poem opens in this way:

Expecting your arrival tomorrow, I find myself thinking I love You: then comes the thought—I should like to write a poem which would express exactly what I mean when I think these words.

But Poole, the person addressed, was not aware that Auden was in love with him; Auden had sensed nothing sexual in Poole’s attentions and kept his feelings to himself. According to Mendelson’s Later Auden, Auden “never made a closer approach, but enjoyed an exhilarating sexual attraction to the younger man without intruding on him by expressing it.” Because Auden would gift him a copy of the poem, it was the closest thing to such an “intrusion,” although Poole remained unaware until after Auden died that the “You” in the poem referred to him. 

Should our knowledge of Poole affect our understanding of the poem? In “Dichtung und Wahrheit,” Auden addresses such a question by saying that the information gleaned from a biography—for example, that the poet who wrote a “tearful farewell to his beloved” in a poem was actually “sick to death” of her in real life—shouldn’t affect the reader’s “appreciation” of the poem at all. He goes on to say, however, that he hopes it would affect “my appreciation if I had written the poem myself.” On the one hand, the biography is an improper source of our reading if it contradicts our aesthetic appreciation in a merely prurient way; on the other hand, it is important to the poet who is trying to convey the truth of his life for the kind of reader who will be attuned to inauthentic emotions and nuanced claims of veracity. Why knowledge of the truth of a poem’s characterizations of real-life events, to the extent that a reader can possess it and is aware of its limits, should differ so categorically from the poet’s knowledge of the same events remains unclear to me. In his criticism, Auden had few qualms about employing biographical details to help comprehend the authenticity of a poem’s claims. Glancing at one of his reviews almost at random, I notice he mentions that both Rimbaud and D. H. Lawrence had “mother-fixations” and mothers who “married beneath them.” 

As with Auden’s decision to withdraw “September 1, 1939” from circulation, the question of love as a mere appetite lurks beneath the discussion of “Romantic Love” in “Dichtung und Wahrheit.” Sex, which he decorously names the act of “kind” or nature, must arise from “personal love,” not “vulgar desire.” He contrasts this personal love with the public display of wedding-night bliss that an epithalamium discloses, which isn’t about love but a “social event.” In traditional love lyrics, lovers are always performing deeds or giving gifts to prove their love. How can the poet persuasively display the magnitude of the love when the “market value of a personal gift is irrelevant”? And if giving a gift is a deed of generosity whose cost shouldn’t matter, why wouldn’t the lover send the gift anonymously? Here he emphasizes the distinction between erotic and charitable love:   

The anonymous gift is a deed of charity, but we are speaking of eros, not of agapè. It is as much of the essence of erotic love that it should desire to disclose itself to one other as it is of the essence of charity that it should desire to conceal itself from all. 

The distinction is important because the poem is about the meaning of “I love You,” of Romantic Love, erotic love, or love as manifested in poetry through the ages. It is not about agape, platonic love, or the universal love that one feels for neighbors and strangers. It is about the love that speaks its name to the beloved, not the love that conceals itself out of charity. In other words, even though it’s addressed to Poole, their concealed, one-sided love is not really the love that is the poem’s subject.

From the start the speaker has stated that his love poem shouldn’t merely be “good and genuine” but also “true.” If he says “I love You” in a poem, “to satisfy me, the truth of the poem must be self-evident.” What is the veracity of “Dichtung und Wahrheit,” then, if it’s about a romantic love that Auden never had with Poole? Tellingly, the speaker characterizes the beloved with the most meager attributes possible: he’s “not a stranger,” he’s “funnier” than “other folks,” and—perhaps an admission of the beloved’s gender—he’s not “afflicted with a moustache.” The speaker could be saying that the loved one is not a woman with a moustache, but he is more likely indicating that he’s a man (Poole) who simply doesn’t wear an unattractive moustache. The reticence about the beloved reflects the much deeper reticence about love in real life.

One more characterization of the actual relationship occurs near the end of the poem. The speaker says:

I know exactly how I should greet You at the station:—adoration in the eye; on the tongue banter and bawdry. 

After a long separation, the first act that most lovers desire is physical touch, but that’s not the case here. Why does adoration occur only in the eye, through loving glances, and not through any physical expression? In 1959, there was no question of a public kiss between two men at a train station. The adoration is only “in the eye” because it cannot occur through a kiss, but also because the nature of their love is that adoration expresses itself only non-physically. “Banter and bawdry” is a type of social discourse that a man would perform with a platonic male friend, not the sort one would expect in the works of romantic love that Auden has been discussing. Again, he adheres to what we know of the relationship with Poole, but with a reticence that sounds—to my ear—repressed and closeted.

After all his intellectual exertions—poetry compared with painting and music, examinations of Aphrodite and Troilus and Criseide, the meaning of I and You, the notion of Romantic Love itself (he wonders if there is such a thing as Romantic Hate)—he decides that he has failed in his goal of defining his love and thus the poem itself remains “unwritten”:

This poem I wished to write was to have expressed exactly what I mean when I think the words I love You, but I cannot know exactly what I mean; it was to have been self-evidently true, but words cannot verify themselves. So this poem will remain unwritten. 

He means verification in a philosophical and linguistic sense, as a substantiation of meaning, but I immediately thought that “I love You” was so epistemologically uncertain because the love itself was uncertain, in fact, the closeted love of an older homosexual for an unavailable younger man. That Chester Kallman was profoundly jealous of the poem’s declaration of love for Adrian Poole, calling it “TREACHERY” and even “running away from home” when he found out that Auden was composing it, indicates that the poem was “written” enough. While the speaker claims that the uncertainty of the poem’s existence doesn’t matter and he’ll greet his beloved at the station in this limbo state (“adoration in the eye”) between erotic and platonic love, I am reminded of a letter Auden wrote to his friend Elizabeth Mayer in 1943, four years after the start of his relationship with Kallman, in which he states that being homosexual “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 . . .” 

“Dichtung und Wahrheit” arrives at a “truth” that remains unwritten because the poet himself cannot tell the true nature of his love and has chosen instead whatever happiness he can fabricate within the self-deception of believing that what he desires is the sexless friendship he actually possesses. The fact that the one-sided relationship with Poole was the inspiration for this “love” poem turns an exercise in the de-mystification of romantic love’s poetic representations into one of the best representations of self-mystification that I know of. In essence, the poem is trying to convince itself that a cognitive machine manifested in words, its philosophical analysis of language, can embody a “love” that the speaker is unable to express in life. I cannot read it without lamenting that Auden, a brilliant man, a great poet, never found what he truly wanted in the wanderings of his life—a man whom he could permanently call his “home.”

For all its disquisitions on love’s meaning, “Dichtung und Wahrheit” has heretofore lacked Heaney’s measure of “uncanniness” and “world-sorrow.” What I have superimposed as a twenty-first-century reader with access to information about Auden’s unrequited love for Adrian Poole may have horrified the Auden who sought to suppress his correspondence for posterity (although he did annotate some of his love poems with the initials of the lovers who were their subjects). I do it first as a poet, gay man, and private reader, not a public critic, to release a gainful estrangement in the service of his poetry, to disenthrall my own personal pleasures and sorrows. But my interpretation is far from alien to the poem’s substance and the poet’s mission. The uncanniness and world-sorrow in the poem arises from the same preoccupation in the lyrics for which Auden became famous: the ironic aloneness within his vision of love, the faithlessness and failed connection, “the difference between the ache of being with his love, and being alone,” both in eros and agape, that a poet uses to reach for “the power to enchant that comes from disillusion.” One beautiful aspect of poetry is that the poet, who “fetches / The images out that hurt and connect,” is only a part of the equation. The reader is the one who makes Auden’s great twentieth-century poetry continue to hurt and connect. 


*An essay-review of The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Poems (Volume i: 1927–1939 [848 pp.] and Volume ii: 1940–1973 [1,120 pp.]). Edited by Edward Mendelson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2022. $60.00 each.


David Woo is the author of Divine Fire (Georgia Review Books, UGA Press), selected by Ron Charles of the Washington Post as one of the best poetry books of 2021, and The Eclipses (BOA Editions), winner of the A. Poulin, Jr., Poetry Prize. His poetry and criticism have appeared at the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet Books and in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Threepenny Review, and other journals and anthologies. He is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.