In the BBC documentary Tell Me the Truth About Love, WH Auden takes a trip to Venice with his great love Chester Kallman.
As they sit outside Caffè Florian one afternoon having drinks with friends, two young sailors walk out across the Piazza San Marco. Seeing the sailors, Chester jumps up, smooths his hair with a pocket comb and rushes after them. Auden, in the middle of telling a story at the time, does not break his focus for even a moment, but his eyes begin to fill with tears.
I was reminded of this story when I later read the opening lines of his poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’: ‘About suffering they were never wrong/ The Old Masters … how it takes place/While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along.’ It’s a poem about watching others, particularly those we love, and knowing that regardless of how much we love them or know about them, we remain two entirely separate beings, quite as Auden would have felt when he was betrayed by Chester. That human beings, regardless of their intelligence, were always obstructed from achieving real intimacy was a notion that troubled Auden throughout his life. At various stages he kept a written record of all of the people he loved or had shared flings or flirtations with. Names would then be gradually crossed off as the list of people he felt he had truly connected with became slowly smaller and smaller.
Poets are no strangers to concepts of emotional alienation, but WH Auden looked at this as a practical problem that would have a practical solution. If he did not believe that true unity could be achieved in personal life, he still felt it could be possible in his art through the dynamic of the group. Quite different to the groups of artists in Europe and Russia who had rallied themselves around a manifesto and an enigmatic name, Auden’s revolution was small and piecemeal. Early in his intellectual life, he had become entranced by the philosophical ideal of the group, of about a dozen people, in which ‘the individual can experience complete release.’ And as he started to recruit for his own group, members would offer up their own experiences and ideas as material available to be used by others. His own group was one that began at university, in an undergraduate room overlooking Christ Church’s Peckwater Quad, and would become known as the Oxford Poets.
Oxford University by the late 1920s had begun its transition away from the apolitical hedonism of the early Twenties and Bright Young Things. This new generation tended, in the words of Anthony Powell, ‘to be interested in politics and economics – both approached from a ‘leftish’ angle’ – a development which would culminate in a passionate response of the undergraduate community to the Spanish Civil War. It was also the place where, it is now rather thoughtlessly assumed, it was ‘fashionable’ to be homosexual.
It was here, in 1928, that Stephen Spender and Auden met. Spender, two years younger than Auden, had been attempting to contrive a meeting with the older poet ever since coming up to the university, having heard of Auden through his brother, Matthew, who had been to school with him, and having tracked his poems through various Oxford magazines. But Auden was by this point a what Spender called a ‘legend at his university’, whereas Stephen spent much of his time alone in his ‘noisy and uncomfortable’ room overlooking High Street at University College, reading as much as he could in order to forget his hopeless infatuation with another young male undergraduate called John Freeman. Spender felt the social life of Oxford to be exclusionary, saying ‘In the snubbing Oxford social atmosphere people talked to me of Auden, but none of them wanted us to meet.’
Spender’s first attempt to meet Auden, at a luncheon party organised by a mutual friend, was an unqualified disaster. Auden barely even looked at Spender, and the only time they spoke was when Auden curtly dismissed Stephen’s stuttered list of favourite writers. Afterwards Spender felt he had to call on Auden at his rooms at Christ Church. ‘Calling on Auden was a serious business,’ he wrote later. In his second year, Auden had taken an oak-panelled third-floor room in Christ Church’s Peck Quad, which looked out onto students coming in and out of the library and across to the bell tower. Here, he would draw his curtains and work by lamplight. Prospective visitors would have to make an appointment. If they arrived early, they would find themselves shut out; if they stayed for too long, they would be told to leave. Spender actually arrived late for his first appointment and was greeted coldly. He found the room in darkness, with a lamp positioned in such a way that, when they sat down for what was essentially Spender’s cross- examination, he was in full view while Auden remained out of focus. He looked over ‘twelve foolscap pages, execrably typewritten’ that the unrefined Spender had brought stuffed in his jacket pocket, dropping them on to the floor as he finished each page. Though on this occasion he likely seemed a self-assured and dominating figure, Spender soon watched him evolve into one who was ‘uneasy and jumping with a desire to please.’ Walking the streets of Oxford, he would talk without stopping about poetry and psychology, about his family and his childhood.
Auden was less interested in Spender’s poetry – which he thought was good enough – than his personality. He admired Spender’s capacity for being humiliated, for, as he said, ‘art is born of humiliation.’ This was a quality that Auden was beginning to seek out in others, and something he personally would always strive for. He wished to attain a ‘complete lack of inhibition and guilt’ in his lifestyle, his sexuality and his art. Part of Auden’s conception of the group was that guilt would deliquesce in the open dialogue of what had previously been held secret, and evaporate under the weight of shared experience. Openness in art would do away with the confining, suffocating guilt felt in life, for this, as Auden saw it, was the great enemy of their time. Auden even believed in a psychosomatic link between guilt and venereal diseases. ‘If you do not feel guilt, and if you are pure in heart, you will not catch a disease from an infected partner,’ he would say.
As well as his poems, Spender had shown Auden a short story called ‘By the Lake’ which described a holiday on Lake Geneva taken in the summer holiday before university to polish his German. Also in residence at the guest house where he stayed had been a boy from his year at school called David Maclean. Here, in Spender’s bedroom after a day trip to Chillon, the two boys had kissed. Reading the story, Auden was impressed by Spender’s willingness to confront the love which in the eyes of most of society was no less shameful than it had been when sketches of Oscar Wilde in the dock at the Old Bailey filled the front covers of the illustrated newspapers. ‘There was something about my vulnerability and openness which he respected,’ Spender recorded, remembering how Auden had instantly made him ‘member of an élite which was headed by Auden and Isherwood but included Day Lewis, Rex Warner and very few others.’
On 9 June 1928, Spender finally got to meet Auden’s great friend and collaborator – ‘The Novelist of the Future’, as Auden had described him – Christopher Isherwood. When he arrived at Auden’s rooms, Isherwood was hunched over a pile of Auden’s newest poems. Auden was distracted and in a bad mood, but Isherwood looked up and flashed Spender a sympathetic smile. Isherwood told Spender that he had read ‘By the Lake’ and found it striking and accomplished. Spender intended to call his first novel The Liberal Cage, because, he said, ‘it is an account of the completely free life possible in our time.’ In it the generally autobiographical main character would admit to having ‘regarded my body as sinful, and my own physical being as something to be ashamed of and to be overcome by compensating and atoning spiritual qualities.’
Auden and Isherwood had already known each other for over ten years by the time Spender entered the picture, having met first at prep school at St Edmund’s in Hindhead, Surrey. Auden remembered having noticed Isherwood initially as a small boy with an enormous head and large eyes, carefully copying down the work of the boy at the desk next to his. Isherwood, in turn, knew Auden from choir; they stood opposite each other, and Isherwood would watch the younger boy for amusement. But there was another reason that Auden stuck out among the seven to thirteen-year-olds at St Edmund’s, and this was his precocious – albeit largely inaccurate – knowledge of sexual activities. ‘I remember him chiefly for his naughtiness,’ Isherwood wrote, ‘his insolence, his smirking tantalising air of knowing disreputable and exciting secrets.’
Auden had awoken in the older Isherwood an awareness of sex – for which Isherwood would always remember him. But when the school year was out, the two boys had gone off to separate boarding schools, Isherwood to Repton in Derbyshire and Auden to Gresham’s in Norfolk. They met again five years later when Auden was staying in London at the family home of a friend, each seeing immediately in the other the personality that had captivated them at school.
Spender would later form an unusual judgement about the effect that Auden and Isherwood had on each other at this earlier time. He argued that they had entered into homosexuality, both independently and together, as a kind of pact. Homosexuality in their eyes was collaborative, for it depended on a kind of mutual validation that urged people out of the peripheries. It also needed strength in numbers. ‘Doubtless the reunion with Isherwood led quickly to the mutual revelation that each was homosexual,’ Spender wrote, ‘and this was the equivalent of the oath of Blutbrüderschaft.’ Spender asserts that each found in the other’s sexual orientation a legitimation of their own feelings and behaviours, saying ‘each would know that for the other to become ‘normal’ would be the equivalent of a betrayal.’ Isherwood and Auden were, he says, always ‘a club of two.’ Just as they had ‘entered into’ homosexuality together, they were each other’s readers, and Auden had chosen Isherwood ‘as the judge who would decide for him finally what were the good and what were the bad lines.’ It was with Isherwood that Auden came by far the closest to achieving what he would call unity. In an interview, Isherwood described his relationship with Auden as ‘telepathic’, saying ‘like all people who’ve known each other from early boyhood…we knew all about each other’s mythology, about each other’s interests, about the kind of things that inspired us individually to write.’ Together they collaborated on plays, travelled, reported on news events, and, in 1939, sailed to New York City to make a new life together away from the violence of Europe.
Their ‘pact’ was in many ways a response to the confusion and alienation experienced by the two young men in the period spent apart at separate schools. At Gresham’s, they had been up against a particularly harrowing ‘Honour System’ that rallied against the acts of smoking, swearing, and ‘indecency.’ If the boys discovered one of their peers engaging in one of these acts, they were to report them immediately to the authorities, creating a structure that pulled minor flirtations and discreet affections out of the shadows. Aged fifteen, Auden had begun to be sexually attracted to a boy a year older than him called Robert Medley, a painter whose still life would eventually hang pride of place on the walls of Auden’s Oxford rooms. The understanding that Auden and Isherwood had developed from this shared struggle would remain with them for life, allowing them, as Isherwood remembered, to ‘communicate with very great ease.’
Auden believed that homosexual relationships only worked if the couple were united by some mutual enterprise. Art, therefore, became a substitute for the child, the wedding, the home and other adornments of heterosexual domestic life. It was a way to overcome isolation, such as that which Auden and Isherwood had experienced at school. At other times, it was a substitute for sex in the quest for achieving ‘complete release’, as when he and Chester collaborated on a libretto for Stravinsky’s opera The Rake’s Progress despite having not slept together for ‘about thirty years.’ ‘Chester seems to have got tired of that side of it quite early in their acquaintance,’ Auden’s former colleague, Dr David Luke, observed. This was ‘to Wystan’s great distress.’ Auden’s desire to be close with others was unmistakable, but he was also well aware of the ways in which he pushed them away through his egotism. It was as if, having been told repeatedly that he should not become intimate with people, he eventually came to believe that he could not. He admitted to his own ingrained prejudice that said there was ‘something indecent in a mutual homosexual relationship.’
All three knew that the reason they could not get as close to people as they liked was because of a ‘communal disease’ in society. The disease harvested emotional and spiritual malaise in modern life and disunited human beings despite their shared needs. It also prevented individuals from having their desires realised. This was accentuated further still for Auden, Spender and Isherwood, whose hunger for connection concerned the same sex. In Auden’s poem ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love’ the speaker experiences a moment of epiphany that ‘soul and body have no bounds.’ As they watch their lover asleep on their arm, they know that ‘sensual ecstasy’ can truly be achieved, as can ‘certainty, fidelity’. But with the stroke of midnight this beautiful vision is swept away. The poet must instead ‘find the mortal world enough.’
In March 1975, less than two years after Auden’s death, Stephen Spender was brought in by the BBC’s Book Programme to give an interview about his old friend. It was to be filmed in Auden’s undergraduate rooms, and returning there after forty-seven years Spender found them to be ‘much smaller than [he] had remembered – and shabbier.’ Back then, in a whirl of undergraduate excitement, Oxford had seemed much larger than it really was. The group might have succeeded in its aims if it had only ever had to travel as far as that city’s river and water meadow boundaries. But for the country as a whole, 1928 was a dark time. Government censorship was focusing its energies on sexual freedoms, and this was the year when Radclyffe Hall’s overtly lesbian The Well of Loneliness was taken to court on the charge of obscenity, with the result of all copies of the novel being destroyed. In times like those, all that the group could be was the final line of defence against a vindictive world. Inevitably, its members would be forced back on their loneliness. It is only because of Auden’s suffering that we now may now languish in the most miraculous, and most painful, of love poems.
Art by Grace Crabtree