Auden in Love

Long before he had any right, Auden had figured out that there is no such thing as a perfect love. It seems a shame, in some ways, to have denied us his juvenile poems of youthful romance. Instead, at the age of twenty three, he was already writing this:

“Love is not there,
Love has moved to another chair,
Aware already
Of what stands next,
And is not vexed,
And is not giddy.
Leaves the North in place
With a good grace,
And would not gather
Another to another,
Designs his own unhappiness
Foretells his own death and is faithless.”

The earth does not move. The histrionics are decidedly muted. Love simply moves on. As the title tells us, the emotion is both “Too Dear, Too Vague” to be of much use to anyone. It is everything and nothing. And where’s the use in that?

(Here is a picture of the young Auden, looking like a boss.)


(Let’s continue)

Love’s duplicity, both in the sense of being tricky and of always being more than one thing at once, becomes something of a refrain in Auden’s poetry:

“Travelling by daylight from house to house
The longest way to an intrinsic peace,
With love’s fidelity and with love’s weakness.”

‘A Free One’ imagines a traveller from love’s wars, one ‘poised between shocking falls’ who has ‘taught himself’ a ‘balancing subterfuge’, the appearance of control over forces greater than himself. All of which manifests in a calculated ‘nonchalance’. But between love’s two poles of fidelity and weakness, too scared perhaps to travel at night, and looking for a truce as much as peace, the wayfarer travels precariously nevertheless.

Troublingly for those of us who look up to him because of his knowledge of the stuff, love never seemed to stop troubling Auden. He never stopped questioning it or ceased to pick it apart in verse, presumably because he never got to the bottom of it. Even at fifty seven, the matter still wasn’t settled. Love and not-love can not be easily separated:

Do I love you? I could answer No with a certainty that I was speaking the truth on condition that you were someone in whom I took so little interest that it would never occur to me to ask myself the question; but there is no condition which would allow me to answer Yes with certainty. Indeed, I am inclined to believe that the more closely my feelings might approximate to the feeling which would make Yes the true answer, the more doubtful I should become. (Were you to ask: –“Do you love me?” – I should be readier, I believe, to answer Yes, if I knew this to be a lie.)

Or, more simply:

“I will love You forever”, swears the poet. I find this easy to swear too. I will love You at 4:15 p.m. next Tuesday: is that still as easy?”

‘Dichtung und Wahrheit’ (Fiction and Truth), is an ‘Unwritten Poem’ in fifty short segments in which Auden talks us through a failed attempt to write a poem that would ‘express exactly what I mean when I think these words’, the words in question being, I love you. A number of reasons are given for the failure: the poem would not be true enough, or genuine enough; the grammar of English is too rigid in its distinction of persons. But it is towards the end that the objection of time comes into it: if I love you now, will I love you tomorrow? He does not know, so the poem remains unwritten. Love does not reconcile now with then. It only creates the anxiety that they might be different.

Fidelity and weakness, affirmation and doubt, attainment and death. Love is tricky. Everything and nothing rub alongside each other uneasily. Birth ushers in death. So what is to be done? So far as I’ve read, Auden furnishes two possible options. Option one involves things such as limestone, moons and stars. Option two involves people and is consequently much more complicated. We’ll start with option one.

"But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but 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.”

These are the final lines of ‘In Praise of Limestone’, Auden’s thoughts on, among other things, different types of rock. Ordinarily such a subject would not provide the foundation for a great poem. But these are no ordinary rocks, and Auden was no ordinary poet. For one thing, the rocks are speaking. The poem gives us the voices of clay and granite and marble, and they whisper into ears at once historic and our own. But after considering these various terra firmas, the poem settles on limestone to evoke neither a place nor an action but a feeling – a longing for a connection through the landscape to a love deeper and older than any of us know.

It works poetically, bringing the poem to that heart-achingly beautiful close. But it would be a mistake to leave with anything other than the impression of an insurmountable problem. That landscape is an act of imagination. The speaker ‘knows nothing’ of what he is actually talking about. A ‘faultless love’ and ‘the life to come’ lie always beyond him. This is just his best guess. It is an act of imagination and one of great compassion on Auden’s part: to admit unconquerable ignorance about that which you do not know but miss the most. ‘Miss’ because you’ve never had it. ‘Most’ because it’s all you’ve ever wanted.

In Michael Wood’s memorable phrase, all Auden has done in ‘In Praise of Limestone’ is ‘found a home for his homesickness’. We may get lulled for a moment by the skill of the longing, but no one should come away thinking that a sustained relationship with the White Peak might be emotionally desirable, let alone possible. It’s all well and good for Wordsworth to imagine a ‘gentle breeze’ that ‘seems half-conscious of the joy it gives’ but there shall be no such comforting animism for Auden. No, the human heart is surrounded only by things which do not, which cannot, care.

“Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were the stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?”

From Nostradamus to Timone and Pumba, we have always wanted the star-filled sky to have meaning. Like limestone, Auden’s voice in this poem raises the idea of a love-filled landscape, of a natural world made from more than insentient indifference, only to dismiss it. The stars are beautiful, but they don’t give a damn. Limestone is loving, but only in the imagination. Upsettingly, as in life, just because some thing does not loves us back, it does not stop us wanting it.

The same problem occurs in another early poem, ‘This Lunar Beauty’. The heavens are so far removed from a human conception of time as to be entirely outside it. They are at once, paradoxically, ‘complete and early’. It is hard to have a relationship with something that might have imploded by the time you see it and love has no business leaving footprints on the moon. In comparison, limestone settles and dissolves in the blink of a celestial eye, but is still sufficiently slow in its motions as to make its movements undetectable to the human mind. They, ‘like a dream / keep another time, /And daytime is / The loss of this.’ For us – fleshy, time-bound, mortal – these imaginings are interesting, revealing even, but ultimately useless.

Coming back down to earth gets us closer to a solution.

“Crying for the moon is
Naughtiness and envy,
We can only love what-
-ever we possess.”

And that could be anything really.

“When I was a child, I
Loved a pumping-engine,
Thought it every bit as
Beautiful as you.”

Children take a thing and feel love for their possession. They are half way there. Adults possess each other, losing one self to gain another. For when it comes to it, lying face to face in the dark, under (but not in) a star fretted sky, another type of love is called for. In 1933 Auden was kind enough to tell us exactly how much he did not know about this kind of love, which, as it turned out, was actually a great deal:

“Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.”

Everything exists in a moment. Outside, the grave gapes hungrily, stars watch on indifferently and sediment settles silently. But in here, in this moment, for this night, Auden’s lovers lie in the world yet escape its turn. Their hearts halt the spinning of the globe even as they feel the pull of shame and the inexorable tug of time. They know the guilt of waking and the faithlessness of living. Yet live they do, entirely beautiful, resolving, if only for a moment, love’s duplicity in themselves, balancing guilt with acceptance and tempering shame with beauty. Love tells you you’re alive even as it proves you’ll die.

It cannot last. ‘Beauty, midnight, vision dies’. The poem ends with what feels like a prayer:

“Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless
Find the mortal world enough.”

It is almost cruel of Auden to describe something for which we all long only to snatch it away. The love in ‘Lullaby’ exists in spite of itself. It is willed into existence with the almost superhuman effort of these two lovers as they keep the world at bay for a fraction of the earth’s turning – fractions which, as we all know well, stay sparkling in the memory forever.

Many of Auden’s poems revisit this problem, sometimes affirming the vision of ‘Lullaby’, sometimes countering, occasionally both. At the outbreak of war, he wrote a series of poems heralding love as our insufficient salvation, our too-mortal saviour. Going into them here risks repetition but ‘The Riddle’, ‘The Prophets’, ‘They’ and ‘Heavy Date’ would easily qualify for a ‘further reading’ list, and all of them, with wit, beauty and compassion, offer to break bread with you in a broken world. But to summarize instead:

Love is possession reciprocated. It is our only hope in a world which does contain much of the stuff. It shines bright but is beset on all sides by human frailty and universal indifference. To quote Auden quoting Blake:

“One thing only we require
Of each other; we must see
In another’s lineaments
Gratified desire”;
That is our humanity;
Nothing else contents.

But, he goes on:

“Nowhere else could I have known
Than, beloved, in your eyes
What we have to learn,
That we love ourselves alone.”

So much for all that then.


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