Image: The poets Auden and Spender, with Christopher Isherwood, in the 1930s
By chance, I’ve recently read an autobiography and a biography of two queer twentieth-century English poets: Stephen Spender and W.H. Auden. Although I read and write poetry myself, I am most definitely not an academic and am not going to attempt any kind of overarching intellectual analysis of how these poets’ lives influenced their poetry. For the purposes of this article, what interests me is how their sexuality affected their lives.
To begin, a little about each one:
Stephen Spender: His autobiography World Within World was published in 1951, when Spender was all of 42 years old. It’s mostly an account of his personal development during the turbulent 1930s, and in many ways acts as a requiem to a lost world, the pre-war Britain that even in 1951 was looking like an entirely different epoch. Having lived through such a turbulent period in history, Spender must have felt a lot older than his years, and thus “qualified” to write his autobiography at such a tender age.
Spender seems to have been what we would now label “bisexual,” although he himself shies away from labels. (In his words: “I leave it to the reader to apply the psychiatric labels to the various relationships which I have to describe.”) His accounts of his relationships with men are generally couched in such vague terms that one is not entirely sure if he’s talking about an intimate relationship or just a very close friendship. In any event, he eventually settled into life as a respectable (in the eyes of the world) married man with kids.
W.H. Auden: The wonderful biography I read is by Richard Davenport-Hines, and was published in 1995. It’s a beautifully written, erudite book, chock full of wisdom, one of those rare biographies that I'm sure I will read again.
Auden, born in 1907, was a lifelong friend of Spender, born in 1909. Unlike Spender, Auden was resolutely homosexual (he even participated in the early gay culture of Fire Island, in the 1940s), and the biography talks a lot about his struggles to accept his sexuality, his relationships (with men and a couple of women), and his views on homosexuality.
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What is fascinating to me, when I consider these two books together, is how differently these two men dealt with their queer sexuality. For both of them, homosexuality was a distinctly inferior form of love. Spender goes into this in some detail in his autobiography. While he clearly enjoyed intimacy with men, in the end he believed that a male-female coupling is one which completes by bringing together the two halves of the whole, whereas a homosexual partnership ultimately grows stale because the two partners can understand one another fully; there is none of that Mars–Venus mystery that renders heterosexual relationships so challenging and alluring. In Spender’s own words: “I see that it was my relationships with women that were the most enduring, because in the relationship of opposites there remained always the mystery of an unknown quantity.”
I get the impression that Auden would have much preferred to be straight, or at least more like Spender. A High Anglican, Auden believed that homosexuality is a sin (in 1948 he wrote to a friend, "I've come to the conclusion that it's wrong to be queer"), and this sense of personal weakness, of a persistent failure to be better, no doubt conributed to the immense humanity and sympathy that is the force of his poetry. As is the case with many (can I say most?) gay men, relationships for him were difficult to sustain. His long relationship with Chester Kallman, which began when Auden was an already somewhat tired 32 and Kallman a fresh 18, reads like a cautionary tale. It fairly rapidly descended into a cocktail of emotional dependency, professional bitchiness, unhealthy fawning (on Auden’s part), and callous neglect (on Kallman’s). And yet it lasted, in some form, from 1939 till Kallman found Auden’s dead body in a Vienna hotel room in 1973.
Important to mention is that, for Auden, it seems that love was the thing; sex was just sex. As his biographer Davenport-Hines says, "Auden never wavered from the knowledge that, unless you love someone, nothing makes any sense." With respect to "the act of fucking," Auden himself wrote that it "seems an act of sadistic aggression" and that "neither actively nor passively have I ever enjoyed it."
While much of Auden’s love life looks like an honourable defeat, Spender appears to have adopted a much more practical attitude towards sexual relations. There is a fascinating little section in Spender’s autobiography about his desire to “adjust … my acceptance of my own nature to the generally held concept of the normal [i.e., heterosexuality].” A failure to do this, he says, “ is to put oneself outside a concept which has a saving value of sanity in most people’s minds.” Put simply, it’s easier to be straight.
Auden, bless him, tried to be “normal.” As a young man, he chose to undergo psychoanalysis in a bid, in his own words, "to improve my inferiority complex and to develop heterosexual traits." He had a serious relationship with a woman named Rhoda Jaffe in the 1940s. Late in life, he (rather desperately) proposed marriage to political theorist Hannah Arendt after the death of her husband. But his great, enduring love was for a man. So what was the guy to do? In the event, what he did do was write some of the most breathtakingly beautiful love poetry in the English language. But was it enough? Auden himself would, I’m pretty sure, say no. He made the point over and over again that art is just art, that what is really important in life is loving one’s neighbour. Davenport-Hines’s biography ends with a quotation from one of Auden’s poems in which he suggests that on the Day of Judgment, the poet’s punishment will be to know what he might have written “had [his] life been good.” Ouch.
Sadly, Auden doesn’t appear to have believed his life was good. A big part of this was undoubtedly his failure to find an enduring, nurturing, loving relationship, combined with (or caused by?) his inherent belief that homosexuality was sinful and base and grubby. Spender, on the other hand, does seem to have lived a happy life; indeed, a sense of personal contentment is one of the qualities that flies off the pages of his autobiography. (But beneath the veneer of middle-class family life, perhaps things weren’t so calm, suggests a recent memoir by Spender’s son.) Auden’s personal sense of anguish and guilt led to brilliant poetry; Spender’s practical accommodation to the “normal” led to a life that produced decent, but somewhat forgettable, verse.
So, what the hell conclusions can one draw from all of this, other than that life is a complicated business and we all do our best with the hand we’re dealt? Well, I will permit myself to draw one conclusion. Although I do not believe that homosexuality is wrong, I do think that the weight of history, culture and religion makes many queer folk (like me) feel, somewhere in their being, that what they are doing isn’t quite kosher. To this extent, being queer is a complicating factor in one’s life. It’s a challenge. Like any challenge, how one responds to it goes toward making up the measure of one’s life. W.H. Auden and Stephen Spender dealt with their queer sexuality in widely divergent ways. How one views their lives will depend on your attitudes towards the value of art, the nature of “success” and “failure,” and the importance of respectability.