- “But who Would Get it?”: Auden and the Codes of Poetry and Desire
Near the start of John Hollander’s Reflections on Espionage, agent Cupcake, whose coded messages comprise the book, informs his control of the death of Steampump, who has “died quietly in his / Hotel room and his sleep”:
He taught me, as you surely Know, all that I know; yet I had to pass him By in the Square at evening... Without even our eyes having touched, without Acknowledgment. And thereby, of course, we were Working together. 1
Like Steampump, Auden died asleep in a hotel. Reflections on Espionage memorializes Auden not only with a code-name recalling the mechanical world of his early work, but with its governing allegory of poetry as espionage. What Hollander knows from him is that poetry is an activity of coding — Auden calls it “a game of knowledge” — where reticences are give-aways. 2 The two agents pass in the streets “without / Acknowledgment,” but their silence says it all: “thereby, of course, we were / Working together.”
This sense of meaningful silence should resonate further in the work of Auden, who ranks among the most famous gay poets of our time. Indeed, the tensions long seen to animate his poetry — repression/liberation, public/private, speakable/unspeakable, knowledge/ ignorance — are the very ones that lesbian/gay critics have mapped in the signifying energies of the closet. 3 Given his canonical status, Auden has had notably little attention as a gay poet, and any extended effort to read him as such would need to examine how the dynamic of the open secret inflects his self-presentations and reception. 4 For to take but one example, his claim that “love, or truth in any serious sense, / Like orthodoxy, is a reticence” evokes Byron and Wilde’s devious, deviant wieldings of secrecy and privacy as public gestures. 5 My aim is more limited: to explore how, even before he [End Page 709] grew famous in the 1930s, Auden deployed a poetic of self-conscious coding to engage the structures of knowing and unknowing that comprise the closet.
Outing the lesbian or gay writer, as D. A. Miller observes, can seem all too much like “police entrapment.” 6 But while it would be wrong to reify the closet by seeking a latent, governing “homosexual meaning” inside Auden’s poems, his tropes of secret missions and guarded borders do incite a hermeneutics of suspicion. The terms in which these Audenesque topoi have been read — radical politics, modernist alienation, psychic schism, adolescent angst — need not be rejected. But by setting Auden’s early poems in the social context of their production, we can see how they not only engage with the binaries of public/private and knowledge/ignorance that structure the closet, but offer signifying ambiguity as a proto-Barthesian textual erotics.
In 1988 Stephen Spender published The Temple, a novel he first drafted in 1929. The Temple recounts how Paul Schoner, a young Englishman, discovers in Germany a subculture devoted to youth and the male body, and this subculture’s disturbing overlap with the rise of Nazism. The author and his friends have pseudonyms, as in the early fiction of the Auden group, but in its explicitness about homosexuality, The Temple recalls Christopher and His Kind, Isherwood’s 1976 outing of life in the 1930s. In his introduction, Spender describes how his publisher, Geoffrey Faber, “pointed out that there could be no question of publishing a novel which... was pornographic according to the law at that time.” 7 The force of censorship in those years — reinforced by the recent suppression of Ulysses and The Well of Loneliness — is something scholars of the Auden group have not taken up:
In the late Twenties young English writers were more concerned with censorship than with politics.... 1929 was the last year of that strange Indian Summer — the Weimar Republic. For many of my friends and for myself, Germany seemed a paradise where there was no censorship and young Germans enjoyed extraordinary freedom in their lives....
Another result of censorship was to make us wish to write precisely about those subjects which were most likely to result in...