We're A Funny Pair
The Gay Love Letters of W. H. Auden to Chester Kallman
Excerpts from My Dear Boy: Gay Love Letters through the Centuries, Edited by Rictor Norton
Although Wystan Hugh Auden (190773) emigrated to the United States just before World War II and eventually became an American citizen, he always retained his roots in upper-class England, and his poetry reflects the intellectual ideals of Oxford University and the religious commitments of Anglicanism. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender were an inseparable trio who represented the new spirit of literature during the 1930s and 1940s. All were deeply influenced by the freedom of the Weimar Republic, specifically its decadent homosexual subculture, which they experienced first-hand. Auden lived on Furbingertrasse in Berlin near the Cosy Corner, a working-class gay bar where he and Isherwood during 1929 searched for more than just "copy." Auden's diary for this period (he knew of 170 boy brothels) is considered too obscene for publication; he deliberately provoked his regular partner Pieps into beating him up. But while Isherwood never went much beyond the affirmation of individual personal liberty, Auden espoused wider political causes and his poetry concentrated on anti-Fascism, unemployment, and class differences. The cool aloofness of his work may be due partly to the view that the "great poet" (which he consciously desired to be) cannot reveal personal, specifically homosexual, commitments, which are seen somehow to delimit universal themes and to detract from the intensity of purpose necessary for great reforms. His very sexy and explicit poem about a blow-job, "A Day for a Lay", is not included in the authorized edition of his works. His many poems celebrating his love for Chester Kallman (192175) do not reveal his lover's gender. Kallman was an opera queen whom Auden met in New York in 1939, and they collaborated on the libretto for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress and other works. Kallman in fact deliberately set out to seduce Auden, by sitting in the front row of a college audience for a reading by Auden and Isherwood, flirting and winking at them, and then meeting them afterwards and offering his body to Auden several days later. In due course they became lifelong companions, but Kallman continued to enjoy numerous adventures with rough trade whereas Auden held to the ideal of monogamous marriage. The first couple of years of their relationship were fraught with acrimony and separations, until Auden gave up demands for "fidelity" and settled for what he could get. The first letter below is a "Christmas present" to Kallman. (All of Kallman's letters to Auden have been lost.)
W. H. AUDEN TO CHESTER KALLMAN
Christmas Day. 1941
. . . I've never noticed, darling, any reluctance on your part to confine experiences, operatic, intellectual, etc., to me. (If you've never gone with a lover to Tristan, it wasn't because of me, but because Miss Butch preferred jazz. Entre nous, I would have minded that less than the great gang of chaps that always were at the Met.) If I'm anxious for you to approve of Keith [Vaughan] it's not because you are the Beatrice for whom I cherish a grotesque passion, but because you are the one comrade my non-sexual life cannot do without. Expressions like "bowing out" and "disappear" are twists of the knife which, as you know only too well, you beast, hurt. Still I adore you and I suppose you must deserve it.
March 15, 1949
I know you won't believe it but there was honestly no malice, conscious or unconscious, in [Keith's] being at 27th Street on Christmas Eve. He was Billy's friend (not in that sense) long before I met him, which was through Billy. Do you think I should have refused to go to Billy's for Christmas or that I should have gone but refused to take him with me?
SOURCE: Reprinted from Auden in Love by Dorothy J. Farnan (London and Boston: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1984) by permission of the publisher.