It’s currently Pride weekend and I want to honour the occasion by relating it to literature. I find it shocking that male homosexuality was only decriminalised in the UK in 1967! Even then, it was still a crime if one of the men involved was under the age of 21. In fact, British law only equalised the age of consent for homosexual and heterosexual acts in 2000! I normally abhor the over-use of exclamation marks, but I find it hard to convey the outrage I feel whenever I think about this shameful history of inequality.
All of this means that W H Auden (1907-1973) lived pretty much his whole life under repression. I’m not a great fan of biographical readings of texts, but I want to examine his fantastic poem ‘Lullaby’ (written in 1937) as a public, as well as a private, exploration of issues around romantic love. This poem is still under copyright so I will only be quoting extracts but, if you’re not familiar with the title, the poem begins ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm;’ and it is just wonderful. You’ll notice of course, that the first lines are gender neutral. I love Auden for his universality, and of course, the use of the second person means that anyone can read and identify with the poem, but it is frightening to reflect that this may not have been a purely artistic decision.
The poem continues with a sublime description of the acceptance and universality of love:
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
The lovers are vague figures, but that is because they are less important than the setting, and what a setting it is. In the context of this weekend, certain words spring off the page: ‘tolerant’, ‘grave … vision’, ‘universal love and hope.’ It is possible to read this extract as a manifesto for equality. I think it is significant that this vision is ‘grave‘, the topic is a serious one and, for the time period, it is too distant to be taken lightly. There are also connotations of death with this word, let’s remember that Auden (who died in 1973) may never have expected to live to see such a future. Continuing with this reading, it is deeply moving that ‘universal love and hope‘ are a part of ‘supernatural sympathy‘; it seems only deities can conceive of a space for equality in love.
The poem provides a safe space for lovers, but this is precarious. Outside, ‘fashionable madmen raise / Their pedantic boring cry’, hinting that even this private moment is subject to society’s intrusive judgement and prejudice. Auden has written what could be read as a ‘universal’ love poem, but he’s also writing specifically about the hidden love which was the only option for so many men of his era. It is important to remember how hard-won and how recent legalised sexual equality is in this country. It is both a point for celebration and frustration that only last week the Supreme Court of America ruled that same-sex marriage was legal in all states. Future Audens should be free to pick their words and their subject matter for better reasons than prejudice and inequality.