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Limits of Reticence

Auden, Merrill, and the Subject of Homosexuality
  • Piotr K. Gwiazda
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Part of the American Literature Readings in the 21st Century book series (ALTC)

Abstract

When Merrill began publishing the successive installments of his Ouija board trilogy in the mid-1970s, there was no other figure than Auden who better exemplified the idea of a great poet who also happened to be a gay poet. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of the second and third volume of The Changing Light at Sandover is that they offer a portrait of the gay Auden (as seen through Merrill’s eyes) before biographers and critics turned their attention to this particular feature of his life and work. Scholarship has only recently caught up with the importance of Auden’s homosexuality to his poetic oeuvre. The lack of informed commentary on the subject in previous decades has been remedied by increasingly candid biographies of the poet and by critical studies that approach his poetry from the vantage point of queer theory. While those who analyze Auden’s queer aesthetics do not always agree on everything, they at least agree on the fact that the poet’s personal life can shed much light on his writings. As it turns out, Auden continuously performed the work of gay philosophy, not only in his letters and journals and occasionally in his published essays but also—and certainly most compellingly—in his poetry.1

Keywords

Sexual Orientation Sexual Desire Human Sexuality Mystical Experience Rhetorical Strategy 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

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Notes

  1. 2.
    Edward Mendelson, Early Auden (New York: The Viking Press, 1981), 101.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    For the former, see Bozorth, Auden’s Games of Knowledge, 190–95. For the latter, see Anthony Hecht, The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W.H Auden (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1993), 103–09.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. 5.
    W.H. Auden, The English Auden: Poems, Essays and Dramatic Writings 1927–1939, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber & Faber, 1977), 190.Google Scholar
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    Edward Carpenter, Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk: A Study of Social Evolution (1919; New York: Arno Press, 1975), 59–60.Google Scholar
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    Harold Norse, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel (New York: William Morrow, 1989), 79.Google Scholar
  6. 15.
    Edmund Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics 1912–1972 (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977), 430.Google Scholar
  7. 16.
    W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Vintage International, 1976), 343.Google Scholar
  8. 17.
    Alan Ansen, The Table Talk of W.H. Auden, ed. Nicholas Jenkins (Princeton: Ontario Review Press, 1990), 80.Google Scholar
  9. 18.
    Quoted in Richard Davenport-Hines, Auden (London: William Heinemann, 1995), 212.Google Scholar
  10. 20.
    Auden, Forewords and Afterwords (New York: Random House, 1973), 99.Google Scholar
  11. 27.
    W.H. Auden, “Veni, Vici, VD,” review of The Dark Fields of Venus: From a Doctor’s Logbook, by Basile Yanovsky, New Tork Review of Books 20, no. 2 (February 22, 1973): 34.Google Scholar
  12. 28.
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    Quoted in Robert Craft, Stravinsky: Chronicle of a Friendship, 1948–1971 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 395 (Auden’s emphasis).Google Scholar
  15. 32.
    For other discussions of the role of homosexuality in Merrill’s love poetry, see relevant sections in Eric Murphy Selinger, What Is It Then Between Us? Traditions of Love in American Poetry (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998)Google Scholar
  16. and Peter Nickowitz, Rhetoric and Sexuality: The Poetry of Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, and James Merrill (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006). See also Timothy Materer’s two essays on Merrill’s use of personal life motifs in his poems, “Confession and Autobiography in James Merrill’s Early Poetry,” Twentieth Century Literature 48, no. 2 (Summer 2002), 150–73; and “James Merrill’s Polyphonic Muse,” Contemporary Literature 47, no. 2 (Summer 2006), 207–35.Google Scholar
  17. 34.
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  19. 38.
    James Merrill, Collected Poems, ed. J.D. McClatchy and Stephen Yenser (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001), 66. All subsequent citations to this volume are indicated as Poems within the text.Google Scholar
  20. 41.
    Jacob Stockinger, “Homotextuality: A Proposal,” in The Gay Academic, ed. Louie Crew (Palm Springs: ETC Publications, 1978), 143.Google Scholar
  21. 42.
    Michael P. Brown, Closet Space: Geographies of Metaphor from the Body to the Globe (New York: Routledge, 2000), 1.Google Scholar
  22. 47.
    Paul Welch, “Homosexuality in America: The ‘Gay’ World Takes to the City Streets,” Life 56, no. 26 (June 26, 1964): 66–80.Google Scholar
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    For a fuller description of the article, see Lee Edelman, Homographesis: Essays in Gay Literary and Cultural Theory (New York: Routledge, 1994), 151–54.Google Scholar
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  25. 52.
    David Kalstone observes that Merrill’s style displays “alertness to the meanings which lurk in apparently casual words and phrases. … When Merrill uses an idiom, he turns it over curiously, as if prospecting for ore.” Five Temperaments: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, James Merrill, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 80. Helen Vendler states: “Often, perhaps even too often, Merrill refuses the potential transparence of the written word, and reminds his readers that this is writing they are reading, not a window they are privileged to see through.” The Music of What Happens: Poems, Poets, Critics (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 345. Vernon Shetley comments on the tension between public and private modes of expression in the poet’s work: “Merrill’s lyric poetry met, and meets, its audience on the ground of a shared skepticism about the possibility, or the desirability, of seeing through appearances to the real.” Merrill, he adds, investigates the self “not merely through inauthentic experience but through inauthentic language as well.” After the Death of Poetry: Poet and Audience in Contemporary America (Durham: Duke University Press, 1993), 100.Google Scholar
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    Robert von Hallberg, American Poetry and Culture 1945–1980 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1985), 111.Google Scholar
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    Mark Booth, “Campe-Toi! On the Origins and Definitions of Camp,” in Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject, ed. Fabio Cleto (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999), 69.Google Scholar
  28. 64.
    Merrill’s decision not to reveal his HIV-positive status before his death in 1995 can be explained by his upper-class background, his adherence to conventional notions of privacy, and his fear of exposing something as personal as his own dying, especially from the disease still at that time widely associated with homosexual acts, to public scrutiny. But predominantly, as J.D. McClatchy notes, “He didn’t want to become a spokesman, a hero, a case study. He didn’t want to run away with the AIDS circus, in the company of a menagerie of less than minor talents hoisting the banner. He didn’t want to have himself be the object of anyone’s pity or praise because he was ill. Above all, he didn’t want to be put on display, to be shown and thereby made ‘monstrous.’” J.D. McClatchy, “Two Deaths, Two Lives,” in Loss Within Loss: Artists in the Age of AIDS, ed. Edmund White (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2001), 225.Google Scholar

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© Piotr K. Gwiazda 2007

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