Image of two men kissingEssays on Gay History and Literature by Rictor Norton

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

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.

Although Wystan Hugh Auden (1907–73) 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 (1921–75) 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.)

Photograph of Chester Kallman and W. H. Auden

Chester Kallman and W. H. Auden


Christmas Day. 1941

Dearest Chester
          Because it is in you, a Jew, that I, a Gentile inheriting an O-so-genteel anti-semitism, have found my happiness:
          As this morning I think of Bethlehem, I think of you.
          Because it is you, from Brooklyn, who have taught me, from Oxford, how the most liberal young man can assume that his money and his education ought to be able to buy love;
          As this morning I think of the inn stable, I think of you. . . .
          Because the necessarily serious relation of a child to its parents is the symbol, pattern, and warning of any serious love that may later depend upon its choice, because you are to me emotionally a mother, physically a father, and intellectually a son;
          As this morning I think of the Holy Family, I think of you. . . .
          Because even les matelots and les morceaux de commerces [i.e., sailors and trade] instinctively pay you homage;
          As this morning I think of the shepherds, I think of you.
          Because I believe in your creative gift, and because I rely absolutely upon your critical judgement;
          As this morning I think of the magi, I think of you.
          Because it is through you that God has chosen to show me my beatitude;
          As this morning I think of the Godhead, I think of you.
          Because in the eyes of our bohemian friends our relationship is absurd;
          As this morning I think of the Paradox of the Incarnation I think of you.
          Because our love, beginning Hans Andersen, became Grimm, and there are probably even grimmer tests to come, nevertheless I believe that if only we have faith in God and in each other, we shall be permitted to realize all that love is intended to be;
          As this morning I think of the Good Friday and Easter Sunday already implicit in Christmas day, I think of you.

Wystan's Day
[i.e. February 21, 1949, Auden's birthday]

. . . 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?
          As to our relationship, I'm sure that you have a pretty good idea of how it is. I am Poppa to him; he, unfortunately, cannot be Big Brother to me, only Young Brother. . . . I can talk to him and educate him – he cannot educate me. I'm not being catty about him, because you would realize at once if you met him, how decent he is. Once again, darling, what do you expect of me? One night stands with trade? I have neither the taste, the talent, nor the time.
          A chaste fidelity to the Divine Miss K? [i.e., Chester] Miss God, I know, says that, but I haven't the strength, and I don't think you, sweetie, have the authority to contradict me. If it is wrong, at least I don't behave badly to him as I do to you. Enough. We're a funny pair, you and I.

SOURCE: Reprinted from Auden in Love by Dorothy J. Farnan (London and Boston: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1984) by permission of the publisher.

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