Dreamed 1942?, written October 1942 by W.H. Auden
The first time that I dreamed, we were in flight,
And fagged with running; there was civil war,
A valley full of thieves and wounded bears.
Farms blazed behind us; turning to the right,
An elderly clerk sat on the bedroom stairs
* * *
Our lips met, wishing universal good;
To make a focus for a wide wild plain,
* * *
And the last dream was this: we were to go
Our cushions were of crimson velvet, so
Fair, wise or funny was each famous guest,
I woke. You were not there. But as I dressed
Auden's life is not in order, so he can't have a peaceful home. He wins his beloved's hand--but only the hand (a grisly visual pun on "win your love's hand in marriage".) The winners' crowns weigh them down too much for dancing (and he couldn't dance publicly with his love).
After four rereadings (and one writing--my scanner was cranky, so I typed the poem up by hand) I'm still wrestling with Auden's own take on these three nightmares. Not, as I first thought, "Anyone can find love if they want it, so quit making such a fuss over it!" That's false; circumstances often deny people love. Auden knew it; he was gay in England when it was still a crime.
I think he, or his dream, is arguing something subtler: what he wanted wasn't love, but to love; and his last sentence says he was willing himself to love his lover. And perhaps not quite succeeding--everyone can love, but not by talking yourself into it. Auden blames himself. If he's merely lusted or liked or felt comfortable with, rather than truly loved... it must be him.
But is he right? Or did persecution make it hard, not just to love, but to know when it's love? Suppressing displays of affection may stunt or chill love itself--or at least make you doubt your own feelings. It's not so easy, as any experienced dreamworker knows, to sort the strands of your guilt. Which threads are society's judgments, and which your own?
Auden's interpretation--"My loving has fallen short. I can lie to myself, but dreams will out!"--makes The Lesson applicable to anyone, straight or gay. An effective esthetic choice! But to me at least the dreams (distinct from the poem) imply a second lesson he couldn't openly state at the time: "Hiding from persecution, your love becomes doubtful even to you."
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