Auden’s Poetics of the Closet: On This Island

Christopher J. Adamson, University of Southern California

‘To impose upon my passion the mask of discretion […] this is a strictly heroic value,’ Roland Barthes writes in A Lover’s Discourse. ‘Yet to hide a passion totally (or even to hide, more simply, its excess) is inconceivable: not because the human subject is too weak, but because passion is in essence made to be seen: the hiding must be seen: I want you to know that I am hiding something from you […] I advance pointing to my mask: I set a mask upon my passion, but with a discreet (and wily) finger I designate this mask. Every passion, ultimately, has its spectator.’[1]

W. H. Auden is a poet who wants his readers to know that he is hiding something. Particularly in his early work. These poems are obscure, more syntactically mannered or difficult, what Edward Mendelson in Early Auden calls private or ‘vatic,’ what I might also call ‘modernist’; the later poems are clearer, more accessible, what Mendelson calls public or ‘civil.’[2] Mendelson summaries this change by saying that, during the first twelve years of his career, ‘Auden made the difficult passage from a private poetry to a public one.’[3] Or, as Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick might phrase it: During the first twelve years of his career, Auden’s writing made the difficult passage into the closet.[4] He imposed upon his (queer) passion the mask of discretion, a mask he nonetheless can’t resist pointing to.

At least, this is the conclusion that I come to after reading Auden’s second complete collection of lyrics, a critically ignored little volume, called Look, Stranger! (1936) in the U.K. and On this Island (1937) in the U.S.[5] In fact, I believe this collection is a dramatisation of Auden’s decision to closet his lyric self.

On this Island is a modernist sequence of thirty-one numbered poems. The collection has received little attention as a unified modernist sequence because Auden took it apart for his 1945, 1950, and 1966 Collected volumes;[6] he revised or entirely excised poems that dealt most obviously with queer desire; and he gave the poems he did keep individual titles, leaving no hint of their original construction as a sequence. Rosenthal and Gall devote a few pages to On this Island in their book The Modern Poetic Sequence, and while they are able to detect Auden grappling with ‘shameful perversity,’ ‘disreputable desire’ and ‘forbidden love,’ they find the book on the whole not that interesting. I do find it interesting, perhaps strangely so.[7]

Primarily, I believe it marks the moment in Auden’s poetic development when he decides that whatever pleasure and suffering queerness was bringing him, he should leave them out of his poetry so that he might instead write about more ‘universal’ concerns, like the rise of totalitarianism in Europe. And I believe the sequence as a whole functions as a parable.

Richard Bozorth has pointed out that Auden was thinking about parables during On this Island’s composition. The parable, for Auden, seems to work in much the same way as what Georgia Johnston, in her study of 20th century queer autobiography, calls a ‘palimpsest created by the closet as narrative technique to convey meaning outside of (policed) experience.’[8] The parable allows the poet to avoid making explicit statements yet still create (queer) meaning. To show that he was hiding. Auden wrote the following in 1935 in an essay called ‘Psychology and Art To-Day’:

You cannot tell people what to do, you can only tell them parables; and that is what art really is, particular stories of particular people and experiences, from which each according to his immediate and peculiar needs may draw his own conclusions.[9]

The parable, a vital formal technique in a poetics of the closet, aims to be read by a specific group, a private audience in public—those with the ‘immediate and peculiar need’ of queer expression.

Reading On this Island this way—as a sequence and a parable—I notice that Auden repeats a distinct set of words over the course of the book, the nodes in his parable’s network. These nodes are the end-words of the well-known sestina ‘Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys’:

Hearing of harvests rotting in the valleys,
Seeing at end of street the barren mountains,
Round corners coming suddenly on water,
Knowing them shipwrecked who were launched for islands,
We honour founders of these starving cities,
Whose honour is the image of our sorrow. [10]

Any one of these six words—valley, mountain, water, island, city, and sorrow—is repeated at least once in eighteen additional poems in the sequence, not including the U.S. edition’s title.[11] The repetition of these words is too consistent to be merely coincidental.

Reading for parable—with an eye to these words as the parable’s essential metaphors, its constitutive figurations—one sees how the island represents an idealised, if somewhat isolated space; a site desired, worth the risk of ‘shipwreck,’ to be ‘launched for,’ wherein queer expressions, i.e., both physical acts and lyric statements, can be given openly without consequence. The city represents the site of reluctant realism, where queerness remains prosecuted, illicit, and closeted in favour of normative citizenship; the ‘honour’ of the city is the ‘sorrow’ of the queer; the cities are ‘starving’ because in them sexual appetites are taken too furtively. While the speaker of this sequence clearly wishes to live with the freedom of the island, he will, or must, abandon this wish. There is too much in the city that requires his attention; the demands of citizenship in a world on the brink of crisis overwhelm him. For, as the sestina ends—’we rebuild our cities, not dream of islands.’

The movement of the sestina from island (idealisation, queer utopia) to city (realism, normative citizenship) is also the exact trajectory of the entire sequence. I don’t have the space here to read more On this Island poems, although they deserve the close attention, but I can briefly point out that the first poem, the ‘Prologue,’ begins with an address to love (‘O love, the interest itself in thoughtless Heaven, / Make simpler daily the beating of man’s heart’)[12] while the thirty-first, the ‘Epilogue,’ reluctantly affirms hate (‘Can / Hate so securely bind? Are They dead here? Yes. / And the wish to wound has the power’).[13] It is, as a parable, a bit disappointing.

And yet, I chose to open this essay with Barthes because I catch a glimpse of something like a wily wink behind the dark glasses of Auden’s writing— ‘a fine example of denial: to darken the sight in order not to be seen.’[14] In my reading, On this Island shows how Auden chose his lyric mask strategically, and how he maintains ‘a discreet (and wily) finger’ pointed at it. After all, it is the island, the figurative utopia, that makes the sequence’s title. These are poems written on that island. The poet knows we are the spectators of his passion. Thus in this case the closet becomes a poetic, not an incoherence; thus it becomes a kind of form, even, perhaps, an affectation.

* A version of this essay was presented at the conference Queer Modernism(s) III: Queer Networks, April 2019, to which grateful acknowledgment is made.


[1] Roland Barthes, “Dark Glasses,” A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, trans. Richard Howard (Hill and Wang, 1978), pp. 42-43.

[2] Edward Mendelson, Early Auden (The Viking Press, 1981), p. xvi.

[3] Mendelson, p. xiv.

[4] Cf. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet (University of California Press, 1990), p. 71: ‘the distinctively indicative relation of homosexuality to wider mappings of secrecy and disclosure, and of the private and the public.’

[5] To restore Auden’s documented intentions with this collection, this essay will not reference the U.K. edition’s poems or title, as many critics do. It will instead cite those from the American edition. This later offering give Auden the chance to correct small errors in many poems, and it allowed Auden to revise the title that, due to complications with his trip to Iceland and the book’s production schedule, his U.K. publishers chose for him (see Mendelson, p. 340).

[6] See W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (Modern Library, 2007), p. xxiii and 904.

[7] M. L. Rosenthal and Sally M. Gall, The Modern Poetic Sequence: The Genius of Modern Poetry (Oxford UP, 1983), pp. 375-76.

[8] Georgia Johnston, The Formation of 20th-Century Queer Autobiography: Reading Vita Sackville-West, Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle, and Gertrude Stein (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 10.

[9] Quoted in Richard Bozorth, Auden’s Games of Knowledge: Poetry and the Meanings of Homosexuality (Columbia UP, 2001), p. 169.

[10] W. H. Auden, “Poem VII,” On this Island (Random House, 1937), p. 22. Auden collected this poem with the title “Paysage Moralisé.”

[11] My count considers the words strictly and does not include their various synonyms, such as river, sea, lake, flood, channel, etc., in place of water, which would greatly increase the number.

[12] On this Island, p. 11. Auden collected this poem with the title “Perhaps” in the 1945 and 1950 editions, and excluded it from the 1966 edition.

[13] On this Island, p. 67. Auden collected this poem with the title “As We Like It” in 1945, with the title “Our City” in 1950, and excluded it from the 1966 edition.

[14] Barthes, p. 43.

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