Thursday, January 04, 2007

Tell me the truth about love

It has just occurred to me that I have a penchant for admiring the work of writers who attended Oxford, struggled with their homosexuality all their lives, and eventually returned to Christianity. Actually, I only have in mind two writers but then they are both great favourites of mine. When it comes to favourites, there is another writer who could be mentioned alongside the first two, but then he went to Cambridge, swung every which way sexually, and, as far as anyone can tell, never returned to Christianity. The first two writers are Oscar Wilde and W. H. Auden, and the third, Lord Byron. Though Wilde and Auden were publicly villified for their homosexuality (Wilde more so than Auden), I think that they both recognised in Christianity something that the more extreme elements of the Religious Right are often loathe to remember: that we are all sinners who stand on equal ground before the cross of Christ.

Auden saw in Christianity "a radical levelling principle that eliminated hierarchies and distinctions between people—smart and stupid, even good and bad—and left them all sinners in a single boat." He wrote: The Catholic faith [i.e., the ideal Christian faith], while it condemns no temperament as incapable of salvation, flatters none as being less in peril than any other. In the same way [a Christian] has to make his public confession of belief in a church which is not confined to his sort, to those with whom by nature he feels at home, for in it there is neither Jew nor German, East nor West, boy nor girl, smart nor dumb, boss nor worker, Bohemian nor bourgeois, no elite of any kind [and in a sense no "gay" or "straight", either] ; indeed there are not even Christians there, for Christianity is a way, not a state, and a Christian is never something one is, only something one can pray to become.


In a time where ethnic and tribal divisions were everything (perhaps they still are), the apostle Paul's words were absolutely revolutionary (and Auden almost certainly had this in mind when he wrote the previous paragraph): Here there is no Greek or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all. Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Colossians 3:11-14

Which brings me back to the question that I often ask myself, one that Auden clearly asked himself too -

So what is love?

(I love this poem, by the way.)


Some say that love's a little boy,
And some say it's a bird,
Some say it makes the world go round,
And some say that's absurd,
And when I asked the man next-door,
Who looked as if he knew,
His wife got very cross indeed,
And said it wouldn't do.

Does it look like a pair of pyjamas,
Or the ham in a temperance hotel?
Does its odour remind one of llamas,
Or has it a comforting smell?
Is it prickly to touch as a hedge is,
Or soft as eiderdown fluff?
Is it sharp or quite smooth at the edges?
O tell me the truth about love.

Our history books refer to it
In cryptic little notes,
It's quite a common topic on
The Transatlantic boats;
I've found the subject mentioned in
Accounts of suicides,
And even seen it scribbled on
The backs of railway-guides.

Does it howl like a hungry Alsatian,
Or boom like a military band?
Could one give a first-rate imitation
On a saw or a Steinway Grand?
Is its singing at parties a riot?
Does it only like Classical stuff?
Will it stop when one wants to be quiet?
O tell me the truth about love.

I looked inside the summer house;
It wasn't ever there:
I tried the Thames at Maidenhead,
And Brighton's bracing air.
I don't know what the blackbird sang,
Or what the tulip said;
But it wasn't in the chicken-run,
Or underneath the bed.

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
Or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I'm picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greetings be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.
January 1938
XII, Twelve Songs
W. H. Auden

6 comments:

Serene said...

Ahhhh some of my favourite writers too!!! (The others--CS Lewis and Tolkein--also from Oxford :D)

Love the poem. Beautiful post as always Peishan! Miss you.

Lisheng said...

I'm not going to argue for the superiority of Cambridge writers, because I love all the Oxonian masters mentioned by both of you. Perhaps we ought to revive the book club idea sometime in the future, when I get out of this green and muddy place! ;)

peish said...

Thanks Serene. The sentiments are all mutual :)

peish said...

I'm not going to argue for the superiority of Oxonion writers because I think the truth of the matter is self-evident ;)

Yup, that's definitely something to think about :)

Anonymous said...

:) that's one of my fave poems too. :)
concur with serene, ur blog is always so very insightful!

peish said...

yay! maybe we should start auden fanclub! haha...

thank you :)