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The Lesson

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,
We came at once to a tall house, its door
Wide open, waiting for its long-lost heirs.

An elderly clerk sat on the bedroom stairs
Writing; but we had tiptoed past him when
He raised his head and stuttered--"Go away".
We wept and begged to stay;
He wiped his pince-nez, hesitated, then
Said no, he had no power to give us leave;
Our lives were not in order; we must leave.

*        *        *

The second dream began in a May wood;
We had been laughing; your blue eyes were kind,
Your excellent nakedness without disdain.

Our lips met, wishing universal good;
But, on their impact, sudden flame and wind
Fetched you away and turned me loose again

To make a focus for a wide wild plain,
Dead level and dead silent and bone dry,
Where nothing could have suffered, sinned, or grown.
On a high chair alone
I sat, a little master, asking why
The cold and solid object in my hands
Should be a human hand, one of your hands.

*        *        *

And the last dream was this: we were to go
To a great banquet and a Victory Ball
After some tournament or dangerous test.

Our cushions were of crimson velvet, so
We must have won; though there were crowns for all,
Ours were of gold, of paper all the rest.

Fair, wise or funny was each famous guest,
Love smiled at Courage over priceless glass,
And rockets died in hundreds to express
Our learned carelessness.
A band struck up; all over the green grass
A sea of paper crowns rose up to dance:
Ours were too heavy; we did not dance.

I woke. You were not there. But as I dressed
Anxiety turned to shame, feeling all three
Intended one rebuke. For had not each
In its own way tried to teach
My will to love you that it cannot be,
As I think, of such consequence to want
What anyone is given, if they want?


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."

--Chris Wayan

LISTS AND LINKS: dream-poems - war - hunted! - home - dream advice on love - gay men - flirtation and public affection - frustration - loneliness - hands - a severed hand stands for a different guilt in Her Hand on the Mantel - competitions - crowns and royalty - dance - love - privacy and secrets - out of the closet!

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