W. H. Auden

The Cave of Nakedness

(for Louis and Emmie Kronenberger)

Don Juan needs no bed, being far too impatient
                                                                  to undress,
nor do Tristan and Isolda, much too in love to care
    for so mundane a matter, but unmythical
mortals require one, and prefer to take their clothes off,
    if only to sleep. That is why bedroom farces
must be incredible to be funny, why Peeping Toms
    are never praised, like novelists or bird-watchers,
for their keenness of observation: where there’s a bed,
    be it a nun’s restricted cot or an Emperor’s
baldachined and nightly-redamselled couch,
                                                                  there are no
    effable data. (Dreams may be repeatable,
but our deeds of errantry in the wilderness of wish
    so often turns out, when told, to be less romantic
than our day’s routine: besides, we cannot describe them
    without faking.) Lovers don’t see their embraces
as a viable theme for debate, nor a monk his prayers
    (do they, in fact, remember them?) O’s of passion,
interior acts of attention, not being a story
    in which the names don’t matter but the way
                                                                  of telling
with a lawyer’s wit or a nobleman’s assurance,
    does, need a drawing-room of their own. Bed-
soon drive us crazy, a dormitory even sooner
    turns us to brutes: bona fide architects know
that doors are not emphatic enough, and interpose,
    as a march between two realms, so alien, so disjunct,
the no-man’s—land of a stair. The switch from 
    with a state number, a first and family name,
to the naked Adam or Eve, and vice versa,
    should not be off-hand or abrupt: a stair retards it
to a solemn procession.
                                      Since my infantile entrance
    at my mother’s bidding into Edwardian England,
I have suffered the transit over forty thousand times,
    usually, to my chagrin, by myself: about
blended flesh, those midnight colloquia of Darbies
                                                                       and Joans,
    I know nothing therefore, about certain occult
antipathies perhaps too much. Some perks belong,
    to all unwilling celibates: our rooms are seldom
battlefields, we enjoy the pleasure of reading in bed
    (as we grow older, it’s true, we may find it prudent
to get nodding drunk first), we retain the right
                                                                        to choose
    our sacred image. (That I often start with sundry
splendors at sundry times greened after, but always end
    aware of one, the same one, may be of no importance,
but I hope it is.) Ordinary human unhappiness
    is life in its natural color, to cavil
putting on airs: at day-wester to think of nothing
    benign to memorise is as rare as feeling
no personal blemish, and Age, despite its damage,
    is well-off. When they look in their bedroom mirrors,
Fifty-plus may be bored, but Seventeen is faced by
    a frowning failure, with no money, no mistress,
no manner of his own, who never got to Italy
    nor met a great one: to say a few words at banquets,
to attend a cocktail-party in honor of N or M,
    can be severe, but Junior has daily to cope
with ghastly family meals, with dear Papa and Mama
    being odd in the wrong way. (It annoys him to speak,
and it hurts him not to.)
                                     When I disband from the world,
    and entrust my future to the Gospel-Makers,
I need not fear (not in neutral Austria) being called for
    in the waist of the night by deaf agents, never
to be heard of on earth again: the assaults I would
                                                                          be spared
    are none of them princely — fire, nightmare,
Vision of Hell, when Nature’s wholesome genial fabric
    lies utterly discussed and from a sullen vague
wafts a contagious stench, her adamant minerals
    all corrupt, each life a worthless iteration
 of the general loathing (to know that, probably,
    its cause is chemical can degrade the panic,
not stint it). As a rule, with pills to help them,
                                                                   the Holy Four    
    exempt my nights from nuisance, and even wake me
when I would be woken, when, audible here and there
    in the half-dark, members of an avian orchestra
are already softly noodling, limbering up for
    an overture at sunrise, their effort to express
in the old convention they inherit that joy in beginning
    for which our species was created, and declare it
good. We may not be obliged — though it is mannerly —
                                                                               to bless
    the Trinity that we are corporal contraptions,
but only a villain will omit to thank Our Lady or
    her hen-wife, Dame Kind, as he, she, or both
emerge from a private cavity to be re-born,
    re-neighbored in the Country of Consideration.