The young men native to limestone move, the poem says, "in twos and threes," and Auden's poem moves the same way. The rhythm is an irregular mix of iambs (one-two) and dactyls (one-two-three). Alliteration, of the sort that Auden admired in Anglo-Saxon poetry, also occurs in pairs and trios: "a private pool," "steep stone gennels," "the shady side of a square at midday." The pattern even recurs in the structure of the sentences. The second sentence, for example, consists of three commands: "mark these rounded slopes," "hear these springs," and "examine this region." The next sentence offers a choice of two options for what the landscape could be. And the sentence following suggests three examples of manmade structures that resemble naturally occurring phenomena. And so on. If you sit down to memorize the poem, you quickly discover that the pairs and triples are a mnemonic aid. There are three ways a young man raised on limestone tends to go bad. There are two things the limestone isn't, despite appearances. Only once in the poem is there four of something -- a significant number, I think, because the four items constitute a prayer, an aspiration a little beyond the alternation of twos and threes that is natural to humans. Soon after, as the poem winds down, the triangles give way to couples, as if to suggest that the poem is reaching a kind of peace and perhaps stability.
I say "triangles and couples," rather than just threes and twos, because Auden's limestone is explicitly sexual, as well as sensual. In the first published version, Auden wrote that the rocky terrain was a suitable background for a "nude young male who lounges / Against a rock displaying his dildo." It's a startling word. I remember my friend and I debating it. Had Auden had intended for his readers -- or anyway, for his gay readers -- to understand that he would have written "prick" or "cock" if he had been able to get away with it? In 1966, when Auden republished the poem, he seems to have thought he couldn't get away with even that much, and the word "dildo" vanished. Rather ingeniously, Fuller suggests that Auden chose the word "dildo" quite deliberately because, Fuller argues, "the dildo is a surrogate," and therefore an element in the opposition within the poem of art and nature. The dildo is a stony representation of the human form. Part of the human form, anyway. Another part seems to make an appearance in a later stanza, when Auden wonders if the landscape he describes is no more than "a backward and dilapidated province, connected / To the big busy world by a tunnel."
The danger of memorizing a poem, especially when it speaks to you, is that it works into the way you think. When it came time for me to write my dissertation, which eventually became the book American Sympathy, I found that I couldn't get Auden out of my head. In one chapter, I discussed a scene in Edgar Huntly, a 1799 Gothic novel by the American writer Charles Brockden Brown, in which a young man wanders through a limestone landscape, aerated, as all such landscapes are, with spring-carved caves. Was Brown's landscape, like Auden's, shaped by sexual myth? Auden's poem came back to me yet again while I was writing my novel Necessary Errors. I noticed, in the background of my thoughts, the return of Auden's dildo, with all its ambiguity and ambivalence. Auden prays that he may not resemble "a thing like water / Or stone whose conduct can be predicted," but he also celebrates the continuity between the naturally occurring shapes that water carves over time into rock and the human forms that the human eye -- and eventually with the progress of civilization, the human hand -- impose on the same substance. Statues, by the end of Auden's poem, even become icons of salvation. Can the innocence and eternity of a statue be reconciled with the impertinence and vigor of a youth making, as Auden puts it, "lively offers"? How do you represent gay love in art? How do you represent any human love, for that matter? I briefly considered changing the title of my novel to "The One Landscape that We the Inconstant Ones Are Consistently Homesick for," a phrase from the poem's opening lines, but the suggestion was politely and speedily suppressed by my agent and editor.