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Uncle Wystan

John Tranter reviews

Auden, by Richard Davenport-Hines. William Heinemann, London, 1995.
This piece was first published in a much shorter form in The Australian, in December 1995. It is 1,900 words or about six printed pages long.
Noted in my Journal.

AUDEN, who was born in England in 1907 and who died in Austria in 1973, has a strong claim to being one of the most important English language poets of the [twentieth] century. Many poetry-lovers will cite Yeats as the grander talent, but Yeats really belongs to the nineteenth century where he spent almost half his life, and modern poets can safely ignore him. You can’t ignore Auden; his flashy style and astonishing technical gifts still claim the attention of the modern world.
     Wystan Hugh Auden grew up in the suburbs of Birmingham, and always felt something of an outsider in the clubby literary world of London. Davenport-Hines is insightful about the connection between the young Auden’s engrossed interest in mining machinery, the half-deserted landscapes of Northern England, and a self-absorbed childhood.

Book cover, detail, featuring a photo of Auden in the late 1960s, photo courtesy of the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Book cover, detail, featuring a photo of Auden in the late 1960s, photo courtesy of the Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

     Auden decided on the career of a poet when he was fifteen, but until that useful flash of insight he had his heart set on being a mining engineer. When he was nearly thirty he wrote “Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery, / That was, and still is, my ideal scenery.” He didn’t seem to feel that other people were fully human. As a boy he was like no one so much as Eric Oldthwaite, the hero of a “Ripping Yarns” episode, a crushing bore from a village on a moor in the North of England who is obsessed with shovels and rain gauges. When he was forty Auden recalled that there was a rain gauge on the front lawn of his childhood home, and in a poem about an ideal city “A paterfamilias / Hurries to inspect his rain gauge.” When he was middle-aged he still kept an ordnance-survey map of Alston Moor, a mining district in the North of England, pinned to the wall of his shack on the gay haven of Fire Island near New York.
     He had the grace to be neurotic, but resolutely so, following Freud in thinking that art often comes out of our struggle with our various unhappinesses. In 1936 he said “Let each child have as much neurosis as the child can bear.”
     There were other faults. Auden was greedy as a boy and as an adult, and though a punctilious and hard worker, sponged shamelessly off wealthy women when he first came to America. In the poem ‘On the Circuit’ he admitted, tongue partly in cheek:

Another morning comes: I see
Dwindling below me on the plane,
The roofs of one more audience
     I shall not see again.

God bless the lot of them, although
I don’t remember which was which:
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
     So friendly, and so rich.

Worse, perhaps, to an Australian reviewer spoiled by a society in which hot showers are plentiful, he seems to have been staggeringly dirty in his habits. He summarised his appearance, rather charitably, as “untidy and grubby”. A franker appraisal came from Stravinsky, who called him “the dirtiest man I had ever liked.” His clothes were often stained and frayed, and Paul Bowles described him not long after his move to New York in 1939 as “pretty eccentric ... does strange things like picking his nose and eating what he finds ... however he’s very bright and fun to talk to.” In old age he talked rather too brightly about farts, and about the fun of peeing in the bath. Perhaps he was trying to live out an aphorism articulated when he was twenty, and perhaps borrowed from Oscar Wilde: “Real artists are not nice people; all their best feelings go into their work, and life has the residue.”
     As a young man he spent a year in Berlin in the late 1920s, living off money provided by his father, a hard-working doctor. Here, like young trendies in any age, he plunged into sexual dalliance and fashionable philosophy, writing anecdotes about his garish emotional life down one side of his notebook and fragments of creative writing down the other.
     When a friend called Layard became distraught after a humiliating sexual failure with Auden’s current boyfriend and called Auden to his flat and threatened suicide, Auden’s journal records drily “Tried to persuade him to kill himself.” Auden went home and Layard shot himself in the mouth, but the bullet was deflected from the brain towards the forehead. He pocketed his revolver and went to see Auden, climbing four flights of stairs and vomiting blood, and begged Auden to finish him off. Auden refused saying (according to Layard) “I’m terribly sorry, I know you want this, but I can’t do it, because I might be hanged if I did.”
     Sensible fellow! Layard lived, and went on to publish a major work of anthropology and a study of dream symbolism; Auden went on enjoying the night-life of Berlin.
     The decade of the 1930s was so much his that it almost seems to be stamped with his copyright symbol. He travelled to Iceland (where he was appalled and permanently marked by the sight of a whale being slaughtered and cut up strip by strip), to Belgium, Switzerland, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, and Portugal; he went to France and Spain as a member of the International Brigade; he visited Egypt and Hong Kong and toured the battlefields of the Sino-Japanese war in China with his friend Isherwood; he called in on New York, liked it, and planned to return; he wrote travel articles, poems, plays and documentary film scripts. He even appeared on British television in — believe it or not — 1938.
     By the time the decade was over he was famous, and rightly so. It’s true he produced a lot of bad verse, silly drama and mulish dogmatic prose, but he also wrote dozens of brilliant poems. He was curious about old and complex technical forms, and explored them exuberantly and thoroughly. Intrigued by a seven-line rhyming stanza used by Byron, he wrote a poem addressed to Byron containing nearly two hundred such stanzas. “A phrase goes packed with meaning like a van,” he wrote; all his phrases were crammed with meaning, sometimes more than the reader needed. Other poems borrowed from alliterative Norse verse, popular song and cabaret, and old ballads. His work had a distinctive “modern” tone and an unsettling atmosphere. “The glacier knocks in the cupboard,” he wrote; “The desert sighs in the bed, And the crack in the tea-cup opens A lane to the land of the dead.”
     His memorable short poem “Epitaph on a Tyrant” begins with the sneer “Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after, And the poetry he invented was easy to understand.” This goes near to describing his own work: always clever, but always compulsively readable.
     It still is: the elegy beginning “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone” was written in 1936, and was the star turn in the recent [1994] movie “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.
     He revised his work compulsively, and buried his less successful pieces; there were many of them. The last lines of his poem “Spain” (about the Spanish Civil War) read: “History to the defeated May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.” Auden regretted the dishonesty of these lines thirty years later, saying they put forward the “wicked doctrine” that equated goodness with success, and he dropped the poem from his collected work.
     His industry, his output, and his quirky talent were all prodigious, and a whole generation felt that he had articulated their most personal and also their most public feelings. The Thirties was a period he described in his poem “September 1, 1939” as “a low dishonest decade”, and his poems perfectly caught the mood of treachery and despair as Europe slithered towards the mass horrors of war.
     But he didn’t stay for the finale.
     The Macquarie Dictionary describes Auden laconically as “US poet born in England, noted for his lyrical technique.” His tone of voice is so British that it comes as a shock to realise that his emigration to New York in 1939 and his taking of US citizenship in 1946 was a serious and deliberate process, like that of Rupert Murdoch many years later. As Davenport-Hines says, Auden drove himself as hard and as ruthlessly as a tycoon.
     He gave various reasons for his choice of citizenship. One was when he fell in love with the 19-year-old Brooklyn blond Chester Kallman in 1939. He wrote to his brother John: “This time, my dear, I really believe it’s marriage. The snag is I think I shall have to become an American Citizen as I’m not going to risk separation through international crises ... “ The “marriage” lasted through some happy times and through many valleys of misery — Wystan was possessive, and Chester was openly promiscuous — for the rest of their lives.
     Later he said to fellow literary exile Robin Maugham “England is terribly provincial ... I know exactly why Guy Burgess went to Moscow. It wasn’t enough to be a queer and a drunk. He had to revolt still more to break away from it all. That’s just what I’ve done by becoming an American citizen.” This strange identification with a spy and traitor is oddly telling.
The writer Guy Davenport saw it differently: “He could have gone to more terrible places ... but he wanted a place he could not romanticize. He came [to New York] to ensure that he was among humanity at its worst in this century.”
     His departure from England just before Europe was plunged into war seemed like a desertion to those he left behind, and it caused distress among some, and rage in others. The novelist Anthony Powell hated Auden for “scuttling off to America in 1939 with his boyfriend.” This was not a passing feeling: more than thirty years later he practically danced with glee when he heard of Auden’s death. “No more Auden,” he crowed. “I’m delighted that shit has gone.”
     Auden awarded the Yale Younger Poets prize to John Ashbery in 1956. Davenport-Hines notes but fails to underline the importance of this handing-on of the mantle and the subsequent Yale publication of Ashbery’s first book with Auden’s foreword. This book does at least boast a photo of the two poets together in London, Auden in a tie, check jacket and an old cardigan, the young Ashbery in casual black and sporting a handsome coiffure and moustache in what he once dubbed his “Mexican bandit” look. New York replaced London as the centre of English language poetry after 1950, and Ashbery’s strange, laconic meditations claimed much of the territory that Auden’s work staked out for its own in the 1930s.
     By the time he was in his mid-fifties Auden’s friend Spender saw him as “somehow sated; fairly contented but self-sufficient and not wanting to see anyone.”
     He had leaned towards socialism in the 1930s, but he turned resolutely to anti-communism in the 1950s, along with most of his fellow-Americans. His talent mellowed and lost its sharp edge, though he wrote some important poems, including “In Praise of Limestone” and “The Shield of Achilles”. The reviewers were often disappointed. His friend Hannah Arendt said “he feasts on all the varieties of unreciprocated love ... and he ends by growing ever more dissolute and alcoholic as simultaneously he grows more didactic and avuncular.”
     Echoing his early master T.S.Eliot, Auden once said that poetry was not escape into personality, but escape from personality. In the end he escaped from his own unhappiness by dying peacefully in his sleep in a hotel room in Vienna early in the morning of the 29th of September 1973.
     This is the third biography of Auden, and follows Charles Osborne’s life and Humphrey Carpenter’s more meticulous book by over a decade. Davenport-Hines has cast a wider net among Auden’s gossipy acquaintances and has turned up plenty of fresh material. He is frank and perceptive about the great poet’s personal relationships, his twenty-year addiction to speed (in the form of benzedrine pills), and his quirky sex life. The index could be better, but at least there is one, and the list of sources is thorough and detailed. The parabola of Auden’s career from naughty nephew to grumpy uncle is an instructive tale, and this book tells it well.

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