Why Auden Matters…

The Secret Auden

Edward Mendelson in New York Review of Books

1.

W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.

mendelson_1-032014.jpg Jerry Cooke/Pix Inc./Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
W. H. Auden, Fire Island, 1946

I learned about it mostly by chance, so it may have been far more extensive than I or anyone ever knew. Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Marks in-the-Bowery in New York. She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.

Someone else recalled that Auden had once been told that a friend needed a medical operation that he couldnt afford. Auden invited the friend to dinner, never mentioned the operation, but as the friend was leaving said, I want you to have this, and handed him a large notebook containing the manuscript of The Age of Anxiety. The University of Texas bought the notebook and the friend had the operation.

From some letters I found in Audens papers, I learned that a few years after World War II he had arranged through a European relief agency to pay the college costs for two war orphans chosen by the agency, an arrangement that continued, with a new set of orphans every few years, until his death at sixty-six in 1973.

At times, he went out of his way to seem selfish while doing something selfless. When NBC Television was producing a broadcast of The Magic Flute for which Auden, together with Chester Kallman, had translated the libretto, he stormed into the producers office demanding to be paid immediately, instead of on the date specified in his contract. He waited there, making himself unpleasant, until a check finally arrived. A few weeks later, when the canceled check came back to NBC, someone noticed that he had endorsed it, Pay to the order of Dorothy Day. The New York City Fire Department had recently ordered Day to make costly repairs to the homeless shelter she managed for the Catholic Worker Movement, and the shelter would have been shut down had she failed to come up with the money.

At literary gatherings he made a practice of slipping away from the gaunt and great, the famed for conversation (as he called them in a poem) to find the least important person in the room. A letter-writer in the Times of London last year recalled one such incident:

Sixty years ago my English teacher brought me to London from my provincial grammar school for a literary conference. Understandably, she abandoned me for her friends when we arrived, and I was left to flounder. I was gauche and inept and had no idea what to do with myself. Auden must have sensed this because he approached me and said, Everyone here is just as nervous as you are, but they are bluffing, and you must learn to bluff too.

Late in life Auden wrote self- revealing poems and essays that portrayed him as insular and nostalgic, still living imaginatively in the Edwardian world of his childhood. His Doggerel by a Senior Citizen began, Our earth in 1969/Is not the planet I call mine, and continued with disgruntled complaints against the modern age: I cannot settle which is worse,/The Anti-Novel or Free Verse. A year after he wrote this, I chanced on a first book by a young poet, N.J. Loftis, Exiles and Voyages. Some of the book was in free verse; much of it alluded to Harlem and Africa; the authors ethnic loyalties were signaled by the name of the publisher, the Black Market Press. The book was dedicated To my first friend, W.H. Auden.

A few years later I got a phone call from a Canadian burglar who told me he had come across Audens poems in a prison library and had begun a long correspondence in which Auden gave him an informal course in literature. Auden was especially pleased to get him started on Kafka. He was equally helpful to unknown young poets who sent him their poems, offering detailed help on such technical matters as adjectives and enjambment.

When he felt obliged to stand on principle on some literary or moral issue, he did so without calling attention to himself, and he was impatient with writers like Robert Lowell whose political protests seemed to him more egocentric than effective. When he won the National Medal for Literature in 1967, he was unwilling either to accept it in Lyndon Johnsons White House during the Vietnam War or to make a Cal Lowell gesture by a public refusal, so he arranged for the ceremony to be held at the Smithsonian, where he gave an acceptance speech about the corruption of language by politics and propaganda.

He was always professional in his dealings with editors and publishers, uncomplainingly rewriting whole essays when askedexcept on at least two occasions when he quietly sacrificed money and fame rather than falsify his beliefs. In 1964, for his translation (with Leif Sjöberg) of Dag Hammarskjölds posthumous Markings, he wrote a foreword that mentioned Hammarskjölds narcissistic fascination with himself and alluded almost invisibly to Hammarskjölds homosexuality, which Auden perceived as something entirely inward to Hammarskjöld and never acted upon:

A thorn in the flesh which convinces him that he can never hope to experience what, for most people, are the two greatest joys earthly life has to offer, either a passionate devotion returned, or a lifelong happy marriage.

He also alluded to Hammarskjölds inner sense of a messianic, sacrificial missionsomething he seems to have recognized as a version of the messianic fantasy to which he had himself been tempted by his youthful fame as a revolutionary left-wing poet. Continue reading