John Bicknell Auden, the distinguished geologist who was Wystan Auden's older brother, died in London on 21 January 1991 at the age of 87.
John Auden was born in York on 14 December 1903, the second of the three sons of George Augustus Auden and Constance Rosalie (Bicknell) Auden. He attended St. Edmund's School (Wystan followed him there), Marlborough, and Cambridge, where he studied geology. On leaving Cambridge in 1926 he joined the Geological Survey of India. He later became the head of the Survey, and remained with it until he retired in the 1950s. In 1960 he began ten years' work with the Land and Water Sources Division of the Food and Agricultural Organization in Rome, and then retired to London. His first marriage, to Margaret Marshall, ended in divorce. In 1940 he married Sheila Bonnergee; their two daughters are Dr Rita Auden and Anita Auden Money. John Auden was a founding member of The W. H. Auden Society, and strongly and generously supported its activities.
John and Wystan Auden were united by close emotional ties and shared intellectual interests. John's passion for geology found an echo in Wystan's childhood fascination with lead mines. Wystan's early poems seem to have prompted John to write poetry of his own. In letters sent from Oxford to India, Wystan, aged 20, analyzed John's poems with the respect due to an older brother and the slight condescension of a professional writing to an amateur. John's mountaineering in the Himalayas gave Wystan the idea for a play he wrote with Christopher Isherwood, The Ascent of F6, a play that he in turn dedicated to John. Wystan reconverted to the Anglicanism of his youth at around the same time that John converted to Catholicism.
Wystan and John saw each other infrequently after John left England for India, but their meetings were significant. In 1938 Wystan thought through his decision to move from England to America partly by discussing it with his brother. In 1951, Wystan (who had introduced John to John's first wife) first met John's second wife and daughters during a visit to a cultural congress in India; for the rest of his life he spoke of his nieces' intellect and beauty with the pride of a parent and treasured his friendship with John's wife Sheila. In 1965 he published an epithalamium for the marriage of John and Sheila's daughter Rita.
I first met John Auden at his brother's funeral in Kirchstetten in 1973, where his diplomacy helped make possible a joint service by the Catholic priest of the village and an Anglican minister from Vienna. In later years he was generous with recollections of his brother and family. When he noticed a visitor's interest in spacecraft photographs of the moons of the outer planets, he analyzed their surprising geology with the lucid enthusiasm of a skilled teacher. He was sharply skeptical about the new geological orthodoxy of plate tectonics, and could discuss the virtues and defects of the theory in terms accessible to an educated layman. Beneath the evident strength of his intellect - and an extraordinary physical energy that lasted well into his eighties - was an equally extraordinary kindness and gentleness that in his later years was no longer even partly hidden by his severity.
This interview with Mr. Kirstein inaugurates a series of conversations with Auden's friends and collaborators that will appear in the Newsletter.
Lincoln Kirstein, born in 1907 - the same year as Auden - , edited the periodical Hound & Horn from 1927 to 1934. In 1933 he persuaded the choreographer George Balanchine to come to the United States. Together they founded what have since become the country's two preeminent classical dance institutions: The New York City Ballet and The School of American Ballet. Besides his works on American history, dance, painting, and sculpture, Mr. Kirstein is also the author of two novels and Rhymes of a Pfc., a collection of poems that Auden said, as a picture of World War II, was "by far the most convincing, moving, and impressive book I have come across.'
Nicholas Jenkins: Could you tell me when you met Auden? And can you remember anything about the impression he made on you then?
Lincoln Kirstein: I was aware of the writer well before I met the man. When T. S. Eliot was staying with Ted Spencer at Harvard - in 1931, I think - I recall him telling me that Auden was the most promising of the then-new poets. In 1932 to 33, James Burnham, known as a technocrat, had a notion of buying Hound & Horn when I wanted to give it up and he presented me with The Orators, which made a tremendous impression. There were several near-misses before we actually met: in 1933 I went down to Malvern with Stephen Spender to see him, but he wasn't there! And then I think I missed him in 1938 when he and Isherwood came back from China via New York. Anyway, we finally met early in 1939. Sometime during the next few months I gave him a transcription of Melville's Billy Budd manuscript, which was kept in the Widener Library at Harvard and differed considerably from the printed version at that time. I also remember giving him a copy of Nijinsky's Diary. Both of these seem to have worked their way into his poems that year.
As to impressions, well, Auden and Isherwood were both staying at the George Washington Hotel and I think I first knew Chris better. He was less remote; easier to talk to and gossip with. Auden's look was quite relentless, penetrating, dispassionate, like a family doctor whose hobby was metaphysics. I got on closer terms with him afterwards, but I always felt - then and later - that he was a generation older than myself, and I sensed from the first an omniscience and authority that was never false or boastful, but actual. The pressure and quality of his energy - physical, mental, and emotional - demanded something approaching an equal expenditure to support or resist. He'd known more, read more, seen more than anyone else of my age and I always felt free to ask his advice.
But small things about even very great figures like Auden also stick in one's mind. For instance, he was extremely clever about knowing how to deal with people: on occasion when I was too nervous to be endured, he just told me not to be "naughty," which was perfect. I'll also never forget a dress-rehearsal of The Rake's Progress at the Met. We were sitting with Bob Craft and Stravinsky. Without knowing who we were, two blue-haired old Met subscribers objected to our talking through what was, for us, a working rehearsal. One said "We're trying to enjoy this." Wystan looked round at her and said very mildly "Try harder, dear."
N.J.: Yes, that sounds rather like the wit you get in many of Auden's later poems. When you reviewed Humphrey Carpenter's biography in the New York Review of Books, you praised the scholarship and then went on: "all that is perhaps lacking is a sense of fun and games which infused the speaking maker."
L.K.: Wystan's ordinary daily tone was always sprightly, never heavy; all his critical opinions and gossip came readily and spontaneously. He never seemed to weigh his words and his opinions could sometimes be curt. If he disliked someone it came bang out, rather in the way he referred to Bosie Douglas in his piece on Oscar Wilde: "a vicious, gold-digging, snobbish, anti-Semitic, untalented little horror for whom no good word can be said." I can recall phrases not unlike that for Robert Lowell: he felt that Lowell's break-downs were self-indulgent theatricality. When he was enthusiastic, though, he was whole-heartedly enthusiastic, never grudging or partial. Or even-tempered like Jacques Barzun. Then, there were his constant imitations of Chester's yiddische momma tone: "Your mother's a very sad (or tired) woman." It was amusing and disturbing all at once.
In a curious way, his style often brought out the best and most characteristic in other people, too. We all went to a rather silent dinner-party with the Stravinskys just before Wystan left New York. As we were leaving afterwards, Wystan said "Oh dear. Poor Igor. He should be called." And Balanchine shot back "Not yet. God hasn't finished squeezing this lemon."
N.J.: Could I return for a moment to the years when you first knew him? As the war with Germany got under way, Auden was attacked in Britain for "deserting" his country. Do you think he had expected this?
L.K.: This question about Wystan's "patriotism" keeps coming up. But I believe he had decided to quit Britain by early 1937. One of the first things he told me in 1939 was that, as far as he was concerned, there was no possibility for a significant future for him in England. During the most sensitive time of my adolescence, I had been immersed in the magical atmosphere of Bloomsbury and had known David Garnett, Duncan Grant, Raymond Mortimer, and Maynard Keynes at close hand. My father had been a passionate, life-long Anglophile, and so Wystan's attitude was something of a shock.
His conviction that Britain would be turned into a secondary situation, or indeed was already in it, was the basis for the national reaction which, as far as I can see, has still not finally abated.
The Auden I knew was a man absolutely without physical or moral fear. He had made his decision to leave long before the start of the "phoney war," and he had already faced front-line conditions in Spain and China. It seems to me that British self-esteem couldn't forgive his prophetic diagnosis of the country's future and hence it was explained away as a lack of personal courage on Wystan's part. Actually, he realized perfectly well what London opinion might be. I don't think it greatly bothered him.
While there was little real danger involved when he was in the American Army, serving in Bavaria at the end of the war, his behavior whenever I saw him there was so completely submerged in the military situation that it seemed as if he'd been a professional soldier all his life, fulfilling the job as efficiently as he did that of teacher or dramatist. His recklessness in managing automobiles was another clear indication that he lacked any fear of bodily hurt. I think this absence of concern about physical danger, or, I might add, about literary attacks on him, was probably something that further irritated his defamers and critics.
N.J.: Over the years, you worked together on quite a number of theatrical productions.
L.K.: I tried to have Ballet Caravan, the touring company that Balanchine and I had, put on Paul Bunyan in 1939. That fell through, unfortunately. Later on, though, in the 50s, we did several things. I was the producer of the version of The Magic Flute that he and Chester made for NBC in 1956 and Wystan and Chester also translated The Seven Deadly Sins for the New York City Ballet in 1958. Along with Noah Greenberg, the director of the "Pro Musica Antiqua" whom Wystan admired and liked very much, we staged The Play of Daniel and The Play of Herod in 1959 and we made plans to produce Skelton's morality play Magnificence. That didn't come off because of Greenberg's sudden death.
Wystan was always completely professional about these projects, but a lot of it was labor for him and not work; I had the feeling that by the 50s he had really lost interest in the theater: he never commented at all on important points like the costumes or the scenery. I even think the actual staging of The Rake mattered much more to Chester than it did to him. It was the words and music that absorbed him.
In any case, in my house in Connecticut, where he sometimes stayed, there is an old painting illustrating the idea of "die Verkehrte Welt," the world turned upside down, in which asses ride their merchants, pupils spank the teachers, and cows slaughter butchers. I recall suggesting that he write a piece based on this, but he said it was a theme for the 30s not the 60s. So I left it at that!
N.J.: I can see why. In fact, although you were close friends for so long, Auden does not seem to have cared much for two of your main fields of activity: ballet and painting. Is that true?
L.K.: Yes, Wystan had hardly any visual interest and I suppose that may have been why he took so little care of his appearance and surroundings, which were truly chaotic. He told Coldstream that Tchelitchev was his favorite modern painter, primarily because he could draw so well, which of course, in Coldstream's opinion, was just proof of Auden's blindness. It was really van Gogh's morality that Wystan admired, not his work. The only two pictures in Saint Mark's Place were the Blake of "God Dividing the Universe" that Caroline Newton gave him, and a gaudy flower-picture, very uncharacteristic, by Tchelitchev.
He would come every so often to see the ballet, probably largely because Chester Kallman liked it. Auden did admire Balanchine's professional efficiency; and occasionally he would make insightful comments about things he had watched. I once took him backstage after a performance of Prodigal Son. The final scene has the son crawling the whole width of the stage towards the absolutely static, impassive, seemingly-unforgiving father. Auden told Balanchine that the father should have showed Christian compassion, advancing to meet his son. Balanchine, in his way, was unbending, too: he wouldn't change it. I think he felt that Auden's generous suggestion, like a sort of early patristic interpolation, would have sweetened the rabbinical rigor of the piece.
I remember that Wystan liked the small Italian bar across the street from the old City Center of Music and Drama on 55th Street, since it was "cosy" and "comfy." When we moved into the State Theater at Lincoln Center he told me he hated the new bar on the promenade. Then he said resignedly "Oh well, I guess es muß sein," as if Progress was regrettable but inevitable, like the internal combustion engine.
N.J.: What did he think of the ballet that Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins did from The Age of Anxiety?
L.K.: He hated it: it was all wrong from start to finish. Except for a teenage dancer of some allure called Jacques d'Amboise, whom he admired from a very great distance. I suggested that I should give Jacques a copy of The Age of Anxiety but Wystan discouraged me, saying "It would only put ideas in his head."
N.J.: He has some lines in a late poem about praise being "jolly to remember / While falling asleep." Do you feel that poetic status mattered to him? Did fame concern him?
L.K.: Well, there was an awareness of it that could come out in lighter moments. He told me he was on a train to New Haven and somebody sitting opposite leaned across and said "Excuse me, are you Carl Sandburg?" Wystan was amused, but he replied "You have spoiled Mother's day."
In fact, I never knew anyone more uninterested in others' opinions of himself than Wystan. Whatever they wrote, I never heard him say a malicious thing about a critic, though I don't think he had much use for most of them. That remark of his - to the effect that those two long attacks showed that Randall Jarrell must have been in love with him - is, I'm convinced, accurate. Only a feeling that intense could have produced a tone that was so vindictive and blind. I think towards the end, when he didn't care much anymore, people decided he was through - with relief. He'd exhausted whole generations of critics.
Auden was just very secure in his opinion of himself: after all, it was not exactly modesty that let him consider himself as a "minor Goethe." That was a point he made to me once again the last time we had lunch alone together - I was helping him pack up some books in Saint Mark's Place and we stopped for eggs and Polish sausage. When I left, he gave me a book on mountain climbing, called Deborah, that he had reviewed.
As for being a major writer, I don't think "major" and "minor" meant much to him in his wonderful hierarchy of categories. Like being boring, but not a bore, it applied to figures like Thomas Mann, who was a "major" writer at times, but also a great "bore," as were Cervantes and Proust, particularly Proust. These summary judgments drive people wild, as did his constant use of words like "naughty" and "wrong," but they had such a weight of meaning in them.
Any less idiosyncratic "rankings" were a gross waste of time for him. He once came round to dinner at my house with Robert Lowell. Lowell went on and on asking questions about who he thought was "Number One" in various eras. The Romantics: was it Keats? Or Wordsworth? Implicit, of course, was a competitiveness about the present. Wystan wouldn't answer directly; I know he thought Lowell's attitude was extremely irritating and shallow. And I think he was right.
As far as other writers are concerned: he seemed to have doubts about the style of Eliot's seriousness or earnestness, but perhaps it was less the conviction of his position than the manner in which he stated it. I think he liked Marianne Moore better than any other American poet, though he had decent respect for some others, like Ransom and Wallace Stevens. I recall he told me to reread Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead," a favorite of mine, a couple of times and then tell him what I really thought of it.
So, status didn't bother him, although of course he was disturbed by the loss of the Nobel Prize. You may remember that I told Carpenter how Auden came to dinner one evening in 1964, after refusing to change his introduction to Hammarskjöld's Markings. He sat there in complete silence for a while and then just blurted out "Well, there goes the Nobel Prize." I think he thought he was more worthy than John Steinbeck or Pearl Buck.
N.J.: Did he think of himself in a particular line of poets? One has the sense sometimes - in the Poet's Party scene in Letter to Lord Byron, for example - that for him English literature was made by a circle of friends and acquaintances.
L.K.: If he thought of himself in a line of English poets, he never hinted at it in my hearing and I wouldn't know where to place him in his own terms. The likeliest seems to me Byron and Clough, but I don't think he identified himself with specific writers, neither Dryden nor Pope. He was too emphatically himself. Maybe he compared himself with Heine and von Hofmannsthal, the latter in particular. I know he became fed up with Rilke.
N.J.: I think one thing many people find rather difficult to understand is the break between Auden and Benjamin Britten. Is there any light you can shed on that?
L.K.: I don't think anyone really knows all the elements of the story. I certainly don't. There were many personal, musical, and intellectual forces pressing against each other. For instance, Lord Harewood's first wife, Marion Stein, was the daughter of the musician Erwin Stein, who was employed by Boosey & Hawkes, the publishers of Britten's scores. She was divorcing George Harewood against his will, and, although I don't think Wystan was a particular friend of George's, he and Britten somehow got into an argument about the divorce in which Wystan took George's side. And very quickly the row got mixed up with questions of patriotism and anti-Semitism.
Whatever it was, after a certain point Auden felt that Britten began writing operas that tended to have sleep-making second or third acts. I also recall his saying that the chief problem in opera was the music for the soprano, and that it was all very well to love choirboys - you know, the "O ces voix d'enfants, chantant dans la coupole" note - but the place for choirboys' voices was in church, not on the stage. He wasn't entirely consistent about that, of course. What about the songs in Shakespeare?
Certainly Auden wasn't in the "saint business," to use an expression of his. Stravinsky had no use for Britten and I'm sure that when he and Wystan were alone together they were mean and funny about Ben. That didn't stop Wystan - when he knew exactly what effect it would have on Stravinsky - telling him that Britten had liked everything about The Rake's Progress but the music.
Wystan hated any kind of laziness: he believed in questing and questioning and he was as impatient with his own former selves as he was with anyone else's. I think it was what seemed Ben's lack of daring, his desire to be The Establishment that irritated Wystan most; the playing it safe, settling for amiability as a guard against his queerity, but insisting on the innocence of adolescence as if this was a courageous attitude.
N.J.: In spite of that annoyance about Britten joining the Establishment, many of the biographical sketches of Auden himself convey an idea of someone getting more and more "traditional" and Edwardian in his behavior as the century wore on. Is there a sense in which Auden really tried to cultivate an outsider's role?
L.K.: I don't feel that Wystan became more and more Edwardian, but maybe that's how it struck some people. He was always strict about paying bills, and not complaining about service in a restaurant. But he could be captious, too. I sat trembling in the back seat of the car when he was trying to get his American driver's license. He went barrelling through a junction on red and when the examiner pointed that out to him he said that well, it was a damn stupid place to put a red light! In one way, though, that was just an aspect of his sense of security and self-confidence. You remember the lines about: "Reaching a cross-roads, / he expects the traffic-lights / to turn green for him."
So, no, I don't think he thought of himself as an "outsider" particularly. He was more like "YOUR MOTHER": someone who kept order and who knew what was right and wrong, good and bad manners. I think he felt he was the keeper of a national style of behavior shared by those who spoke the English language. And he was certainly conventional in many ways, about the Real Presence, about Jesus Christ, and about the Royal Family. On the night of the coronation of Elizabeth II, listening to a re-broadcast from the BBC, he solemnly rose, martini in hand, and stood at salute as the national anthem was played. He was entirely serious.
He wasn't an outsider, then, just increasingly lonely and he disliked being alone or being away from Kirchstetten and Chester. I don't think he felt outside. Just alone.
N.J.: You knew Chester Kallman well for over forty years, as long, in fact, as you knew Auden. In print he comes over sometimes as a slightly demonic character. Is that an accurate impression?
L.K.: Chester was cast, or cast himself, in an "impossible" role. He was competitive, although he knew perfectly well that he hadn't much right to be, but he insisted on the pose out of pure orneriness. On one level Wystan took him as a sort of hair-shirt and put up with him as an article of undoubting faith. But there was a lot of romance, and perhaps romanticism, involved as well. He would do anything for Chester. I remember how Chester once got into trouble with the police. He was in jail over night. I phoned Wystan, who was in Buffalo for a reading, and told him what had happened and not to worry. He wouldn't hear of it and jumped on the next train to be there to bail Chester out himself.
Chester was always - as far as I can recall - extremely witty. The horrors of life struck him with an ancestral expectation of the worst, and he could turn the worst off by camping. He reigned over this province of formalized sensibility by appropriating the emotional world of 19th century Italian grand opera. But he was not a screaming queen; his tone was moderate and, for this, much funnier.
He also, of course, had a real musical knowledge, sense, and understanding. He broadened Wystan's taste and information. He had a very good ear, and his own light verse, often dirty but often brilliant, was original and skillful. He was a real pain in the ass on many occasions and caused Miss-Master plenty of trouble, which was always forgiven. I think he assumed this was his obligation, and almost a service. Chester could be dislikable to those who felt Wystan's moral superiority, but maybe Chester had his own qualifications and legitimacy. He could be very nasty, even about Wystan, which did not make one love him. On the other hand, many of Wystan's friends liked him well enough, past mere acceptance. He was extremely intelligent analytically, and this, in addition to everything else, Wystan found useful and interesting.
N.J.: You once told me that you thought that the death in 1969 of David Protetch, Auden's doctor, was a major factor in persuading Auden to leave New York. Could you describe their relationship?
L.K.: I never liked David Protetch much and Wystan held this against me. I think I was wrong. Perhaps I had an illegitimate proprietary feeling that because he was a man of "science" he shouldn't have ideas about "art."
That we didn't get on hardly mattered, because Wystan rarely shared his friends. I seldom saw him with anyone else and, apart from on those occasions when Stravinsky or other musical people were in the same town as us, he never asked me to a meal with anyone but Chester. I met his friends, like Hannah Arendt or Chester's father, at his birthdays, but only then.
From what I saw, though, I'd say that the relationship with David Protetch was very close. I remember one incident in Vienna in 1968 where our ballet company was performing. We were having drinks in the Bristol Hotel bar. Suddenly David, who was diabetic, keeled over in a dead faint. Wystan knew exactly what had happened. In a flash, he turned himself into a doctor, found the insulin in David's pocket, put sugar in a glass, and brought him round. Then we went to the theater. In the interval, I heard Wystan telling David that he'd been "naughty" and inconsiderate. He might have spoiled our whole evening.
Wystan had no personal vanity but I never understood why he let himself go physically to such a degree; maybe he thought that he could trust David with every sort of health problem. Maybe, too, it had something to do with his sense of Nature as basically benign and inexhaustible. Anyway, he took uppers and downers like candy and drank to stupefaction. But that was also due to his relations with Chester. I think after David died he became fatalistically resigned to whatever happened to his body. Protetch ignored his own health, almost as if he didn't care or as if he knew he would die soon. When he forgot to take his medicine in Vienna, I think Wystan was frightened, as much for himself as for David.
Certainly Protetch was extremely close and necessary to him. He always preferred doctors - Vassily Yanovsky and Oliver Sacks were other examples of this - and theologians to any poets and other artists. Except for Stravinsky. I think he used David for corroboration as well as information. After all, his father was a doctor and the body was no stranger from his earliest life. That's why it's so strange that he had no use for his own. Neither did Chester.
N.J.: A very general question and perhaps an unanswerable one. What are the things that stand out for you about Auden as a man and a writer? Does he seem to you to represent the end of something, or the beginning?
L.K.: I don't think he was the end or the beginning of anything. Perhaps he was both? I think he fits in so well in the general procession of English letters. It's as if there was a key-place empty and he filled it. His mastery of the colloquial, his ear for the everyday supplied a lack in "serious" verse since Kipling. Yeats and Eliot were rather "poetic" and special, he brought rhetoric down to earth, adding a new elegance by a popular tone.
As a man, he had authority, for me, like no one else I ever knew in those matters which mattered most, literary or moral. I think the body and quality of his verse is superior to anyone writing in the century, including Yeats and Eliot. He was profligate of energy and wasn't limited by questions of "taste" or what was academically appropriate (or inappropriate). Prolixity was, I suppose, a problem, but that was an excess of energy and talent.
His professionalism on an enormous scale was also truly impressive. It made lesser gifts seem constipated, less informed, less curious, less imaginative, and less talented verbally. He had, as all great artists have, economy in usage: he took everything in like a massive food-processor, and the breadth of his interests made his ideas the more magisterial. His interest and knowledge of Christian theology kept his abstractions in a very superior order, not only about hair-splitting problems (it sometimes seemed as if for him theology was a kind of chess), but about ordinary behavior as well. His capacity for assimilation was monstrous, like an enormous appetite. Really awesome. That, combined with his electric capacity for thinking and feeling, made his judgements very fair, and for me, final.
Lincoln Kirstein's By With To & From: A Lincoln Kirstein Reader, edited by Nicholas Jenkins, was published last month in the United States by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
I was a second year undergraduate at Christ Church when I moved from my remote rooms above the Old Library to the splendour of first floor rooms in Peckwater Quad. It was the autumn of 1927 and Wystan Auden was already established in the rooms directly above mine, which were served by the same staircase. As a scholar, Auden was entitled to live in College for three years and was now starting on his third.
Wystan and I never became close friends but I saw a lot of him during the next nine months. In addition, two of my own closest Oxford friends, Sidney Newman, the organ scholar (later Professor of Music at Edinburgh) and Gabriel Carritt, a young English scholar, became close friends of Wystan as well. Wystan and I shared a great interest in music and I remember a party in his rooms at which I was induced to take part in a desperately amateur rendering of the famous duet for two basses from Handel's Israel in Egypt, "The Lord is a man of war".
Both our families lived in Birmingham and I found that my mother, who was an active and pioneering member of the Birmingham City Education Committee, knew Wystan's father, who was Medical Officer of Health to the Committee. In fact she had very little use for him. I remember her telling me about one of his annual reports in which he had commented on the decline in the standard of children's teeth. "What!" my mother had protested, "Now that we are providing free milk for them?" On this, Dr Auden explained that he was not comparing dental standards with the recent past but with teeth in Anglo-Saxon times!
Although Wystan seemed to be fond of his father and had absorbed from him his love of hill-walking and interest in geology, a visit to their house in Harborne soon confirmed that his mother was by far the dominant figure at home. I always assumed that her influence had contributed to Wystan's surprising return to the Church of England, although I don't remember discussing religion with him either at Oxford or later.
I don't think Wystan was particularly active in College pursuits, though no doubt he contributed to the Christ Church Essay Society, but in this he was not unusual. Those of us who were not active in sports tended to treat the College more as a convenient hotel than as a focus for social or political activities; we made many of our friends in other colleges through university societies rather than through the College J.C.R.
Wystan held, and expressed, strong individual views on many subjects - music, literature, politics, ethics, etc. - with great self-confidence, and by the time I met him he had already gained a reputation as some-one likely to make his mark in later life. There was considerable surprise, and some indignation, when he failed to get a first in final schools. However, it is worth noting that at that time the English School was rather looked down on by classicists and historians; it had the reputation of concentrating excessively on Anglo-Saxon and showing little interest in the analysis and appreciation, still less in the practice of writing whether in prose or verse.
I did not read much of Wystan's poetry as an undergraduate, but it was generally assumed by his friends that he would follow in the path pioneered by T.S. Eliot with its somewhat daunting practice of oblique references to other masterpieces, often written in foreign tongues, which needed an array of footnotes for full appreciation. Certainly it was felt that the Georgian poets' celebration of rural beauty and unspoiled nature had had its day and must now be supplanted by a whole-hearted acceptance of the modern world of science and engineering. I remember walking back to College with Wystan after a party one night; as we passed the Sheldonian Theatre he acclaimed, "How beautiful! Just like a dynamo!"
I always assumed that he had homosexual inclinations but I don't remember him insisting on this in the way that he seems to have done in later years. This is not altogether surprising since, in those pre-Wolfenden days, though one might and often did discuss freely the homosexual activities of others - I remember constant jokes about "the Merton College girls" - it was unusual, and dangerous, to parade one's own homosexual practices.
I saw nothing of Wystan while he was in Berlin and very little while he was teaching in boys' schools. I assumed, as did many of his acquaintances and admirers, that he was still a militant supporter of left-wing views, as he seemed to be at the time of the Spanish Civil War, and I was surprised and disappointed when he slipped away to America, apparently content to take no part in the struggle against Nazi Germany. The surprise was compounded when he re-appeared later in the uniform of an American army officer. However I never felt that his war-time record - or lack of it - unfitted him for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry.
After the war I re-established contact with Wystan in New York, and heard him give a poetry reading - very well attended and, according to him, quite well paid - in the YMHA building there. When I returned finally to settle in Oxford we were living in Gloucestershire and I made several attempts to get him over on a visit. But it appeared that this would involve an unbearable interruption in the routine to which he had accustomed himself and the plans came to nothing.
The word "steatopyga" was apparently coined by W.J. Burchell to describe a physical characteristic of the Hottentot race in his Travels in South Africa (1822). Derivations from it were used by Darwin in 1971 and thereafter by others including Aldous Huxley in Antic Hay (1923):
Gumbrill's Patent Small-Clothes . . . A comfort to all travellers, civilization's substitute for steatopygism, indispensable to first-nighters.
When Auden began his poem "Dame Kind" (1959) "Steatopygous, sow-dugged . . ." he probably owed a debt to Huxley either directly or - since he was an avid reader and occasional reviewer of detective stories - indirectly via W.C. Woodthorpe, whose The Public School Murder (1932) was reprinted as a Penguin in 1940:
"The moon-faced Settle owned up to the crime," reported Hambledon, "and, sir, I understand he was efficiently dealt with. The boy Settle is broad in the beam. Steatopygous - I thank you, Aldous Huxley, for teaching me that word. It must have given Mr. McIlwraith a sombre pleasure to operate on the lad."
Robert A. Wilson, in W.H. Auden: "The Map of All My Youth" recalls Auden's early experience of name-garbling:
one can imagine the anguish of the fifteen-year-old Auden when he opened a copy of Public School Verse for 1924, his first experience in anything more than a school magazine, only to find his name misspelled as "W.H. Arden".
In late 1932, when I was 16 and at Wellington College, I submitted an article on Auden's poetry to this same periodical, and it was duly published. Throughout, however, Auden's name appeared as "Anden". This must have been the fault of my handwriting but, all the same, I think, and certainly thought then, that this reflected on the Philistinism of conventional schoolmasters and printers. It was quite obvious that they had never heard of him.
The New York Public Library's "New in the Berg Collection: 1986-1990," which closed on 12th October, was an exhibition of books and papers recently acquired by the library's famous manuscript archive. There were interesting wine-stained and ink-spattered relics throughout the display, but among the most relevant to readers of this Newsletter was the path of fragile treasures laid out in one 40-foot long vitrine.
The materials there demonstrated that over the last five years the Berg's already extensive Auden holdings have continued to increase. Auden fans will be reassured to know, as well, that since the death in March 1990 of the then-curator, that notable Auden supporter Lola L. Szladits, the Berg, under its newly-appointed curator Francis O. Mattson (our congratulations to him!), has energetically maintained its policy of Auden acquisition.
The impact that this policy is having on Auden's canon was evident in the "new" final scene for The Dog Beneath the Skin (taken from a manuscript in the Berg), which Edward Mendelson published in his 1988 edition of Auden and Isherwood's Plays. It seems that tying things up on stage remained a problem for Auden, because a further example of the importance of the Berg's Auden papers will appear with the corrected ending to Paul Bunyan in Mendelson's edition of the Libretti, the first volume of which is now in the press. Again, the Berg supplied the manuscript. As the Collected Works proceeds into the terra incognita of Auden's prose, the extent of the collection's contribution is likely to become even clearer.
"New in the Berg" did offer a few hints of what is to come, though. Much of the emphasis in the Auden section was on writing for, to, and about other writers. There were selections from Auden's correspondence with Stephen Spender and Monroe K. Spears, an early notebook - used from April 1929 to March 1930 - , the Horizon typescript of "At the Grave of Henry James", a single delicate sheet of wartime airmail paper - it is an even longer poem in its original, magazine version than in the text printed in the 1945 Collected Poetry - , the manuscript of the recently-recovered The Queen's Masque (1943), which will be printed for the first time in the Libretti, heavily-scarred typescripts of the May 1957 Oxford lecture on Robert Frost and the October 1963 memorial address for Louis MacNeice, and Nicolas Nabokov's holograph score of Love's Labour's Lost (1973). The extent of the showing was all the more impressive for its being incomplete: there was no room for major arrivals like the Auden letters to Wendell S. Johnson.
One thing that did find a niche in the vitrine was a holograph fair copy of "In Praise of Limestone," pretty much word-for-word in its final form. Even so, a manuscript always has interesting knots and fissures that are lost when the handwriting is turned into print. Auden, with a great poet's sense of the malleability of language, sometimes made Joyceanly meaningful misspellings when he wrote out his poems. "Beaudelaire," a life-long error, is one example. There is another instance in a famous passage in the "In Praise of Limestone" holograph. Here the lines read: "The nude young male, who lounges / Against a rock displaying his dildoe".
The poem was probably written in Florence and Rome in May 1948 during Auden's first summer in Italy. From the fastidiousness of its subjunctive opening to its later ease with mild slang and the finesse of its historical and literary allusions, "In Praise of Limestone" is a very consciously sophisticated and urbane poem. But given that a mere three months later on Ischia Auden would, in a truly Olympian change of gear, be hard at work in the lexical underworld of "The Platonic Blow," the "dildoe" misspelling is an orthographic slip with an oddly innocent flavour. True, "dildoe" is listed in the OED as an alternative spelling to the more familiar "e"-less one, but no such citations are offered outside its use as a burden in Elizabethan ballads. A subdued, slightly anxious erotic mood links "In Praise of Limestone" to the sacramental fetishism of "The Platonic Blow." Perhaps "dildoe" is a recollection of the Earl of Rochester's usage? This is the spelling in the Nonesuch edition done by Auden's acquaintance John Hayward. In any case, the holograph directs us to look again at the artfully-withheld mysteries in this extraordinarily wry poem.
Elsewhere, there were a couple of interesting Auden-related exhibits. Open amongst the T. S. Eliot items was a presentation copy of Murder in the Cathedral (1935) signed in scrupulous telegraphese: "W. H. Auden | from | T. S. Eliot | 5.vi.35". Is the curtness anything to do with Eliot's debts to The Dance of Death and The Dog Beneath the Skin? If good poets "steal," then this reads like a dedication made in the presence of a lawyer.
The Berg was also showing an impressive run of black-and-white portrait photographs by the American novelist and man-about-town Carl Van Vechten. These included excellent shots from a session on 6th February 1939 with Isherwood and a very soigné, fluffy-looking Auden. It is one of the fairly uncommon photos in which Auden sits facing squarely into the camera lens. Why the friendly but appraising stare? (He reminds one of C. P. Curran's shot of Joyce in front of a greenhouse, when, Joyce said, he was wondering whether Curran would lend him five shillings.) 6th February was a Monday, just 11 days after Auden and Isherwood docked in New York harbour. W.B. Yeats had died on 28th January.
On Tuesday, 7th February, Auden, with a mixture of Schadenfreude and a dispassionate concern for accuracy, was to ask his American publisher Bennett Cerf at exactly what time of day the Irish poet had died. Next to a squirming Isherwood, Auden's confident smile in the Van Vechten pictures seems telling: he had just left behind a maddened and exhausted continent, and, almost simultaneously, the poetic hierarchy had broken open. Inevitably, the uncomplicated self-confidence did not last long, but his 6th February gaze is fascinating. This, incidentally, is one of the first sets of serious pictures to be taken of Auden and Isherwood in America. (Life took some snaps of him while he was on a visit to Thomas Mann in Princeton on 31st January.)
Finally, as a coda to the display of Auden trophies, the Berg put out one of Chester Kallman's notebooks. It probably dates from 1939 or 1940, and was opened to a page covered by the writhings of frustrated impulse: elaborately-doodled abstract patterns, tortured poetic squibs, and some rather cryptic remarks about Auden. One quatrain at the top of the page reads:
Upon the porch my inspiration ceases
But upstairs Wystan paces
Like a horse before it races
Intoning one by one his quickie masterpieces.
It's enough to make you believe in genius.
From the start, Auden believed that poetry should be read out loud. When Stanley Fisher encountered him as an undergraduate at Oxford and asked to see some of Auden's verse, instead of fetching, as Fisher had expected, a few manuscripts from his room, Auden "took his pipe out of his mouth, lifted his chin, and recited poems for nearly half an hour." That conviction about the importance of reciting verse stayed with him into his Glory Days. "Of the many definitions of poetry," he wrote in the introduction to The Poet's Tongue in 1935, "the simplest is still the best: `memorable speech'." "Memorable speech" is how one might describe the Auden reading held in New York City on April 4th. "A Tribute to W.H. Auden," jointly presented by the W. H. Auden Society, the National Arts Club, and the Poetry Society of America, brought together Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky, John Hollander (who was selected by Auden as the Yale Younger Poet in 1958), Paul Muldoon (author of "7 Middagh Street," a long poem about the inhabitants of the famous Brooklyn household), Mary Jo Salter, and Edward Mendelson (Auden's indefatigable executor) to read selections from Auden's work and to comment on his significance to them. The poet and critic J. D. McClatchy presided over the evening's events in the same elegant rooms of the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park where in February 1969 Auden himself had received the Club's highest honor, their Gold Medal.
In his witty and polished introduction, McClatchy offered recollections of an Auden reading at Yale in 1971, shortly before the poet left the United States. McClatchy recalled that the packed reading had the air of a valedictory to America. Afterwards he asked Auden to autograph his Collected Shorter Poems, to which, after looking the graduate student over, the elder poet replied: "turn around and bend over." As McClatchy explained after a pause, "he wanted to use my back as a desk. It wasn't until years later that I realized he's been writing on my back ever since."
Auden's spirit seemed to hover over the proceedings in the same way Elvis's is said to linger in Graceland. (Did I even overhear one person suggest there'd been a recent Auden sighting?) One liked to imagine him somewhere in the back, disheveled and in slippers, making rib-digging comments to Chester Kallman, as he stirred his cocktail with a pinky.
In his poem "On the Circuit," Auden recounts that he was always alert at such gatherings for something that might save the occasion: "a truly asinine remark, / A soul-bewitching face, / Or blessed encounter." All were in evidence this night. More than 100 people - "the healers and the brilliant talkers, / The eccentrics and the silent walkers, / The dumpy and the tall" - filled the boxy semi-circle of seats around the elevated lectern from which a large photo of the poet stared. It was not the visage of an "unmade bed" but the plain features of the early to early-middle Auden: "the face of a physician," Brodsky has written, "who is interested in your story though he knows you are ill." One sat opposite the picture with the unease of recognition.
On a tabletop in the woodpaneled lobby outside the grand gallery, where the reading was held, sat the initial copies of the fat new Vintage paperback edition of Auden's Collected Poems, in which Mendelson has finally had the opportunity to replace the impossible, eye-blinding type face of the 1976 first edition. (Readers now have the chance to see the fullness of Auden's genius - without squinting - for the first time.)
The "tribute" to Auden began with tributes by Aldon James of the National Arts Club, Nicholas Jenkins, co-founder of the Auden Society, and Elise Paschen, director of the Poetry Society of America, to those who had helped to make the evening possible but who couldn't be there to see it: Katherine Bucknell, another Auden Society co-founder, and John Fuller, next to Mendelson, the most influential and brilliant explicator of Auden's work alive today.
After McClatchy had reminisced, he yielded the podium to Hollander, who praised Auden as a cartographer of moral landscapes. In a voice as full of gravel as "the immoderate soils' spoken of in his last selection, "In Praise of Limestone," Hollander read affectingly from "Paysage Moralisé," "The Watershed," "The Fall of Rome," and some short songs.
Mary Jo Salter, who has recently returned from Iceland (what one British newspaper called "Scotland taken to its logical conclusion"), began with well-judged excerpts from Auden's "Letter to Lord Byron," composed by the poet after his journey to Iceland with Louis MacNeice in 1936. Like Byron, Auden was a "master of the airy manner," the quality Salter admitted most admiring in Auden's work. As he wrote in "Making, Knowing, and Judging," from which Salter also read, "Masterpieces should be kept for High Holidays of the Spirit." Here Salter concentrated effectively on prose for every day of the year, selecting morsels from Auden's table-talk on the process writing found in The Dyer's Hand. She concurred with the one principle to which poet and the peasant, according to Auden, subscribe, namely: "among the half dozen or so thing for which a man of honor should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least."
Finding a way in which Auden's life did not bear on Edward Mendelson's would be easier than explaining exactly how it has. With the intensity and personal seriousness of a preacher speaking to his flock, Mendelson read with great conviction from "The Sea and the Mirror," Auden's long meditation on Shakespeare's The Tempest. His dramatic and heartfelt recitation served to underscore Auden's ability to give palpable forms to moral abstractions.
Paul Muldoon's voice was the most subtly melodious of the night. (One woman in the back, straining to catch every lilt of the circumlocutory "Musée des Beaux Arts" asked him if he couldn't speak up.) A master performer as well as poet, Muldoon's rendition of "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" gave Auden's lines the appropriate Irish cadence of the poem's subject.
Joseph Brodsky, who silently mouthed the words of the previous readers by heart as they spoke, was the last on. In a swelling solemn secco recitative, he intoned the verses of "The Shield of Achilles" and "A Walk After Dark." The mood was elegiac as he spoke: "The truth cannot be hid; / Somebody chose their pain, / What needn't have happened did." In addition to these two poems, he added a third, "Some say that love's a little boy...," not included in the program. The last to read was Auden himself, his booming voice reciting the grave verses of "As I Walked Out One Evening" from the dark speakers of a boom box. (One wonders what he would have made of this technological defeat of Time.)
When Auden traveled "on the circuit" in the 1960s, he carried his own bottle of booze just in case the reading hall he visited had the misfortune of being in a county that was "dry." The thought that occupied his mind as his plane would descend to each new location was "what will there be to drink?" No doubt, then, he would have been pleased by the way the tribute to his works ended: everyone retired to the front lounge for cocktails and hors d'oeuvres - and, best of all, gossip. Here is where one learned at least five different versions of who read the best and who the read worst. Who appeared with whom. And why. What Auden himself might have said, had he been there. (Everyone agreed the evening had been a great success.) But like all gossip, such comments are best spread by word of mouth. You won't learn such details here.
Sara Mosle writes the weekly "Paperbacks" column for New York Newsday. She reviewed Auden's Plays 1928-1938 for The New Republic.
W.H. Auden, Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson. Faber and Faber, £25.00, August 1991. The redesigned and reset text already published in the U.S., described in Newsletter No. 6. Hardback only.
Alan Ansen, The Table Talk of W. H. Auden, ed. Nicholas Jenkins with an Introduction by Richard Howard. Faber and Faber, £9.99, August 1991. Reviewed in Newsletter No. 5 and now available in U.K. as a paperback original.
Benjamin Britten, Letters from a Life 1923-1945, ed. Donald Mitchell and Philip Reed, Faber and Faber, £75.00. Includes numerous references to Auden. To be reviewed in the next Newsletter.
Christopher Headington, Peter Pears: A Biography, Faber and Faber, £17.50, October 1991.
Stephen Spender, World Within World, Faber and Faber, £6.99, August 1991. Paperback reissue of Spender's autobiography.
Peter McDonald, Louis MacNeice: The Poet in His Contexts, OUP, £30.00. To be reviewed in a later Newsletter.
Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr: Letters of Reinhold and Ursula M. Niebuhr, ed. Ursula M. Niebuhr, HarperSanFrancisco, $29.95. Contains letters from Auden to the Niebuhrs.
A Christian Ought to Write in Prose. BBC Radio 3, 6 September 1991. This broadcast documentary will be reviewed in the next Newsletter.
The W.H. Auden Society welcomes new members. Annual subscriptions are as follows:
Concessions (students, unemployed, etc.) £3 $5
Individuals £6 $10
Institutions £8 $12
New members and members wishing to renew subscriptions should send cheques (payable to The W.H. Auden Society) to Katherine Bucknell, 78 Clarendon Road, London W11 2HW, England. Receipts on request.
The Editor would like to apologize for the late appearance of this Newsletter. This was due to technical difficulties. The next Newsletter will appear at the end of the year.
I would be pleased to receive any articles or items for inclusion in future Newsletters.
Editor: Kathleen Bell, 37 Redwood Crescent,
Beeston, Nottingham NG9 1JF, England.
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