At 45, Humphrey Carpenter is one of Britain's best-known biographers. After spending much of his early career in radio, he became a freelance writer in 1975 and his publications since then include J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (1977), The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Their Friends (1978), Jesus (1980), and A Serious Character: The Life of Ezra Pound (1988). His new book, Benjamin Britten: A Biography, appears from Faber and Faber in October. Carpenter will be familiar to readers of the Auden Newsletter for his W. H. Auden: A Biography (1981), which has recently been reissued in paperback by Oxford University Press. Katherine Bucknell talked about the book with its author.
Katherine Bucknell: How did you come to write the Auden biography?
Humphrey Carpenter: When I finished The Inklings, Rayner Unwin, then head of Allen & Unwin, said, `You are quite good at this group biography thing, why not try the Auden group?' As a matter of fact I had studiously avoided Auden. He had come back to Oxford when I was working there in 1972, but I never set eyes on him and I hadn't read any of his poetry really. I knew The Dog Beneath the Skin-that for some reason had been around on my shelf for some time-but that was the sum total of my knowledge of Auden. Rayner suggested the Auden bunch so I went off and looked and of course came slap up against Sam Hynes's book. I thought, Ah-ha, clearly the Auden generation is done-I think it's a very good book as far as it goes, but I looked at it a little wistfully thinking that I could have written something about the Auden gang on a more biographical and less critical level, and I still think somebody could-, but I thought, Let's have a look at the possibility of Auden himself, solo. Somebody in Oxford gave me two leads: one was E. R. Dodds, the professor of Greek and a lifelong friend of Auden's, who was still around, and the other one was his literary executor, Edward Mendelson.
I wrote to them both at once, and I got a very quick reply from Dodds who was still living in Oxford. I went to see him and told him I was looking at the possibility of writing an Auden biography and would he help me. And he said, Well, he had got a lot of letters and he would think very carefully about it, but on the whole he felt he would. And he started to show me some letters. At this point I got a letter from Mendelson, trying to discourage me firmly from writing an Auden biography.
There was a very sticky moment. The really bad bit came when Dodds had said, `Yes, I will help you; you can have the letters,' and I said, `Look, I have to tell you that I've now got a letter from Mendelson saying, "Don't write this book." ` And I showed Dodds the letter because I felt it'd be no good being at all underhand. And he said, `Oh, dear, well this does complicate things. Give me a week to think about it.' So I went away and had rather a bad week because I realized it all rather did stand or fall on the Dodds stuff. I think I felt that if Dodds said Yes, then a lot of other friends probably would too. He had got this massive collection of Auden's juvenilia, in manuscript, and a lot of vital letters. I didn't know what other book I was going to write because I hadn't got any sort of literary career planned; I was a broadcaster who'd launched into a completely different field.
I came back a week later, bicycling with my ancient portable typewriter balanced on the handlebars in the hopes that I might be able to get to work that day, and I knew it was all right when I arrived, because there was a pile of letters on the desk. Dodds said `Well, I have thought about this very carefully. I am not happy at the idea of encouraging you to do something that Mendelson doesn't want, because he's Auden's executor and really one should abide by his decision, but I'm a very old man, I will die very shortly'-and indeed he did a matter of months later-'and since I have bequeathed all my letters to the Bodleian when I die, these letters will soon be in the Bodleian and you'll be able to read them then, so there's not much point in my delaying you.' He said, `Get on with them,' and he left the room. I opened the first, and they weren't from Auden at all; they were from Louis MacNeice. He'd given me the wrong letters because he himself was MacNeice's literary executor at that point and-he was an old man-he had simply got them confused. So I had to go and knock on his study door and say `Excuse me, I've got the wrong letters!' There was a moment when I thought, `Shall I write MacNeice's life instead?'
So I began, and for a few days it was just going to Dodds's house and working on these wonderful letters from Auden to Dodds and his wife, and on the juvenilia. (Not long afterwards, when Dodds was dead, his executor asked me to help clear out the house; so I had the extraordinary task of having to take Auden's letters and the juvenilia to the Bodleian on behalf of Dodds, and handing them over in person!)
Thanks to Dodds's approval, other people began to help me. Meanwhile Mendelson wrote to me that he'd been led to believe originally that Charles Osborne's book was going to be a series of essays, but that he now discovered that it was going to be a full biography and he'd been put in the position that he was going to have to allow some quotation and generally tolerate that book, and he said he felt he couldn't do that to Osborne and not to me. I then met him for the first time; I went over in the spring of `79 and did my research at the Berg Collection in New York, but also went up to New Haven and met Edward, and we clicked. He was supposed to be lecturing, and he spent the entire day running from where he was teaching to where I was and feeding me with more and more material and pumping me with information and advice. And from there on he became a kind of contributor-collaborator, and he just kept feeding me stuff-wonderful! We had this sticky start, but that was probably inevitable because any literary executor needs to be very careful and wary.
KB: You've written so many books since the Auden biography. If you were sitting down to do it today, what would you do differently?
HC: Well, the first thing I'd do would be to rush round and interview all the surviving friends of Auden on tape, and after all there are quite a few less now than there were then. I cannot conceive in what frame of mind I never recorded John Auden on tape. I have never recorded Gabriel Carritt. I think I didn't do it then because I was partly trying to differentiate myself from what had been my job before. I had worked for the BBC; I'd been doing interviews all the time. Also, of course a lot of it is about getting people to have confidence in you and not be nervous, and I felt the tape recorder could be off-putting. I don't feel that now. In fact, I got the most candid disclosures on tape during the Benjamin Britten book. People aren't put off, and if you're going to put the thing in print it's better to have it on tape to protect yourself against possible legal consequences. I found with the Britten book that an awful lot of nuance in people's reminiscences, their turns of phrase, can't be captured without a recording.
The Auden book feels like a part of my past. (I hope it's a good deal of Auden's past, too.) And actually, I can't now imagine doing it any differently. The thing that really remains strongly in memory was that one very quickly acquired Auden's friends as one's own friends at the time of doing the book. That does tend to happen quite often, but it happened to me more strikingly with Auden than with anybody else, and one's immediate thought was that this man must have been a hell of a nice character because he had such nice friends, the Sterns for instance.
The book is probably all right as far as it goes; I mean, enough people have said so for me almost to believe it now. But it doesn't go very far. It's a record of the superficialities of Auden's life. It's a chronicle of what he did, with some very limited attempts to interpret the poetry. I wouldn't, I don't think, want to make it more of a literary-critical biography, but I think that I ought to have probably asked more questions about the layers of his character. I've taken him very much at his own valuation of himself, his own view of himself-his own explanations of his sexuality and his enormous resilience. I quote him at the end of the book saying something along the lines of, `I have never felt suicidal, I have never had one day where I didn't feel life was all right.' I don't believe that now. If he did think that, he was deluding himself. The blow of the failure to make a go of the relationship with Chester Kallman was, I think, enormous, and I think anything else after that is a kind of squeal of pain. But in those days I was just so grateful to be able to untangle the story. Probably it was right to stop there. I'm surprised nobody has written another Auden since, actually, given how many `re-think' biographies there are-for example, Isherwood Number Three is on its way.
KB: Do you mean that you would be psychologically less accepting today?
HC: I think I'd be more questioning than I was.
KB: What do you think of Freud, or that kind of approach to things?
HC: Well, we are writing in a post-Freudian era. I always check my psychologizing with Anthony Storr, who lives up the road. With Britten it was important because there's some evidence that he may have been sexually assaulted in childhood and that might have affected his sexual orientation, and Storr was a great help. I'm surprised that biographers don't consult psychologists a little bit more. Ezra Pound was very puzzling because he did after all apparently go barmy, and he was in the bin for 13 years. Storr was an enormous help over that; at the same time psychology is still a curious kind of fumbling about in the dark, and biography is, after all, often used by psychologists in their writings for examples of behaviour patterns. We help each other.
KB: Do you feel that you were at ease enough in the homosexual world to see what might have driven Auden and what his emotional makeup really was?
HC: In other words, would I have had more insight if I'd been gay myself?
KB: Well, you could ask that question.
HC: I don't know. My children ask, Why is everybody you write about gay? The answer is that an awful lot of interesting people are gay. I think biography is always a curious mixture of outsider and insider. I've never belonged to the school that believes in sleeping in the subject's bed, and wearing the subject's clothes, and trying to live their life, and trying to be them. I got a little bit inclined that way when writing about C. S. Lewis, who's a very infectious character, and I started to do impersonations of Lewis, I'm told, in my conversation! But the hardest things to write about are the ones that you already know very well. I'm finding Robert Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, whose life I'm now writing, quite difficult, because it's about a Church of England clergyman and my father was a Church of England clergyman. I'm having to look for all the things that seem foreign and different to me. A lack of questioning tends to creep in if you've got a strong affinity, especially perhaps in sexuality. I would have thought the fact that I didn't know Auden, didn't know any Auden poetry at the outset, and wasn't a committed Audenite might have seemed odd. But, again, if a book is going to be any good it's got to be a piece of self-education by the writer; you've got to be making your own journey of discovery. I certainly find it much harder to write reviews of books where I'm already reasonably well-read in the subject. I find a book about Auden is very hard to review, a book about Benjamin Britten is almost impossible at the moment because one's head is sort of buzzing too much with the stuff. And I have seen plenty of people getting completely stuck writing a biography because they know too much, because they actually knew the person well, or knew their world. I think if you come as a complete outsider, you've got probably as much advantage as disadvantage.
KB: Do you think there's an extent to which reverence for a person who's still alive or only recently dead stops you from having those most objective or probing insights?
HC: Obviously it frequently does. It astonishes me how often biographies aren't really questioning. I think with Auden I probably was too hesitant about that because I was going into quite a formidable world. But I really didn't take on board quite how important Auden was until the reviews of my book came out. I was just astonished at the high-calibre reviewers who were commenting on it. At that point the penny dropped. Oddly, when you are writing a biography, you feel it's your own world. You feel the person you're writing about is almost your own invention at the time, and you're surprised that he actually had an objective existence.
KB: When you sat down to write the book in fact you didn't really know the poetry at all. Did writing it help you to know the poetry better?
HC: Yes, I learnt the poetry during the book. Even so, I didn't really get to grips with the later stuff. I did fail on that point. I simply didn't tune into it enough. The early poetry I don't think I've done anything like enough justice to, but it's become part of my landscape.
It's been an extraordinary experience doing the Britten book and coming back to Auden again and seeing him from quite a different perspective, as both slightly dottier and at the same time still more impressive. There was all the Uncle Wiz fostering of Britten, and he really had the most enormous influence on Britten from beginning to end, from the day they met until the day Britten died. The famous January 1942 letter from Auden to Britten, when he was about to go back to England, about bohemianism versus bourgeois convention-that is the text for the remainder of Britten's life. It's even the text for Britten's life before that point. It's astonishingly accurate, a summing-up of Britten's predicament and what he's going to write about. The letter says all artists are poised between bohemianism on one side and bourgeois convention on the other, and you've got to have a perfect balance; it says to Britten, You are much too attracted to the bourgeois convention, in particular you are drawn to the `warm nest of love' (that is Auden's phrase) offered by Peter Pears and by Elizabeth Mayer, and if you are going to reach your full stature as an artist you've got to learn to say `God, I'm a shit'; you've got to learn to suffer and to make others suffer in ways which will seem totally foreign to you. Britten appears not to have taken it in, but if you look at everything he writes afterwards, it obviously engraved itself into him. In Peter Grimes, you begin essentially with Grimes as the kind of artist unaffected by this sort of conflict; he's pure nature, he comes out of the sea at the beginning of the opera, he's natural man; he's apparently guiltless of the deaths of these boys before the opera begins; but as the opera goes on it becomes a struggle between Ellen Orford, who offers him a kind of bourgeois security by marrying her and becoming an accepted member of the Borough society, and Grimes's obvious own dark side. That is what he opts for when he strikes her and rejects her and goes off with the boy to the hut, where there is this mysterious scene, in which nothing actually happens, that ends with this appalling death of the boy and fall in every sense of the word. It seems to me that the whole thing is a parable about what might have happened to Britten if he had followed Auden's instructions and taken the dangerous path.
KB: What do you think that letter shows-I mean Auden being able to write such a letter at that particular time?
HC: Well, he'd had a huge influence on Britten already in the seven years in which they'd known each other. He'd got Britten politically oriented to the Left, firmly, which Britten had only been sort of uncertainly before that. He got him to be a pacifist; I don't think Britten was a pacifist till he got into Auden's sphere. He doesn't call himself a pacifist until Auden has decided that he himself is a pacifist in The Prolific and the Devourer in the summer of 1939. Britten's letters read like parrotting Auden at that period. Obviously most importantly of all, he got Britten out sexually. He decided that Britten was gay and must come to terms with this. And Britten's mother conveniently died, making it possible for Auden to take him over. In America, Britten was firmly under Auden's thumb from the point at which Britten and Pears went to live with the Mayers, which was when war broke out in September `39, and Auden was in New York and they were in Long Island.
KB: Do you think that Auden saw Britten at that stage as a kind of younger alter ego that he was trying to shape in some direction that had something to do with himself?
HC: I think he'd found what he'd been looking for in a sense all along-you know this thing about the gang and getting his own gang together, and suddenly here was an absolutely brilliant individual who was clearly `the composer' of that generation in a way that Isherwood was not `the novelist' and Spender was not `the other poet' and Robert Medley was not `the painter,' but Britten was `the composer'. The last British composer, young composer, to be any good was Walton, and Walton was already fading. It seemed he was only going to write bombast by this time. So Auden jumped in with both feet. Britten was both a genius in his own field and completely naive in every other; he could be led by the nose. So here was a wonderful chance to create an even greater artist out of this slip of a thing who could produce this brilliant music. I think it was no more than that. It was quite unselfish. I don't think it was about alter egos, or anything like that. The Pygmalion thing was very important to Auden. He'd wanted perhaps to do this all along.
Pears got Britten away to America in order to get him away from Lennox Berkeley, with whom there'd been a close relationship-a rival to Pears. Auden was then even more around in America, and it's very definitely Pears who makes the decision that they had to return to England, or at least it's not Britten; Britten makes no decisions for himself at all. From the moment at which they set sail in `42, that's the end of Auden's chances. And several people have said they felt very much that Pears did get him and thereafter never gave anybody else a chance; hence, all this fending-off of Auden later on which is not Britten actually, I don't think. This is debatable; I mean there are some who say that Pears is the eminence grise behind Britten, giving strength, while there are others who say that in the end he's under Britten's thumb. I think it's a sort of double thing: actually in the end Britten is in charge, but Britten wanted a Mummy figure to tell him what to do, he got Pears to do it for him, and that included keeping Wystan out of the way, because Wystan was a bully and didn't coincide with Peter's plans for Ben and so on and so on.
KB: And so that, you'd say, is the reason for the bust up?
HC: Yes. It wasn't that much of a bust up; in real terms, they communicated for quite a long time. Auden called on them when he was in England, and did his usual `I'm the greatest' act on the way through to Germany in `45, and annoyed them as much as everybody else. Then he came up to Tanglewood to see Peter Grimes in `46 when Leonard Bernstein conducted the Koussevitzky production, and he shared a bedroom with Britten and annoyed him by smoking in bed. But he was invited to Aldeburgh as late as the summer of `53; Britten's Gloriana was on-the coronation opera-and Auden actually came and lectured at Aldeburgh, but complained that he wasn't really allowed to see Britten properly, and that really was the end. Spender says that whenever Auden was staying with them after that, Britten would accept an invitation to supper and then back out at the last minute.
KB: Let me ask you about something completely different. Auden told Monroe Spears that he thought of his work as forming a whole, as being an expression of a single evolving viewpoint. But a lot of people in reading your book seem to have been surprised by the impression you gave of Auden's mind as having a feckless, promiscuous, jackdaw quality. Was that something that you intended to convey?
HC: Yes, I did want to convey that. But I think poets probably are much more like that than they would like us to think. Is it him or is it Ezra Pound who says something about the reason for writing poetry rather than prose? You don't want to argue a case if you're writing poetry. The lyric impulse is something quite different. It is extraordinary the fuel that he put in, like that bit from Anthony Collett's book on The Changing Face of England that comes out in the Prologue to The Dog Beneath the Skin-something that's just taken his fancy, a sort of bright glittering object. And I think that was true with all the ideas, the various ideologies he went through, whizzed through in the 1930s. I think he's somebody with an extraordinary, extraordinary lyric gift! I'm still amazed by it. I don't think there's ever been a better actual poet, a man who could turn out something that just glows like that. But in a sense that's all it does, and you've then got to give it platforms and ideas and programmes. But somebody who can do that is not the sort of person who then goes and looks for an ordered scheme and follows it right through. I was never particularly impressed by Auden the arguer, the professor, the teacher of poetry, the Eng. Lit. critic. When there are insights, they're wonderful mad insights. A bit like the first lines of his poems.
KB: You don't see a sort of a synthesizing mind that ultimately is achieving some kind of unity?
HC: Well, you've got the bullying, dominating element which wants to say `I know the answer to everything,' which makes him believe he's synthesizing things, but I don't think he is at all. I thought Alan Ansen's Table Talk book was terribly good because all that came across. I know that Ansen obviously hasn't written down an awful lot of what was said, but I think probably the rather disjointed nature of the conversation is probably the way it was. Things aren't argued through, and I suspect that was essentially what his mind was like. Everything was in aperçus and epigrams.
KB: When you were working on the book, were you just assembling information chronologically and seeing a story line emerge?
HC: That's right. That's what I always do. It's easier when somebody hasn't written a biography already and you're not following a well-trodden path. That's all I ever do. I begin at the beginning and go on till I get to the end, and try to see what story line is emerging naturally rather than imposing anything on it. Nowadays I tend to write the books as I go along; perhaps that increases that effect. In those days I was very carefully assembling all the material and not writing a word until the end of research.
KB: So you don't have a governing idea about a person and try and work to that?
HC: I try not to because with a biography, after all, your job is supposed to be writing down what happened. Of course, you are very much under the influence of your own interpretation of things. Let's take Britten, which is easier for me to talk about because it's fresher in my mind.
The great mystery with Britten is what the operas are about-because they don't make much sense in themselves. In Peter Grimes it's not clear what's happening. Is this character villainous? Has he murdered children? If he's murdered them, why has he murdered them? Why is he a tragic hero? Britten himself was puzzled by this when he was writing the opera. His letters virtually say that. Well, the answers can be found in the music I think, but you have to have certain assumptions, and I believe there is a very, very dark violent streak in him which he may scarcely have realized was there. If he did, then he kind of sat on it. But it was pushing the lid up the whole time and that forces a tremendous pressure in the music which is the source of its dramatic power. I believe that very strongly.
Every biography I write is an argument against an existing viewpoint. With Tolkien, my first, it was a deliberate attack on the hero worship of the fans; I tried to portray a rather depressive Oxford professor who tended to forget to buy the fish, but also was prey to terrible depressions and religious guilt. With C. S. Lewis and The Inklings, I was trying to desanctify this man who had been made by a number of people into a latter-day saint, and trying to show the feet of clay, though at the same time admiring many aspects. With Auden, I think I was trying to do exactly what you said, which was to argue against his view of himself as a great thinker with an overall scheme, a synthesis, a plan, and to show that here was somebody with extraordinary openness to the most bizarre collection of ideas and enthusiasms, but that this didn't matter because it created wonderfully enriched poetry.
KB: I think of that idea about the series of ideologies you present-that Auden was always looking for something to base the poetry on-and I'm interested in what you said before about never really getting to grips with the later poetry. Are we all like that because we aren't really Christians anymore?
HC: Yes, I think it was largely the Christianity. It still seems to me a rather complacent form of Christianity. I was puzzled as to how he synthesized the Christianity with the sex life. I know much more about that now. People do. Why shouldn't they? And I think also I hadn't taken in the extent to which the grubby sex life-the male tarts and so on-was faute de mieux; it wasn't really what he wanted, but it was also a kind of self-denigration, a kind of self-destructive thing, and rather tragic in a way. But the complacency did irritate me, and I didn't get under the skin of that. It's not just the change of ideas. I find Ischia, Kirchstetten, and the `minor Atlantic Goethe' bit very tedious after the extraordinary sparks of the thirties. In every way I always find the thirties utterly seductive; anything in the arts in that period excites me.
KB: Do you think it's necessary to be a good man to be a great artist?
HC: No. I sometimes think it must be necessary to be a bad man. Auden is unusual in that he was good, apparently. This again struck me with Britten, who was living on the dangerous edge of people's feelings; he caused a lot of pain unnecessarily in the later years-not through deliberate cruelty, but through an inability not to be cruel to people. He's a very dark character. I never felt that with Auden. The only monstrous side to Auden is the awful domestic life, the peeing in the sink.
KB: What do you think the limitations or the advantages are of biography in general, for trying to understand a writer's work?
HC: It would be nice to think that biography wasn't necessary for understanding the work. Ideally it operates in a completely different sphere. I don't think anybody really needs to know about Auden's life in order to enjoy the poetry. I hope not. I think a biography is much more a piece of polemic in its own right. It's hard to say quite what the polemic was with Auden. With Britten, I'm trying to say, Look, here is this very, very English character, this person who made great art out of being buttoned-up, but look how buttoned-up he really is and look how representative he is of his own culture, and what an extraordinary and rather horrific culture we live in. That is really nothing to do with providing a commentary on Britten's music.
I'm not looking forward to Andrew Motion's Larkin book-I am of course, hugely, I'll read every word of it, I can't wait for it-but Larkin will be changed forever by that book, which is going to be pretty gruesome, and that's a pity. I liked the old Larkin, the unbiographised Larkin. I think with Auden there was less damage done than there might have been. I think Auden survived fairly unimpaired-I hope so-from what I did to him. At the same time, it's pretty daft trying to understand a writer without wanting to know about his or her life. It's an enigma. You're back to Auden himself saying that biography's rubbish, and then reading as much of it as he possibly could.
KB: What will your next book be after the Britten biography?
HC: I was asked by Robert Runcie just before he retired to write his official biography as Archbishop, which is a very odd situation because people don't normally ask other people to write their biographies. I've started to go round his childhood haunts with him, and you have the odd experience of being able to put the questions that you normally put to the surviving friends and relatives to your subject himself. It's much more like ghosting an autobiography at the moment, we're finding things out together, and I in a sense have now influenced Runcie in what he thinks about his own childhood, so it's a dangerous thing. The book will also be about what has happened recently and is still happening in the Church of England-the enormous conflict over the ordination of women, the Terry Waite business, the suicide of Gary Bennett. But it's also partly a book about the nature of biography.
A book I want to do, one day-doing Britten gave me the idea-is a study of the effect of the English educational system on the English character, the public schools, the prep schools, the sexualities, and the violence and everything else, and the terrible enclosed atmosphere. It's the kind of book publishers will never take on because they can't see it's commercial. The thing to do would be to fill it with scandalous revelations, made by the people concerned. You could do lots of oral history stuff which would give it sufficient lurid coverage to get the serious points across. But I expect something else will crop up and I'll never write it! I've learnt not to try to plan too far ahead.
In the American Phase there was a deep Nannification.
Auden's language became increasingly childish.
Isn't there a poem addressed to a woman
in which he says `You and I have bottoms of different shapes'?
Or words to that effect ....
In fact, every poet is a product. We have an expectation.
One is fierce, one is cissy, one is mildish.
It's certain we had expectations of Auden.
We don't like poets who fool about. No one escapes.
We all, like England, expect.
One lives by gay rhetoric, one by entropy with animals,
one is a `war poet', one has `secret narrative'-
whatever it is, we expect it; and any sudden
change is never thought of as a change for the better.
We don't like it much.
We don't want the missionaries to turn into cannibals.
If he's a tonic he must stay restorative;
the hermetic bard must always stay hidden.
It's bad form, like suddenly not using a French letter,
to come out of the hutch
(or out of the sophisticated hat of the evening-dressed conjurer)
a completely different and altered rabbit
from the one that went in. We harden
our attitudes, they set firm as amateur toffee.
define the poets-'Not waving but drowning', etcetera -
a despair in four words. Like hypochondriacs of habit,
we know that `Phyllosan Fortifies The Over-Forties'. Garden
gnomes stand around us like idols. We drink tea or coffee
and watch our Wogans ...
knowing that each poet is a very separate package
and comes in one form, always, and standard.
It's nice for the poets too, not to stand like a lemon
unrecognised. Their worth is known, you might consider,
some are light, some are heavy,
some masculine, some feminine, they have tenure, socage
or status (you might say) for their services rendered.
They're brand names, idiosyncratic and human,
they're not sold as a job lot to the highest bidder
like slaves, in a bevy.
Gavin Ewart himself began as a `Thirties poet.' He first published in New Verse in 1933, and in 1934 Stephen Spender introduced him to Auden. His most recent book is Collected Poems 1980-90.
`My two ambitions are to get into a history of English prosody and into the OED-have them cite me for new words not yet received. It's a shame I can't write lines backward as they could in inflected Icelandic.'
The Table Talk of W. H. Auden (1989)
Apart from pleasure or solace, Auden felt the renovation, extension, and promotion of his given language was the primary, permanent responsibility of the professional versifier. Traditional verbal constraints, imposed by academies or habit, were to be challenged by the thrust of argot, lingo, and slang. He ransacked massive volumes of thesaurus and dictionary to dredge a rich haul towards opulent precision. Yet he disdained any captious invention of self-made words while appropriating familiar novelties from Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll whose innovations had long been canonized. He was to become, as he wished, a master of English prosody, along with Milton, Hopkins, Kipling, and Bridges. It is sometimes overlooked that he was also one of the most evangelically energetic explorers of an adventurous diction and nomenclature. His transmutations of syntax are acrobatic and virtuosic, comparable or parallel to the intrusion of the dodecaphonic scale in 20th-century musical composition. But while in this, melody was abandoned, Auden's resonant alliteration continually amuses and delights the ear. What may at first read as questionable eccentricity usually embodies rational transposition in essential logic, towards amplifying or intensifying meaning, rendering more deep, level, and transparent his severe intent.
Already in Paid on Both Sides, his `Charade' of 1928, we find a confident employment of personal manner:
this pretty lisping time; the asking breath; to scamper after darlings; the following wind; the soon-arriving day: the tugged-at teat
Throughout shorter verse following into the early and later Thirties, a reiterated practice developed:
Invading Always, exploring Never; a hawk's vertical stooping; arm-pit secrecy; sessile hush; constellated at reserved tables
Already in his earlier verse which seems always more than mere apprenticeship, Auden expanded a received lexicon, yet it is with The Age of Anxiety (1944-46) that innovative structurings in broad and constant exploration begin. By 1952, there are aggressive justifications of an exploded or fragmented vernacular. One might propose precedents or parallels from e. e. cummings, themselves prompted by Mallarmé or Apollinaire, although there the syllabic relocations are frankly more visually strident and expressive, depending more on typographic re-patterning than in Auden's own lexicographic inversions for a more or less conventional use of word-order. Auden's style was that of a serious instructor rather than a genial gamester, neither trivial nor tricky. There are few jokes or puzzles. It was all part of Cocteau's crusade for a `rehabilitation of the common-place,' a dialectic of oppositions, of which the most famous visual example is Salvador Dalí's confrontations of stiff-softness in his limp chronometers. cummings felt no need to ransack dictionary or thesaurus; his bent was towards ironic or sentimental lyricism. Auden is primarily philosophic, preoccupied with a concatenation of ideas.
Bred in the discipline of science, an amateur of engineering and mining, Auden glorified an agreed sonority of specifics:
Moraine, pot, oxbow, glint, sink, crater, piedmont, dimple...?
Just reeling off their names is ever so comfy.
And sure enough, `comfy' would sting and irritate over-sensitive readers as tastelessly arch or coy, a crumb in the nursery-bed of an emigrated Brit. He anticipated the risks of such provocation which presumed poetic good-manners that could be made shamelessly un-comfortable:
A sentence uttered makes a world appear
Where all things happen as it says they do;
We doubt the speaker, not the tongue we hear:
Words have no words for words that are not true.
Syntactically, though, it must be clear;
One cannot change the subject half-way through,
Nor alter tenses to appease the ear:
Arcadian tales are hard-luck stories too.
Auden spoke both German and Italian with something approaching proficiency. He at least knew, and could communicate, in French, although for him there was less occasion to speak it. In talking with Alan Ansen in 1947, he confessed: `I like to write out long speeches in French and use outrageous but permissible words like "se tartuffiser".'
Envy we must those bards who compose in Italian or German:
apposite Feminine Rhymes give them no bother at all.
We, though, thanks to a Tongue deprived of so many inflexions,
can very easily turn Nouns, if we wish, into Verbs.
He could, and would also, with cavalier dexterity turn adjectives into verbs and verbs into nouns. This never licensed any indiscriminate permissiveness:
...where should an austere philologist
Relax but in the very world of shade
From which the matter of his field was made.
Old sounds re-educate an ear grown coarse,
As Pan's green father suddenly raps out
A burst of indecipherable Morse,
And cuckoos mock in Welsh, and doves create
In rustic English over all they do
To rear their modern family of two.
Ever since Kipling, Pound, and Eliot, the arcane vernacular of a post-industrial metropolitan working-class has been warped efficiently into the voice of verse. However, in its manner there has also appeared a certain shyness or lack of genuine forthrightness, a class-conscious ineptness where slang is handled in an inauthentic tone, by Masefield, Robert Service (Rhymes of a Red Cross Man), and other poets of the First World War, and even, at times, Eliot-'when Lil's husband got demobbed, I said.' His helpless snobbery, de haut en bas, seemed to confess there were locutions too hot to handle. Auden, however, always speaks as a familiar citizen of whatever world he happens to inhabit, bar-room, battlefield, or brothel. Wherever he chose to drink or chat or vote, tang and sense are taken-for-granted. His casualness was as easy as gossip between himself and his readers, his pals, chums, or buddies.
Ever since observation taught me temptation
Is a matter of timing, I've tried
To clothe my fiction in up-to-date diction,
The contemporary jargon of Pride.
`Song of the Devil' (1963)
In addition to ubiquitous control of polyglot speech-'I'm not an American; I'm a New Yorker' -, he was profligate with terms from omnivorous science which may require research into many a plump dictionary. Patience is required by the truly inquisitive reader, but here precision is seldom strained. More often than not one gains from his penetrating exactness.
as Adams, Eves, commanded
to nonesuch being,
answer the One for Whom all
are super-posable, yet
Who numbers each particle
by its Proper Name.
The ready insertion of Italian words consists mainly of familiar directives in musical scoring. His French is from the more common tourist tags or syllabus of collegiate French Lit. There are also cosy borrowings from Brooklyn Yiddish, Madison Avenue advertising, and the fastidious timbre and tonality of camp or gay palaver.
In a fairly conscientious tabulation through nearly 1,000 pages of Professor Edward Mendelson's 1991 edition of Collected Poems, one may find, on average, some half-dozen examples of Auden's idiosyncratic harvesting for every single page, although this practice augments from his American years. To demonstrate the lavish exercise of so athletic a hankering, there follows a very few examples in their several categories: `Onomatopoeia'; `Slang'; `Scientific'; `Foreign Languages'; `Nouns as Verbs'; `Verbs as Nouns'; and `Odd.'
faffling; baltering; soodling; sossing; rundle; tiddle; scuttering; drumbles; scaddle; glop; guddling; podge; mims; mumps; blouts; stolchy
un-T-V'd; and how!; madly Non-U; more O.K.; woozy; with-it; so-and-so; wow; jet-propelled; Junior; jittery; freaked out; a steady; get Her; blind dates; screw; gadgeted; big pricks; old sod; skirt-chasing; a good lay; cheesy; corny; natch; drop dead; pre-recorded; wired for sound
`Scientific (and Specialist)'
metacismus; teleost; arthropod; amniotic; steatopygous; Xylem & Phloem; hippemolgoi; anamnesis; idiorhythmic; ciliates; permian; chiasmus; ecto-endomorph
French: esprit; galère; embusqué; foudroyant; bêtise; en vogue; moeurs; raisons d'Etat; tohu-bohu; outré; bêtes noires; farouche; ma foi!
German: Strich; Freier; anständing; Schlamperei; schmaltz; Dreck; Fach; kluge; Beamterei; nennen; Sitz-Fleisch; es ist mir Wurscht; Sand-Uhr
Italian: buffa; baritoni cattivi; papabile; fermatas; cabaletta; A piacere; bella figura; noi siamo amici; così, così; sotto-voce; fioritura
Latin, Greek: nous; partibus infidelibus; Homo Ludens; agape; koine; Archon; O felix culpa; plebs; Deus Absconditus; famus; pagus
`Nouns as Verbs'
unrosed; hills itself; dieted; worlded; disastered; swanned; nannied; graved; fable them stories; gluttoned; blanded
`Verbs as Nouns'
day-wester; sirs who think big; a once that is not already; deep Donts in stone; vail and verge
patulous; cancrizans; dedolent; ubity; dowly days; olamic; widdershins; gennels; deasil; banausic; nauntle; frore
Lincoln Kirstein's new book, Pavel Tchelitchev, will be published this autumn by Twin Palms Press.
The Newsletter regretfully records the death of Charles H. Miller on 20 January 1992 in his writing studio in Heath, Massachusetts. The poet, novelist, and essayist was 78 years old. He was the author of a well-received memoir, Auden: An American Friendship (New York, 1983), an account that is centred on the months he spent as roommate and cook in Auden's house on Pontiac Trail, Ann Arbor during the autumn and winter of 1941. (Shortly before he died, Charles Miller deposited the original typescript of his book, which is much longer and more detailed than the published version, in the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library.)
Mr Miller was born in Jackson, Michigan in 1913, delivered at home with his father acting as midwife. He had to survive a harsh childhood on the family's Mid-Western farm during the Great Depression and was the only one of ten children to attend college. He graduated cum laude from the University of Michigan, also winning three of the institution's Hopwood Awards-for poetry, the short story, and the novel. He and Auden met when Auden came to lecture and read at the University during January 1940.
Charles Miller, a latter-day Thoreauvian in spirit, was a resourceful and principled man. After labouring on a farm during the Second World War, he worked at various times as a stone mason, a farmer, a bookseller, an encyclopedia salesman, and a documentary filmmaker. He also travelled widely in Europe and South America. It was during a visit to Mexico that he befriended B. Traven. Later he edited that novelist's The Night Visitor and, at the time of his death, was engaged on an essay about Traven. Charles Miller is survived by his wife Lynn Perry Miller and their son Loren L. Miller.
Whenever I am helping to decorate a Christmas tree, I remember Wystan Auden helping me with ours in the year that he was living in London, before his first book was published. He was in theory supposed to be helping my son Murdoch-who was bound for Winchester-with his Latin. He had been doing the coaching for several weeks and I was seeing that he had a good solid tea every time he came. The children liked him; Valentine, at five, was anxious that he should admire her new drawers. I counted on him to get the decorations into the tree's highest branches and above all to put the coloured candles into the little metal holders that clipped onto the branches. Wystan could reach those important top branchlets, and they looked so lovely when we lit the candles and turned off the electric lights. Boxes of crackers cost one to five shillings a dozen-or even more-then, but I went in for lots of the reasonably cheap ones. Clearly, Wystan enjoyed this. Sometimes he would declaim a bit of a poem. Yes, I though, but these are quite a bit different from what was being published; would he get them across? If once he did he might get into the grown-up world of money and friendships and admiration. I had agreed with Gerald Barry, the editor of The Week-end Review, one of the more important weeklies, that I would do a piece on it when Wystan's first book came out. But what was the rest of the world going to say?
He was going to be published in a splendid new monthly, The Realist, which was going to blaze into the literary world; I was one of the group and we had a couple of splendid meetings ending with excellent lunches. And then suddenly there was no money. And only one edition of our splendid magazine, not the one which was going to have my article on this new poet: Auden.
But by that time he was swimming along nicely and making important new friends. He didn't do any more tutoring and he didn't come back to deck next year's tree.
Naomi Mitchison is the author of many books, including You May Well Ask: A Memoir 1920-1940 (1979). She reviewed Auden's Poems (1930) in the Week-end Review on 25 October 1930.
Recently, in the midst of reading a rather desultory review of the failed Broadway musical Nick and Nora, I chanced upon a somewhat remarkable phrase. The first sentence of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man (1933) reads:
I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on 52nd Street, waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping, when a girl got up from the table where she had been sitting with three other people and came over to me.
The passage sent me scurrying to confirm the striking similarity of Hammett's words to the opening lines of `September 1, 1939'-'I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-Second Street...' Have I stumbled onto something? Such a correspondence, for lack of a better term, between the two works certainly modulates a careful reading of Auden's poem.
There is an offhandedness to the poem's first two lines: in the appropriation of American diction, in the naming of the cheesy street where one might buy a drink cheap, and in the assonantal cadence, (as though the words were driven by their vowel sounds). There is something, too, of the `hard-boiled' tone in lines four and five, `As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade', where the poem stakes its moral, and didactic, claims. Are these tonalities Hammett-esque? The sense of the avenging detective-pursuing the dirty truth via `Accurate scholarship' now pervades my understanding of the opening. No, I do not think the poem tarries in this pose, as that particular reading would call into question the ultimately humble gesture-how `All I have is a voice ...' leads beautifully to the stanza's sincere final five lines-but the tone now seems persistently sharper in the opening two stanzas than it did prior to this discovery. And yet, thankfully, even if the Hammett quotation were indeed Auden's touchstone, the poet `out-wrote' this
influence. Thus, for me, finding such a correspondence has not diminished my sense of the poem.
I would welcome any thoughts readers might have on this subject.
ALAN M. PARKER
Alan M. Parker is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Rutgers University.
Auden lived on the top-floor of a Brooklyn Heights brownstone at One Montague Terrace from October 1939 to September 1940. The current owner of the house would like to erect a plaque on the building's facade to commemorate Auden's residence, and he has asked whether any members of the W. H. Auden Society would make a contribution to this project. The likely cost of the plaque will be around $500 and the owner is ready to pay half of that amount. Any Society member who would like to contribute should send a cheque made out to the `W. H. Auden Society (MT Plaque)', to: The W. H. Auden Society, c/o Nicholas Jenkins, 193 Prospect Place, Brooklyn. NY 11238. All donations will be acknowledged in writing and, if the fund-raising is successful, the wording of the plaque will record the part played in its erection by the Society and its members. However, no cheques will be presented for payment until 1 November 1992, and if sufficient funds have not been received by that date, all cheques will be returned.
Michael O'Neill and Gareth Reeves, Auden, MacNeice, Spender: The Thirties Poetry Macmillan 1992 h/b £35.00 (0-333-45117-1), p/b £9.99 (0-333-45118-X). To be reviewed in a future 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.
We would be pleased to receive any articles or items for inclusion in future Newsletters. All contributions may be subject to editing.
U. S. Editor: Nicholas Jenkins, 193 Prospect Place, Apt 4, Brooklyn, NY 11238, USA.
U. K. Editor: Kathleen Bell, 37 Redwood Crescent, Beeston, Nottingham NG9 1JF, England.
Quotations from Auden's work are copyright by The Estate of W. H. Auden.
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