Home | Sitemap | Books | Poems | Recordings | News | Notes | Criticism | Links | Newsletter | Archives | Members | Copyright | Search

Newsletter 16 (May 1997)

May 1997

The W. H. Auden Society


Peggy Garland's Memories of Auden

Peggy Garland was born in 1903 and brought up in London and Suffolk. She spent some time in South Africa before coming back to England after the First World War to study sculpture at the Slade. Later she returned to South Africa to teach sculpture at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Cape Town. (There is a beautiful teak bust of a Bantu in her stone cottage at Eynsham, Oxfordshire.) On the voyage home to England in 1930 she met Tom Garland, who was the ship's doctor. They married in 1932 and had six children. After the Second World War, the family emigrated to Wellington, New Zealand. Peggy returned to England in 1963 and has lived in Oxfordshire ever since.

I first met Wystan Auden in Cheltenham some time in 1934. My husband, Tom, had been at school with him and when he heard we were weekending with another Old Greshamite he came over from the Preparatory School where he was teaching [The Downs School, Colwall] to see us. He brought Cecil Day Lewis with him. Wystan and Tom (The "Wreath" in an article Auden wrote about his school) had not met for a long time; they were delighted to do so now.

I remember Wystan as a tall, thin, very relaxed young man with fair hair falling into his eyes - which were grey-blue and intensely alive. He talked almost without a pause for the whole afternoon and evening. As we all did much the same thing, little remains in my memory of the conversation. But some of it was about Gresham's, about teaching and about schools in general. Wystan advanced the theory that everyone with special knowledge about anything at all ought to do a stint of teaching and that schools should have a flow of interesting people through them. So he had taken a job for a year or two at The Downs School. Later he sent us the school magazine; it was predictably full of Audenesque verse, written by the boys.

About a year later Auden came to live near us in Hampstead and looked us up. He had a room in William and Nancy Coldstream's house in Park Road and he asked us to come and meet them and see if we could cheer them up during a difficult period in their married life. Auden was working with Bill Coldstream making short films for the Post Office. He took to coming to our flat, close to the Heath, on Sunday mornings. We used to walk on the Heath; then Wystan stayed to share our Sunday joint. He was not very interested in food but would always eat up his dinner with relish and say it was the best cooking in the world for him.

I had one baby boy, Tom, at the time and Wystan wanted the little child to like him. But he did not understand babies and all his efforts to amuse failed. Perhaps the baby was unusually timid or Wystan too aggressive; for whatever reason, little Tom remained afraid of him. I well remember Wystan carrying the tiny little boy in his arms on the Heath and walking faster and faster until he was trotting, hoping I suppose to sooth him and please him with speed. The terrified infant first wept and then shrieked for help and rescue. Wystan's unhappiness at this was sad to see: he tried to analyse why children didn't seem to take to him. But some children he did not try to make friends with. He took a great dislike to John and Doris Layard's son, Richard, a nice little boy, because his parents let him crawl on the table at meal time and help himself with grubby hands to whatever he fancied - especially the butter, which Wystan felt was the last straw. "Richard", he said "with butter smeared all over his face is a disgusting sight". He was put off other children because they always seemed to have wet pants, which he felt should not be necessary. If it was, he said, how could it be that some children were always clean and dry?

One day he rang me up to say the film unit was making a film about Christmas [they were shooting a scene for Calendar of the Year]. A London department store was to be made available for a shopping scene that Sunday. Wystan asked me if I would bring Tom, the baby, to be in the film. When I suggested that Tom, only sixteen months old, might not behave as required, Wystan insisted: "No, do bring him. Perhaps they'll give him a toy. I'd really like you to bring him". So we went. As soon as we entered the part of the shop being filmed Tom clung to me in a way I knew boded no good. In the middle of the first take of a happy scene of children smiling at glittering Christmas cheer, he burst into loud cries. The lights, the crowds and finally the sight of Father Christmas bearing down on us frightened him. I made for the nearest door. Father Christmas bounded after us tearing off his beard and eyebrows and throwing off his scarlet get-up, revealing the scarlet face of Wystan himself much rouged and lined and crying wildly: "It's only me, Tom. It's Wystan, look it's only me". Tom almost throttled me in his frenzied terror and Wystan gave up. Filming had come to a stop, of course. We went home; I don't think Wystan ever tried to win Tom over again.

The following September [1936] I had another baby. Wystan arrived on Sunday morning for a walk and luncheon and found me in labour. I was not very good at having babies and Wystan and my husband had a long wait before that blissful moment when the doctor had gone and the baby lay asleep in its cot. Wystan came into the room holding a great mass of white roses. He stood looking at the baby and me, for once without speaking. Finally he said: "What was it like?" "It was bloody awful." He shook his head and then nodded, but said nothing else. He gave the roses to the nurse, peered at the baby, then at me, and went away. It was the only time I ever saw Wystan speechless.

Wystan often talked about his profession, wondering how he came to be so successful. He said that everything he wrote was immediately published and that he had more money than he needed. "I even get paid for things I haven't written yet and may never write. They don't seem to care", he said, "I am too lucky and life is too easy and too pleasant for me. It ought not to be so easy".

On occasion we went to a film or to the theatre with Wystan. I remember his great pleasure one evening when he proposed going to the Music Hall. Sitting in the stalls he laughed so much and enjoyed it all so heartily that I can remember only his enjoyment and nothing whatever about the show. He said he liked the vulgarity - it was authentic and funny, and his favourite form of theatre.

At this time his plays [the collaborations with Isherwood] were being produced by Rupert Doone and Robert Medley, whom I knew from my Slade days. We used to go to the first nights. Wystan seemed always excited and pleased by what Rupert and Robert were doing. He rang up after a performance of The Ascent of F6 to gossip. I said I was surprised to find him writing about his mother-son relationship because he never talked about it. He said: "Do you really think that is in the play?" "Well isn't it?", I replied. He then admitted it was but said it had not been his intention; he had not thought of the presence on top of the mountain as being a mother figure, but perhaps it was. Wystan did not talk to us about his family very much. He was always very engrossed in his many friends and everything he was doing at that moment.

One morning when he came to the flat I talked to him about the hopelessness of my marriage. I said: "I am telling you this because I think you may understand Tom better than I do. Women don't understand men any more than men understand women". Auden nodded assent to this and said, finally: "A lot of men make good husbands, but I don't think Tom is one of them. Perhaps he ought not to have married - but I am quite sure you couldn't possibly have known". He wrote to me later asking me to forget what he had said about Tom because it might do harm to the friendship between them.

One day I said something to the effect that I found a lot of what he wrote difficult to understand. "But do you like it?" he asked. I said I did, whether I understood it or not. "But surely there isn't anything so obscure in what I write that you don't get the drift of it?" I said some of it was beyond me and most of it needed working on, at least for me. Wystan replied: "Then there is a lot wrong with it and I must be plainer. Poetry ought not to be troublesome to read".

Auden thought a good deal about the role of the poet in society. "A poet should be in the thick of things", he said, "never only on the sidelines. Right in the middle of wars and troubles and weddings and birth and death - the lot. Impossible to write what is relevant in any other way". He said he must and would go to Spain, but was afraid of what he might see - he dreaded seeing wounded people in pain. Wystan asked my husband to get him a supply of morphia to take with him and to instruct him on how to administer it. He also asked if he could have a very large and furry great-coat, which was hanging in our hall, because he thought it would be cold on the Spanish front that winter.

I remember him coming to collect these things the day before he set out for Spain. My husband was away and Wystan and I talked for a long time about going to the war. He was standing with the tall London windows behind him looking a little paler than usual (he was always pale), telling me how frightened he was at the thought of what he might have to look at. I said I pictured him like Pierre at Borodino - or did he mean to join the International Brigade? He said: "Not to fight. I don't know what I will do, if anything. But I will not fight. That's not what I am going for. I'm going because I call myself a poet and so I must go". It was an anti-Ivory Tower affirmation.

When he returned from Spain [March 1937] he brought Ernst Toller to see me. We had known each other several years before, when we were both living in Majorca. Wystan was very pleased to bring us both together again. He said: "I do hope your friendship was romantic. Was it?" We said it had been. Wystan laughed and said he was glad to hear it. He had a charming way of laughing, his face crumpling somehow. With Toller, who was soon to give up all hope and hang himself in a New York hotel bedroom, we talked mainly of the awfulness of the Civil War, of the Nazi terror and of the menacing future if the Fascist forces won in Spain.

When Letters From Iceland was published I wrote to Wystan thanking him for my legacy in the "Last Will and Testament" ["For Peggy Garland, someone real in every feature"]. At the same time I said that as there was a war now very close, would he stand as guardian to my little boy, Tom, whom he always liked so much. He refused, saying he was not a good person to ask because he was always travelling about and because he was a practising homosexual. I was annoyed by this last. Naturally I knew Wystan was homosexual but that did not make me think he would not be a good and kind guardian, if Tom [my husband] and I should die.

Regarding Auden's homosexuality, we were talking once about my brother-in-law, Richard Ward, who was in prison after being convicted of homosexual acts with a young man. Auden said: "But why didn't he deny it? He couldn't have been convicted on the boy's word alone. But I expect he wanted to be punished. Most homosexuals do. They will even go to such lengths as this".

After we emigrated to New Zealand I heard from Wystan again. I had given birth to another son. I wrote to Auden and told him the new baby was called Philip Wystan. In reply, he wrote:

Easter Sunday [1948] 7 Cornelia St.
N.Y.C. 14

Dear Peggy and Tom,

It was a very pleasant surprise indeed to get your letter of Jan 15th two days ago, and very [?] to hear that there is another Wystan in the world. (I hope it doesnt bring him bad luck.). I do hope Tom's eyes are really O.K. now. I've had pretty good fortune so far as far as health is concerned though middle-age is now upon me with American teeth which are prettier than mine but not the same thing.
I'm glad to have my suspicions about New Zealand confirmed but it must be pretty to look at and climactically mild compared with New York weather. (I love the winters but the summers are hell. To escape them I've bought a little shack on Fire Island, a 60 mile sandbank off Long Island which is very pleasant).
At the moment I'm in the rush of packing to leave next week for England and Italy. It's just possible, too, I may be offered a job in Germany in the Fall but that's all in the air. I was in Germany in `45 and a nasty mess it was. Now, of course, it's worse. The World situation is really horrid - to have to stand up to Russia without being able to respect most of one's own side. If you're interested in the U.S, you should read a book which just appeared The American People by Geoffrey Gorer, the English anthropologist. It's really excellent.
How long will it be before Layard becomes an R.C. priest? [Peggy Garland had written that Doris Layard had recently become a Catholic]
Much love to you both and blessings on the family


I happened to be in England when Auden gave his first lecture as Professor of Poetry at Oxford [in June 1956]. I went to hear it. Wystan swept in at a great rate and rushed onto the platform, beginning immediately to read his paper. He did so without a pause from start to finish and then rushed out again in cap and gown without a glance to right or left. He had grown older, stouter, wrinkled. I could hardly recognise him.

Again, years later, I saw him briefly in the coffee shop where he held court almost daily [St. Aldate's Coffee House]. He seemed another person to the young man I had known 40 years before. Then he had been the warm-hearted young poet - now he was the great poet of the age. I did not speak to him. Knowing he was so often there I thought one day I would go up to him and see if he would recognise me. Unfortunately I left it too late.


Auden at Bennington in 1946

Auden spent the spring of 1946, from March until July, teaching at Bennington College in Vermont.

In mid-December 1945, Auden paid his second visit to Bennington College [for details of his 1939 visit, see Stephen Sandy:" `Writing as a Career': An Early W. H. Auden Lecture in the States", The W. H. Auden Newsletter 10-11 (September 1993)]. He talked with Lewis Webster Jones, the College President, agreeing on final arrangements for his appointment for the spring term, 1946.

Theodore Roethke, whom Auden would replace, was being eased out of Bennington on the twin occasions of his 1945 Guggenheim - he had postponed it until January 1946 - and the prospect of a nervous breakdown, evidenced by increasingly manic and erratic behaviour through the fall of 1945. On this brief visit Auden was put up in the Commons building, in the College's only guest suite, the same one that he occupied six years earlier when he first visited the tiny New England college in the spring of 1939. Roethke entertained Auden at Shingle Cottage, where he lived with others such as Kenneth Burke, and where Auden was soon to take up residence. In a letter to Burke dated December 21, 1945, Roethke wrote:

Auden was here for a day and a night. He's coming on for one semester....He didn't want to stay in the guest room...so we drank and roared down in Shingle until 3:30 or 4:00, at which time I retired virtuously to one of the upstairs rooms.

Auden was put on the College payroll in March; the semester began on March 26, and he was assigned Roethke's apartment in Shingle Cottage. He taught two courses, Forms of Literature, an introductory course all literature faculty taught, which included the - at the time - somewhat advanced choice of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse. As well he taught Verse Form, a prosody workshop ordinarily taught by Roethke: "the study of verse as an intellectual discipline" in the words of Roethke's rubric for the course. He may well have taught, whether as a course or in tutorial format is not clear, Modern English Poetry, another Roethke course, billed in its description as "Hardy, Lawrence, Owen, Auden, Thomas."

One senior, Elinor Brisbane Philbin, took Forms of Literature; she remembers that: "there was coffee and everyone smoked like crazy." In 1993 she recalled::

We read Greek writers, some essayists, Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. He played operas constantly, Mozart and others. He would perch up on the edge of his chair, lost in thought and smoking. We did read To the Lighthouse, but he didn't go into it very much. He told us about her suicide, though, walking down to the river.

On his relations with his students, she is quite clear:

We adored him, and he was indifferent to us. He told us things like the difference between envy and jealousy. I'd never thought about such large ideas, the difference between envy and jealousy, that sort of thing. I remember his saying: "when you read something, you must give it your original thought; don't listen to others; just your own response." He was a marvellous man, very hard to define; he liked strange literature and was crazy-mad about opera. He had very white skin and small piercing eyes.

Philbin's advisor, the economist Peter Drucker "would come to Auden's class and they argued a great deal. Drucker had just converted to Roman Catholicism...and he was feeling mystical. Auden argued with him. They argued about God, and he told Peter Drucker that he was ridiculous."

A junior, Eleanor Rockwell Edelstein, was a student in Verse Form:

We had to write a poem a week in the style of the week's lesson...pastoral, ode, sonnet, sestina, elegy, limerick, ballad and rondel. We wrote lyrics and epics, learned the difference between masculine and feminine rhyme, and tinkered a lot with meter. I suspect most of our poems were lousy: I know mine were...but Auden was not interested in our youthful muses; he wanted us to understand the skeletons before we ever presumed to deal with inspired flesh and blood.

Clearly, Auden as mentor was a troubling presence:

I did not find Auden a particularly warm individual, although he was not unkind. Instead, the words which come to mind are serious, stern, awkward (physically and socially), wry, uneasy in his role as teacher. These are not qualities which endear a teacher to his students in the classroom, and I clearly remember a kind of dread during each class that something embarrassing would happen - not to me, but to Auden, such as falling out of his chair, which indeed he did one day.

She remembers a story that Kenneth Burke told: "He said that Auden had a habit of shaving while standing in the bathtub, despite the fact that it had no shower, and that he left rusty razor blades in the bottom of the tub." She and her fellow students were amused by Auden's insistence on "proper form," while he "went about in carpet slippers, occasionally on the wrong foot, and lunch displayed on his tie and shirt front."

Auden was appointed faculty advisor to the student literary magazine, Silo, his assigned contribution to the extracurricular life of the College. He published one poem in Silo, a small lyric - "How still it is, the horses" - which he then called "Noon." The poem became part of The Age of Anxiety - which he worked on while at Bennington - as one of Malin's speeches at the beginning of Part Three.

Among contemporary colleagues who remembered Auden, few remained in 1993. But Catharine Osgood Foster - "Kit" - and her husband Tom had many recollections. Kit remembered giving him rides in an "aged Chevrolet four-door sedan":

I had an old car and an old dog. The dog had the habit of chewing the back seat of the car, and Auden would get in and say he would sit in the back seat and I'd say: "No. Come on up front." No, he liked it better back there with the dog. He didn't mind it a bit.

As part of the freshman course Forms of Literature, Auden had to teach To the Lighthouse. Kit reported that he had not read this:

But he said: "All right, if this is what the job is, we're doing it." And he read it and he said afterwards with great surprise: "I was so amazed that a woman writer could actually write a novel that was a work of art."

Wallace Fowlie, a close friend of the Fosters but no longer on the Bennington faculty, was living in New York when Auden was at Bennington. Tom Foster said: "One of the things that Wallace told me was that Auden thought that women should not be seen in the evening. He didn't care to associate with women in the evening."

It was while he was at Bennington that Auden became a U.S. citizen. He was delighted and was inseparable from his papers, showing them to everyone. "His passport arrived in the mail," Kit remembered, "and he would carry it around in his back pocket all the time and pull it out and look at it. Someone said: `Oh, you ought to put that in your safe deposit box.' `Not at all,' Auden said, `I might need it some day.' So he'd pull it out and look at it and put it back and keep on showing it."

One evening that spring Auden was invited to visit the Manhattan home of Lydia Winston Malbin, a Bennington trustee, to see her art collection. Auden, according to Tom Foster:

was served a cold supper, which he did not appreciate one bit. He said: "If I had known that, I wouldn't have gone. Who did she think I was to invite me there and give me a cold supper like that?" He went on to say how the British believe in conspicuous consumption and added: "If you'd been invited to a British household they would have given you a fine dinner. But in America they don't believe in conspicuous consumption."

Auden had a reputation for enjoying faculty meetings, the literature department meetings, his counselees, and his classes. Kit Foster remembers him sitting under the apple tree in the barn quadrangle (the chief classroom building) when the weather was fine:

They kept Adirondack chairs out there and he would sit...waiting for his next counselee, beating time on the arm of the chair, keeping his rhythms going, and I saw him doing things like that at the evening meetings, too...he'd be tapping on the chair, listening to some rhythm that interested him at the moment.

Auden was a wonderful teacher, according to all reports. He gave his students startlingly difficult and long assignments and they all broke their necks to get those assignments done....Then he'd ask them to write in class, besides, which they hastened to do, too. The only complaint was that he would walk round the room like a monitor and mutter light verse to himself, not quite under his breath, so that they were horribly distracted while trying to write.

The Fosters' old friends Connie and Paul St. Onge, at Mt Holyoke College, told Kit that Auden said he never slept on his left side, because that would put weight on his heart and he didn't believe in doing things like that to his heart overnight. Many of the Fosters' memories focus on well-known Auden quirks, such as his obsession with going to bed at ten, and rising early to write every day.

Auden was not tied to Bennington that spring. On June 3, he delivered the Phi Beta Kappa poem at Harvard ("Under Which Lyre"). In mid-June he spent a week in New York, where on June 19 he and Chester Kallman gave a dinner party for T. S. Eliot. Bennington's term went until graduation on July 20, after which his friends Reinhold and Ursula Niebuhr collected him (Ursula Niebuhr remembered the date as in June) to stay in their country place in Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

A final Bennington note: in his memoir Alan Ansen quotes Auden, back in New York that fall, as saying: "I've moved from 57th Street. Too Expensive. A student of mine at Bennington with whom the superintendent seems enamored of got me this [7 Cornelia Street] apartment." In the same November talk, Auden said: "Yes, [I taught at Bennington] for one term, while someone else was away on a Guggenheim fellowship. Bennington is positively a brothel, you know. Around eleven o'clock one night I heard a knock on my door. A girl came in and simply refused to leave - insisted on staying the night. Oh, they're nice girls, all right. But they talk. The next morning they rush to the telephone and tell everyone all about their night. It used to be that people were more reluctant to tell than to do. Now it's the other way round."


Stephen Sandy is Professor of Literature at Bennington College.

With Wystan and Chester in Jerusalem

Before our trip to Israel, Chester gave a cocktail party for Wystan in his Athenian apartment in Rizari Street. There were a number of epenthetic boys around, whom neither Chester nor Wystan nor I was capable of getting rid of before the guests arrived. Fortunately, a young friend of ours, Rachel Hadas, showed herself a maîtresse femme and did the job in short order. The librarian of the British Council brought Ronald Bottrall, and Peter Mayne and Eddy Gathorne-Hardy were among the other guests.

As a courier I had my limitations. I had tried unsuccessfully to get us hotel reservations the year before at Eastertide; and even when I did succeed my travel agent booked us into the Intercontinental instead of the American Colony Hotel, where we had really wanted to go. Finally I botched our plane reservations back and at the airport put Wystan in the wrong line since I failed to realise that first class tickets had a line of their own. On the other hand, I did manage to find out from a non-English speaking policeman where Wystan could get foreign newspapers. Although Chester had had a bar mitzvah and I had not, I had swotted up Hebrew for a year or two before our visit. In the upshot my Tangier Arabic proved more useful when Chester and I sat up chatting with hotel employees after Wystan had gone to bed.

We finally got to Jerusalem in the spring of 1970. Wystan at a news conference said that Israel should be a theocracy to the shocked disbelief of the reporters.

Ursula Niebuhr had given Wystan a letter of introduction to Teddy Kollek, the then mayor of Jerusalem. He drove us around Jerusalem at night and showed us his collection of archaeological artifacts at a gathering in his apartment. When I suggested that the new opera house should be inaugurated with Handel's Israel in Egypt, he snarled: "Why not Aida?" When a guest addressed me as Mr. Auden and I absent-mindedly acknowledged the greeting, Wystan said: "Oh no you're not." Such a fuss for two little letters.

Wystan impressed me with his knowledge of the architecture of the Crusader church near our hotel. Chester initially took against the splendid golden Dome of the Rock, which shone magisterially in the distance from our hotel, but later admitted he was wrong.

We visited the Chaim Weizmann Institute at Rehovoth, where its director, Albert Sabin, the discoverer of the oral vaccine against poliomyelitis, told us the story of the Institute and showed us around. Afterwards Chester and I pleaded for a glimpse of nearby Tel Aviv; but Wystan and the driver vetoed that. Wystan also ruled out a trip to Nazareth.

At Masada io perdei la speranza dell' altezza halfway up and turned back, meeting Wystan and Chester on their ascent. They made it all the way to the top.

One evening Chester wanted to explore the night life of Jerusalem. Wystan was against it so Chester withdrew to his room sulking. I took advantage of his absence to confide my plans to marry Rachel Hadas. All Wystan said was: "Don't have too many children."

When our taxi-driver, an Ashkenazi, was driving us to Rehovoth, he made a nasty crack about Sephardic Jews. Wystan sighed and said: "You see, it's the same all over." Handed a copy of the Israeli magazine, Ariel, dealing with linguistic topics, he said: "Thank you, but please give it to Mr. Ansen, it's more his field of interest." He didn't believe Jerusalem should only belong to Israel and expressed this opinion privately to me.

When we visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, Wystan said: "This is the one place where one feels He might really have been present."

Wystan had said that there were only two places left that he really wanted to visit, Jerusalem and Cape Horn. He never got to Cape Horn.


Book Reviews

Christopher Isherwood Diaries, Volume One: 1939-1960. Edited and Introduced by Kathleen Bucknell (Methuen £25; 1048pp. ISBN: 0-14-69680-4).

This wonderfully ample gathering of diary materials - some of them polished up and readied, to an extent, for publication, some of them much rawer jottings, covers the first part of Christopher Isherwood's chosen exile in the USA.

He, and we, begin on 19 January 1939 with him and Auden setting sail for New York on the Champlain: running away from a doomed Europe, as their friends as well as their enemies thought. Beginning with a departing is, of course, like everything else on these pages, the kind of deft stage-management Isherwood likes to go in for. Equally stage-managed is the degree of frankness Isherwood allows himself. His story is that he's leaving behind the four lovers he had currently on the go and the Popular Front policies also on the go in the Thirties Homintern.

E. M. Forster, who had come to see the pair off, had asked them - as you did in the Thirties; though January 1939 was a bit late for indecision, even for indecisive Forster - whether he should "join the communist party". That sort of question was certainly a main part of the political atmosphere the two of them were honestly glad to be shedding. "One morning on deck", Isherwood confides to Auden that he just doesn't "believe in it any more - the united front, the party line, the anti-fascist struggle. I suppose they're okay, but something's wrong with me. I simply can't swallow another mouthful". And Auden, not pausing over the perhaps unhappy metaphor, replied "No, neither can I".

So it was off, with relief, to the land of the capitalist free, and the writing of crappy scripts in Hollywood ("filth" is Isherwood's word for one of them), and the gorgeously muscled boys in the Californian sun, and the awful swamis, and God consciousness, and eventually the great love of his life with the crew-cut fresh Don Bachardy, thirty years his junior. By October 1941, "I didn't care if I never went back to Europe again, never crossed the Mississippi. I had become a Californian". "You're the kind of person we want here", the President of LA State College tells Isherwood in 1960, and in the welcoming arms of the USA he really did find himself at home, He left England, he says, because he "couldn't stop travelling". But stopping, and being stopped, at the furthest western edge of the western world, put a happy end to that restless itch of the Twenties and Thirties. The craving for domesticity, for the good place and ménage in which love and cooking and writing can coexist, which is an emotion largely present in his and Auden's writing, not least in the footloose years, found at last its fulfilment. "I want a quiet home life", Isherwood writes in 1955, "so I can think about my work undisturbed". And he got it with Bachardy, to a greater degree, at least, than he'd ever experienced before, or that any imaginable life in England within reach of his awful kindred, or in Europe (or even America) with Heinz [Neddermeyer] might have afforded.

Not that these journals record anything approaching a simple or untroubled passage into domestic bliss and writerly contentment. Sex goes on being a torment as well as a joy throughout the Forties, especially when Isherwood is trying rather vainly to live up to some sort of swami-inspired programme of abstemiousness. The giggling gurus are not always a giggle. The Isherwood body sags and frays and his teeth hurt more and more. the tantrums and mutual petulancies with Bachardy (not to mention the boy's keen acquisition of traffic tickets) prove par for the married course. Anxiety about doing serious writing never abates: how often Isherwood seems to be fretting over whether he'll get another sixty pages done by July - though giving up on the beach or one more lunch is the kind of nagging thought he never allows himself seriously to think of having. But through it all love does conquer; and the books do churn out, and so do the diaries - this monumental tribute to an ego forever suspicious and deprecating of its will to writing power and forever, too, in a quite Shandeian way, registering that force in page after page of self-scrutinizing, self-regarding, self-advertising prose.

Boyishly - and it's the kept-up boyishness of Isherwood's self-imposed task as scrutineer of self and other which helps keep these diaries so immensely attractive and so readable - Isherwood presents his transition to America as the swapping of one gang for another. "My God, I thought, what is this gang I am joining", he writes of the Ramakrishna Order in 1943: "Is it to be curry and turbans unwinding uphill all the way, to the very end?". But the earlier Thirties gang are never far from his thoughts and his pages. Letters from England, from Spender and Tony Hyndman, and a copy of the new Horizon magazine make him homesick for "the gang". Auden is at first physically with him, and thoughts of Auden never leave - Auden frank about Isherwood's unscrupulousness, Auden's "chemical life" (benzedrine in the morning, seconal at night), Auden's comfort over wine and sex, Auden's wish to "kill people" in the War, Auden at his untidiest just when he's put on his best suit, Auden having his moles removed (vanity, or fear of cancer?), Auden with his "sad anxiously lined face" and "thick waist" worrying in Paris about the years ("Here we are, just two old bags - and only a moment ago, it seems, we were boys, talking about our careers"). Guilt about quitting England is stoked up by the published criticisms of Cyril Connolly. Spender drops by, disrupting routine. Bumping into Spender in England only confirms his homeland's grisliness - though nothing can outdo for sheer gothic horror Isherwood's re-encounters in 1956 with his outrageous mother, and his filthy brother, Richard (of the beer- and vomit-stained clothing), their hysterias and their terrible foodstuffs, the coal-dust on the bed-sheets, the horror, the horror. Isherwood makes you understand precisely why he "wants to stab through the hard fat" of his mother's "wilful, obstinate stupidity". He's moved by a bit of his native landscape: "my native country. Thank God for it - and thank God, on my knees, that I got out of it".

If he'd stayed around in England, of course, such opportunities for composing the satirical vignettes that so evidently prompt and provoke his imagination and that certainly delight this reader, all the home-grown chances for bitching and gossiping and general waspishness and cattiness, would not have been in short supply. But America clearly proved the land of even greater satirisable plenty. Nobody there and nothing much in Isherwood's ambience escapes the lash of his spitefully affectionate pen portraits - the flashy footwear of the swami, the patch of sticking plaster Garbo wore to keep off the wrinkles between her eyebrows, Judy Garland's fat, Bette Davis's lack of talent ("parrot-faced bitch"), Sam Goldwyn's low cunning ("posed as a roughneck illiterate boor for the same reasons as Garbo posed as a child"), Huxley's relief at being able to add Lope de Vega to his lengthy list of no-good authors, Chaplin's "sparkle of guttersnipe impudence", the Decameron-like sexual antics of the "demure and cunning" Quakers he lived with during part of the Second World War. It's wonderful in these pages to experience how Isherwood's old eye for human oddities and his touch for the put-down phrase had lost none of their cunning, even - perhaps especially - when he's among the gurus and their earnest large-bottomed following.

Happily for his writing, Isherwood's new-found sanctity did not mean much loss of the unregenerate naughtiness and nastiness. His comic songs such as Never Smoke Before the Swami (to the tune of Deutschland, Deutschland Uber Alles) and There Was a Man Lived in Bengal (to the tune of Bye Bye Blackbird, with "Krishna, Jai, Jai" in every verse's last line) are lovely reminders of the dramatic collaborations with Auden and especially of Auden's Miss Gee (to the tune of the St. James Infirmary Blues) and Victor (to be sung to the tune of Frankie and Johnnie) and are especially cheering. If the old scepticism and ribaldry seemed to be called for all across Isherwood's US experience, the vedantic crowd look to the unconverted eye an even riper target than the usual rest. "Vishnawanda, after making an appointment with me for ten o'clock to discuss translating a sonnet of Ramakrishna, has forgotten and gone out to get his hair cut". When Isherwood then adds "Master, thy will be done", you feel the dry mock never came apter.

The second line of the Bye Bye Blackbird tribute to Ramakrishna claims that "He had no ego, none at all". Blessedly, both for these journals as for his writing in general, that could not be claimed of Isherwood even in his submissively hindu phase. The old identity question is a continuing trope in these pages ("If you'd spoken to me as a stranger on a trolley car and asked `What are you?' how could I have answered?"), but Isherwood is certainly not prepared to lose himself in any cultic anonymity. He goes in for "Storms of resentment...against being given a Sanskrit name", for instance. And, quite clearly, the Old Adam of solipsism is just too interesting, just too essential to carrying on with life and, of course, with writing, to abandon in any final act of Californian regeneration. Naturally enough, Isherwood's repeated stress on what he calls the jitters, and his neurotic fears about brain tumours, and the constant annotation of the state of his bridge-work and the pills he's taking and the Low Fat Way to Health he's on, do comprise a definite down-side to the business of daily self-regard. But still you can't help also feeling that the continual naive probing away at the lump in the mouth or the attention that's rivetted by the scraggy neck and the eye-bags in the barber's mirror are a necessary accompaniment to the steady unflinching gaze fixed revealingly on everything from Pete's "expressive eyelashes" to "the dirty ocean with its dazzling surf, full of seaweed and last night's disgarded rubbers". There's a price to pay for documentary attentiveness of Isherwood's order; but it's manifestly worth paying.

Katherine Bucknell's tactful introduction, her extremely useful Chronology, and her even more handy long "Glossary" of people, times and place do help bulk out the already bulky book to over a thousand pages. It certainly helps give shape to a textual Leviathan awfully like the writing Isherwood described once as "undented, unformed": "like some rubbery bit of material which pops back into shapelessness the minute you take your hands from it". But rubbery and sploshy though these diaries might be, they're never boring. At the end you're left only with a twinge of sadness as Isherwood's "last diary written by hand" comes to an end. Typically, this is on a note of bodily failure and downcast succumbing - his thumb is giving him so much trouble he'll have to type from now on. Even more typically, he lays aside his pen in order to "fly off, now, to take part in a nice birthday evening at Hope Lange's!". For yet once more the writing task gives place to the social occasion, the pleasure of friends, and the felt necessities of friendship. Once more a case of California having failed to change something basic in Isherwood's character and his characteristic modus operandi: for good or ill.


Valentine Cunningham is Professor of English Literature at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

Wystan and Chester: A Personal Memoir of W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman. By Thekla Clark with an introduction by James Fenton. New York: Columbia University Press, 1995.

Miranda Seymour's New York Times book review of Clark's memoir emphasizes the complete lack of hidden agenda, a Thekla Clark "with no personal ax to grind." Clark herself confesses near the end of the book that she has committed herself to doing merely as she has been "instructed to do" - to dig deep into her memory and retrieve events regardless of what they might suggest. It is true that most often she describes rather than passes judgment, but the implicit arguments are there nevertheless. For example, according to Clark, Chester Kallman was "not only beauty for Wystan, he [Kallman] was America." On the next page, her description of America, in Auden's eyes, as a place that Nature never intended for humans, "either too hot or too cold" extends the analogy - so implicitly that it almost seems as if Clark herself is not aware of it.

Memory, of course, is selective, and Clark has not lived in a vacuum; knowing Auden and Kallman when she did, she is well aware of what James Fenton points out in the introduction as the "common English view" against Auden's move to America in 1939. Such a view subsequently seized on Kallman - not as a beautiful American but as an ugly one - as fit retribution for Auden's debauchery. Clark's remembrances of Kallman - whose affection she sometimes doubted - seem to address this issue. She portrays the witty Kallman, the story-teller, the enthusiast, the Kallman who was tender to her young daughter, Lisa. She includes some of Kallman's poems. She expresses sympathy for his unhappy childhood and for his frequent and poor choice of lovers. Dear Kallman, however, eventually becomes poor Kallman.

Clark views Auden quite differently: "Being with Wystan was like playing tennis with a superior player; it improved your game." Clark stands in awe of Auden, and her writing takes on a different tone and complexity when she discusses him. Such passages come unexpectedly, interrupting the remembrances with thoughts that convince the reader that Clark has read and pondered Auden for years and that she has gained, as a result, a grasp of his amazingly depersonalized way of incorporating his life into his art:

Wystan was more open about his life than anyone I have ever known. Not only did he talk about it, he wrote about it. Should one care to examine his writings one could find absolutely everything, including motives, in his life. I don't mean in a confessional way. His confessions he made without intermediaries.

This observation, with others like it, aligns Clark's perceptions with those of Charles Miller, whose 1989 Auden: An American Friendship is based on Miller's realization that Auden was a master at incorporating personal events into art, a "closet journalizer who employed the journal in effective form, in his poems." To an age that favors setting Auden's - or any poet's - poetry in its social rather than aesthetic context, scholars who read such insightful memoirs in order to explain the art through the life might be, as a result, persuaded to ponder the aesthetic strategies behind Auden's

insistence that art throws light on life - but not vice versa.

Along these lines, Clark's book offers a richly nuanced argument that itself neither seeks to answer and/or justify the "puzzle" of Auden's and Kallman's relationship nor explain or explain away Auden's amazing genius in such terms. Her view thus argues quite differently than James Fenton's rather curious introduction, which asserts that we

must balance Auden and Kallman, that if Kallman was to Auden an "impossible child," then we must consider how Auden was to Kallman an "impossible parent."

Not so neat, according to Clark. It is Auden who, like his grave in Kirchstetten (even though it looks lost), remains "different, yet superior."


This review was received after our last issue went to press, which contained an earlier review of the same book by Nicholas Jenkins.

Notes and Queries

Letters regarding " Some Thoughts on `1929'" (article in last Newsletter)

I believe that the function of poetry is to suggest rather than to make a clear and unambiguous statement. Even so, when I turn to the end of "1929" I do not see the North-West Passage. The "hard bitch" would seem to be a Lady Chatterley who is rich and rides to hounds, and a sexual undertone can be detected in the words "hard", "bitch", "riding" and "stiff". In this context the "lolling bridegroom" suggests to me a rich, overprivileged graduate who found the female body too daunting a prospect.

All the above are in need of a change of heart - or a Forsterian opening of the heart -but heterosexual sex was not a "test" reasonably comparable to the Western Front, as neither Auden or Isherwood had any vocation for family life.

A "clear lake" cannot be seen as a hazard of the North-West Passage. If Auden was "angry", this implies embarrassment, which is not the same as guilt. Auden and Isherwood were (or were to be) embarrassed by the challenge of Upward's conversion to Communism but, as Forster was to say, while Communism offered "hope", its victory was, in more than one sense, "problematic".

Your statement that the North-West Passage is "specified" is, I think, in need of clarification. The word "cowardice", as opposed to fear, seems to me a mistake. Without fear we would all drown or die on F6.


(The North West Passage was specified in manuscript by Auden in an excised section of the first part of "1929". I quote the relevant lines from Edward Mendelson's Early Auden [Faber, 1981]:

.In answer to your query about the "apparent quotation" - "Je suis trés curieux de connaître le petit Calab" [Newsletter #15, pp. 12, 15], "Je suis bien curieux de connaître Caloub" is the very last line of André Gide's novel Les Faux-Monnayeurs [1920, translated as The Counterfeiters, 1928], taking place at the turn of the century. Caloub, a minor character, is the youngest of three brothers, of whom the middle brother, Olivier, is a major character. The novel's chief protagonist, Edouard, is also a sometime diarist, and excerpts from his journal are sprinkled through the book. He is very close to the brothers' parents; and, after a melodramatic adventure with Olivier, notes in his diary that he has been invited to dine with the family next week, adding: "I feel very curious to get acquainted with Caloub."


I found it interesting that you noted Auden's reference to the poem as a "sort of epigraph" to The Reformatory. I wonder if this led you to consider Auden's aesthetic strategies in the poem - namely that calling the poem an epigraph to a play might suggest how Auden was thinking about how to bring drama into poetry....Specifically, recall that in 1929, Auden recognised something that he called "stage-life": "something which is no imitation but a new thing. Damn realism. Yet it must be real" [Plays and other Dramatic Writings 1928-1938, p. 531]. It seems to me that,coupled with his growth away from writing raw autobiography, such as the will in The Fronny, which he wrote as a compilation of rather intimate details about his and Isherwood's friends, Auden's idea of this stage-life reflects that he desired to write his life into his fictions, specifically in a way that would dramatise - and objectify - for him the moral and ethical ambiguity of situations through which he had lived. Thus I would call what he does depersonalised autobiography, and in terms of the "unity debate" to which you refer, this would explain the poem's carefully distanced certainties.


"Auden's Newly Discovered 1923 Notebook": Some Corrections.

Readers of the last Newsletter might wish to know there were a variety of errors in my piece on Auden's recently discovered 1923 notebook. Most important are mistakes in the transcriptions of Auden's poems.

The first line of "The Hill" begins "One night", not "On night". And the last line of the same poem should read: "With the precipice at its brow".

In the first stanza of "Revelation", lines 5 and 6 are wrongly run together. They should be laid out like this:

On p. 9, where I have mentioned "Wintringham's 1929 book about Spain", the date should of course be 1939.

Finally, Adam Sisman has written to let me know that Wintringham left behind not eight but five cases of papers, and that they contained not only Communist writings but also Christian Socialist tracts and other political jottings. Sisman has also pointed out that in the first paragraph of my piece I refer to the National Strike, when I mean the General Strike.


The Age of Anxiety

Perhaps the germ of the baroque eclogue is to be found in G. K. Chesterton's essay on A Midsummer Night's Dream, which Auden later included in his selection of Chesterton's non-fictional prose:

The six men may sit talking in an inn; they may not know each other's names or see each other's faces before or after, but night or wine or great stories, or some rich and branching discussion may make them all at one, if not absolutely with each other, at least with that invisible seventh man who is the harmony of all of them. That seventh man is the hero of A Midsummer Night's Dream.


Editor's Notes

Thekla Clark's book is of course Wystan and Chester, not Auden in Love, as I stated in the last issue. The latter is written by Dorothy Farnan.

I have received review copies of Stan Smith's W. H. Auden in the Writers and Their Work series jointly published by Northcote House in association with the British Council (1997); and of W. H. Auden, de l'Eden perdu au jardin des mots, by Pascal Aquien, published by L'Harmattan in 1996. I would be interested to hear from any member who might be interested in reviewing the former of these books.

I would be pleased to receive letters on any subject, but especially relating to this issue, or any articles or items for inclusion in future Newsletters. If any member knows of any articles or books soon to be published, please let me know so that I can notice them and, if possible, arrange for them to be reviewed. All contributions may be subject to editing.

My new address is: Cheesman's Barn, Kirtlington Road, Lower Heyford, Oxon OX6 3NA.


Memberships and Subscriptions

Annual subscriptions are as follows:

Individual members £6 $10 (students half-price)

Institutions £12 $20

Past issues of the Newsletter are available, please apply to the editor.

New members (and members wishing to renew) should send checks or cheques - payable to "W. H. Auden Society" - to Katherine Bucknell, 78 Clarendon Road, London W11 2HW, England. Receipts on request.

All writings by W. H. Auden Copyright 1997 by The Estate of W. H. Auden.

Return to home page or to top of this page or to general contents page.