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A Few Things Auden Never Wrote (or Did)

By Edward Mendelson

Like almost every major writer, Auden has often been given credit for remarks he never made and lines he never wrote. This page is an incomplete catalogue of a few of them, with notes on events reported in Auden's life that never occurred.

Travels with William Shelton Gray, Jr.

A page about Gray, to whom Auden dedicated his poem "The Aliens," includes a "Timeline" with many doubtful statements about his relation to Auden. For example, Auden could not have invited Gray to his birthday party in New York City in the 1940s because Auden was not holding birthday parties at that time. Auden could not have introduced Christopher Isherwood to Gray on Ischia because Auden was in New York when Isherwood visited Ischia in November 1955 (Chester Kallman was there, but not Auden). Gray could not have visited Auden "several times" in Austria because Auden and Kallman kept a visitors' book which they insisted every visitor must sign, and Gray's name appears only once, after a two-day visit on 4-5 July 1971. Gray could not have travelled to a Mozart Festival in Russia with Auden and Kallman because Auden and Kallman never went to Russia with Gray or anyone else. There is no record of Auden helping Gray to find a lectureship in Graz, and Gray's name does not appear in any of the thorough documentation that exists of Auden's life in Austria. However, it may of course be assumed that all the many other statements in the Timeline that connect Gray with Auden and many other famous figures are absolutely correct, even if no other record of many of those facts can be found anywhere.

Gray tells a somewhat different account in a voice recording used as the soundtrack for a video on Auden and posted on YouTube. Gray reports that Auden was living on St Marks Place when they met at Harvard (apparently in 1946), but Auden was not living on St Marks Place until 1953, and did not give birthday parties until then. Gray also does not claim that Auden found him a lectureship at Graz, merely that he visited Auden in Austria at the time when Gray was teaching at Graz, which seems a more likely version of events.

Gray does seem to have been on familiar terms with Auden in the late 1960s, as a copy of the Random House Secondary Worlds (for sale by Peter Harrington in 2024) is inscribed "For Bill Gray from Wystan Feb 1969" (possibly inscribed on a visit to New York by Gray); Auden used given names (e.g. "Bill" not "Bill Gray") when inscribing books for close friends, full names when inscribing for friendly acquaintances.

Quotations from Jonah Lehrer's Imagine

A book by Jonah Lehrer, Imagine (2012), purports to quote Auden on his use of drugs. One quotation is about caffeine and nicotine: "I need them quite desperately." The other is about benzedrine: "The drug is a labor-saving device. It turns me into a working machine." Two endnotes in the book refer to Richard Davenport-Hines's Auden and to an essay by Davenport-Hines in The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden, edited by Stan Smith. Neither of the two purported quotations appears in either work, and no evidence seems to exist that Auden said or wrote either of them. The second seems to derive from Auden's references (in his gatherings of aphorisms "Squares and Oblongs" and "Writing") to caffeine, benzedrine, and other substances as "laborsaving devices."

"Roast Poet"

In 1958, the Gaberbocchus Press, a small press in London, published the fifth in its "loose-leaf" series of folded broadsides, Roast Poet, by W. H. Auden. It reads in full: "If a poet demanded from the State the right to have a few bourgeois in his stable, people would be very much astonished, but if a bourgeois asked for some roast poet, people would think it quite natural." (The original is broken into five lines as if written as verse; the first four lines end "State", "stable," "astonished," and "poet,".) Beneath the text is the attribution: "(from the Preface to Isherwood's translation of Baudelaire's Intimate Journals; Methuen, 1949.)". This is not, in fact, in Auden's introduction to the Isherwood's translation, nor is it in Isherwood's preface, but is an excerpt from Baudelaire himself (as translated by Isherwood); it may be found in Baudelaire's "Squibs," item XVII.

A blurb for the poet Rod McKuen

In 1976, three years after Auden's death, a collection by the popular folk-singer and poet Rod McKuen, The Sea Around Me . . . The Hills Above, was published in London by Elm Tree Books, an imprint of Hamish Hamilton. A blurb on the front jacket flap (repeated on the rear cover) quoted Auden: "Rod McKuen's poems are letters to the world and I am happy that some of them have come to me and found me out." Auden, who was generous but not prodigal with blurbs, may indeed have written this; the qualifying "some" has an authentic ring. However, when a similar but not identical collection of McKuen's poems,  The Sea Around Me, was published in 1977 by Cheval Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, New York, Auden's blurb, quoted on the front jacket flap, had inexplicably been posthumously rewritten. It now read: "Rod McKuen's poems are letters to the world and I'm happy that many of them came to me and found me out."

Later still, on McKuen's web site, perhaps around early 2002, Auden's blurb had changed again, and now read: "Rod McKuen's poems are love letters to the world and I am happy that many of them came to me and found me out." (A few other versions of this sentence appear in McKuen's writings, perhaps quoted from memory.) In one detail, this later version may be more authentic than even the earliest one, as printed in 1976, because Auden may well have written "love letters to the world" and not "letters to the world" as the 1976 version has it. But Auden almost certainly wrote none of these later versions exactly as they appear on McKuen's books and web pages.

We are all on earth to help others . . .

Auden is commonly cited as the author of the sentence that he called "the conceit . . . of the social worker—'We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know'" (Prose, vol. 2, p. 347; cf. variants on pp. 160, 180, and 424). He never claimed credit for it, and was in fact quoting  a well-known English music-hall and radio comedian John Foster Hall (1867-1945), who called himself The Revd. Vivian Foster, the Vicar of Mirth. Details may be found elsewhere on this site.

A palindrome about T. S. Eliot

Charles Osborne's biography, and various other sources, attribute to Auden a long palindrome that begins "T. Eliot, top bard, notes ..." This was in fact written by Alastair Reid, and appears in the chapter "Palidromes" in his book Passwords: Places, Poems, Preoccupations (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), p. 154. This chapter seems to have been published earlier in either The Queen or the UK edition of Harper's Bazaar, but I have not traced the earlier printing.

A ballad that begins "All stories have two kinds of characters"

A three-page typescript poem formerly in the possession of Irwin Ehrenpreis at the University of Virginia was circulated among his acquaintances as an unpublished poem by Auden. Professor Ehrenpreis wrote to me on 26 July 1976 that the poem was written by Daniel Albright, and that he, Ehrenpreis, had misunderstood a joke by Daniel Albright about its authorship. The typescript is titled "Ballad"; it begins, "All stories have two kinds of characters"; it concerns someone named Mary Methane. It is noted here in case anyone should encounter a copy described as Auden's and mistakenly believe it to be his. A handwritten note on one photocopy reads "(published in The Anonym Christmas 1975)". This publication is unlisted in library catalogues and may be as mythical as Irwin Ehrenpreis's attribution of the poem to Auden.

A televsion interview with Barbara Walters

Brian Doerries, in his The Theater of War (New York: Knopf, 2015), reports being told by his Kenyon College Professor Eugen Kullmann, "When W. H. Auden was asked by Barbara Walters in a 20/20 interview why he wrote poetry, he replied: 'To save the words.'" Auden was never interviewed by Barbara Walters, and the 20/20 television series began five years after Auden's death. Eugen Kullmann seems to have been thinking of another writer.

A quotation about science fiction

A quotation about science fiction is widely attributed to Auden, notably in a draft screenplay of the film Alien, but was in fact written by Peter S. Prescott for a feature story, "Science Fiction: The Great Escape," in Newsweek, 22 December 1975, p. 74. The quotation reads: "Science Fiction plucks from within us our deepest fears and hopes then shows them to us in rough disguise: the monster and the rocket."

"Water is the soul of the Earth"

This mindless sentence, widely attributed to Auden on Internet postings but never written by him, is attributed in some online sources to the nineteenth-century poet Lucy Larcom (1824-93), but I cannot find it in digitzed versions of her work. It may be someone else's response to one of various statements about water in her works.

A quotation about leadership

The Internet attributes to Auden the improbable sentence, "No person can be a great leader unless he takes genuine joy in the successes of those under him." This seems to have been written by the Reverend W. A. ("Dub") Nance (1918-2016), whose initials evidently caused the confused attribution to Auden. Nance was a Methodist minister who was hired in 1967 by Holiday Inns to set up a network that would provide pastoral care for hotel guests, and later was elected to the Tennessee House of Representatives.

December 2007; updated June 2023.

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