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The Travelling Auden

By Nicholas Jenkins

It is easy to see that the cultural and philosophical co-ordinates of Auden's poetry range widely across space and time. But it is also very much of its own time, particularly in its restless, vagrant, sometimes harried, note of unsettlement. In 1939 in an "Ode" in praise of a Manhattan hotel where he was temporarily based, Auden wrote that: "I've stayed in hotels in most places | Where my passport permits me to go, | (Excluding the British Dominions | And Turkey and U.S.S.R.)". The tone is light, but the claim contains a significant figurative truth, one that most critics have not taken seriously enough, or have not thought through in detail. The claim goes to the heart of the kind of poet that Auden was. It points to the role of the displaced, cosmopolitan poet which history forced Auden to take on and which, when he did take it on, made him such a historically representative figure.

But just how "cosmopolitan," how "international" was Auden? What precisely were the historical conditions from which his uprooted vantagepoint emerged? How much travelling did he in reality do? How much of his life was spent away from his residence of the moment (whether that was in England, Germany, the United States, Italy, or Austria)? What were the journeys and choices that produced his own complicatedly transnational literary identity and his ideal of "a sort of world, quite other, | altogether different from this one |with its envies and passports"? This note attempts to supply some basic details out of which satisfying answers to these questions might be built.

In a note to himself late in life Auden roundly declared that "Behaviour that can be statistically expressed, is the behaviour of the enslaved" (British Museum holograph notebook, used 1947-?1964). My first impulse on reading this sentence is to agree cravenly. Striving to be more honest, though, I find that in gauging the extent of Auden's boundary-spanning cultural profile, a few figures and statistics (of a kind) are actually helpful. They make clear that the restlessness and eclecticism of Auden's poetry emerged not just from a cerebral internationalism of the desk and study but from an existence - a career - in movement, a life with multiple foci. Auden's cosmopolitanism was not just an ethical notion but a reflection of specific cultural and social experiences during a period in which almost no-one expected life to go on unchanged, a period which one historian (Eric Hobsbawm) has called "an era of havoc.".

So ... some facts. During his lifetime (1907-1973) Auden held two different passports (British and American) at different times. Although he was finally “naturalized” as an American citizen in May 1946, apparently he did not receive an American passport until Feb 1948, shortly before he travelled to Italy. This presumably means that he travelled to Europe with the USSBS in 1945 on some kind of temporary, military-issued pass rather than an ordinary American passport.

At various points Auden had long-term homes in five countries: UK, Germany, USA, Italy, and Austria (these are places where he lived at least once for six-months or more at a stretch). He made no - or practically no - journeys abroad from the place which was at the time his de facto home during 26 years out of the 67 or so years of his life (1907-1924, 1933 [bar a few days in Germany during January 1933], 1940-44, 1946-47). However, if we subtract his years of childhood from this total, we see that Auden made no - or practically no - journeys abroad in only eight out of his 49 adult years, and five of those eight years were a direct result of wartime restrictions. In other words, when Auden was an adult and could have travelled abroad, he did so during roughly 94% of the possible years, frequently for quite substantial stretches of time. For him, then, travelling was a norm.

Vaguely defined plans to travel to Australia in 1935 and Mexico in 1938 fell through, meaning that Auden visited or lived in four of the world's seven continents (Asia, Africa, Europe and North America). In all he visited 27 countries at some point in his life (leaving aside Britain, the place of his birth, which of course later, technically became a foreign country for him). Those countries (and colonies) are: Austria, Belgium, Canada, Ceylon, China, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Djibouti, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Hong Kong, Hungary, Iceland, India, Israel (is there any other important English-language poet with a reputation established before the Second World War who travelled to Israel, I wonder?), Italy, Japan, Macao, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, USA, and Yugoslavia.

We have already seen that Auden claimed by the age of 32 he had "stayed in most places" where he was allowed to go, "Excluding the British Dominions | And Turkey and U.S.S.R." Perhaps the most noticeable and significant places that Auden did not visit are Russia (an especially meaningful omission for a supposed poet of the 1930s Left), Central and South America: "I ... have never been to Mexico nor wish to go there" Auden wrote rather camply in his 1956 introduction to John Ashbery's Some Trees. (The tentative plan for Auden and Isherwood to meet Spender in Mexico in the summer 1938, after their trip to China, was apparently abandoned.) Closer to "home", we note he never set foot in the country that, in his elegy for W. B. Yeats, he aggressively describes - based on no first-hand knowledge - as "mad Ireland."

In judging the substance of Auden's travels, I count 29 separate journeys that each lasted more than two months. Indeed, 26 of those 29 journeys lasted more than five months, blurring remarkably the notion that, especially in Auden's later years, there were for him clear definitions of what "at home" and "abroad," "domestic" and "foreign," "here" and "there," meant.

In a manner that helps us to sharpen our sense of specificity about Auden's travel-dominated life, the extent of his movement contrasts starkly and suggestively with those of two major poets of the generations before and after his own. First, the older poet. In 1946 Eliot wrote of Ezra Pound that "I have never known a man, of any nationality, to live so long out of his native country without seeming to settle anywhere else." Yet in spite of Ezra Pound's cultivation of an intensely cosmopolitan, mobile poetic persona and in spite of his bookish fascination with the ancient cultures of Egypt and China, he seems only ever to have set foot in seven countries (the United States, Spain [Gibraltar], the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Germany, and at the very end of his life, seeking medical treatment, Switzerland), all of them, bar his native land, in the heart of Western Europe. Together these were essentially the countries that produced the literature covered in his MA in Romance languages at Penn as long ago as 1905-06.

(Besides comparing Pound's mobility to Auden's, it is also interesting to compare it in passing to William Carlos Williams's. Pound travelled less widely and less often than Auden. He even travelled less widely than Williams. In the 1910s and 1920s, Pound often cast his internationalist purview against Williams's nativist stance. Yet Williams actually saw a more diverse group of cultures than Pound - he travelled at various times to France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Holland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Austria and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico. This suggests that being identified, by oneself or by others, as a rooted or a deracinated artist has as much to do with the stories that writers tell about themselves as it does with actual experience. I am reminded that in A Colder Eye Hugh Kenner calculated Yeats, the poet of Irish nationalism, spent more time out of Ireland than James Joyce, the professional exile. Yet in 1948, the Irish government actively sought to have the body of the nationalist Yeats returned to Ireland while discreetly rejecting the idea of repatriating Joyce's remains.)

Of course, the duration and intensity of a person's immersion in a culture counts for far more in the shaping of an identity than the number of places visited for brief holidays. The Cantos is impossible to imagine without Pound's confrontation with avant-garde ideas and poetic techniques in London and Paris during the 1910s and 1920s, or with his immersion in Italian politics in the 1920s and 1930s. Quite why some literary historians persist in seeing Pound's poem as simply "American" and Pound as an "American" poet is a mystery to me: surely it and he are as much products of Europe as they are anything else? Still, the degree of diversity that a writer experiences surely also matters and in this respect Williams was more widely-travelled than Pound.

But if Pound's personal experience of the world seems limited compared with Auden's, then the self-proclaimed introspective isolatedness of the most important poet of a younger generation of English poets, Philip Larkin, seems even more distinct and contrasting. In spite of Larkin's enthusiasm for the works of Isherwood (that prototypical 1930s wanderer), Larkin himself made only a tiny number of excursions away from English territory. He made trips to Germany in 1936 and 1937 with his father and to Belgium in 1939 with his school. But subsequently he seems to have travelled abroad only twice in his entire adult life in journeys that together amounted to no more a few days' duration (a short trip Paris with Bruce Montgomery in 1952, and a reluctant flying visit to Hamburg in 1976 to collect the Shakespeare Prize). In other words, while Auden travelled abroad in 94% of the years of his adult life, Larkin travelled similarly in about 5% of the years of his maturity. And, given the brevity of Larkin's forays and the usual lengthiness of Auden's, such a stark numerical comparison actually understates the degree of disparity between their experiences of the wider world. In later years Larkin's carefully cultivated dislike of foreignness and of travel became widely known, and it was from this vantagepoint that the parochial weight of his sarcasm in his 1960 review of Homage to Clio can best be felt. Bemoaning Auden's disappearance from the English scene in 1939, Larkin castigated the "individual and cosmopolitan path" that the later Auden had followed.

What follows is a summary list of Auden's main foreign journeys, together with dates, the approximate length of the journey being given in months (side trips and brief stops are indicated in square brackets). The order of the countries listed here is, in the simplest sense, the order in which Auden visited the countries during his travel for that year. But each country is listed only once for each journey even if Auden visited the country several times during that journey. This was often the case with his trips to Britain, Germany, Italy and Austria after 1948. Short of a day by day itinerary, which would be beyond my powers to compile and anyone else's to read through, it is impossible to represent the frequent complexities - the circlings, lateral movements, hiatuses, forays, and repetitions - of Auden's journeys, especially in the post-World War 2 period. For example, in 1956-57, Auden made several journeys back and forth from Italy to Britain. I list each country only once in each journey, indicating merely the order in which he first visited them during the trip. Note too that the dating of the journey refers only to the months in which all or part of the journey was made. It does not necessarily mean that Auden was away for the whole of the month in question.

With a British passport:

With an American military pass:

With an American passport:

Clearly Auden's travels are not without cultural foci or biases: they predominantly, though not exclusively, involve journeys around and between Europe and the United States. Such intensive journeying was far less typical or easy than it is today. After he had flown on a US military plane from the United States to Britain on his way to Germany in April 1945, Auden presciently announced to friends waiting to greet him, "I'm the first major poet to fly the Atlantic." (Pound's flight to the United States in November 1945 also seems to have been made on a US military plane.) But before long in the post-war period, flying writers were becoming less anomalous. Isherwood flew to Britain in January 1947; E M Forster flew to the United States in April 1947; Eliot flew from the States to Britain in November 1948. So Auden was not the first "major poet" to cross the Atlantic ocean on a commercial flight when, in September 1949, when he flew TWA from Italy to the United States. Auden’s history of geographical mobility - the Christmas of 1937, the year in which he suffered a laying on of patriotic hands when the George VI personally awarded him a Gold Medal for Poetry, was the last Christmas he spent in England until the Christmas of 1972, his last - while telling and pronounced is hardly unique within the culture(s) of Auden's place and time. And of course it does not count as one of the innumerable histories of tragic journeying involuntarily lived out around the planet in the 1930s and 1940s. But then that is the point.

During Auden's life, travel was becoming not so much a rarefied class privilege as a more general condition. Raymond Williams identified exilic, modernist writing and experimentation as occurring within the "general processes of mobility, dislocation and para-national communication." Reflecting on Williams's words and commenting on this idea of "mobility" as a key to modernism both as a literary and a social formation, Michael North considers the endlessly peripatetic careers of just three British subjects, Charlie Chaplin, Claude McKay and D H Lawrence, and comments that they share and "experience of restless travel so relentless that citizenship ceases to have any meaning." Such was also Auden's case. Auden's status as a writer almost always "in transit" derives from a particular historical moment, and endows his work with a certain very modern cultural representativeness. These are facets of his writing which are still too infrequently analyzed, or even noticed. It was not as if Auden was unaware of this motif of displacement in his writing and his life. Some of his most telling self-definitions (whether in his poetry, prose, letters or conversations) involve ideas of dislocation or displacement. Thus, at various times after 1940, Auden refers to himself as "the Wandering Jew," as an "alien," a "déraciné," a "metic."

In 1941 Auden looked back to the exemplary writing of another heroic member of the first generation of modernists (just as he would do in his 1946 address to the Grolier Club on the expatriated Henry James), when he sought to define why the disaffiliated or nationless writer had become such an important symbol of the fate imposed on everyone by modernity. "Kafka is important to us," Auden the New World émigré claimed, "because the predicament of his hero is the predicament of the contemporary man.... It was fit and proper that Kafka should have been a Jew, for the Jews have long been placed in the position in which we are all now to be, of having no home."

The place where a person is born has a symbolic value in the story of their life. So too does the place of their death. As we noted at the start of this essay, in 1939 Auden announced that he had "stayed in hotels in most places | Where my passport permits me to go." By 1947 he had begun to believe that he would not only keep staying in hotels. He told a friend mournfully: "I shall probably die in a hotel." In September 1973, Auden, on his last evening as himself, gave a poetry reading and then, during the ensuing night, died alone in the Altenburgerhof in Vienna. Chester Kallman wrote that the following morning he found Auden "Turning icy-blue on a hotel bed."

Note: During a visit to Athens in 1965, Auden appears to have mentioned that he had visited the city thirty years before. See David Jackson, "Three Pictures of W. H. Auden," Christopher Street, 2.4 (Oct 1977), 42. October 1935 seems to me the likeliest date for a short, otherwise unrecorded visit by Auden to Greece at this period.  Contemporary accounts suggest that, factoring in stops and changes of aircraft, it took approximately three days to travel from London to Athens by plane in the mid-1930s. [Return]

Special thanks are due to Edward Mendelson who offered essential help with the compilation and tabulation of data about Auden's travel as well as several important memory-joggers. I would be grateful to readers for any corrections and/or additions they can offer.

©2003 Nicholas Jenkins

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