• Email
  • Print

W. H. Auden (1907–1973)

This is the address which Mr. Spender gave at the Cathedral Church, Oxford, on October 27, 1973, in memory of W. H. Auden.

This gathering of friends to honor and remember Wystan Auden is not an occasion on which I should attempt to discuss either Wystan’s personality or his place in the history of English literature. It is, rather, one on which to recall his presence, and express our praise and gratitude for his life and work, in these surroundings where, intellectually and as a poet, his life may be said to have come full circle.

He was a citizen of the world, a New Yorker with a home in Austria, in the little village of Kirchstetten, where he is buried, for whom Christ Church, “The House,” had come to mean his return to his English origins. For making this possible, the Dean and Canon and students are to be thanked.

I knew Wystan since the time when we were both undergraduates, and saw him at intervals until a few weeks before his death. It is impossible for me, in these surroundings, not to juxtapose two images of him, one of forty years back, and one of a year ago only.

The first is of the tow-haired undergraduate poet with the abruptly turning head, and eyes that could quickly take the measure of people or ideas. At that time, he was not altogether quite un-chic, wearing a bow-tie and on occasion wishing one to admire the suit he had on. He recited poetry by heart in an almost toneless, unemotional, quite unpoetical voice which submerged the intellectual meaning under the level horizontal line of the words. He could hold up a word or phrase like an isolated fragment or specimen chipped off the great granite cliff of language, where a tragic emotion could be compressed into a coldly joking word, as in certain phrases I recall him saying. For instance:

The icy precepts of respect

or

Pain has an element of blank

or perhaps lines of his own just written:

Tonight when a full storm sur- rounds the house
And the fire creaks, the many come to mind
Sent forward in the thaw with anxious marrow.
For such might now return with a bleak face,
An image pause, half-lighted at the door….

A voice, really, in which he could insulate any two words so that they seemed separate from the rest of the created universe, and sent a freezing joking thrill down one’s spine. For instance, the voice in which, one summer when he was staying with me at my home in London during a heat wave, and luncheon was served and the dish cover lifted, he exclaimed in tones of utter condemnation like those of a judge passing a terrible sentence:

Boiled ham!”

The second image of Wystan is of course one with which you are all familiar: the famous poet with the face like a map of physical geography, criss-crossed and river-run and creased with lines. This was a face upon which experiences and thoughts had hammered; a face of isolated self-communing which reminded me of a phrase of Montherlant’s about the artist’s task of “noble self-cultivation”; a face, though, which was still somehow entertaining and which could break down into a smile of benevolence or light up with gratified recognition at some anecdote recounted or thought received. It was a face at once armored and receptive.

It is difficult to bring these two images—spaced forty years apart—together. But to do so is to find reason for our being here to praise and thank him.

His fellow undergraduates who were poets when he was also an undergraduate (Day Lewis, MacNeice, Rex Warner, and myself) saw in him a man who, instead of being, like us, romantically confused, diagnosed the condition of contemporary poetry, and of civilization, and of us—with our neuroses. He found symptoms everywhere. Symptomatic was his key word. But in his very strange poetry he transmogrified these symptoms into figures in a landscape of mountains, passes, streams, heroes, horses, eagles, feuds and runes of Norse sagas. He was a poet of an unanticipated kind—a different race from ourselves—and also a diagnostician of literary, social, and individual psychosomatic situations, who mixed this Iceland imagery with Freudian dream symbolism. Not in the least a leader, but, rather, a clinical-minded oracle with a voice that could sound as depersonalized as a Norn’s in a Norse saga. Extremely funny, and extremely hard-working: always, as Louis MacNeice put it, “getting on with the job.” He could indulge in self-caricature, and he could decidedly shock, but he did no imitations of other people’s speech or mannerisms, though he could do an excellent performance of a High Mass, including the bell tinkling. His only performance was himself.

He was in no sense public and he never wanted to start any kind of literary movement, issue any manifestoes. He was publicly private.

Private faces in public places
Are wiser and nicer
Than public faces in private places.

We were grateful for a person who was so different from ourselves, not quite a person in the way that other people were. His poetry was unlike anything we had expected poetry to be, from our public-school-classical-Platonic-Romantic Eng. Lit. education at that time.

He seemed the incarnation of a serious joke. Wystan wrote somewhere that a friend is simply someone of whom, in his absence, one thinks with pleasure. When Wystan was not there, we spoke of him not only with pleasure and a certain awe, but also laughing. People sometimes divide others into those you laugh at and those you laugh with. The young Auden was someone you could laugh-at-with.

I should say that for most of his friends who were his immediate contemporaries, the pattern of his relationship with them was that of colleague; with his pupils that of a teacher whom they called “Uncle Wiz.” During the years when he was teaching at prep school, he wrote his happiest poetry. But in those days of exuberance, merging into the vociferous and partisan 1930s, he almost became that figurehead concerning whose pronouncements he grew to be so self-critical later on: the voice of his generation. Or, rather, its several voices, under which his own voice sometimes seemed muted. For it was not true to his own voice to make public political noises. His own voice said:

O love, the interest itself in thoughtless Heaven,
Make simpler daily the beating of man’s heart.

Nevertheless he did speak for the liveliest of the young at that time: those who wanted to throw off the private inhibitions and the public acquiescences of a decade of censorship and dictatorship and connivance with dictatorship, those who were impassioned by freedom, and some who fought for it. He gave to them their wishes which they might not have listened to otherwise. They were grateful for that. He enabled impulses to flower in individuals. All that was life-enhancing.

Thinking now of the other face, of the later Auden, a great many things about him, quite apart from his appearance, had changed. He now mistrusted his past impulsiveness and rejected in his oeuvre many lines and stanzas which had been the results of it. His buffoonery was now sharpened and objectified into wit. His eccentricities had rigidified into habits imposed according to a built-in timetable regulating nearly every hour of his day. This was serious but at the same time savingly comic. He never became respectable, could always be outrageous, and occasionally undermined his own interests by giving indiscreet interviews about his life. These tended to disqualify him in the eyes of members of committees dedicated to maintaining respectability.

He had also perhaps acquired some tragic quality of isolation. But with him the line of tragedy coincided almost with that of comedy. That was grace. One reason for this was his total lack of self-pity. He was grateful that he was who he was, namely W. H. Auden, received on earth as an honored guest. His wonderfully positive gratitude for his own good luck prevented him from ever feeling in the least sorry for himself. Audiences were baffled and enchanted by this publicly appearing very private performer, serious and subtle and self-parodying all at the same time. They could take him personally and seriously, laughing at-with-him.

He had become a Christian. There was a side to this conversion which contributed to his personal isolation. Going to Spain because he sympathized with the Republic during the Spanish Civil War, he was nevertheless—and much to his own surprise—shocked at the gutted desolation of burned-out churches. Later, he had some signal visionary experiences. These he did not discuss. He was altered in his relations with people, withdrawn into his own world which included our world, became one of those whom others stare at, from the outside.

In his poetry Christianity appears as a literally believed in mythical interpretation of life which reveals more truth about human nature than that provided by “the healers at the end of city drives”—Freud, Groddeck, Homer Lane, Schweitzer, Nansen, Lawrence, Proust, Kafka—whom Auden had celebrated in his early work as those who had “unlearned hatred,”

and towards the really better

World had turned their face.

For throughout the whole development of his poetry (if one makes exception of the undergraduate work) his theme had been love: not Romantic love but love as interpreter of the world, love as individual need, and love as redeeming power in the life of society and of the individual. At first there was the Lawrentian idea of unrepressed sexual fulfillment through love; then that of the social revolution which would accomplish the change of heart that would change society; then, finally, Christianity which looked more deeply into the heart than any of these, offered man the chance of redeeming himself and the society, but also without illusions showed him to himself as he really was with all the limitations of his nature. Christianity changed not only Auden’s ideas but also in some respects his personality. Good qualities which he had always had, of kindness and magnanimity, now became principles of living; not principles carried out on principle, but as realizations of his deepest nature, just as prayer corresponded to his deepest need.

Of all my friends, Wystan was the best at saying “No.” But if asked for bread, he never produced a stone. Young poets who brought him their poems were told what he thought about them. (Though, in their case, if he gave them a discourse on prosody, they may have thought that, instead of bread, he was giving them a currant bun.) He no longer believed in the efficacy of any political action a poet might undertake: but that did not mean he had no social conscience. A few years ago I told him that some writers in Budapest had said to me that if he would attend a conference of their local PEN club which was soon to take place, the name Auden would impress the authorities, and their lives perhaps become a bit easier. Wystan left Vienna almost immediately and attended their meeting in Budapest.

Still, he no longer believed that anything a poet writes can influence or change the public world. All a poet can do perhaps is create verbal models of the private life; a garden where people can cultivate an imagined order like that which exists irresistibly in the music of Mozart, and perhaps really, within eternity.

Much of his later poetry was a long retreat from his earlier belief in the feasibility of healing literature, into the impregnable earthworks and fortresses of language itself, the fourteen-volume Oxford dictionary, the enchanted plots of poetic forms in George Saintsbury’s book on English prosody, the liquid architecture of Mozart, and the solitaire of The Times crossword puzzles.

Wystan died a month ago now. How long ago it seems. In the course of these few weeks much has happened which makes me feel he may be glad to be rid of this world. One of his most persistent ideas was that one’s physical disorders are reflections of the state of one’s psyche, expressing itself in a psychosomatic language of spots and coughs and cancers, unconsciously able to choose, I suppose, when to live and when to die. So I am hardly being superstitious in joking with him beyond the grave with the idea that his wise unconscious self chose a good day for dying, just before the most recent cacophonies of political jargon blaring destruction, which destroy the delicate reduced and human scale of language in which individuals are able to communicate in a civilized way with one another.

We can be grateful for the intricate, complex, hand-made engines of language he produced, like the small-scale machinery he so loved of Yorkshire mines, or like the limestone landscapes of that Northern countryside of hills and caves and freshets where he spent his childhood. He made a world of his imagination and had absorbed into his inner life our outer world, which he made accessible to us in his poetry as forms and emblems to play with. His own inner world included his friends, whom he thought about constantly.

He also had a relationship, which one can only describe as one of affection, with an audience, wherever that happened to be. He could project the private reality of his extraordinary presence and voice onto a public platform when he gave a public reading. He provoked some uniquely personal reaction from each member of his audience, as though his presence had dissolved it into all its individual human components.

The last time we met in America I asked him how a reading which he had given in Milwaukee had gone. His face lit up with a smile that altered its lines, and he said: “They loved me!” At first I was surprised at this expression of unabashed pleasure in a public occasion. Then I thought, how right of him. For he had turned the public occasion into everyone’s private triumph. One reason why he liked writing—and reciting—his poetry was that a poem is written by one person writing for one person reading or listening—however many readers or listeners there may be. So as a public, an audience, a meeting of his friends as separate individuals here gathered together, may each of us think separately our gratitude for his fulfilled life and our praise for his completed work.

  • Email
  • Print