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 …

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