Auden strongly disapproved of revelations of the intimate lives of poets. This in no way spoiled his delight in reading them. Perhaps his belief that the enjoyment was sinful added to the pleasure. His love of decisive moral distinctions made the sinner who knew he was doing wrong more acceptable to him than one who sinned ignorantly or—even worse—indifferently. He himself was quite happily ashamed of his interest in posthumous gossip about private lives (just as he frowned upon wicked book reviews of other writers’ works, and read them with enthusiasm—“Chester and I very much enjoyed your article,” he said, sternly and reproachfully to the writer of one such review, adding, “Very bitchy”).
The division of public from private was of the greatest importance to Auden. In this distinction lay for him the foundation of literary morality, and he tried without success to make it consistent. His own poetry attempts to wear a public face: even the love lyrics avoid that air of mystery which hints at a private interpretation. Their meanings lie open on the surface: the mystery is hidden, lies in regions more profound. In the same way what is most idiosyncratic and most personal about Auden’s poetry seems at first sight to be merely a matter of technique, a part of his craft. The elaborate technical mastery has, as one of its functions, the erection of a barrier.
But no poem could ever become completely public for him. He refused to admit the public nature of publication. His poems always remained his private property, he felt, to withdraw as he pleased, to alter, to suppress. No one has ever taken so ethical a view of copyright as Auden.
I once told him about going up to speak to Marianne Moore (whom I had never met) after she had given a reading of some of her poems, to tell her that I regretted a poem she had left out of her collected poems: it had a beautiful comparison of the swan to the mathematician’s sign “greater-than” bearing its point upon the lake, and it ended with, “An arrow turned inward has no chance of peace” (a line I am no longer certain I care for so much). “I am glad you liked that poem,” said Miss Moore, “I liked it too, but James Laughlin didn’t, so I left it out.” When I told this to Auden, I had forgotten that he was sensitive about the revisions and suppressions he had performed on his own work. He was very indignant at my story, and curiously, most indignant at Miss Moore’s reaction, which he must have felt had compromised her fellow poets.
When I said that there were writers and composers, like Schumann, whose revisions fell below the standard of their original inspiration, he replied that quality had nothing to do with it: the work belonged even after publication to the author. He felt I had gone beyond what was permissible in playing …
Copyright © 1974, 1975 by George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd. Copyright © 1974, 1975 by the Estate of W.H. Auden.
This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.