The ceremonious unveiling of Auden’s memorial stone in Poets’ Corner of Westminster Abbey on October 2 mantled the poet in an atmosphere of propriety that befitted his age and reputation at death. It might have been the serene conclusion of a life spent endorsing English culture. But, as Stephen Spender intimated in his tribute on that occasion, Auden had lived rambunctiously enough. In the Abbey itself, some years ago, he delivered a sermon in which he edified the devout, for the first time in ecclesiastical history, by using the word “tightarsed.” Then there had been his pursuit of a lover across the Atlantic just before war broke out, his naturalization as an American citizen, his extraordinary “marriage” to Erika Mann, his sexual wound to which he wrote the famous Letter in The Orators, and in general an array of experience, not discreditable but not suited to press releases, which made him leery of biographers and eager that his friends destroy his letters. I hope that none have.
Apart from such exploits, there was his gamesome irreverence toward pieties if not toward piety, his refusal to allow his shirt or anyone else’s to be stuffed. If in spite of his iconoclasm he was not precisely an iconoclast, that was because of his sharp eye for the ludicrous and the pompous in rebels as in the rebelled against. He thought for a time of shaking the world, and as a young man talked much of its being shaken, but eventually he decided on another mode, to accept with modifications. As this habit grew on him, he increasingly prided himself on it; he was the world’s celebrant, and in case that be thought too limited a role, he argued that no poet could be more. Those who claimed to be, like Yeats or Shelley, were deceivers or themselves deceived.
As Auden lowered his sights as poet, he returned to the High Church sympathies which, as Christopher Isherwood has recounted, he manifested also when a schoolboy. He came by them naturally, as grandson on both sides of Church of England clergymen. But his decision to regard himself as a believer was also a resolution to make do with what was available, and get on with it. Secular diffusion was a danger. He refused to pursue further the passionate but uncertain outlook which for a time he had accepted from “Lawrence, Blake and Homer Lane, once healers in our English land.” Yet he did not abjure them entirely in favor of the later trio whom he salutes in the poem “A Thanksgiving,” in his last book,
Wild Kierkegaard, Williams and
guided me back to belief.
His twenty years of unbelief were in fact marked by adherence to a secular psychotherapy which was always calling problematic divinities from the wings, “Sir, no man’s enemy,” “Lords of Limit,” or just “Love.” It was clear to him then, as before and after, that he required objects of affection more lasting than any his …