W.H. Auden: The Life of a Poet
by Charles Osborne
Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 336 pp., $17.95
“A shilling life will give you all the facts,” Auden said mockingly in one of his imaginary portraits. The facts could never encompass the workings of the impetuous heart. Mr. Osborne’s biography, the first in the field, offers chiefly facts; most are not new, unfortunately, and some, as Stephen Spender and others have complained, are not accurate. Except where Auden’s autobiographical remarks come to Mr. Osborne’s aid, the context in which a being might move connectedly from incident to incident is either absent or impoverished. Auden is dangled about on a long line, dipped into one pool after another: always bait and never fish.
Some of the facts are undoubtedly of use. We want to know when Auden experienced agape (1933), when he married Erika Mann (1935), when he went to the United States (January 1939), when he returned to Oxford (June 1972). Our curiosity about his lovers, including one woman—Rhoda Jaffe—is satisfied. But at the end of Mr. Osborne’s book we are a little farther from understanding Auden than at the beginning. Auden had warned of his biographer’s probable failure when he declared, in an essay on Shakespeare’s sonnets, with his usual propensity to foreclose alternative views: “The relation between [a poet’s] life and his works is at one and the same time too self-evident to require comment—every work of art is, in one sense, a self-disclosure—and too complicated ever to unravel.” The springs of any act are complicated, and perhaps especially of acts of writing; still this intricate relation tempts explorers as surely as F.6. Peaks are for climbing.
Auden’s antipathy to biography seems telltale because it is so inconsistently maintained. No anti-biographer has been more biographical in his interests than he. His delight in gossip extended into the past, so that he could announce that Shakespeare, along with Eisenhower, belonged to the “homintern,” and that such pairs as Falstaff and Prince Hal could only be understood as lovers. He wanted to know, and if he could not know, to surmise, all about his contemporaries’ private lives. As he wrote in “Heavy Dates,”
Who when looking over
Faces in the subway,
Each with its uniqueness, Would not, did he dare,
Ask what forms exactly
Suited to their weakness
Love and desperation Take to govern there.
He complained that J.R. Ackerley had never been “quite explicit about what he really preferred to do in bed,” and justified his inquisitiveness by saying, “All ‘abnormal’ sex-acts are rites of symbolic magic, and one can only properly understand the actual personal relation if one knows the symbolic role each expects the other to play.” About Housman he declared he was “pretty sure” that Housman was “an anal passive.”
He was eager, too, to detect and name psychological states and patterns. A whole series of poems is overtly biographical: Auden describes Yeats’s life-long dependence upon women, Matthew Arnold’s filial upbraiding of an age that pretended to take …