Uncle Whiz

The Table Talk of W.H. Auden

by Alan Ansen, edited by Nicholas Jenkins, Introduction by Richard Howard
Ontario Review Press, 119 pp., $15.95

Memoirs of a Bastard Angel

by Harold Norse
William Morrow, 447 pp., $22.95

W.H. Auden: ‘The Map of All My Youth,’ Early Works, Friends and Influences Auden Studies, Volume I

edited by Katherine Bucknell, edited by Nicholas Jenkins
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 245 pp., $55.00

Auden’s Apologies For Poetry

by Lucy McDiarmid
Princeton University Press, 176 pp., $24.95

Wystan Auden’s obiter dicta, as heard and transcribed by Alan Ansen, are funny, brilliant, outrageous. Anyone who knew the poet—in this reviewer’s case very slightly compared to Ansen—must agree that the voice rings as true as the often preposterous pronouncements, whose authenticity is verified not only by the exclusion principle that no one else could have made them up but also by the word-of-mouth survival of some of them in Auden lore.

Alan Ansen met WHA in 1946, while the poet was lecturing at the New School for Social Research, and subsequently became his secretary. At age twenty-four, Ansen seems to have had a prodigious knowledge of ancient and modern languages and literatures, as well as near-verbatim recall. Though about half of the entries are printed in dialogue form, the others as monologues, the young philologist is intrusive only on questions of scansion (“In ‘heavy like us’ you could save the alliteration by syncopating the ‘ke’ and positing the ‘k’ as the fourth alliterating letter…”), and he credits his own most recondite contributions only indirectly, through Auden’s responses: “Oh, did Hobbes do a translation?” (of Thucydides); “You’re right, Landor’s epigrams do represent a further use of Greek models.”

The stream-of-consciousness sequence of subjects appears to have been preserved. But Auden’s “baltering torrent” better describes both the jumble of ideas later to be processed into essays and poems, and the reader’s sense of a lonely man’s exuberance in finding a receptive listener: Auden sounds “high” most of the time, hyperventilated by his own wit and intelligence. A typical entry (May 17, 1947; the other thirty are dated between November 1946 and April 1948) jumps from Rimbaud to Churchill; the rutting season of tom cats (“they have a rugged time of it trying to service so many ladies”); a projected guide to England; book reviewing; and the artist Paul Cadmus. But the startling juxtapositions and droll non sequiturs help to establish the reader’s sense of being in the poet’s company. In addition to bits of background—occasion and location, the contents and condition of Auden’s apartment, the kinds and quantities of drinks consumed—Ansen provides a sprinkling of parenthetical stage directions (“smiling mysteriously,” “to the cat,” “to me,” “looking it up in the OED and finding he was right”) and clues to enigmatic references: “If you want special knowledge, there’s just one place to get it from. (Presumably himself.)”

The discussions alight most frequently on literary, sexual, political (antidisestablishmentarian), and religious matters (“I’m coming to doubt whether [Dante] really was a Christian”), leavened with gossip (“Did you see that Mary McCarthy has joined the anti-Homintern?”), snippets of autobiography (“My mother used to get ill every time I came home, which gives you some idea of the relations between us”), and observations on American and European differences of decorum (“For an Englishman coming over here to teach, the rudeness of the students is quite shocking”; “Chester [Kallman] thinks …

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