What Happened to Wystan Auden?

At the age of thirty-one, Wystan Hugh Auden, the major British poet between A.E. Housman and Philip Larkin (with a range of styles, techniques, forms, and themes far greater than either’s), left England to settle in New York until a year before his death. Other poets of the twentieth century had chosen life abroad, notably T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but they quit their native land early in their twenties at the beginning of their careers. When Auden went into a self-imposed exile in 1939, he had already achieved a firmly established and distinguished position as poet and essayist. His literary executor (and editor of the critical edition of his complete works) Edward Mendelson has remarked, “No English poet since Byron achieved fame as quickly as Auden did.” The new volume of the critical edition, Prose, Volume III, contains the prose writings from 1949 to 1955 that followed after Auden’s first ten years in America.

Auden’s transplantation was the subject of much controversy. Some English men of letters meanly resented his safe residence in America that spared him the experience of the German bombardment of Britain. In his memoirs, Kingsley Amis reports a conversation with the novelist Anthony Powell on the occasion of the report of Auden’s death in 1973:

He looked up from his newspaper and said, “No more Auden,” adding when I looked blank, “W.H. Auden is dead.”

Oh,” I said. “Well. Quite a blow,” or some similar banality.

I’m delighted that shit has gone,” said Tony with an emphasis and in a tone of detestation that made me jump slightly. “It should have happened years ago.” Feeling perhaps some elucidation might be called for, he went on not much more mildly, “Scuttling off to America in 1939 with his boyfriend like a…like a…”

I have forgotten what it was that Auden had scuttled off like but I never knew Tony before or since to show the kind or intensity of emotion he showed then.

The resentment against Auden’s departure seems to have lasted for decades.

The change of residence was accompanied in Auden’s work by radical changes in manner and theme (a more sociable and relaxed style and a loss of political fervor), and they also created controversy. That these changes were due principally to his leaving Britain is dubious: poets like everyone else naturally alter with time. W.B. Yeats gained new power and economy in his last years, but there is generally a loss of audacity when poets grow older, as in Wordsworth’s descent from the powerful and imaginative landscape poetry and autobiography of his early years to the dull sonnets in favor of capital punishment. What is curious, however, about the new American Auden is the intensity of the disappointment of his greatest admirers, including as fine a poet as Thom Gunn, who never ceased to admire his mastery and his wit.

The most cogent witness to the general evaluation of later …

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Letters

T.S. Eliot Repents February 26, 2009