Auden Against Conceit

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W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Stephen Spender during a PEN conference in Venice, 1949

In August 1955, in the middle of his annual summer sojourn on the Italian island of Ischia, W.H. Auden received from Dr. Enid Starkie, the distinguished author of books on Baudelaire and Rimbaud and a lecturer in modern languages at the University of Oxford, a letter inviting him to stand as a candidate for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry. This five-year post was about to be vacated by Cecil Day-Lewis, the back legs of that mythical beast McSpaunday (Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Auden, Day-Lewis), which had rampaged through the British poetical and political circles of the 1930s, warning the old gang that their time was up, threatening mayhem, revolution, bloodshed: “Don’t bluster, Bimbo,” Day Lewis had, not entirely convincingly, threatened, “it won’t do you any good;/We can be much ruder and we’re learning to shoot.”

It was Auden’s evasion of the task of shooting at, or at least playing a part in the fight against, Nazi Germany that initially gave him pause for thought. His and Christopher Isherwood’s decision to settle in America in 1939 had been widely denounced in Britain. Their detractors included Harold Nicolson—who, by a neat twist of fate, would prove to be Auden’s principal opponent in the battle for the Oxford professorship—and Evelyn Waugh, in whose Put Out More Flags two lily-livered left-wing writers, Parsnip and Pimpernell, abscond to America the moment war breaks out. Indeed Auden and Isherwood’s dereliction of national duty was even discussed in Parliament, where Sir Jocelyn Lucas asked, in June 1940, if they might be summoned back and enlisted.

In his reply to Starkie, Auden cautiously pointed out that he was now an American citizen, which was likely to prove a “fatal handicap” in the election; and further, that as the post paid only £300 a year and required long periods of residence in England, it would severely straiten his circumstances. His main source of income during this period was literary journalism for publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times, temporary academic appointments, and poetry tours like that commemorated in “On the Circuit” of 1963:

Another morning comes: I see,
Dwindling below me on the plane,
The roofs of one more audience
I shall not see again.

God bless the lot of them, although
I don’t remember which was which:
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.

Starkie, however, was undeterred. Unlike many in the Oxford humanities faculties, she fervently believed that the Oxford Professor of Poetry should be a practicing poet rather than a literary critic. In Auden she felt she’d found a fitting successor to Day-Lewis. She wrote again, and then again to Ischia, and Auden eventually capitulated. She at once undertook to organize his campaign, since it was deemed—and still is—unmannerly for the candidates …

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