Lives of the Poets

Auden in Love

by Dorothy J. Farnan
Simon and Schuster, 253 pp., $17.95

“We’re a funny pair, you and I.”

—Auden to Kallman, March 15, 1949

Auden in Love is a biography of Chester Kallman, the “love” of the title and the poet’s closest friend for thirty-four years. The author, Dorothy Farnan, had first known Auden while he was guest professor at the University of Michigan in 1941, and Kallman as a fellow student there a year later. During the following three decades in New York, she was in a better position than anyone else to observe the two of them together, at least after 1948, when she became the consort of Kallman’s father. Besides her advantage as a member of the family, she has been able to quote extensively from Auden’s letters to Kallman and from Kallman’s to her, and to use the testimony of hitherto unknown friends and lovers of both men. The resulting story is of a relationship as strange and disturbing as any in all “the lives of the poets.”

Earlier writers on Auden have already established Kallman as the central figure in the second half of the poet’s life. Farnan’s account supplies the Kallman side of the connection, and by means of new sources, of which she herself—named only in passing in other books on the subject—is the most important, together with fifteen or so men referred to pseudonymously and interviewed by her only recently. The role of one of these, “Keith Callaghan,” readjusts the picture of Auden’s life in the years 1948 to 1953.

If Farnan has a thesis, it is that despite the anguish which Auden endured during all but the first two years of his “marriage” to Kallman, “Chester was good for him.” Farnan quotes Irving Weiss, a friend of Kallman’s since undergraduate days and a neighbor in Ischia during four of the summers that Auden and Kallman spent there together. (Though not mentioned in any of the Auden biographies, Professor Weiss and his wife were closer to the Ischia Auden than any other outsider except Hans Werner Henze, who is not a contributor to the present book.)

Chester frequently directed, or at least influenced. Wystan’s taste. Because they were both intellectually powerful, each in his own right, they could talk to each other and have a lasting relationship. Chester was the only one in the world who could have had such a relationship with Wystan. One felt between them an instant electrical connection, particularly when they were talking about literature or music.

From my more limited observations of both men, this seems true, though of course no options are available concerning “the only one in the world who could have had such a relationship”: we do not know what might have been. It should also be emphasized that Auden’s philosophical and theological preoccupations were of little interest to Kallman, who knew and loved music and poetry but disliked “intellectuals,” and who considered Auden’s erudition and range of reading—as displayed in his Greek and Kierkegaard anthologies, and his essay…

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