Cecil Beaton Studio Archive/Sotheby’s

W.H. Auden, 1953; photograph by Cecil Beaton

When Wystan Auden wrote his long poetic “Letter to Lord Byron” in 1936, the author was on his way to being almost as famous as the addressee had once been. At twenty-nine, Auden had already established himself, not just as a literary but as a political presence. Soon, his name would be so resonant that James Joyce could use it (humorously) in Finnegans Wake as a pun on the father of the gods, Odin. He was becoming a 1930s English highbrow version of Bob Dylan in the early 1960s—the apparent voice of a leftish generation. Yet in the “Letter to Lord Byron,” Auden confesses that “left-wing friends” are warning him:

Your fate will be to linger on outcast
A selfish pink old Liberal to the last.

Auden does not say whether he agrees with those friends. But the prediction, as he grew older, may have come to seem a little too close to the bone. In 1967, when he prepared a second edition of Letters from Iceland, in which “Letter to Lord Byron” had appeared, he cut these lines (as well as many others). They do not appear in the Collected Longer Poems, published the following year, or in Edward Mendelson’s authoritative edition of the Collected Poems.

By 1963, when the final two volumes of Mendelson’s superb edition of Auden’s prose (the fifth and sixth volumes of the monumental Complete Works) begin, the poet has become pretty much the pale pink old Liberal his left-wing associates prophesied thirty years earlier. By 1970, when he published his delightfully idiosyncratic “commonplace book,” A Certain World, Auden could construe himself in episcopal terms:

In my own case, I like to fancy that, had I taken Anglican Holy Orders, I might by now be a bishop, politically liberal I hope, theologically and liturgically conservative I know.

Even those Marxist friends of the 1930s who were aware that both of Auden’s grandfathers were Church of England clergymen and suspected that he was a closet counterrevolutionary might not have gone quite so far in predicting his future. But the Auden we find in the articles, essays, lectures, and reviews from the last decade of his life is indeed rather like an aging and learned English bishop, personally benign and tolerant, but ruefully convinced at heart that the world is going to hell in a handcart if it does not repent soon.

There is, in the late Auden, little of T.S. Eliot’s ranting of his conservative Christian prejudices or of W.B. Yeats’s authoritarian shaking of the fist at the “filthy modern tide.” In his introduction to an anthology of the writings of Protestant mystics, Auden quotes approvingly from an unnamed Anglican bishop, “Orthodoxy is reticence,” and from C.D. Broad, “A healthy appetite for righteousness, kept in due control by good manners, is an excellent thing.” Auden’s good manners make him a much nicer companion but a much less forceful prose writer than Eliot or Yeats. In him we find both the pleasures and the limits of temperance and moderation.

The most fascinating revelation of these volumes, however, is that underneath the surface of Auden’s urbane writings, there is surprisingly much that is in need of moderation. By 1963, when they begin, Auden was fifty-six and an apparently settled and affable figure. He had exorcised the ghosts of his controversial departure from England on the brink of World War II by serving as professor of poetry at Oxford, a role in which he had enjoyed considerable success, from 1956 to 1961. He was elected an honorary student (in effect a fellow) of Christ Church, and spent some time in Oxford each year, as he moved between his homes in New York and Austria, where he was, as he wrote in “Thanksgiving for a Habitat,” “at last…dominant/over three acres.”

Spiritually and intellectually, he was securely anchored in the high church Anglican faith of his childhood. His poems from this period have a quiet assurance, so emotionally understated that they can seem almost detached in their wry self-observation. He seems comfortable with the imperfections of his middle-aged life: “Ordinary human unhappiness/is life in its natural color…” (“The Cave of Nakedness,” written in June 1963). His output of literary journalism was prodigious but he did not upset himself by reviewing books he did not like. His essays and reviews for The New York Review, The New Yorker, and other publications were delivered at the right time and to the right length, in a style that is punctilious without severity, conversational without condescension. The signs are of equanimity, not rage.

Yet an almost apocalyptic crankiness occasionally bursts through. One startling example is the end of an elegant and erudite piece Auden wrote for Life magazine in 1966 on the fall of Rome. After the kind of lucid exposition that might be expected from a great poet with a classical education, he suddenly lurches into Book of Revelations mode:


I think a great many of us are haunted by the feeling that our society, and by ours I don’t just mean the United States or Europe, but our whole worldwide technological civilisation, whether officially labelled capitalist, socialist or communist, is going to go smash and probably deserves to.

(One has some sympathy for the editors at Life who asked Auden to drop this stuff and declined to publish the piece when he refused.) Elsewhere, Auden’s despair about the terminal decline of civilization is sparked by everything from “heroin addicts and beats” to the contemporary poetry that “increasingly revolts me,” from “the revolting nervous vulgarity of our affluent mass society” to the fluidity of word usage. (He agrees with Evelyn Waugh that “words have basic inalienable meanings, departure from which is either conscious metaphor or inexcusable vulgarity.”)

This hell-in-a-handcart side of Auden reaches a climax at the end of an otherwise fascinating essay in The New Yorker in 1965 on Waugh and Leonard Woolf when he veers sharply off the road and ends up recommending the extinction of 90 percent of the earth’s population:

How can we contemplate the not so distant future with anything but alarm when no method both morally tolerable and practically effective has yet been discovered for reducing the population of the world to a tenth of its present size and keeping it there?

Inside the urbane 1960s Auden, it seems, there is a mad declinist, an offspring of Thomas Malthus and Oswald Spengler, trying to get out. Auden’s desire to be “kept in due control by good manners” can thus be read as his way of keeping this creature in its cage. For the most part, he does so with remarkable success.

Auden also had particular biographical and aesthetic reasons for reticence and caution. In his eloquent memorial address for his old friend and fellow poet Louis MacNeice, delivered in All Souls Church in London in October 1963, Auden implicitly contrasts his own back catalog to MacNeice’s:

Every poet knows that, when he looks back over what he has written, the poems it is a torment and a shame to recall are not those which, for one reason or another, were failures—no poet who writes much can hope to escape writing some poems which are bad or, at least, boring—but those which he knows to be clever forgeries, expressing feelings or attitudes which were not really his, but which vanity, a wish to please an audience, or the wrong kind of conscience deluded him into fancying were genuine. Of these, he is very rightly ashamed, because he cannot say “I should have written it differently” or “It was the best I could do at the time”: he can only say “I ought never to have written it, and I needn’t have.”

There can be no doubt that the torment and shame he speaks of here are his own. This passage in the oration brings to mind his foreword to B.C. Bloomfield’s W.H. Auden: A Bibliography, written around the same time. Here he accuses himself directly of just this kind of feigned or forced effect, in relation to his poem on the eve of World War II, “September 1, 1939.” Soon after it was published, he writes in 1964, he reread it and came to the famous (or infamous) line “We must love one another or die.”

[I] said to myself: “That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” So in the next edition I altered it to “We must love one another and die.” This didn’t seem to do either so I cut the stanza. Still no good. The whole poem, I realised, was infected with an incurable dishonesty and must be scrapped.

It might be argued that there is something exaggerated in this self-reproach—“We must love one another or die” is not really, in the context of the poem and of the war, such an awful line. But for Auden himself, this revulsion is inescapable. Once he abandoned embattled England for the safety of New York (if asked his nationality during the period when Britain was standing virtually alone against Hitler, he would reply, “I am a New Yorker”), Auden had no choice but to abandon also any notion of himself as a public and oracular poet on the Yeatsian model. He would later claim that “the reason (artistic) I left England and went to the US was precisely to stop me writing poems like ‘Sept 1st 1939,’” but the reverse is surely equally true: the reason he stopped writing public poems in the manner he learned from Yeats is because he had left England.


Once he had done so, the left-wing positions he had taken in the 1930s had to be reconfigured as insincere poses, expressions, as he claims in 1965, in the foreword to his Collected Shorter Poems, of “feelings or beliefs which [the] author never felt or entertained.” He became a hyperactive editor and reviser of his own earlier canon, arranging poems alphabetically rather than chronologically so as to conceal the links between a poem and its immediate context, erasing some political poems like “Spain” or “September 1, 1939” altogether, and heavily redacting others. All his high rhetorical gestures had to be reduced in line with his new creed, enunciated in his 1967 T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures:

Art is impotent. The utmost an artist can hope to do for his contemporary readers is, as Dr Johnson said, to enable them a little better to enjoy life or a little better to endure it.

Hence the restraint that marks so much of Auden’s prose in the 1960s and 1970s. As an American citizen and a high-profile contributor to The New York Review and The New Yorker, for example, Auden could hardly avoid the Vietnam War altogether. But he came quite close. Rather ironically, the leftist Auden of the 1930s was now back in political vogue: a television commercial for Lyndon Johnson’s election campaign in 1964 actually alluded to “September 1, 1939.” But Auden was no longer that writer. He told a newspaper reporter in 1965 that he was “the only New York intellectual who supports” the war. A few months later, in his contribution to a gathering of statements, Writers Take Sides on the Vietnam War, he accused those in favor of American withdrawal of being pro-Communist and continued:

I believe a negotiated peace, to which the Vietcong will have to be a party, to be possible, but not yet, and that, therefore, American troops, alas, must stay in Vietnam until it is. But it would be absurd to call this answer mine. It simply means that I am an American citizen who reads The New York Times.

These hopes for a negotiated peace were not, of course, realized and by 1968 Auden’s position had changed. He now identified himself publicly with those who demanded the withdrawal of US forces:

Today, though we are still, alas, a minority, the number of persons in this country of every shade of political coloration who have come to the conclusion, however reluctantly, that the rest of the world is right in thinking that it is our moral duty to withdraw from Vietnam is increasing daily.

Almost as striking as the taking of this relatively advanced position, though, is the diffidence with which Auden expresses it. Even under the pressure of such bitterly contested events, he would not return to the intellectual barricades of the 1930s.

This caution is everywhere in Auden’s prose writing. Considering that he was consciously homosexual from the age of fifteen and notably frank in talking about sex to his friends from an early age, the public Auden is remarkably coy about homosexuality and the situation of gay men in an era of legal repression. In a (subsequently redacted) passage of “Letter to Lord Byron,” the Auden of 1936 had referred to the news that his lover Christopher Isherwood was about to publish a book:

I must be quick if I’m to get my oar in
Before his revelations bring the law in.

Now, reviewing Oscar Wilde’s letters for The New Yorker in 1963, he is breezily dismissive of the laws under which Wilde was prosecuted:

Whether a law which makes homosexual acts between consenting adults a crime be just or unjust is debatable…. To ninety-nine per cent of practicing homosexuals, it makes no difference, so far as their personal liberty is concerned, whether such a law be on the statute book or not.

This seems deliberately obtuse, but it is not out of keeping with the rather haughty tone Auden generally adopts in relation to the lives of other homosexual men, as if they had nothing whatever to do with him. When he ventures into autobiography, in the course of the long New Yorker review of memoirs by Leonard Woolf and Evelyn Waugh that is one of the most intriguing pieces collected by Mendelson, he hints that he is at least not repelled by the idea of homosexual experience. He mentions an older man (identified by Auden biographers as a journalist called Michael Davidson) who took a great interest in him when he was sixteen:

He was a practicing homosexual and had, I think, been to prison. Why he should have taken a shine to me I cannot imagine, since I was a very plain boy. He made advances, which I rejected, not on moral grounds but because I thought him unattractive.

Elsewhere, however, a reader ignorant of Auden’s biography might assume that homosexuality never entered his head. In the introduction to the Protestant mystical writings that is perhaps his most important exploration of spirituality, there is a section on erotic love. It takes for granted that eros operates only between opposite genders: “To the degree that I love both Elizabeth and Mary, I cannot say which I love more…. Each of us is born either male or female and endowed with an impersonal need to mate with a member of the opposite sex.” Again, in one of his T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures in 1967: “It is no longer sufficient that the girl we love shall know that we love her, the whole world must know.”

There is an irony here: in his determination to avoid striking dishonest political poses, Auden ends up adopting dishonest personal ones. And this is not because he had no other option. Intriguingly, Mendelson mentions in an appendix on Auden’s unwritten works that he twice set about writing a statement on the antihomosexuality laws. In 1954, he began an anonymous essay for Encounter “but it turned out so anti homintern that I tore it up.” (“Homintern” was used in this period to suggest the existence of a “gay mafia” in high places.) In 1965, he began a draft statement on the same subject but never finished it. He opted instead to leave for a long time the impression that he was primarily interested in mating with Elizabeths or Marys.

It is only in 1969, in a sparkling and startling essay on J.R. Ackerley’s memoir My Father and Myself in The New York Review, that Auden comes close to acknowledging his own sexuality. Ackerley’s book is frank about his own gay sex life, and Auden responds to it with a frankness of his own. His essay is surely one of the very few articles, even in these groundbreaking pages, to include two phrases that had never been in print before. It was an ambition of Auden’s to be cited in this way in the Oxford English Dictionary and he managed it twice with this piece. It includes the terms “Plain-Sewing,” which means mutual masturbation, and “Princeton-First-Year,” which means frottage. Whether Princeton itself can claim copyright on this coinage is unclear, but in any case Auden’s essay is cited in the 1982 supplement to the OED. Auden’s worldly views on the subject can be hair-raising (“among thirteen- and fourteen-year-old boys there are a great many more Lolitas than the public suspects”), but at least the reader can have been in little doubt that Auden is writing about these things through his own experiences. There are no decorous Marys or Elizabeths.

Auden’s usual reticence about sexuality is part of a broader anxiety about any kind of personal revelation. He can never make up his mind about it. In the Ackerley review, for example, he criticizes the author because he “is never quite explicit about what he really preferred to do in bed”—the implication being that we are entitled to all the most intimate details. But in a discussion after a seminar at Columbia University a few months later, we find Auden attacking nakedness on stage:

This thing of taking your clothes off on the stage and doing all those things…[makes] me wonder if they can have any real friends, because surely there is an essential difference between the public and the private life. You take off your clothes in private; sex is a private matter.

This contradiction is entirely typical. In reviewing artistic biographies and letters, Auden almost always insists that they are, in principle, immoral intrusions into privacy and tell us nothing about art. He puts it most bluntly in the foreword to A Certain World:

Biographies of writers, whether written by others or themselves, are always superfluous and usually in bad taste. A writer is a maker, not a man of action. To be sure, some, in a sense all, of his works are transmutations of his personal experiences, but no knowledge of the raw ingredients will explain the peculiar flavor of the verbal dishes he invites the public to taste: his private life is, or should be, of no concern to anybody except himself, his family and his friends.

Here speaks the bishop, laying down his orthodox rule. But he is a benign bishop and he always finds a loophole in the law. The standard Auden review essay begins with a version of his anathema on delving into the lives of writers and proceeds to tell us why we can make an exception in this case. It is “dishonorable to read other people’s letters,” but Auden goes on to read Wilde’s with great acuity and sensitivity, making the excuse that Wilde was, after all, a show-off and would have wanted us to read his letters.

The publication of Max Beerbohm’s private letters is “a violation of personal privacy for which I can see no justification whatever,” but he goes on to write, brilliantly and at great length, about a biography that makes use of them. It is impossible, Auden claims, for a biography of Wagner to tell us anything about his music, but he goes on to write about one such biography, again brilliantly, because “the story of Wagner’s life is absolutely fascinating and it would be so if he had never written a note.”

This contradiction generates the somewhat odd sensation one has in reading Mendelson’s stupendous collections, which build new wings onto a Complete Works that is becoming one of the great achievements of current literary scholarship. Their comprehensive nature inevitably makes the heavy tomes at times more voluminous than luminous. But they make us equally grateful for showing us two entirely opposite tendencies in Auden’s writing—his ability to hold his tongue and his tendency to loosen it. We get a sufficient flavor of the crankiness of his general view of contemporary society to admire the self-awareness and self-restraint that allow him, for the most part, to keep those views to himself. If a gentleman is someone who can play the accordion but doesn’t, Auden’s gentility is that he is perfectly capable of playing the aging ranter but chooses not to. And on the other side, the reader can only be glad that Auden constantly breaks his own vows of silence, revealing things about other writers and about himself that, he sternly insists, must not be revealed. A bishop who never sinned against the commandments he espouses would be a dull fellow indeed.

These opposing pleasures make the volumes deeply contradictory. But we read them, after all, not for their intellectual coherence but because Auden is a great poet. For poets, contradictions are not mistakes. They are compulsory.