Sunday, April 11, 2010

W. H. Auden

So when I said Auden was a swell guy and you'd like him, what I really meant was that he's a weird guy and I like him. This is a man who said of himself that he looked like an unmade bed (regrettably accurate), and liked to replace the pronouns in famous lines with "your mother." In a discussion on capital punishment he apparently said he would like to carry out such a sentence on Bertolt Brecht. Personally. He proposed marriage to Hannah Arendt, but she declined, maybe because he was gay, maybe because he looked like an unmade bed. Who can say. Anyway, I like Auden because he does not have the distancing aura of wisdom about him that makes other poets seem to belong to some other plane of existence. Auden definitely lived on the same earth as everyone else.

He was born in York in 1907, and for maybe a year lived in a house right down the street from the bed and breakfast I stayed in last June.


He moved around a lot as a child, and eventually ended up going away to school when his father went into the military during World War I. He met Christopher Isherwood at school. Isherwood, you may recall, wrote the novel on which the movie A Single Man is based. Reading any biography of Auden gives you the impression that the world is very small. Auden seems to have known everyone of any importance. For Pete's sake, he was even friends with Daniel Day-Lewis's father, Cecil, which seems like a very strange fact until you discover that Cecil went on to become the British Poet Laureate at the end of his life.

Anyway, Auden continued to move around and travel throughout his life. He lived in Berlin for a bit in his twenties, then decided to become a soldier and got mixed up in the Spanish Civil War for a few weeks, then went to observe the Sino-Japanese war with Isherwood (on which they wrote a book together), and then, when he was 32, moved to America. He lived in Brooklyn, then taught at Swarthmore, then taught at the University of Michigan. In 1945 he went to Germany to do an absurd job for the United States Strategic Bombing Survey. He said, "We asked them if they minded being bombed. We went to a city which lay in ruins and asked if it had been hit. We got no answers that we didn’t expect." After that he split his time between New York and an island in Italy called Ischia.

Although Auden initially moved to America more or less with Isherwood, he met Chester Kallman not long after, and ended up in a long, strange sort of marriage (obviously unofficial) with him. The relationship was somewhat marred (to understate it) by the fact that Auden was, or wanted to be, monogamous by nature, and that didn't appeal to Kallman. They continued to live together on and off and remained friends and creative collaborators until Auden's death. Sometimes people try to make something of that fact that Kallman did not live long after Auden's death, but the unromantic fact is, Kallman was in very bad health already. He started drinking at breakfast long before Auden died, and it was because a boyfriend of his had been killed in a car accident. I personally find all this really depressing. Auden wanted so much to be in some kind of marriage that he actually proposed to four or five women over the course of his life. He did actually marry Erika Mann (Thomas Mann's daughter), but it was only to get her out of pre-war Germany.

In 1972, Auden moved back to England to teach at Oxford. He died of a heart attack less than two years later, after giving a poetry reading in Vienna. He wrote an intimidating amount of poetry, some plays and essays, a couple of travel books, and various libretti (the libretti being mostly collaborations with Kallman). By the end, he was drinking too much, taking a lot of sleeping pills and amphetamines, and wearing slippers in the street. At some point during this time he wrote possibly the only poem I can always remember in its entirety:

He still loves life
but O O O O how he wishes
the Good Lord would take him.

Some are of the opinion that Auden is sort of great but not really that great. I get the feeling certain critics would prefer him to be T. S. Eliot. This is plain foolish. We already have a T. S. Eliot. Why can't we have an Auden, too? I suppose I take offense to the very idea that comparing the worth of two different poets is useful. To say that Auden is especially not to verse what Einstein is to physics seems to suggest that he would have done better not to write at all, so as not to have publicly fallen short. That's nonsense. And anyway, Auden's enduring ability to fall short is what I like about him. His work isn't perfect and his life didn't turn out entirely to his satisfaction. He was kind of a slob. But he's a slob who wrote "O Tell Me the Truth About Love":

Can it pull extraordinary faces?
Is it usually sick on a swing?
Does it spend all its time at the races,
or fiddling with pieces of string?
Has it views of its own about money?
Does it think Patriotism enough?
Are its stories vulgar but funny?
O tell me the truth about love.

. . .

When it comes, will it come without warning
Just as I'm picking my nose?
Will it knock on my door in the morning,
Or tread in the bus on my toes?
Will it come like a change in the weather?
Will its greeting be courteous or rough?
Will it alter my life altogether?
O tell me the truth about love.

What Auden has that Eliot doesn't, and what Eliot has that Auden doesn't, and what everyone has that everyone else does not, is a unique and incomparable way of seeing things. What can I say? I like Auden's way. Even if he does look like an unmade bed.
 

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