Stop all the clocks; How W.H. Auden wrote prose to earn a living, and poetry to live his life
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 1 December 2015)

Edward Mendelson, biographer of the great poet W. H. Auden, recently told the readers of the New York Review of Books a striking story. Mendelson received a phone call from someone identified only as "a Canadian burglar." The burglar said he had written to Auden after reading a poem of his in the prison library. That began a surprisingly long correspondence between burglar and poet. Auden gave him a personal course in literature and was especially pleased (the burglar recalled) to get him started on Kafka.

That's the Auden his readers love to hear about - inquisitive, thoughtful, surprising and glad to spread the fame of great artists, such as Kafka. It's the Auden who shines through The Complete Works of W. H. Auden: Prose (Princeton), edited by Mendelson. The last two volumes of prose, Vol. V and VI, have recently appeared, beautifully designed by Princeton University Press, edited with great care. No other poet of the 20th century has been honoured by this treatment. Perhaps no other deserves it.

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) wrote poems because that was his life's purpose. He wrote prose to earn his living. He appeared often in the New Yorker and he wrote many lectures and introductions for books of poetry. But his prose never feels hurried or reluctant. It gives off the same aura of intensity and honest purpose as the poems.

That he managed to produce highquality work in enough quantity to fill six volumes is among the miracles of modern literature. His style varies with his subject: Often magisterial, briskly journalistic at times, even on occasion boyishly enthusiastic. When he reviewed The Letters of Anton Chekhov he found Chekhov writing to Sholom Aleichem in answer to a request that Yiddish versions of his stories appear in a book designed to raise money for Jews attacked in recent pogroms. "They are wholly at your disposal," Chekhov wrote, "and their publication for the benefit of the Jews victimized in Kishinev would give me nothing but heartfelt pleasure." And, after quoting that, Auden wrote: "My, what a nice person!" That's how he felt so that's how he put it.

Religion shows up in these volumes, in Auden's own way. As an adult he abandoned the Church of England when he realized it no longer interested him. But Christianity later reclaimed him and for many years his poetry reflected Christian themes. His piety had a psychological aspect. Prayer, he argued, was an escape from ego. When we concentrate our attention on some subject so deeply that we forget our own desires, we are praying. "To pray is to pay attention to something other than oneself." He was not among the angels himself. When irritated he could be irritable. When he was angry, everyone knew.

Beneath Auden's intelligent and expansive views, we find ourselves learning in detail about the relationship between a great writer and his public. He signalled the contradictions within his mind by beginning one early book with a sixteenth-century epigraph by Michel de Montaigne: "We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn." Auden was rarely of one mind.

His first book, Poems, in 1930, made him something of a literary celebrity at age 23. At Oxford he knew Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day-Lewis, and for years the four of them became known as the Auden Group, the names whimsically elided into one, "MacSpaunday," by another poet, Roy Campbell. He and the others expressed generally leftish views but had nothing else in common.

During the Spanish Civil War he held the usual pro-Loyalist views until he went to Spain and discovered he didn't like his own side. As in George Orwell's account, the war looked like a contest between the Soviet Union and the fascists. Auden realized he was being applauded for expressing views he no longer held and perhaps never held with much passion. His early fame disgusted him because, being Auden, he understood the mixed motives behind the image of virtue.

Auden once wrote that "Every work of art is, in one sense, a selfdisclosure." He declared himself a champion of privacy but over the years often hinted at the secrets of his inner life. In 1969 he reviewed My Father and Myself, by J. R. Ackerley, a British journalist who wrote a much-loved book called My Dog Tulip, later the basis of an acclaimed animated film. Ackerley, a homosexual, spent years compulsively cruising for sex with strangers. He wasn't just diverting himself, Ackerley said in retrospect. "It was all a run of bad luck." He believed he was searching for the Ideal Friend, the partner who existed mainly in his imagination. Auden's review in the New Yorker was written with the greatest sympathy; Auden scholars believe it's as close as he ever came to revealing his private life in public.

He wrote of marriage and family as the ideal life, but as a homosexual in the 20th century he couldn't have them. His poems often referred to unconsummated and unrequited love. In the 1950s he poured his frustration into a melancholy couplet, "If equal affection cannot be/Let the more loving one be me."

He knew that feeling. In 1939, at age 32, he fell in love with Chester Kallman, a young poet. Auden thought of their relationship as a marriage but Kallman showed no interest in marital loyalty. They ceased to be lovers but they remained friends and shared houses until Auden died.

Edward Mendelson had another story to tell: "I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark's in-the-Bowery in New York. She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again." He was, no doubt about it, unique.

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