Wystan Hugh Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden was an English poet,
who later became an American citizen.img_0001
Born: 1907, York, United Kingdom
Died 1973 Vienna, Austria

 

“We are here on earth
to do good for others.
What the others are here
for, I don’t know.”

W.H. Auden

“A poet is, before
anything else, a person who is
passionately in love with
language.”

W.H. Auden

“To save the world you asked this
man to die, would this man, could he
see you now, ask why?”

W.H. Auden

I’ll love you dear, I’ll love you till
China and Africa meet and the river
jumps over the mountain and the salmon
sing in the street.

W.H. Auden
* * *
Among Auden’s highly regarded attributes was the ability to think symbolically and rationally at the same time, so that intellectual ideas were transformed into a uniquely personal, idiosyncratic, often witty imagistic idiom. He concretized ideas through creatures of his imagining for whom the reader could often feel affection while appreciating the austere outline of the ideas themselves. He nearly always used language that is interesting in texture as well as brilliant verbally. He employed a great variety of intricate and extremely difficult technical forms. Throughout his career he often wrote pure lyrics of grave beauty, such as “Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love” and “Look Stranger.”

When asked to name his favorite language, Auden replied, “I would choose English. I am fascinated with other languages, such as German, for there are certain things that you can do in German which you can’t do in English. I think we are frightfully lucky because being a mongrel language, we have this enormous vocabulary. And then because it is an uninflected language, you can turn nouns into verbs and verbs into nouns in a very nice way: the line of Shakespeare’s “The hearts that spaniel’d me at heels,” which you couldn’t do with an inflected language.”

* * *

An interview with Auden in the autumn of 1972:

INTERVIEWER
I wondered which living writer you would say has served as the prime protector
of the integrity of our English tongue . . . ?

AUDEN
Why, me, of course!

He was sitting beneath two direct white lights of a plywood portico, drinking a large cup of strong breakfast coffee, chain-smoking cigarettes, and doing the crossword puzzle that appears on the daily book review page of The New York Times—which, as it happened, this day contained, along with his photo, a review of his most recent volume of poetry.

His singular perspectives, priorities, and tastes were strongly manifest in the décor of his New York apartment, which he used in the winter. Its three large, high-ceilinged main rooms were painted dark gray, pale green, and purple. On the wall hung drawings of friends—Elizabeth Bishop, E. M. Forster, Paul Valéry, Chester Kallman—framed simply in gold. The cavernous front living room, piled high with books, was left dark except during his brief excursions into its many boxes of manuscripts or for consultations with the Oxford English Dictionary. His conversation was droll, intelligent, and courtly, a sort of humanistic global gossip, disinterested in the machinations of ambition, less interested in concrete poetry, absolutely exclusive of electronic influence.

INTERVIEWER
Does this current deterioration and corruption of language, imprecision of thought, and so forth scare you—or is it just a decadent phase?

AUDEN
It terrifies me. I try by my personal example to fight it; as I say, it’s a poet’s role to maintain the sacredness of language.

INTERVIEWER
Do you think the present condition of our civilization will be seen by the future, if there is one, as a prewar decadence?

AUDEN
No, I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact of another war. But in the old days people knew what the words meant, whatever the range of their vocabulary. Now people hear and repeat a radio and TV vocabularyimg_0004y thirty percent larger than they know the meaning of. The most outrageous use of words I’ve ever experienced was once when I was a guest on the David Susskind TV program. During a break he had to do a plug for some sort of investment firm, and he announced that these people were “integrity-ridden”! I could not believe my ears!

INTERVIEWER
You have said bad art is bad in a very contemporary way.

AUDEN
Yes. Of course one can be wrong about what is good or bad. Taste and judgment can differ. But one has to be loyal to oneself and trust one’s own taste. I can, for instance, enjoy a good tear-jerking movie, where, oh, an old mother is put away in a home—even though I know it’s terrible, the tears will run down my cheeks. I don’t think good work ever makes one cry. Housman said he got a curious physical sensation with good poetry—I never got any. If one sees King Lear, one doesn’t cry. One doesn’t have to.

INTERVIEWER
You have said that the story of your patron saint, Wystan, was rather Hamlet-like. Are you a Hamlet poet?

AUDEN
No, I couldn’t be less. For myself I find that Shakespeare’s greatest influence has been his use of a large vocabulary. One thing that makes English so marvelous for poetry is its great range and the fact that it is an uninflected language. One can turn verbs into nouns and vice versa, as Shakespeare did. One cannot do this with inflected languages such as German, French, Italian.

INTERVIEWER
You have always been a formalist. Today’s poets seem to prefer free verse. Do you think that’s an aversion to discipline?

AUDEN
Unfortunately that’s too often the case. But I can’t understand—strictly from a hedonistic point of view—how one can enjoy writing with no form at all. If one plays a game, one needs rules, otherwise there is no fun. The wildest poem has to have a firm basis in common sense, and this, I think, is the advantage of formal verse. Aside from the obvious corrective advantages, formal verse frees one from the fetters of one’s ego. Here I like to quote Valéry, who said a person is a poet if his imagination is stimulated by the difficulties inherent in his art and not if his imagination is dulled by them. I think very few people can manage free verse—you need an infallible ear, like D. H. Lawrence, to determine where the lines should end.

INTERVIEWER
What are the worst lines you know—preferably by a great poet?

AUDEN
I think they occur in Thomas Hardy’s The Dynasts, in which Napoleon tries to escape from Elba. There’s a quatrain which goes like this:

Should the corvette arrive
With the aging Scotch colonel,
Escape would be frustrate,
Retention eternal.

That’s pretty hard to beat!

INTERVIEWER
How about Yeats’ “Had de Valera eaten Parnell’s heart” or Eliot’s “Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings”?

AUDEN
Those aren’t bad, really, just unintentionally comic. Both would have made wonderful captions for a Thurber cartoon. As an undergraduate at Oxford I came up with one: “Isobel with her leaping breasts/Pursued me through a summer . . .”

Think what a marvelous cartoon Thurber could have done to that! Whoops! Whoops! Whoops!

INTERVIEWER
What’s your least favorite Auden poem?

img_0002

AUDEN
“September 1, 1939.” And I’m afraid it’s gotten into a lot of anthologies.

INTERVIEWER
Of which poem are you proudest?

AUDEN
It occurs in my commentary on Shakespeare’s Tempest, a poem written in prose, a pastiche of the late Henry James— “Caliban’s Speech to the Audience.”

INTERVIEWER
Have you ever finished a book you’ve hated?

AUDEN
No, I’ve skipped . . . actually I did, once. I read the whole of Mein Kampf because it was necessary to know what he thought. But it was not a pleasure.

INTERVIEWER
Have you reviewed a book you’ve hated?

AUDEN
Very rarely. Unless one is a regular reviewer, or one is reviewing a book of reference where the facts are wrong—then it’s one’s duty to inform the public, as one would warn them of watered milk. Writing nasty reviews can be fun, but I don’t think the practice is very good for the character.

INTERVIEWER
What’s the nicest poetic compliment you’ve ever received?

AUDEN
It came in a most unusual way. A friend of mine, Dorothy Day, had been put in the women’s prison at Sixth Avenue and 8th Street for her part in a protest. Well, once a week at this place, on a Saturday, the girls were marched down for a shower. A group were being ushered in when one, a whore, loudly proclaimed: “Hundreds have lived without love, But none without water . . .” A line from a poem of mine which had just appeared in The New Yorker. When I heard this, I knew I hadn’t written in vain!

INTERVIEWER
Have you read any books on women’s lib?

AUDEN
I’m a bit puzzled by it. Certainly they ought to complain about the ad things, like ladies’ underwear, and so forth.img_0003

INTERVIEWER
Are there any essential differences between male and female poetry?

AUDEN
Men and women have opposite difficulties to contend with. The difficulty for a man is to avoid being an aesthete—to avoid saying things not because they are true, but because they are poetically effective. The difficulty for a woman is in getting sufficient distance from the emotions. No woman is an aesthete. No woman ever wrote nonsense verse. Men are playboys, women realists. If you tell a funny story—only a woman will ever ask: “Did it really happen?” I think if men knew what women said to each other about them, the human race would die out.

INTERVIEWER
What about collaboration? Did you ever go through your poems with T. S. Eliot?

AUDEN

No, one can’t expect other people to do such things. He was very good to me; he encouraged me. He wasn’t jealous of other writers. I had met him just before I left Oxford. I’d sent him some poems, and he asked me to come to see him. He published the first thing of mine that was published—it was “Paid on Both Sides”—which came out in The Criterion in ’28 or ’29.

INTERVIEWER
Was Isherwood helpful at this time?

AUDEN
Oh, enormously. Of course one depends at that age on one’s friends; one reads one’s work, and they criticize it. That’s the same in every generation.

INTERVIEWER
Could you characterize your working relationship with Stravinsky?

AUDEN
He was always completely professional. He took what I sent him and set it to music. He always took enormous trouble to find out what the rhythmic values were, which must have been difficult for him, since prior to my working with him he had never set in English.

INTERVIEWER
Did you correspond as did Strauss and Hofmannsthal?

AUDEN
No. The funny thing about their correspondence—which we’re very fortunate to have—was that they chose to work through the mails because they couldn’t stand one another!

INTERVIEWER
Did you and Stravinsky discuss the work over the phone?

AUDEN
No, I don’t like the phone very much and never stay on long if I can help it. You get some people who simply will not get off the line! I remember the story of the man who answered the phone and was kept prisoner for what seemed an age. The lady talked and talked. Finally, in desperation, he told her, “Really, I must go. I hear the phone ringing!”

INTERVIEWER
Where did you pick up your interest in the Icelandic sagas?

AUDEN
img_0005My father brought me up on them. His family originated in an area which once served as headquarters for the Viking army. The name Auden is common in the sagas, usually spelled Audun. But we have no family trees or anything like that. My mother came from Normandy—which means that she was half Nordic, as the Normans were. I had an ancestor named Birch, who married Constable. The family, I understand, was furious that she had married a painter. I’ve seen some of his portraits of her—she must have been quite beautiful. I’ve another relative who’s married to a Hindu. This goes along better, I think, with the family line, which says that either one marries an Englishman—or one marries a Brahmin!

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