Wystan Hugh Auden stood at the end of a grand tradition: he was probably the last English poet who was generally accepted as the living master. After him, poetry lost its power to stir the populace, disappearing into academia and the little magazine. Auden himself may have sensed this slipping of poetry’s status, for his own work moved from the long “thinkpiece” poems and problem plays of the ’30s and ’40s to briefer, wittier, sometimes bawdy and perhaps more subversive miniatures as he aged. He lost faith in the poet’s ability to effect anything in the world at large, and came to view his art essentially as an exercise in high craftsmanship—mankind’s most deluxe pastime, the game of words.
Words, he feared, would come to be lavished on him, a fate he faced with mixed emotions. Before his death in 1973, Auden requested that his friends and colleagues destroy his letters; the life was unimportant, he felt, the work was all (although neither of the two recent complete biographies conclusively evaluate it). Few of his correspondents heeded his wish, and excerpts from many of those letters pad out Humphrey Carpenter’s W.H. Auden: A Biography. The poet ought not to have worried. While Carpenter’s book is exhaustive and sympathetic, the snippets of private communication add little to the earlier portrait by Charles Osborne, W.H. Auden: The Life of a Poet. Osborne’s book was more intimate and judgmental when it came to Auden’s less defensible utterances. But read back-to-back, the two books offer a surprisingly unanimous account.
It’s no surprise that the letters shed little new light. From the time he went up to Christ Church college at Oxford, Auden was uninhibited to the point of indiscretion. His homosexuality, for example, seemed to cause him not a shred of guilt at a time when dallying with one’s own kind brought prison sentences. An incorrigible gossip, he relished the precise details of his friends’ encounters as much as he delighted in amusing, or perhaps appalling, acquaintances with his own gamy yarns (rigorously catalogued by Carpenter). The most striking fact about Auden
as an artist is that he collaborated so well with so many (poetry aside): coauthoring plays and travel books with Christopher Isherwood and Louis MacNeice, scripting operas—which came to be his passion—for Benjamin Britten and Igor Stravinsky. He was gregarious and charitable (except with his cigarettes) and his love of people took odd turns. He married Thomas Mann’s daughter, Erika, not out of any passion (though he enjoyed occasional affairs with women) but because she needed a way to emigrate from Hitler’s Germany. Late in life, when his lifelong companion, Chester Kallman, was away with other lovers, he asked a startled Hannah Arendt to marry him.
Until late in life, when his consumption of vodka martinis became prodigious and his anecdotes rehashed into a shtick, Auden was an outrageous raconteur, ranging with aplomb over vast territories of knowledge and opinion. Never a snob, he consumed crossword puzzles and the light verse of Ogden Nash with conspicuous pleasure, and maintained that reading science was vital to a poet. He considered himself a classical poet, and his schedule was his one success in a chaotically disordered life: he rose at 6:30 to write with the dull routine of a busman.
Carpenter’s work agrees persuasively with Osborne’s in presenting a man whom pessimism and heartache never
undermined. One of the last poems he wrote claimed:
He still loves life
But OOOO how he wishes
The good Lord would take him.
The good Lord did, with merciful swiftness, when he suffered a fatal heart attack in Vienna. He had mused that he would probably die in a hotel “to the great annoyance of the management.” The blessing that Auden would never know is that Kallman would be at his side, as though possibly his most famous line of poetry, from September 1, 1939, was fulfilled: “We must love one another and die.” Carpenter’s account may be redundant but the life itself was so eccentric and ultimately winning that we are grateful to him for retelling it. -BILL MACVICAR
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.