Stories Told Behind Auden’s Back

The less you know about a person, the easier it is to venerate them, which […]

Josh Retterer / 10.24.18

The less you know about a person, the easier it is to venerate them, which is why you generally don’t want your children writing your biography. My favorite parts of biographies are not the quotes from the person being written about, but rather from those who knew them well — or — too well. This holds true for the poet, Wystan Hugh Auden. In the process of researching a specific period of his life for another project, I came across a couple of stories told about him that were too good not to share. Auden’s return to Christianity after an extended hiatus has been written about and dissected nearly to death, so I’m not going to spend any more time retelling something better told by others. What I did find, in reading the stories told by those who knew him, was a transparently complicated life.

His childhood friend, the novelist Christopher Isherwood, recalls that in the Spring of 1939, Auden was, “going through a curious phase. He’s as energetic as I’m idle. He takes Benzedrine regularly, in small doses, followed by Seconal at night. He says that the ‘chemical life’ solves all his problems.” Indeed, Auden lived that chemical life for another 20 years until his doctor managed to convince him to quit. Maybe it was the Benzedrine, the alcohol, or the endless amounts of cigarettes he chain-smoked, but Auden’s return to Christianity often rubbed others the wrong way. It wasn’t because of any particular piety but because he could be a bit of an ass about it. Isherwood, a disciple of Gerald Heard, recalls an incident where “Wystan” criticized Heard. “Wystan is suspicious of Gerald’s ideas, because Gerald thinks Time is evil. Wystan likes Time, and the material world — at any rate, his corner of it. ‘I’m not going to go about pretending I’m unhappy here. I’m very happy indeed.’ But I noticed that he said this rather aggressively, as if to reassure himself.” Heard expressed similar suspicion of Auden’s newfound faith: “I’ve no use for theology if it can’t produce saints.”

Along with being a bit prickly, he could be messy, “notoriously,” as Danny Heitman writes in this piece for the NEH:

…so much so that he “reduced any room he was in to a shambles,” Rowse writes. When composer Igor Stravinsky’s wife, Vera, visited Auden and Kallman for dinner, she found a bowl of brown gunk in the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet. She later learned it was the evening’s dessert—some chocolate pudding that had been placed on top of the commode to cool.

When Auden wasn’t being annoying (or annoyingly untidy), he was being generous with his time. Stephen Spender’s then young son and now famous sculptor Matthew recalls Auden spending a lot of time at their home, doing things like helping him write J.R.R Tolkien-inspired poetry, or teaching him grammar over breakfast. This generosity was something he became known for, highlighted in an article by Edward Mendelson featured in ‘Another Week Ends’ a couple of years ago.

There are two stories from that piece that have been stuck in my head since reading them:

I learned about it mostly by chance, so it may have been far more extensive than I or anyone ever knew. Once at a party 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.

Someone else recalled that Auden had once been told that a friend needed a medical operation that he couldn’t afford. Auden invited the friend to dinner, never mentioned the operation, but as the friend was leaving said, “I want you to have this,” and handed him a large notebook containing the manuscript of The Age of Anxiety. The University of Texas bought the notebook and the friend had the operation.

Reading about Auden’s earlier life, marked by a class snobbery and odd ideas about the links between physical and emotional health, manifesting in a callous dehumanization of those not his intellectual equals, these stories become all the more remarkable. It seems the Gospel had the effect of humanizing those he previously thought of as less than. Embracing his own low anthropology, he discovered he was “them.” In his 1948 poem, “In Praise of Limestone,” he illustrates the transformative effect grace has on the ego — to care and not to care:

But if
Sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide.

Auden was part of the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, along with another Mockingbird favorite, Robert Farrar Capon. Thanks to Rev. Jamie Howison for sharing this gem from a conversation he had with Capon, who recalls that time:

I was with Auden on the Psalter Commission when he was on it for a while. He tired pretty quick… he didn’t work after the cocktail hour. I saw him at evening prayer one day at General Seminary chapel, and he looked like a bum. I saw him from behind, and he had a raggedy overcoat, creased face. Stravinsky once said of Auden’s creased face, “soon we shall have to spread him out to see who it is.”

That last line made me think of Gerald Heard’s remark, about theology not producing saints. This probably remains a fair point, but I think if you spread Auden out, that face, lit by grace, would look remarkably like Christ’s.

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4 responses to “Stories Told Behind Auden’s Back”

  1. Ken says:

    Thanks for this, especially your last line. Auden apparently knew he was no saint, which is one way he approached sainthood. I love this anecdote of Lincoln Kirstein’s:

    “He was always strict about paying bills, and not complaining about service in a restaurant. But he could be captious, too. I sat trembling in the back seat of the car when he was trying to get his American driver’s license. He went barreling through a junction on red and when the examiner pointed that out to him he said that well, it was a damn stupid place to put a red light!”

  2. Bryan J. says:

    Man, talk about crazy timing! After reading this post earlier today, I returned to a biography of Alan Paton (South African author of Cry, the Beloved Country) I’ve been slogging through and I ran across this gem:

    At a party in New York, [Paton] was introduced to W.H. Auden. ‘I must confess that we did not “click”. My clearest recollection of him was that I had never seen such a ravaged face in my life!’

    And this, according to the endnote, came from an unpublished letter that Paton wrote to Ursula Niebuhr, wife of Reinhold Niebur! What gossips, huh?

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