One thinks of Auden—I think of Auden—as a brilliant and consummate craftsman, an often witty and tender poet, a master of more forms than perhaps any poet of the 20th century, author of some of the greatest poems of the century, a man with talent to spare. Among the great poets he is not quite of the company of Eliot, Pound, Stevens, and Williams, but it’s fair to say that he ranks along with Hart Crane as a dominating force on successive generations of writers at least as much as they.
But I do not think of Auden as having a part in the tragic human poetic drama of pain and love and art: no Maud Gonne like Yeats, no Vivienne like Elliot, no stroke like Dr. Williams. No “Mad Ireland” to hurt him into poetry. He seems more self-contained than any of them, enjoying perhaps but not needing others, needing only to write his verses. A dedicated professional, a one-time radical, tamed somewhat by his late conversion into the Anglican Church. He seemed to move through the world well-protected by his mental facilities, not deranged like many of his peers, not harmed by events.
And yet, that cannot be the whole story. There is always more to any life than mere impressions tell us. He lived through some of the most calamitous events in history and wrote extraordinary poems that sear the mind and memory. Something happened.
I recently came across Hannah Arendt’s wonderful remembrance of Auden, “Remembering Wystan H. Auden, Who Died in the Night of the Twenty-eighth of September, 1973.” It originally appeared in the New Yorker magazine in 1975, and has since been posthumously collected in Reflections on Literature and Culture (Stanford University Press, 2007), a book of previously uncollected essays on European and American authors, journalists, and literary critics.
The essay made me re-think what I thought I knew about Auden. She speaks about the poet from the vantage point of a friend, talking about the poetry and the life. She viewed him as a great poet, and also as her friend: but always she saw the poet first, and then the friend. And she saw clearly the price he paid to become the poet and artist he became.
He always understood his goal, and his gifts. Arendt relates an exchange between a very young Auden and his tutor at Oxford:
Tutor: ‘And what are you going to do, Mr. Auden, when you leave the university?’
Auden: ‘I am going to be a poet.’
Tutor: ‘Well—in that case you should find it very useful to have read English.’
Auden: ‘You don’t understand. I am going to be a great poet.’ ”
Hannah Arendt and W. H. Auden were the kind of friends bound by cultural attraction. She was famous author of several important books, The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Eichmann in Jerusalem, among others, a philosopher (a term she rejected but that others have applied to her), a political theorist, a teacher, a lecturer, and, to some extent, and apparently to her surprise, a controversialist, over the Eichmann book and for a long time thereafter. Auden was — well, Auden.
She once said that taste is a principle of organization of who in the world belongs together and how we recognize each other. She and Auden recognized each other very quickly, and she understood his art and his work, and the price he had for it. Here is how she discusses that price:
What made him a poet was his extraordinary facility with and love for words, but what made him a great poet was the unprotesting willingness with which he yielded to the “curse” of vulnerability to “human unsuccess” on all levels of human existence—vulnerability to the crookedness of the desires, to the infidelities of the heart, to the injustices of the world.
She says that Auden knew his gift and understood its price, and paid it willingly until he had reached the age when the physical strength the heart needed to bear that price gradually faded. He began then to consider the price too high, but continued to pay it until the day he died, age 66, an age not old by today’s standards, or even by the standards of the early 70’s, but buy then he was quite worn out, even desperate. She knew this from an experience with him five years before that continued to burden her with guilt. She tells us about their relationship but makes a distinction that is tactful, even discreet:
I met Auden late in his life and mine—at an age when the easy knowledgeable intimacy of friendships concluded in one’s youth can no longer be attained, because not enough life is left, or expected to be left, to share with another. Thus, we were very good friends but not intimate friends.
This is not the whole story, not even party of it. In fact, they had met fifteen years before, in 1958, both of them then in their early 50’s. Auden had reviewed Arendt’s book The Human Condition for the journal Encounter, and telephoned her to say how much he liked it Later that year and into the next they had an exchange on the subject of forgiveness (they disagreed over whether forgiveness is in fact betrayed by the kind of visible and external action that must be shown as its validation or external symbol on stage or in literature). It resulted in a life-long friendship.
But toward the end of his life came he became desperate in his need for love. Three weeks after Arendt’s husband Heinrich Blücher died in 1970, Auden came to her building, “looking so much like a clochard” that the building’s doorman accompanied him to her door. (This according to one of Arendt’s biographers.) Auden’s 1935 unconsummated marriage to Erika Mann, intended to help her get a British passport and get out of pre-war Germany, had ended with her death a year earlier. Now he “said he had come to New York only because of me,” Arendt wrote afterward, “that I was of great importance to him, that he loved me very much.” He wanted to marry her. She rejected his proposal.
“I am almost beside myself when I think of the whole matter,” she later told her friend Mary McCarthy. “I hate, am afraid of pity…. and I think I never knew anyone who aroused my pity to this extent.” Her reaction is related in Auden, by Richard Davenport-Hines (Pantheon, 1995). Davenport-Hines says that both the intrusiveness of this coming to her so soon after her husband’s death and his too-obvious desperation were equally shocking to her. By the time of Auden’s death three years later, shock had receded, and friendship resumed, though tainted now with pity and carrying the additional burden of guilt: I am still thinking of Wystan … and of the misery of his life, and that I refused to take care of him when he came and asked for shelter. She understood that she could not shelter him, that his internal and external worlds mirrored each other.
But they remained friends. In her remembrance she speaks of the changes in him, and how little she understood his misery when they first met. Her image is the changes she saw in his face between their first meeting and two years cater when his face was marked by those famous deep wrinkles, as though life itself had delineated a kind of facescape to make manifest “the heart’s invisible furies.” If you listened to him, nothing could seem more deceptive than this appearance.
What she would discover after years of friendship was that the squalor of his external environment and his nearly-incapacitating spiritual miseries mirrored each other. She could not understand how this could be—he was famous, he had strength, yet often seemed unable to cope. She also found his embrace of joy to be central to him, something she first thought of as an eccentricity, but came to learn that it as how he survived his profound misery:
Time and again, when to all appearances he could not cope any more, when his slum apartment was so cold that the plumbing no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner, when his suit (no one could convince him that a man needed at least two suits, so that one could go to the cleaner, or two pairs of shoes so that one pair could be repaired: a subject of an endless ongoing debate between us throughout the years) was covered with spots or worn so thin that his trousers would suddenly split from top to bottom—in brief, whenever disaster hit before your very eyes, he would begin to more or less intone an utterly idiosyncratic version of “Count your blessings.” Since he never talked nonsense or said something obviously silly—and since I always remained aware that this was the voice of a very great poet—it took me years to realize that in his case it was not appearance that was deceptive, and that it was fatally wrong to ascribe what I saw of his way of life to the harmless eccentricity of a typical English gentleman.
I finally saw the misery, and somehow realized vaguely his compelling need to hide it behind the “Count-your-blessings” litany, yet I found it difficult to understand fully why he was so miserable and was unable to do anything about the absurd circumstances that made everyday life so unbearable for him.
Auden was miserable, with an incurable misery of the heart. It was, she thought, incurable because it was the condition of being a poet. She came to view that as the condition of all poets, or at least of great ones, and compared his situation to what he said in his great elegy for Yeats, that he was hurt into poetry. And she sees the directives of that poem as applying to him as much as to Yeats:
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night.
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice;
With the farming of a verse
Make a vineyard of the curse,
Sing of human unsuccess
In a rapture of distress;
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
She says that Auden’s “praise,” expressed in this poem and others, was of a special clearheaded kind. He did not claim that this is the best of all possible worlds, or seek to justify God’s creation to men; but rather to offer the kind of praise that pitches itself against all that is most unsatisfactory in man’s condition, to “Sing / In a rapture of distress.” She says,
Stephen Spender, the friend who knew him so well, has stressed that “throughout the whole development of [Auden’s] poetry… his theme had been love” (had it not occurred to Auden to change Descartes’ “Cogito ergo sum” by defining man as the “bubble-brained creature” that said “I’m loved therefore I am”?), and at the end of the address that Spender gave in memory of his late friend at the Cathedral in Oxford he told of asking Auden about a reading he had given in America: “His face lit up with a smile that altered its lines, and he said: ‘They loved me!’” They did not admire him, they loved him: here, I think, lies the key both to his extraordinary unhappiness and to the extraordinary greatness—intensity—of his poetry. Now, with the sad wisdom of remembrance, I see him as having been an expert in the infinite varieties of unrequited love, among which the infuriating substitution of admiration for love must surely have loomed large. And beneath these emotions there must have been from the beginning a certain animal tristesse that no reason and no faith could overcome…
She draws other interesting parallels between the life and the work — not, that is, between the particulars of the life, but the general themes or conditions. A small example: she says, “there was a reserve in him that discouraged familiarity, not that I tested it ever; I rather gladly respected it as the necessary secretiveness of the great poet, who must have taught himself early not to talk in prose, loosely and at random, of things that he knew how to say much more satisfactorily in the condensed concentration of poetry. Reticence may be the deformation professionnelle of the poet.”
I like the way her thought moves from the particular to the general here. She is provocative but not patronizing, not judging his right to withhold. Indeed, she gives reticence a philosophical and artistic purpose:
In Auden’s case, this seemed all the more likely because much of his work, in utter simplicity, arose out of the spoken word, out of idioms of everyday language—like ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love, Human on my faithless arm.’
She also speaks about he influence of Brecht on his work. I had never considered this, but she makes a good case. In the late fifties he had translated Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. The translation that was never published, but she had read it, and says that she knew of no other adequate rendering of Brecht into English. She points specifically to the ballads—the “Ballad of Barnaby,” a version of My Lady’s Juggler, and Miss Gee (“Let me tell you a little story / About Miss Edith Gee; / She lived in Clevedon Terrace / At Number 83.”) She says,
In the case of Auden, as in the case of Brecht, inverted hypocrisy served to hide an irresistible inclination toward being good and doing good—something that both were ashamed to admit, let alone proclaim. This seems plausible for Auden, because he finally became a Christian, but it may be a shock at first to hear it about Brecht… What drove these profoundly apolitical poets into the chaotic political scene of our century was Robespierre’s “zele compatissant,” the powerful urge toward “les malheureux,” as distinguished from any need for action toward public happiness, or any desire to change the world.
She also speaks about how Auden viewed the relationship of the poet to the world: To him, it was sheer nonsense for the poet to claim special privileges or to ask for the indulgences that we are so happy to grant out of sheer gratitude. To take such a position would be impossible for Auden, who sought to be a complete realist about the world:
The main thing was to have no illusions and to accept no thoughts—no theoretical systems—that would blind you to reality. He turned against his early leftist beliefs because events (the Moscow trials, the HitlerStalin pact, and experiences during the Spanish Civil War) had proved them to be “dishonest”—“shamefully” so….
In the forties, there were many who turned against their old beliefs, but there were very few who understood what had been wrong with those beliefs. Far from giving up their belief in history and success, they simply changed trains, as it were; the train of Socialism and Communism had been wrong, and they changed to the train of Capitalism or Freudianism or some refined Marxism, or a sophisticated mixture of all three. Auden, instead, became a Christian; that is, he left the train of history altogether…. the protective shield of orthodoxy [ in its ] time-honored coherent meaningfulness that could be neither proved nor disproved by reason provided him… with an intellectually satisfying and emotionally rather comfortable refuge against the onslaught of what he called “rubbish”; that is the countless follies of the age.
Arendt praises Auden’s common sense as the key to the man, that he never lost the view of himself as a craftsman who saw the world as it really is, but who was hurt continually by it into his poetry. He wanted to be a great poet, and became one. Arendt saw deeply into the price he paid for it, and saw further—here is the tragedy—that it was a pain beyond cure, by her or anyone. He had talked about his pain, early, and about love’s saving grace in a world of fashionable madmen and feting virtue in the beautiful poem Lullaby:
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell,
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find the mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.