February 22, 1907– Wystan Hugh Auden:
“My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain.”
With a life filled with contradictions, English poet Wystan Hugh Auden was a moralist who drank too much, a gay man who thought homosexuality was wicked, a subversive who chose to write rather traditional, if superb verse; an eccentric who craved the status quo, obsessively punctual, but sartorially sloppy. He was stuffy and he was campy. He had many affairs, but his greatest love was Chester Kallman, who was 18 years old when they met, and with whom Auden was sure he could enjoy a lifelong cozy marriage.
Kallman’s infidelities were a profound shock to Auden, who wore a wedding ring. He went so far as to contemplate murdering some of Kallman’s lovers. They broke up, on again, off again, for years. Auden and Kallman finally got together again near the end, but without the passion Auden desired.
I am fascinated and fully engaged by his circle, which included his best friend Christopher Isherwood and writer pal, Stephen Spender. Auden was born in England and he is thoroughly British in demeanor, yet he chose the USA as his home for most of his life.
On a bright winter day in 1977, my New York City boyfriend took me on a literary tour of the city and he pointed out a spot in Brooklyn where once stood a structure where in the late-1930s, Auden lived with soon to be famous gay figures Carson McCullers, Truman Capote and Benjamin Britten and his tenor boyfriend Peter Pears called the “February House”, along with Aaron Copeland, and ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee. They all lived together for a few fevered years, with partying fueled by the appetites of youth and by the shared sense of urgency among the friends. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at that place!
When he took American citizenship in 1946, he lost his chance to be the poet laureate of his native country. But so great was his fame, so strong his accomplishments, that he was proposed for the title anyway. Until 1972, he lived in a wildly cluttered, seedy apartment on St. Mark’s Place, living alone and fearing the worst, saying:
“At my age it’s not good to be alone. Supposing I had a coronary. It might be days before I was found.”
He grew up in Birmingham, before being shipped off to a boarding school where cold baths were supposed to inhibit the sexual drive and strengthen the soul, ineffective on both counts, according to Auden.
When he was 15 years old, he turned to poetry almost casually, at the offhand suggestion of a friend. But he was already sensitive to the nuances of language and had great curiosity about the natural world. He attended Christ Church College in 1925 as a science student, but was soon devoting himself to poetry. Spender, his friend and fellow‐poet, printed an edition of 30 copies of Auden’s poems on a hand-press.
Auden, Spender, Cecil Day Lewis and Isherwood formed a group that became known as the Auden Circle, and they collaborated on poetry and enjoyed similar interests. All were influenced by American T. S. Eliot, whose poetry spoke plainly, yet with stately rhythms.
In 1938 he went to China with Isherwood and wrote Journey To A War, which political portents:
“In the nightmare of the dark / All the dogs of Europe bark /And the living nations wait / Each sequestered in its hate.”
It was in early 1939 that he left for the United States of America. Writer George Orwell called him: “...the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.” But really, Auden had grown bored with his own country and with the English, and when World War II erupted he was already in New York City.
In 1934, Auden had married Erika Mann, a daughter of the great German writer Thomas Mann. It was a marriage of convenience, they were both as queer as queer could be. It was arranged so that Mann would have British nationality and not be stateless when the Nazis revoked her German citizenship.
Auden had never met her before she came from the Netherlands for the wedding, and they signed an agreement not to make financial claims on each other. Upon their marriage, Mann returned to the Netherlands, but the happy couple remained good, if distant, friends. Auden dedicated a poem to her:
Since the external disorder, and extravagant lies,
The baroque frontiers, the surrealist police;
What can truth treasure, or heart bless,
But a narrow strictness?
Auden protested that a writer’s private life should be: “of no concern to anybody except himself, his family and his friends“. But his poems examined the places where he lived, beliefs he cherished, friends he appreciated and the future he feared.
At home with classical no less than with modern verse, he was a man of lucid style and engaging artistry. Essayist and reviewer, he wrote pithily about science and airily about the every day. For me, Auden’s work has the widest range and the greatest depth of any English language poet of the past four centuries. His styles and forms extend from ballads and songs to haiku and limericks, sonnets, prose poems, and constructions of his own invention. His tone ranges from spirited comedy to memorable and profound expressions, often in the same work. His poems manage to be secular and sacred, philosophical and erotic, personal and universal.
His poem Funeral Blues (1938) brought interest in Auden’s work when it was featured in the terrific film Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994):
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone.
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message:
He Is Dead,
Put crépe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song,
I thought that love would last forever: ‘I was wrong’
The stars are not wanted now, put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Auden embraced Socialism as a youth and Protestantism as an old queen. He wrote daily and his output was prolific. Auden’s The Age Of Anxiety (1947) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.
In 1972, with his health on the decline, Auden left the USA. He moved to a cottage in Oxford, where he had been teaching part of each year. In September 1973, Auden left this world, taken by a heart attack after delivering a reading of his poems in Vienna, where he kept an apartment. Kallman died in 1975, penniless, in Athens.
Auden wrote much erotic poetry, most not published in his lifetime. By erotic, I mean dirty, really dirty:
We aligned mouths. We entwined. All act was clutch,
All fact contact, the attack and the interlock
Of tongues, the charms of arms. I shook at the touch
Of his fresh flesh, I rocked at the shock of his cock.
I plunged with a rhythmical lunge steady and slow,
And at every stroke made a corkscrew roll of my tongue.
His soul reeled in the feeling. He whimpered ‘Oh!’
As I tongued and squeezed and rolled and tickled and swung.
Then I pressed on the spot where the groin is joined to the cock,
Slipped a finger into his arse and massaged him from inside.
The secret sluices of his juices began to unlock.
He melted into what he felt. ‘O Jesus!’ he cried.
Waves of immeasurable pleasures mounted his member in quick
Spasms. I lay still in the notch of his crotch inhaling his sweat.
His ring convulsed round my finger. Into me, rich and thick,
His hot spunk spouted in gouts, spurted in jet after jet.