W. H. Auden
Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) (21 February 1907 - 29 September 1973)
Auden, the Anglo-American poet who was a major literary figure in his time, wrote about politics and psychology as well as Christianity and homosexuality. He received the Pulitzer for The Age of Anxiety (1947) and completed numerous critical essays and opera librettos.
Auden’s father was a highly educated physician, his mother a highly religious Anglo-Catholic. Auden wrote that his youthful Sundays were spent with “music, candles, and incense.” When sent away to a prep school, he met the future novelist Christopher Isherwood, who became one of his closest friends.
In 1925 he went to Oxford to study science but switched to English, during which time he read widely and wrote poetry. In 1930 his “Poems” were published by Faber & Faber, one of whose editors was T. S. Eliot, and Auden became a leader of such left-wing poets as Cecil Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender. Although never a member of the party, Auden was called by one critic a communist “with a love for England.”
Thomas Hardy, however, rated higher in his estimation than any of the political writers. John Maynard Keynes described Auden as being “very dirty but a genius,” for he wore ragged clothing and had sandy-colored hair which often fell over his forehead.
Auden’s face was noted for being etched with wrinkles. According to Dr. Douglas Model of Eastbourne, England, the condition had been caused by his excessive smoking. Facial wrinkles were deeply ingrained. He smoked non-stop, bit his fingernails, and in a self-description wrote, “The way he dresses / reveals an angry baby,/ howling to be dressed.” His self-criticism included the admission that he felt embarrassed being near anyone who was not in some respect superior: “It may be a large cock, it may be sanctity,” he explained.
During his last years, after having been a United States citizen and resident from 1939 to 1946, he lived and traveled in England, Italy, Austria, China, Spain, Belgium, Iceland, and New York. Other literary expatriates were Conrad, Eliot, James, Joyce, Pound, and Stein, so his exile was not particularly unusual.
Upon moving to New York, he completed an elegy for William Butler Yeats, who had just died, in which he mourned also for his missing the England in which he had grown up and leaving the readership he had developed. Some readers never forgave him. For example, upon his death Anthony Powell read the news account to Kingsley Amis “No more Auden.” Amis regretted hearing this, but Powell retorted, “I’m delighted that shit has gone. . . . Scuttling off to America in 1939 with his boyfriend.”
Auden’s love for Chester Kallman, a poet and librettist, has been described by Dorothy Farnan in Auden in Love (1984), a book that oozes with gossip. Farnam was about Kallman’s age and through him met his father, Eddie, whom she eventually married. As Kallman’s step-mother she knew intimate details of Auden’s private life. In the biography she ends with Kallman’s lonely death fifteen months after finding Auden’s corpse in a Vienna hotel. She describes Auden’s determination to remain faithful to Kallman, according to Douglas Martin, “even support him financially, as the younger man broke his heart again and again. . . . ‘Chester fell in love for the first time again’ “ is a phrase Farnam repeats often.
Of Kallman, the biographer Richard Davenport-Hines, author of Auden (1995), wrote, “Our first impressions of Auden, slovenly in rumpled tweed, were of disbelief,” remembered Harold Norse, Kallman’s boyfriend at the time. “His shirt was unpressed, heavy woolen socks bunched limply around his thick ankles, and untied shoelaces flopped over his shoes.”
But Kallman, whom Auden described as being “a Roumanian-Latvian-American Jew,” and he became lovers “mad with happiness.” The love had its ups and downs. Kallman wrote to Norse that on a 1939 trip he had “almost precipitated a domestic crisis by groping a boy sitting next to me between Jacksonville and Tallahassee. . . . Wystan was quite rightly exasperated.”
Since first meeting, Kallman had been unfaithful to Auden and, in 1941, he informed an enraged Auden that he would never again sleep with him. Auden in a rage squeezed Kallman’s throat, but the two were to remain together on and off in a sexless relationship.
When Thomas Mann’s daughter, Erika Mann, asked him to marry her for passport purposes so she could escape from Nazi Germany, he complied. “What else are buggers for?” asked Auden, who was asked similarly by others.
Isherwood noted that Auden once lamented that “no one would ever love him, that he would never have any sexual success,” a fact related to his usually being attracted to teenagers, the critic Nicholas Jenkins wrote in an authoritative New Yorker (1 April 1996) article.
During the Spanish Civil War, Auden was aghast upon seeing how the Republicans treated clergy and destroyed their buildings, coming to believe that religion was a necessary good even if he was not religious. Same-sex relations were sinful, he felt, but not so sinful as dishonesty, greed, and violence. In what has been described as self-chastisement, he held that humanity was thoroughly sinful and in 1940 he started going to church again, in Brooklyn Heights, returning to orthodox Episcopalianism.
In 1996, Theta Clark's Wynstan and Chester described the lives of the unconventional couple as she knew them over two decades. In the early 1950s she had turned down a marriage proposal from Auden but remained close to him and to Kallman. She relates who believed that "happiness, like grief, should be private" and who rejected Yeats's dictum that one must chose either "perfection of the life or of the work" with the remark that "perfection is possible in neither." Although he accepted his being homosexual, he had the conventional view of the time that it was wrong. Kallman, she thought, was a man of charm but one who had private demons. Alcohol, she observed, over time led to his disintegration.
The poet Alfred Corn has written that Auden’s late poems, like “A Summer Night,” “In Praise of Limestone,” and Ischia” are political poems, “not only because of ironic touches in them about negative attitudes or actions, but also because they present a vision of happiness on earth, which Auden, as a proponent of incarnational theology, regarded as fundamental. To hold out that vision as an alternative to human cruelty and bigotry was the obligation, indeed, one of the chief exhilarations, of the poet.” Auden, however, was not quite that explicit, believing as he did “That love, or truth in any serious sense, / Like orthodoxy, is a reticence.”
Auden died of a heart attack and complications of alcoholism. Stephen M. Silverman in Where There’s a Will (1991) said the estate of approximately $857,000 in 1990 dollars was left to Kallman, who squandered much of the money. Kallman’s will would have left everything to Auden, so Kallman’s father became his heir. Auden’s papers ended up at the New York Public Library.
(See entry for Chester Kallman.)