Updated: Jul 25
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 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.’ ”