Wrinkles of life
Christopher Hawtree welcomes new looks at W H Auden
Famously and frequently, W H Auden asserted that knowledge of an author's character should not distract from the work itself. However this might be, and whether he obeyed that dictum, he himself was hardly invisible.
Much of this character informs the work which, often dedicated to friends, is rooted in time and place, imbued with his early reading and sense of landscape. Regular readers are continually surprised. Many were never more startled than by his decision to settle in America. Although made before the war, this was regarded as treachery. Be that as it may, it certainly caused the prevalent, misguided habit of assuming that his work falls into two sections - the first superior.
The strength of the new book by Richard Davenport-Hines is that it sees Auden whole. It is not so much a biography but a meditation upon him. To this end, he does not include everything that Auden did or wrote, and pays graceful tribute to the large biography by Humphrey Carpenter. Among the current flotilla of publications, Davenport-Hines's book appears, to use an Auden phrase, a mighty Cunarder surrounded by fishing-smacks.
Without dwelling upon figures in the carpet, Davenport-Hines lights upon the themes - lofty and low - that were as much the result of hectic living as omnivorous reading. Graham Greene once derided Joseph Brodsky for calling Auden the finest mind of the 20th century. One can understand, though, what both of them meant. Auden's intelligence was acute - and Davenport-Hines brings out more of his father's influence than others have done. Chockful of knowledge, a discerning magpie, Auden took a while to find quite the voice which was that astonishing Thirties flow of poetry. Curiously, his prose took longer to assume its companionable, capacious form (Davenport-Hines finds a falling-off after 1965). He could master any verse-form, often most profound at his lightest. This is amply shown by the collection of "songs, ballads, lullabies, limericks and other light verse" called As I Walked Out One Evening assembled by his executor and editor Edward Mendelson, a man for whom textual matters are as invigorating as any gym. He takes an Audenesque view of "light verse". Here, there are "Lay Your Sleeping Head" and "Funeral Blues" as well as "Miss Gee". It is not merely Auden for Beginners but neatly demonstrates a distinct side of his character, one also evident in extracts from the plays, libretti and long poems. Alas, absent here, but worthy contenders, are "The Platonic Blow" and "Sue", which is another of those macabre Thirties ballads, available only in a small edition published by John Fuller in 1977: black indeed is that tale of a poor little rich girl whose possessions deride her. Little known are his cabaret songs, set by Britten and recently recorded by Jill Gomez. More appear here, such as "Jam Tart", with its Porteresque catalogue of attributes and internal rhymes: ". . .a village fair, a maiden's prayer, the BBC, a pram - I don't know what I am, You've cast a spell on me." If, this time round, some of Auden's unknown lectures are dry stuff, these are countered by a magnificent letter to the Austrian tax authorities in 1972: "in Austria I don't earn a groschen; I only spend schillings . . . you say that there is now a street in Kirchstetten named Audenstrasse. That was a most friendly gesture by the Gemeinde, but I cannot be said to profit financially by it."
Particularly engaging is a symposium upon "In Praise of Limestone" (1948). In a contemporary review, Spender called this "one of the great poems of the century". If it is still not Auden's best-known work, time certainly vindicates that judgment. Such is the way that it works in and out of mental and physical landscapes, to and fro in Auden's own life, mixing memory and desire, slang and liturgy that - as in these essays - it yields new meaning with every reader (Edward Upward bold enough to call it "uneven").
In his own study, Davenport-Hines makes the brilliant point that, much as it might be about quarry, it is also the skyscrapers and brownstones upon the granite base of Manhattan, where "he had constructed a great good place where the flaws would help him to appreciate perfection . . . differences do not exist to be overcome, but for emphasis and celebration; that is why the life of New York City could be analogous to a limestone terrain."
All study of Auden comes back to that poem. All sides of him are there. Some of this is amplified in a series of letters to James Stern, and Mendelson supplies an extra list of those that have appeared in scattered books (one infers that the Estate will permit a collection some day). Charming and touching is the memoir by Auden's Austrian neighbour, Baronnes von Musulin. As is the short book by Thekla Clark, who in the Fifties went to Ischia in a quest for love. This foundered, but, perhaps better, she became friends with Auden who had a summer retreat there. Gossipy, relaxed, peopled by eccentrics, her book contains many a vignette, such as the arrival of Burt Lancaster and a movie team. "He walked straight over to Wystan and introduced himself, saying how much he admired Wystan's work. That gesture meant far more to the islanders than a hundred Arthur Koestlers. And, after Chester and I had explained to Wystan who Burt Lancaster was, he, too, was pleased."
Chiller ones had, and would, blow for Auden. The success of Davenport-Hines's book is to show that, whatever Auden's circumstances, whatever the apparent squalor, the penury or prosperity he found central, continual joy in the life of the mind. Industry triumphed over pity. His work cannot be exhausted. Until now, one had not fully appreciated "Partition", a late poem about the creation of Pakistan. Many a history lesson could be invigorated by it.