Taking sides

Karl Miller

  • W.H. Auden: The Life of a Poet by Charles Osborne
    Eyre Methuen, 336 pp, £7.95, March 1980, ISBN 0 413 39670 3

In 1960, Auden completed his third decade as a poet with the volume Homage to Clio. By then, Charles Osborne writes, he was ‘widely regarded as among the few really great poets of the century’. No slur on the century seems intended here: part of what we mean by talking of great poets is that there are never very many of them about. But Mr Osborne goes on to mention that the poets Larkin and Gunn refused to kneel to the new collection. Larkin said of Auden’s progress that ‘almost all we value is still confined to its first ten years,’ that ‘the peculiar insecurity of pre-war England sharpened his talent in a way that nothing else has.’ Mr Osborne never engages with the implications of this opinion. But it is surely sound, and nothing Auden was afterwards to write required that it be amended.

This is the first biography of Auden to be written. It is being called ‘provisional’, and we expect that there will be a lot more to be said on the subject. So far as its being early and rapid and provisional permits, however, it might appear to be the kind of life which is identified in Auden’s verse as ‘giving you all the facts’. It has been fed into the Sunday-paper flow – in which Bloomsbury has started to yield to the Thirties as the chief source – of scandalous passages in the lives of writers, and Mr Osborne certainly provides plenty of items relating to the poet’s promiscuous sex life: at the same time, he observes what Christopher Ricks has identified as an honourable Victorian reticence as to the inner life and motives of his subject. In other words, his way with facts is such that reticence and candour meet, and that, apart from the details of publication and performance, there is very little discussion of what Auden spent his time writing. The story is told in a lively and level-headed fashion, with an infusion of ironic humour. Mr Osborne has a taste for the outrageous which is not unwelcome in an official of the Arts Council, and for the méchant. The Auden and Spender duo, in platform performance, are twice likened to Laurel and Hardy.

There are times when it can appear to be both too early and too late to get some of the facts of Auden’s life right. The opening chapter, for example, opens with this quotation:

 My first remark at school did all it could
To shake a matron’s monumental poise:
‘I like to see the various types of boys.’

This is not a remark that would cause most matrons to lose their cool; Auden’s matron is long dead, presumably, and could not be consulted; and most poets do not write their poems on oath anyway. But we are soon told by Mr Osborne what the poem itself does not tell us: that the matron was ‘startled’. When Auden’s father, as a medical student, became engaged to his mother, a clergyman’s daughter, one of her sisters warned: ‘If you marry this man, nobody will call on you, you know.’ For that statement to be understood, it would have to be seen in the context of a family background which the book only very cursorily supplies. It does not justify the caption to one of the many photographs: ‘she was accused by her family of marrying beneath herself.’ (Many of these many photographs, including the same piece of handwriting, with snaps, from a holiday diary kept in childhood, figured in the Tribute to W.H. Auden organised not long ago by Stephen Spender.) In general, the facts in the book are effectively deployed, but they are sometimes insufficient and uncertain. Mr Osborne’s, of course, was not an easy task. Like quite a few artists, Auden lived off rumour, and was the cause of rumour in others. Try writing a shilling life of Falstaff.

For the earlier years, for the English Auden, Osborne draws heavily on published autobiographical accounts; for the elderly Auden, the pantaloon, curmudgeon and sacred monster, he draws on his own friendship with the poet, which grew out of the Poetry International performances at the Festival Hall and elsewhere: so that some will feel that the book is facing in the wrong direction, that it is biased towards the less rewarding half of Auden’s life. Among the best things in the earlier chapters is a dry telling of the story of his temporary devotion to the theories of Homer Lane and ‘Loony’ Layard:

 Refusal to make use of one’s creative powers could lead to cancer. Stubbornness found physical expression as stiffness of the joints, the deaf and the blind were attempting to shut out the physical world, and Stephen Spender was so tall because he aspired to heaven. When Isherwood asked how these misfortunes were to be avoided, Auden assured him it was quite simple: one had merely to be pure in heart. Before long, Isherwood too was waving this phrase about as a panacea. John Layard was revered as the one man who was pure in heart, who was therefore without guilt or fear, and consequently unable to contract disease, and who was profoundly, fundamentally happy. When Auden told Isherwood that in Berlin were to be found not only this paragon of virtue but also a large number of bars where one could pick up boys easily and cheaply, without the guilt or fear attendant upon such activities in England, Isherwood decided to pay Auden a visit in Berlin the following spring.

It was not long before the happy and wholesome Layard fired a bullet into his face, and then rushed round in a taxi to Auden with the request that he be finished off. Seldom at a loss for a word when under threat or challenge, Auden replied: ‘I would if I dared, but I don’t want to be hanged.’ Layard lived on for a further forty years.

Mr Osborne also does well with the visit by Auden and Isherwood, in 1938, to the Sino-Japanese war. They posed as war correspondents, egged on the combatants so far as they made contact with them, and submitted themselves for massage, by the young men of China, in the course of several leisurely afternoons, before dining with the British Ambassador. The fleshpots of Shanghai were then exchanged for the fleshpots of Manhattan: ‘Davis also offered to make sexual introductions for them, and, when Christopher requested “a beautiful blond boy, about eighteen, intelligent, with very sexy legs”, a boy exactly answering the description was produced.’ O my America!

Mr Osborne’s accounts exhibit a certain Schadenfreude, which may or may not contribute to the sense of desolation imparted by the second half of the book. The later stories suggest that Auden’s life became ever more of a performance; some of them suggest a show (and more than a show) of meanness, and of meanness of spirit; the ‘nobility’ which one journalist has ascribed to this life is simply never apparent, though there are testimonies to indicate that, for a large number of people, his charm survived the Thirties to alleviate the bad temper. America is present in the book as a desert of tributes, gold medals, high fees, admirers and cigarette ash. Conferences and poetry readings are despised, and graced by the despiser. Pages of the book consist of a recital of engagements. His work schedule, his monastic early risings and sybaritic evenings, are repeatedly described: but it rarely seems that he is doing any interesting work. On 25 May 1953, ‘he was appointed to the poetry advisory committee of the National Arts Foundation (which later became the National Endowment for the Arts): the other appointments announced on the same day were those of Walter Gropius to the committee on architecture and Basil Rathbone to the drama committee.’ The next page proceeds in the same vein: ‘At the end of the year, Auden was one of four new members elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters: announcing this, the New York Times quaintly described the poet as “one of the chief influences against the standards of 19th-century poetry”.’

The American Auden took to spending half the year in Austria and, before that, in Ischia, from which he reported in a letter: ‘The sex situation in Forio is fine from my point of view, exactly what it ought to be, i.e. the women never go into the cafés or bars and if they do appear on the beach are covered up to the ankles, very few of the men and boys are queer ... but all of them like a “divertimento” now and then, for which it is considered polite to give 35 cents or a package of cigarettes as a friendly gesture. It is so nice to be with people who are never shocked or psychologically insecure, though half of them don’t get enough to eat.’ Larkin’s words about Auden’s feeling for the ‘insecurity’ of pre-war England come to mind here. Auden’s letter seems too secure, and seems to forget that hunger is unlikely to make for psychological security. The barrenness of so much of the life that is retailed in these pages exceeds, but also explains, the barrenness of so much of the verse that Auden wrote after (if we agree with Larkin) his desertion by the muse. There on the beach at Ischia, so to speak, stood the apparatus of wit without the point, a stack of sour elegies and crossword-puzzle word-plays – aimed, by a man who had obtained so much in the way of permission himself, at a ‘permissive age so rife with envy’.

That Auden should have lost the sharp talent expressed in his youthful verse is a matter for regret. It is not a mystery. Talents do get lost. But why did he repudiate his youthful verse, and the very idea of a politically-responsible poetry, and why did he sit out the war in America, disappointing those admirers who had deemed him to be leading a crusade against Fascism, and fleeting back in uniform when the war was over to offend his London friends by sneering at the close-knit family England to which he had said goodbye? English critics have tended to fight shy of answering such questions – those at least who take for granted that Auden is a great poet and who have also been ready to treat him (far less plausibly) as a great critic, those, especially, for whom the life was a seamless garment of spiritual superiority, and who used to assimilate Auden and Eliot as co-religionists, differently stationed on the road to Rome.

Mr Osborne is no such writer. He deals with these questions, in the main, by attacking, reasonably enough, the attacks made on Auden at the time, by British patriots, for his traitor’s defection to America. Osborne believes, I think, that Auden was fundamentally indifferent to politics, just as he was later to be fundamentally indifferent to the religion he professed. On the latter indifference, Stravinsky is impressively quoted: ‘What his intellect and gifts require of Christianity is its form – even, to go further, its uniform.’ Osborne may well be right about Auden’s religious sentiments: but Auden’s poetic response to pre-war insecurity comprehended and enlisted a feeling for politics, even if we grant, as we must, that his work was guided throughout by that preoccupation with homosexual love which could only be covert in the Thirties, and that his commitment to America, as literary exile so often is, was determined by such reasons of the heart.

These are questions to which Auden’s subsequent biographers may be expected to attend. His early verse is deeply penetrated by the idea of treason and by the idea of taking sides. This does not mean, and the present book does not reveal, that, in the words of George Watson in a letter to this journal, ‘like Hitler, if less effectively’, he ‘purposed the death of millions’ when he imagined the defeat of the bourgeoisie. It does mean that we should be no less careful in weighing the matter of betrayal in Auden’s case than Anthony Blunt’s defenders ask us to be in the case of Blunt. The feeling for political justice expressed by the English Auden has to be related to the at first hidden and eventually uncloseted commitment to homosexual love. Equally, while what he has to say about America is frequently unconvincing, I think we have to believe him when he says that his departure from England was experienced by him as a break with the claustrophobic family life represented by his native country. It is very difficult to know what this break meant for him, which is one reason among others why it is a pity that the present biography is so terse about his dealings with his own immediate family.

Auden’s loyalties were paid on both sides, and it is not surprising that his life is so rich in ambivalence and in change of mind. This operates both in large affairs and in small. The reader of this book who notices Auden’s avowal that he won’t review books by friends is not stunned to learn later that he reviewed the poetry of his friend and mate, Chester Kallman. Auden was a prig who, in the rebellious-schoolboy manner of some Thirties people, hated prigs. He was a supporter of the popular cause in Spain who became a supporter of the American war-effort in Vietnam. I once pointed this out in print, and was taken to task by an American, who said he was a great friend of Auden’s and had never heard him speak favourably of the American war-effort. Well, a public statement by Auden on this subject is set out in Mr Osborne’s book: ‘My answer to your question is, I suppose, that I believe a negotiated peace, to which the Vietcong will have to be a party, to be possible, but not yet, and that, therefore, American troops, alas, must stay in Vietnam until it is. But it would be absurd to call this answer mine. It simply means that I am an American citizen who reads the New York Times.’ The statement reiterates his simplistic post-Thirties view that art doesn’t affect action, and that writers (even Russian dissident writers?) aren’t worth listening to on public policy. But it also gives support – though ambivalently, and with a grumpy sigh – to the poor dear deer-hunters.