That’s what Wystan says

Seamus Perry

  • Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography by Edward Mendelson
    Princeton, 912 pp, £27.95, May 2017, ISBN 978 0 691 17249 1

What became of his face? In his memorial address Stephen Spender, who had known Auden since they were undergraduates, contrasted the young man, Nordic and brilliant, with a ‘second image of Wystan … of course one with which you are all familiar: the famous poet with the face like a map of physical geography, criss-crossed and river-run and creased with lines’. By the early 1970s, everyone was familiar with it: it was the face of a celebrity, a guest on the Parkinson talk show, wreathed in fag smoke and opining splendidly. And it remains pretty well known: the quirkiest testimony to its renown comes in The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett’s play about Auden and Benjamin Britten, when two of the wrinkles come alive and engage in a brief dialogue about themselves. As its furrows gradually deepened, the face was captured by some remarkable photographers, including Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon and Jane Bown, and a string of artists. The vigorous scribble of Feliks Topolski naturally found him a good subject, as did the heroic sculptural instincts of Henry Moore, who drew Auden’s skin from memory on hearing of his death – ‘the monumental ruggedness of his face, its deep furrows like plough marks crossing a field’. Probably the most beautiful and attentive drawing had been done five years earlier by David Hockney, in which Auden appears wrapped up in himself and a cigarette: ‘I kept thinking,’ Hockney reportedly said afterwards, ‘if his face looks like this, what must his balls look like?’ Not everyone was struck in quite that way, but everyone was struck, and Auden himself realised that he had not lost his looks so much as become photogenic in a new and unexpected way. ‘Your cameraman might enjoy himself,’ he told an interviewer from the Sunday Times colour supplement, ‘because my face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain.’

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[*] The Plural of Us: Poetry and Community in Auden and Others (Princeton, 272 pp., £37.95, October 2017, 978 0 691 17281 1).