In Lower Sixth, my English class trooped down to Newcastle’s Theatre Royal to see the new play by Alan Bennett, The Habit of Art. It was a play within a play: a fly-on-the-wall insight into rehearsals of Caliban’s Day, with its uptight, upcoming author looking on. The lead actor, Fitz, plays an old W. H. Auden, who is living out his last years in his alma mater of Christ Church, Oxford. He receives a series of visitors, including his former collaborator Benjamin Britten, a male prostitute, and an earnest young BBC journalist called Humphrey Carpenter.
Ten years later, I spent half a euro on Carpenter’s biography of Auden, not expecting that I would ever read it. Yet last month I did, building on the summer in which I finally ‘got’ Auden’s poetry. Auden disapproved of poets’ biographies, arguing that, unlike with “a man of action,” there was nothing about a poet’s life that a reader could possibly need to know. But he might have approved of Carpenter’s, which in the classical biographer’s tradition is sober, egoless (with one sole mention of “the present author”) and not over-familiar – “Wystan” cedes to “Auden” from the second chapter onwards, when the subject moves into adolescence. Ethically, the book lives up to its (fairly) morally upstanding – and intensely moralistic – protagonist.
In many ways, Auden must have been a biographer’s dream: generous with his time, a bundle of quirks and eccentricities strapped into the strictest routine, and a font of “memorable speech,” his own definition of poetry. His personal magnetism pulled sundry characters into his orbit, and the book has some great names, like Edward Upward and Nob Snodgrass. Poets of varying quality soon fell under the umbrella of “the Auden school,” from the tall, curly-haired Stephen Spender to Louis MacNeice, who described the former as “a towering angel not quite sure if he was fallen.”
Whatever Spender’s condition, Auden certainly saw himself as fallen in some way. He once said that “Real artists are not nice people. All their best feelings go into their work and life has the residue.” But he himself did a pretty good job of disproving this. There was none of the self-regarding bard in him. One of his colleagues at the BBC, where he contributed to a few documentaries, admitted that he “kept bringing [the most beautiful verse], and – the cheek of us, in a way – we turned down so much.” Auden would say “All right, that’s quite all right. Just roll it up and throw it away.” He set no store by poetry’s post-Romantic elevation; he preferred the then (and still) unfashionable Pope and Dryden, whom he named as “the ideal poet to read when one is weary, as I often am, of poetry with a capital P.” In his later years, he reiterated a line quoted in Bennett’s play: “nothing I ever wrote saved one Jew from extinction or shortened the war by five seconds.” And as if to make up for this, his biography is littered with acts of charity, such as paying the school fees of two impoverished teenagers in Kirchstetten, the little Austrian town to which he retired. He had never met the boys in question.
Carpenter presents a picture of a man ruled by the clock and by notions of what a respectable person should be and should do, yet who frequently flummoxed all expectations. In 1935, his longtime friend and sometime lover Christopher Isherwood wrote to him on behalf of Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas: she was seeking a British passport as a way out of Hitler’s Germany. Auden replied with a telegram: DELIGHTED. After the wedding, he commented: “I didn’t see her till the ceremony and perhaps I shall never see her again. But she is very nice.” In fact, he and the Manns saw each other many times more over the years, with Auden fond of saying: “The most boring German writer? My father in law!”
A marriage of convenience is one thing, but the reader will be surprised to learn of Auden’s actual sexual affairs with women. He described himself as “quite ambidextrous,” and generally enjoyed his fair share of “copotomy and sodulation,” which Carpenter accounts for with a perfectly straight face. Neither prurient nor prudish, about the facts-of-life he is simply matter-of-fact, and that was probably quite a brave thing to be back in 1981. Even more so when we consider D. J. Taylor’s recent column in the Times Literary Supplement, which notes that it wasn’t really until the turn of the millennium that homosexuality became openly mentionable in obituaries, having previously lurked under the euphemism “he never married.” Which Auden, of course, did.
Before settling into a cosy High Church Anglicanism, Auden spent most of his pre-war life hunting for a bedrock of beliefs, which in physical terms gave him itchy feet. Like many Britons, he pitched into the Spanish Civil War, which he found a static, disillusioning limbo. In 1938 he and Isherwood sailed for China, whose creaky coalition of Nationalist and Communist government was held together only by war with Japan. It was all a bit of a jolly to the travellers, who immediately had business cards made with their names transcribed into Chinese phonetics: ‘Y Hsiao Wu’ and ‘Au Deng’. Au Deng sought out the fighting wherever it was thickest, seemingly impervious to danger. As Isherwood wrote to Spender, “Auden knows he won’t be killed, because Nanny would never allow it, and it Can’t Happen Here.”
My summer reading of Auden’s poetry left me with the strong impression of a poet who declined after the War, an impression shared by most of his contemporaries (Carpenter repeatedly begs to differ, but one wonders if he really believed his own defence). He succumbed to the ageing poet’s cardinal sin of tampering with their earlier work, invariably for the worse; and struck one of his most famous poems from his anthologies altogether. Thankfully, ‘September 1, 1939’ was already out there in the world, long past being reeled back in. And no wonder, given the first stanza:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
It may start in a dive in Fifty-Second street, but by line four the poem has soared to what Carpenter calls Auden’s “hawk’s vision,” with “a low dishonest decade” in his sights. It’s a lesson to all poets who fight shy of absolute values and moral judgements. And the final stanza is a lesson to all poets who kid themselves that the words they write make a greater difference than the lives they lead.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Auden never reconciled himself to the last line, thinking “that’s a damned lie! We must die anyway.” In later versions, he changed it to “We must love one another and die.” Geoffrey Hill, as one of Auden’s successors as Oxford Professor of Poetry, ventured that Auden had forgotten his original motive: “He meant to die spiritually, and that seems to me an entirely acceptable sentiment.” But Auden eventually came to think the poem riddled with “dishonesty,” and completely disowned it. Its very mention would probably earn Carpenter a black mark, in his book. But then, good biographers spare no blushes, and Carpenter is a very good biographer. He also wrote Lives of Tolkien, Britten, Evelyn Waugh, Ezra Pound, John Murray, and one presumes that they are all as clear, as readable and as unconceited as Auden: A biography. As Bennett notes in the preface to The Habit of Art, he deserves a biography all to himself.