Auden by Richard Davenport-Hines, (Pantheon Books, New York, 1996, 406 pages, $30)
LIKE TABLOID journalism, the field of literary biography has lately become a nasty business. For several years, we've been treated to a host of fat, well-documented debunkings of 20th century literary giants. We now know, for example, that playwright Bertold Brecht may have had much of his landmark output “ghost written” by talented female disciples, while he was off playing the role of cabaret radical; and that Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski lived every bit as self-invented a life as his most famous character, Chauncey Gardener, in Being There. The list of luminaries having their dark sides exposed with relish is growing.
Happily, Richard Davenport-Hines’ well-focused new study of British-American poet W. H. Auden (1907-1973) is an exception. Hines, a regular reviewer for the [London] Times Literary Supplement, may have been helped by the fact that—as he himself notes—his work was preceded by C. S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien biographer Humphrey Carpenter's judicious life of Auden (W.H. Auden: A Biography, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1981). Carpenter's “big picture” work allows Hines to focus his gaze on certain selective aspects of the character of one of the century's greatest poets. And the fact that Auden himself was always candid about the contradictions of his personal life—his homosexuality, his religious conversion, his 30-year relationship with poet and librettist Chester Kallman, his moral conservatism—relieved biographers of the temptation to excavate for “hidden faults.” To an epic degree, Auden's virtues and vices were always matters of public record.
What has not been well mined until Hines’ study is the reality of Auden's Christian faith. Like most British intellectuals of his time, Auden abandoned Christianity in his youth. Intellectually serious—a friend once observed that he “thinks things out with the thoroughness of a cement mixer” —Auden worked his way through the ideological fashions of the ‘20s and ‘30s, particularly socialism and Freudian psychology. A pivotal moment came in 1933 when, as three college friends chatted on a lawn, Auden experienced, along with the others, an extraordinary sense of well-being and mutual regard that he later regarded as a kind of revelation of love. Encounters with Catholicism during the Spanish Civil War (specifically, his horror at the Republicans’ barbaric treatment of clergy and the destruction of churches), attendance at a Russian Orthodox Easter service in China, and a long sojourn in Iceland prepared Auden for the spiritual crisis that visited him in a Manhattan movie house in November, 1939.
The German proprietors of the cinema were showing Nazi propaganda films about the then-recent invasion of Poland. When Poles appeared on screen, the audience exploded in a murderous fury. As Hines tells it: “Auden &hellips; was filled with a sense of evil that was irresistible by any secular power&hellips; . He felt there was such a schism in the universe as could only be reconciled by atonement and the Christian forgiveness of sins.”
After his experience at the theater, Auden resumed going to church, becoming an Anglican communicant by 1940. The poet soon immersed himself in the writings of St. Augustine and the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard who, with their vivid sense of Original Sin, fed the poet's profound, though not despairing, skepticism about human nature.
Simultaneously with his conversion, Auden met Chester Kallman, an aspiring 19-year-old New York poet who became the older man's lifelong companion and muse. (He also made yet another controversial decision and applied for American citizenship in 1940.) While relations between Kallman and Auden were often stormy—to put it kindly—they perdured, and suggested the other great theme in Auden's highly individual version of Christianity: the centrality of love.
Echoing Dante, Auden saw love as “an accident occurring in a substance,” “an indirect manifestation of the glory of the personal Creator through a personal creature.” In a 1940 poem, Auden exulted that:
“Anytime, how casually, Out of his organized distress An accidental happiness Catching man off his guard, will blow him Out of his life in time to show him The field of Being.”
But if the poet's sense of transcendence was in good working order in the annus mirabilis of 1940, troubles with Kallman, the death of Auden's mother in 1941, and the brutality of World War II toughened the poet's views, both of love and of faith.
In the text of the 1942 Christmas oratorio For the Time Being, set to music by composer Benjamin Britten, Auden has St. Joseph say:
“To choose what is difficult all one's days As if it were easy, that is faith.”
And in one of the work's finest passages, Auden prayed:
“Though written by Thy children with a smudged and crooked line
The Word is ever legible Thy meaning unequivocal And for Thy Goodness even sin Is valid for a sign.
Inflict Thy promises with each Occasion of distress That from our incoherence we May learn to put our trust in Thee And brutal fact persuade us to Adventure Art and Peace.”
That the vital, ironic, tough-minded Christian artist of the war years evolved into the prematurely-aging bohemian curmudgeon of New York's St. Mark's Place, Ischia, Italy and Kirchstetten, Austria, is well known. (When barely 60, Auden's friend Christopher Isherwood called him “monumentally old” ). Auden's faith always stood in tense counterpoint to his sexuality and the ravages that his abuse of alcohol, cigarettes and amphetamines visited on his body. Still, as Hines observes, Auden “developed a personal poetic theory of gratitude for both suffering and human imperfection.” That perspective finds one of its wisest expressions in these lines:
“O stand, stand at the window As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor With your crooked heart.”
Auden died Sept. 28, 1973, of heart failure, following a poetry reading in Vienna. He was buried in the cemetery of the local Catholic church in Kirchstetten, Austria, where, though an Anglican, he'd been attending church since 1958. Sixteen months later, Chester Kallman died at age 54.
In one of Auden's last poems, a postscript to an elegy he'd written in the ‘60s, the poet imagines himself facing the divine tribunal:
“God may reduce you On Judgment Day To tears of shame, Reciting by heart The poems you would Have written, had Your life been good.”
As Hines concludes: “Even in death Auden was hard on himself.”
Recommended reading: W. H. Auden, Collected Poems, edited by Edward Mendelson, Random House,N. Y., 1976, 696 pp.
Gabriel Meyer, a Register contributing editor, is based in Los Angeles.