The last time we took a break from the Terrible Poetry Breakdown series, we focused on a fantastic poem by W.H. Auden (and the many great poets who were inspired by it). This time, we’re going to look at this amazing New York Review of Books article by Edward Mendelson, which made me admire Auden even more:
W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it. I learned about it mostly by chance, so it may have been far more extensive than I or anyone ever knew.
And we’re off! Let the anecdotes begin. And…because there are so many, I’m going to select a few and try to evaluate their greatness on a scale of 1-10.
First up: the suffering churchgoer.
Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in New York. She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.
Wow. I might have done that in high school or college. Maybe my early twenties, at the latest. But Auden was born in 1907. That means that in the 1950s he would have been around 50 years old, give or take. Sleeping on a blanket in a New York hallway? I’m giving that a 9 out of 10. Next up: the friend in need:
Someone else recalled that Auden had once been told that a friend needed a medical operation that he couldn’t afford. Auden invited the friend to dinner, never mentioned the operation, but as the friend was leaving said, “I want you to have this,” and handed him a large notebook containing the manuscript of The Age of Anxiety. The University of Texas bought the notebook and the friend had the operation.
Incredible. Very thoughtful, and points for style and modesty. On the other hand, it’s not quite up there with being willing to sleep in a hallway. Or is it? Giving away a manuscript may have meant more to him than money, though how much more, I’m not sure. I’ll give him an 8.5. Number three: the war orphans:
From some letters I found in Auden’s papers, I learned that a few years after World War II he had arranged through a European relief agency to pay the school and college costs for two war orphans chosen by the agency, an arrangement that continued, later with new sets of orphans, until his death at sixty-six in 1973.
These are starting to build. Orphans trump a friend’s medical condition. And the arrangement continued? Back to 9. How did he find it within himself to do all of this? And be a Fantastic Poet, writing Fantastic Poems? Next: the secret saver:
At times, he went out of his way to seem selfish while doing something selfless. When NBC Television was producing a broadcast of The Magic Flute for which Auden, together with Chester Kallman, had translated the libretto, he stormed into the producer’s office demanding to be paid immediately, instead of on the date specified in his contract. He waited there, making himself unpleasant, until a check finally arrived. A few weeks later, when the canceled check came back to NBC, someone noticed that he had endorsed it, “Pay to the order of Dorothy Day.” The New York City Fire Department had recently ordered Day to make costly repairs to the homeless shelter she managed for the Catholic Worker Movement, and the shelter would have been shut down had she failed to come up with the money.
Love this one for its drama, both in the performance in the office and the save-the-day timing for the shelter. Another 9.
I’ll stop there, but Mendelson gives many more examples.
Could he be the kindest literary figure we’ve had? He’s certainly in the first tier.
Why do we care? Shouldn’t the poems stand on their own? Of course they should. But if you’re going to spend time with a poet (and by that I mean “read their poems”), it’s nice when that poet is not an anti-Semite, or a Nazi, or a traitorous fascist. (I’m not linking to those examples, they’re too heartbreaking – though you probably know who I’m talking about.)
We care when we find out the bad (which happens much too often). So for once, let’s join Mendolson and celebrate the good.
Onward and upward, people!
You can also read about Auden’s incredible run of inspiring poems with his own poem about W. B. Yeats. Or you can look at the dark side of writers in our examination of whether they are narcissists by nature. We took a look at some other poets (e.g., Shakespeare, Stéphane Mallarmé, Ezra Pound) in the context of their self-publishing spirit. And of course, our Terrible Poem Breakdown series looks at some less successful efforts, including this ode to a twenty-year-old “poet.” I’d like to think my own books The Race and The Promotion both have a touch of poetry to them, with the latter being specifically inspired by imagining Edgar Allen Poe working in a giant modern law firm. Enjoy!