Monday, August 12, 2013

Able at times to cry

The British Library has just put on display - in the Sir John Ritblat Treasures’ Gallery - one of only three journals kept by the great Anglo-American poet W. H. Auden. The Library recently paid nearly £50,000 at auction for the single volume, written in 1939, and says it ‘provides a fascinating juxtaposition of personal and political preoccupations’ and ‘gives an intimate insight into Auden during one of the most important periods in his life’. Although there is no particular link with the diaries, I cannot resist appending a few lines of Auden’s poetry from my favourite poem, Able At Times To Cry.

Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, in 1907, the third of three sons, though the family moved to Solihull soon after, when his father took an appointment as a school medical officer. He was educated at boarding schools in Surrey (where he met Christopher Isherwood) and Norfolk, before entering Christ Church, Oxford, to study biology at first, then English. At Oxford, he made friends with, among others, Cecil Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender, all of whom would go on to find artistic or literary fame.

From the mid-1920s, through the 1930s, Isherwood acted both as Auden’s literary mentor and occasional lover. After a sojourn together in Berlin, Auden returned to Britain and took work teaching. T. S Eliot at Faber and Faber accepted his first book of poems, published in 1930. In 1935, Auden married Erika Mann, the daughter of the German novelist Thomas Mann. It was a marriage of convenience to enable her to gain British citizenship and escape Nazi Germany. From the mid-1930s, Auden worked as a freelance lecturer and writer, and, for a while, he was employed by the GPO Film Unit, for which he wrote the famous Night Mail. Through his work for the GPO, he met the composer Benjamin Britten, with whom he went on to collaborate on many projects.

In early 1939, Auden sailed, with Isherwood, for the United States (the photograph shows them both in February 1939), and there met the poet Chester Kallman. Although their affair only lasted two years, they remained lifelong friends, and, from 1953, shared a home. During the war, Auden taught at various colleges. He was called up to be drafted in 1942, but was rejected on medical grounds; in 1945 he worked briefly with the US Strategic Bombing Survey in Germany studying German morale. In 1946, he became a naturalised American, and the following year he published The Age of Anxiety for which he won the Pullitzer Prize.

From 1948, Auden began to spend his summers in Europe, in Ishchia, Italy, and then in Kirchstetten, Austria. He was a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets from 1954 to 1973; and Professor of Poetry at Oxford University between 1956 and 1961, though this latter post only required his presence for three weeks a year. He returned to live in Oxford in 1972, and died the following year. Further information is available from Wikipedia,, and the Poetry Foundation.

Auden is admired, says, ‘for his unsurpassed technical virtuosity and an ability to write poems in nearly every imaginable verse form; the incorporation in his work of popular culture, current events, and vernacular speech; and also for the vast range of his intellect, which drew easily from an extraordinary variety of literatures, art forms, social and political theories, and scientific and technical information. . . His poetry frequently recounts, literally or metaphorically, a journey or quest, and his travels provided rich material for his verse.’

The Poetry Foundation says this: ‘Much of [Auden’s] poetry is concerned with moral issues and evidences a strong political, social, and psychological context. While the teachings of Marx and Freud weighed heavily in his early work, they later gave way to religious and spiritual influences. Some critics have called Auden an “antiromantic” - a poet of analytical clarity who sought for order, for universal patterns of human existence. Auden’s poetry is considered versatile and inventive, ranging from the tersely epigrammatic to book-length verse, and incorporating a vast range of scientific knowledge.’

Auden is known to have kept only three journals, and one of them came up for auction last June at Christie’s in London. The lot was described as follows: ‘Autograph manuscript journal and notebook, 30 August - 26 November 1939 (chiefly September and early October), autograph title ‘Journal August 1938 [sic]’, in pen and pencil, many passages lightly cancelled in pencil (?after copying), written primarily on rectos, the facing blanks often used for aphorisms, quotations, reading notes, metrical experiments and other fragmentary lines, the last c.20 leaves almost entirely verse drafts, quotations and records of popular phrases, the verse including drafts and sketches for at least eight sections of ‘New Year Letter’, as well as unpublished material, 93 leaves, 4to (258 x 198mm), plus a few blanks, in a notebook (label of ‘Eye-ease paper ... “Easy on the Eyes” ’), cloth-backed boards.’

The diary opens with a brief self-description: ‘At 32½ I suppose I shall not change physically very much for some time except in weight which is now 154 lbs . . . I am happy, but in debt . . . I have no job. My visa is out of order. There may be a war. But I have an epithalamion to write and cannot worry much’. Inevitably, Christie’s description says, ‘the early pages are written in the shadow of the impending outbreak of the war in Europe, and include a substantial narration (running to 8½ pages) of his activities and preoccupations on 1 September 1939, which sheds light on the composition and content of his famous poem of the same name’.

The lot description gives further information on the diary’s content: ‘Auden is perhaps not a natural diarist - the journal is always more preoccupied with thoughts and reflections rather than activities and observations, and in the latter pages takes on rather the character of a commonplace book or verse notebook; nevertheless, it reveals much about the poet’s associations at this pivotal period of his life (including with Kallman, George Davis, Gerald Heard, Archibald MacLeish, and others), his reading (Milton, Laura Riding, Flaubert), the importance to him of music (especially Wagner), his drinking, smoking and consumption of Benzedrine and Seconal, his dreams (including one of having a wasp down his trousers) and his intellectual preoccupations, including reflections on fascism/communism, sex, marriage (‘One wants marriage ... so that one does not feel abandoned. Apart from that one takes what is handy’), Thomas Mann, the Founding Fathers, science and medicine and much else.’

Christie’s quotes the following aphorisms and observations found in the diary:
- ‘All the great heretics Pascal, Rousseau, Lawrence, Kafka etc have been sick men’;
- ‘Mean like the American habit of washing one’s hands after pissing, as if the penis were an object, too filthy for any decent person to touch’;
- ‘All bureaucrats should be obliged to prove that they have a happy love-life, and immigration officials most of all’;
- ‘Tried to read Milton’s Apology for a Pamphlet but couldn’t. The adjectives are wonderful but there are too many of them’;
- ‘My hatred of women is such that if I am not afraid of them . . . I am cruel’;
- ‘It is impossible to listen to music and get an erection at the same time’.

The auction house description concludes: ‘Providing an incomparable insight into the poet’s activities and reflections at the turning point in his life, this is the most substantial and significant Auden manuscript to have been offered at auction.’

On 12 June, the British Library purchased the diary at Christie’s for £47,475. In a press release, it stated that ‘the journal, which provides a fascinating juxtaposition of personal and political preoccupations, gives an intimate insight into Auden during one of the most important periods in his life.’ It further adds: ‘Auden’s reflections in the diary are particularly interesting as they were written during the turbulent period which saw the outbreak of war in Europe and after Auden leaves England for the United States with novelist Christopher Isherwood, a decision considered shamefully unpatriotic by the British media and which even occasioned strong criticism in Parliament.’ The journal is now on display in the Library’s Sir John Ritblat Treasures Gallery.

1 September 1939
‘Woke with a headache after a night of bad dreams in which C[hester] was unfaithful. Paper reports German attack on Poland ... 6.0 pm. Benjamin [Britten] and Peter Piers [sic] came to lunch. Peter sang B’s new settings of Les Illuminations and some H. Wolf ... which made me cry. B played some of Tristan which seems particularly apposite today. Now I sit looking out over the river. Such a beautiful evening and in an hour, they say, England will be at war ... 10.30 Went to the Dizzy Club. A whiff of the old sad life. I want. I want. Je ne m’occupe plus de cela. Stopped to listen to the news coming out of an expensive limousine’

3 September 1939
‘War declared this morning at 7 a.m. Listened in the afternoon to a broadcast of the first 1½ acts of Tristan. Everyone very kind, some rather drunk. The frogs sang all night. We sang spirituals out on the lawn.’

Several of the famous (and gay) writers/artists associated with Auden were regular diarists, and have, previously, been the subject of Diary Review articles: Christopher Isherwood (Isherwood giving thanks), Benjamin Britten (Britten’s firecracker crits), and Stephen Spender (The ghost of a reader). Finally, on a personal note, my own favourite poem of all time is one by Auden, written in June 1937. Originally called As He Is, it was later also titled Able At Times To Cry, and - as I cannot find it anywhere else on the web - I can’t resist appending a couple of verses here.

‘Wrapped in a yielding air, beside
The flower’s soundless hunger
Close to the tree’s clandestine tide
Close to the bird’s high fever,
Loud in his hope and his anger,
Erect about his skeleton,
Stands the expressive lover
Stands the deliberate man.

Beneath the hot incurious sun,
Past stronger beasts and fairer
He picks his way, a living gun,
With gun and lens and bible
A militant enquirer,
The friend, the rash, the enemy,
The essayist, the able
Able at times to cry.’

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