W.H. Auden's Secret Life

W.H. Auden was brusque, insular and severe. In his passport, he had his professionW.H. Auden  stated as “architect” because he thought that writers weren't taken seriously enough. But his literary executor Edward Mendelson argues that the poet's rough exterior was balanced by a “secret life” of humbleness and generosity.

Lifting the lid on a wealth of good deeds discovered “mostly by chance”, Mendelson illuminates a previously obscured munificence: money given to homeless shelters; advice offered to aspiring writers; even a story from a Canadian prison inmate who, having once written to the poet, “had begun a long correspondence in which Auden gave him an informal course in literature”.

With his discoveries of Auden’s compassionate deeds in mind, Mendelson calls for a re-evaluation of Auden's work, paying more attention to his emphasis on human fallibility. One of the themes Mendelson points to Auden's concern “the banality of evil” (as Hannah Arendt called it), evident in his 1939 poem, “Herman Melville”:

Evil is unspectacular and always human,
And shares our bed and eats at our own table.

The power of these lines is in their directness, and Auden's special skill was in broaching collective concerns through an intensely personal mode of address. “He might have thousands of individual readers, but he wrote as if speaking to one,” says Mendelson. Take Auden’s late poem “The Cave of Making”, which was written in his rural Austrian retreat:

More than ever
life-out-there is goodly, miraculous, loveable,
but we shan’t, not since Stalin and Hitler,
trust ourselves ever again: we know that, subjectively,
all is possible.

Amid all Auden’s gloom is a fierce egalitarianism, thinks Mendelson, for “a writer who addresses an individual reader presents himself as someone expert in his métier but in every other way equal with his reader, having no moral authority or special insight on anything beyond his art”. Such humility is at the core of Auden's work, and his secret benevolent acts seem only to underline it.

“The Secret Auden” by Edward Mendelson appears in the latest New York Review of Books, dated 20th March.

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