Speaking of WH Auden, yesterday’s Guardian included a Nancy Banks-Smith review of the South Bank Show’s celebration of Auden’s centenary. This anniversary has not attracted a great deal of attention, Banks-Smith points out:
Even the Royal Mail has refused to commemorate with a stamp Auden’s popular poem that begins: “This is the Night Mail crossing the border.”
Why is Auden not being celebrated more fully? Well, for starters, there’s The War. You know: the one which he spent sitting in one of the dives on Fifty-Second Street:
His unforgiven sin was to skedaddle to America in 1939. Interviewing Auden, Richard Crossman said, as tactfully as possible, that even Crossman’s stepchildren, who were evacuated, felt they were missing all the fun and had demanded to come home. Didn’t Auden feel he was missing a great experience? No, he didn’t. The sense lingers that, just for a handful of silver, he left us.
Though Alan Bennett takes a more sympathetic line, as pointed out by Michael Henderson in the article I linked yesterday:
Alan Bennett was on to something when he said that Auden, having fallen in love with a precocious Jewish teenager, Chester Kallman, and decided to stay in New York, was simply “an early GI bride”.
Well, maybe. Returning to Nancy Banks-Smith, Bennett also turned up on the South Bank Show:
After the war, the young Alan Bennett went to hear Auden lecturing at Oxford. He advised would-be writers to study geology, fairy stories and Norse sagas. “My heart sank,” said Bennett, who really prefers to listen to old women talking.
But there’s another reason why the nation failed to clasp Auden to its bosom: he wasn’t very nice:
Bennett said, “He was a bully, Auden, all his life. Not an attractive figure. Not lovable. Not cosy.” Not Betjeman, then? “He is very much the notion of what people think of as a poet. He was untidy, smelly, a shambles, and that’s what people think a poet should be,” Bennett mused on.
That calls to mind my favourite story about Auden. He enjoyed word games – anagrams, palindromes – and apparently used to make great fun of TS Eliot for having a name that was an anagram of “Toilets”. He stopped after someone pointed out in return that “Wystan Auden” is an anagram of “A nasty unwed”…