Behind the study door
A new biography of WH Auden promises to reveal the inner man, not the gay cruiser. It fails. By James Fenton
Saturday 14 October 1995
In the Prologue to this biography, the author refers to a story by Henry James called "The Private Life", in which a great writer called Clare Vawdrey is found to have a double. There is the public, sociable Clare Vawdrey, who is a dull conversationalist. And then there is the genius, toiling away at his desk... "One goes out," says James, "the other stays at home. One is the genius, the other is the bourgeois and it is only the bourgeois whom we personally know. He talks, he circulates, he's awfully popular... For personal relations this admirable genius thought his second-best enough. The world was vulgar and stupid and the real man would have been a fool to come out for it."
The story of this genius-double left behind at the desk found its way into Auden's poetry, and although it is not quite true that the social and the creative Auden divided along these lines, it is inescapable that the biographer of Auden must devote his main efforts and attention to internal, concealed events, to what went on in the solitude of the study. It is far more important for us to know how Auden met Kierkegaard, or Goethe, or Freud, than to be told who was on the guest-list at Fire Island. What went on all day behind the famously closed curtains is the real story, however much we may also like to be told what happened later in the cafe, around the dinner table, or in the editor's office or indeed in bed.
There is a great deal of story (public and private) to tell. Davenport- Hines feels that, since his predecessor Humphrey Carpenter set out much of this very efficiently, he himself is at liberty to take a certain knowledge of the previous biography for granted. But while the present book has genuine discoveries of its own, and though it benefits greatly from the assiduous work of recent Auden scholars, there is no getting around it: the next Auden biography is going to have to be a serious, multi-volume affair. Davenport-Hines demonstrates that 350-odd pages is just not enough.
He is forced to compress. Events which could hardly be considered minor, either to the public, social Auden or to his privately toiling double, pass by in a couple of sentences: "Further encouragement reached [Auden] after Faber in September 1930 published 1,000 copies of Poems, his first commercially published book (Spender had hand-printed a small edition of twenty Auden poems in 1928)." This sentence is followed by another summing up the contents of the 1930 volume.
But anyone who wanted to know how a poet gets going, and how Auden came to those first major decisions of choosing and chucking out, and what, for instance, Eliot or Isherwood or anyone else had to do with it, is going to be disappointed here. One might also like to know how long that edition of 1,000 lasted, and whether it was a small, average or mightily ambitious first run, according to the standards of the time.
A further example comes from 1945, when Auden "was appointed editor of the 'Younger Poets' series from Yale University Press, and in the next twelve years spotted incipient talents like John Ashbery and Adrienne Rich, whose early poems showed Auden's influence." Compressed here is a large amount of highly important work by Auden, and we would like, at the very least, a list of the poets he chose and promoted in those dozen years. No doubt there is enough material here for a short study. But we must pass quickly here over the tantalising relationship with Ashbery, just as we pass quickly, on the same page, over the collaboration with Brecht.
I don't want to sound ungrateful. Davenport-Hines is a corrective against much received wisdom. The American period is given serious emphasis, and short shrift is given to the idea, once almost universal, that Auden simply went off as a writer when he left England. This is not only to undervalue the poetry of the middle period. It is in America that Auden's secret wealth of prose was amassed. A part of this was made public in The Dyer's Hand, for which purpose Auden apparently sent an assistant to the library to look up what he could remember having written and to copy it out (later they found out about photocopying). There is a great deal of uncollected journalism by Auden, to be found in such surprising places as Mademoiselle. The collected prose of Eliot, when it comes, will be fascinating enough. But the collected prose of Auden, the first volume of which is already under way, will astonish us all.
It is Davenport-Hines's foible to boast that he has never tried to vilify or diminish his subject, which would be "decadent and envious", and that he has not fallen for "the repetitive and rampantly cruisy young man whom other writers like to imagine". One page before this latter quote, he has been passing on stories about Auden "dropping coins into the boots of a sentryman outside a royal palace, and fellating him in his sentrybox". And it is our sober biographer who refers to Auden's "failure" to consummate two schoolboy friendships by sexual activity, almost as if he believed that adolescent camaraderie should lead to a physical climax. It is comic, after so much deviant sex, to find the author state in his acknowledgments: "My wife's financial support, her merriness and her Anglo-Catholicism have been equally indispensable. The sermons of Father George Bright, of St John the Baptist, Holland Road, Kensington, have influenced some key passages."
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