'Kirchstetten, receive an honoured guest'
WH Auden died 25 years ago this week. In Britain we hardly noticed. But in Austria they paid their respects. By Simon O'Hagan
Poet And Man
To find where he is buried you need to take the gate on the right as you walk up the path towards the church, and the plot is to your left, sheltered by a low stone wall. From there you can look across to the edge of the Vienna Woods, where the land begins to rise and, at this time of the year, the leaves on the trees are turning to burnished hues.
Last Sunday, at the end of the morning service, some 100 people were gathered round Auden's grave. Overhead, clouds were moving fast. Spots of rain were falling, and you could feel the first chill of winter in the wind. A little podium with a microphone and speaker had been set up. First an actress, specially invited, read Auden's short poem "Elegy for J.F.K". ("Why then, why there,/Why thus..."). Then the mayor made a speech. The priest said a prayer and sprinkled holy water on the grave before two members of the congregation stepped forward and laid wreaths.
The 25th anniversary of the death of WH Auden passed without anyone in England much noticing. But in the Lower Austrian village of Kirchstetten, an hour's train journey west of Vienna, they were proud to commemorate the poet who had made it his summer home for the last 16 years of his life.
The service had been largely devoted to Auden's memory. As well as lessons, we'd had readings of his poems - among them, perhaps inevitably, the one that has come to be known as "Funeral Blues", made famous by Four Weddings and a Funeral. And when the graveside ceremony was over, we walked the 100 yards to the village inn where, after people had warmed up a bit, there was a screening of a film about Auden made by Austrian television in 1967.
The tone of the programme was jaunty, and it conveyed the feelings of mutual appreciation that existed between the shambling, slightly distracted English writer and this bourgeois, straight-laced little corner of the world - nowhere more so than in a scene in which a delegation led by the mayor turned up at Auden's house on his 60th birthday and a young boy and girl solemnly handed over presents to him. Auden, clearly touched, made a point of bending down and shaking hands with each child as he thanked them. There was a starring role for Auden's VW Beetle, in which would he would drive down to the centre of Kirchstetten to do his daily shopping. Murmurs of recognition went round the room as the people of the village - the older ones anyway - spotted familiar faces and locations.
Until 1957, when at the age of 50 Auden bought the Kirchstetten property, he had never owned his own home. After leaving Oxford in the 1920s he was rarely in one place for long, and his homes in London and New York, where he went to live at the outbreak of the Second World War, had all been rented. In 1947 he began spending his summers on the Mediterranean island of Ischia, again in a rented villa, but a row with the landlord, and another over a bounced cheque, soured the idyll. Nor did the first influx of tourists help.
Auden traced much of his cultural inheritance back to northern Europe. The limestone landscapes of his childhood were a recurring theme in his early poems; he was a student of things Norse, of Goethe, and of German literature generally. He also loved wine and opera, especially Wagner. He was a noted librettist. Austria therefore seemed a place in which he could indulge his passions and feel he belonged, and Kirchstetten gave him the seclusion and tranquillity he needed for his work while providing ready access to the opera in Vienna.
Kirchstetten took to Auden because he did not cut himself off. He attended church every Sunday even though it was Catholic and he was Anglican. He had his own seat at the back and was an enthusiastic hymn-singer. "He used to come into the inn," said Maria Rollenitz, the schoolteacher who had organised the tribute to Auden. "And sometimes he had to be helped out again." Auden's less sociable companion Chester Kallman, who lived with him, seems not to have made such a favourable impression.
Auden, meanwhile, found that for all its conservatism Austria took a benign view of his way of life (if people thought about it all), and of eccentricities such as his habit of wearing his carpet slippers most of the time. The village decided he was important enough to rename the street that led to his house Audenstrasse, though he wasn't entirely happy about it, according to Mrs Rollenitz. " 'Only dead people have streets named after them,' he said".
The house, surrounded by trees, is the last before the road peters out into a muddy track. A brass name plate on the gate post acknowledges its former resident. Privately owned after it had passed first to Kallman and then to the family of Auden's housekeeper, it contains two rooms that are rented by the local council and kept open to the public. These are both in the converted loft - a small museum full of Auden memorabilia, and his study. Auden's Olivetti typewriter sits on his desk. Bottles of vermouth and gin are to hand. His books line the walls, with a separate bookcase full of distinctive green-spined Penguins - the crime novels he was apt to devour.
In most critics' eyes the poetry Auden wrote in this room - and during his New York winters - suffers by comparison with his pre-war work. The political urgency of the younger man gave way to something quieter and more domestic as he aged. But that is a mark of the extent to which he found contentment in Kirchstetten. In a poem titled "The Common Life", written in July 1963 and dedicated to Chester Kallman, he commends the builder for the smallness of the windows: "every home should be a fortress/equipped with all the latest engines/for keeping Nature at bay,".
Auden had just closed the Kirchstetten house at the end of September 1973 when he died of a heart attack in a hotel room in Vienna. "He'd told us he wanted to be buried here, and to have a typical Austrian funeral," Mrs Rollenitz said. The local people did not fail him. As was customary, the body lay in Auden's house in the days leading up to the funeral, for which he was given full brass-band honours as the cortege made its way down Audenstrasse to the white-walled church with its onion dome on top of the steeple. The mourners - headed by Stephen Spender - crammed in to hear a service conducted jointly by an Anglican and a Catholic priest.
"Earth, receive an honoured guest," Auden wrote on the death of WB Yeats. In Kirchstetten the honour is Auden's, and it is not forgotten.
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