Auden's schoolboy inspiration tells the truth about their love

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The Independent Online

The inspiration for some of WH Auden's tenderest love poems has spoken for the first time of their relationship.

Michael Yates, now 80 and devotedly married for 45 years, has emerged as one of just five people that Auden considered the loves of his life.

Biographers had hinted at the significance of their friendship and traced Mr Yates's influence on poems written decades after they met. But while the two remained friends until Auden's death in 1973, Michael Yates has never revealed details of their relationship until now.

In a documentary, Tell Me The Truth About Love, to be broadcast on BBC2 next Sunday, Mr Yates speaks for the first time of the "contentment of our lives together".

And research by the programme's director Susanna White has confirmed from the poet's friends that Mr Yates is on a list of "real loves" which Auden constantly revised and updated.

While other names were crossed out over the years, Michael Yates remained as an "emotional milestone," alongside Robert Medley, a schoolfriend, Christopher Isherwood, the writer, Chester Kallman, Auden's companion of 35 years, and Rhoda Jaffe, with whom he had an affair.

Michael Yates first met Auden when the poet arrived at Downs School near Malvern in 1932 to teach. "He appeared in a great Flemish hat, waving his umbrella around and making all sorts of extraordinary remarks. We could hardly believe that he was the new master who had come to teach us English," Mr Yates said.

Auden spotted a gift for design in the young boy and encouraged him in his interest in building model theatres. When the teenager left to go to another school, the two stayed in touch and travelled in Germany and central Europe in 1934.

In 1936, Michael Yates, then 17, was invited to accompany the 29-year-old Auden for lunch where the older man again inquired about his plans for the holidays.

The teenager was going on a trip to Iceland with three other schoolboys and a teacher. "Oh gosh, that's just the one place I would love to go," Mr Yates recalls Auden saying.

The poet immediately persuaded his publishers, Faber and Faber, to fund a visit to Iceland with his friend Louis MacNeice. Mr Yates stayed on with the two writers after his own party had left.

The tall, handsome youth was the inspiration for works including the poems, "Lay Your Sleeping Head My Love" and "As I Walked Out One Evening", yet Mr Yates said he had no idea until years later that Auden was writing any poetry about him.

"It is a fact that our time together, in Iceland, or going round Europe, or wherever, was a thing that inspired him to write, based on the contentment of our lives together," Mr Yates said. "I say that in retrospect, because I didn't know at the time."

It was during this period Auden also wrote "Stop All The Clocks", the poem quoted in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral which reignited popular interest in Auden.

Auden's affection for his muse helped set the scene for Michael Yates's own career. Auden found out about a postgraduate course in theatre design at Yale and helped Mr Yates get admitted, even though he did not have a first degree. He went on to become head of design at London Weekend Television. Mr Yates and his wife Marny last saw the poet at his home in Austria six weeks before he died.

Asked to describe the feeling between him and Auden, Mr Yates said: "There was this considerable affection, you know, which I had for him too in a way. I suppose you could use the word 'son,' but that wasn't quite his feeling."