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Versify #8 by Pamela Burger

Secrets and Honesty: W.H. Auden Outed as a Humanitarian

In a long-form essay for the New York Review of Books Edward Mendleson has written about W.H. Auden’s “secret life” as a good person. It seems that Auden cultivated an image of a curmudgeon, a difficult guy who would bend for no one. In fact, he was actually a generous and philanthropic sort of person who corresponded with inmates, donated to charity, and came to the aid of fellow churchgoers. Mendelson writes, “In an age when writers as different as Hemingway and Eliot encouraged their public to admire them as heroic explorers of the mind and spirit, Auden preferred to err in the opposite direction, by presenting himself as less than he was.” (Side note: Really?! Hemingway and Eliot are your examples of difference?! But that’s a rant for another time) Auden’s reasons, Mendelson suggests, fit with the poet’s dualistic philosophy of human morality: we contain within each of us good and evil, and inside each of us is an internal struggle between what we believe and what we condemn.

The essay presents interesting insight into Auden. Owing to the scholarship trends that shaped my own education and subsequent work in the field of poetry, I have never read or thought much about Auden’s persona or his beliefs. He simply isn’t (or wasn’t) taught as a poet like, say, T.S. Eliot or Ezra Pound, whose personal politics were of note. In fact, his name almost never came up in my college or graduate coursework. He always struck me as more of a pleasure read–somebody who wrote beautiful poems I could enjoy without getting mired in the politics that surrounded him.

The big question this article raised for me, then, was how learning about Auden’s good works might change the way I read his poems. The question of biography is of course an old one in literary criticism, and not worth rehashing, especially since I don’t prefer one side or the other (sometimes it’s great to look at the poet’s psychology and historical context, sometimes it’s better to read a poem as a well-wrought urn. Now let’s move on with out lives, shall we?) Rather, my question is over the import of a writer’s morality. Certainly it’s nice to know that a poet whose work I enjoy was also a philanthropic person, but to what extent does that shape the impact of his work?

If I were being honest with myself, I would have to admit that biographical tidbits like this do color how I read a work of poetry. I find it hard to fully enjoy T.S. Eliot’s genius because he was an anti-semite, even though I would never have guessed that from reading “The Waste Land,” where there is nary a Jew in sight. As mentioned in a previous post, I very much like the work of Martin Amis, but I have difficulty enjoying reading his newer works because everything he says in public is offensive.

The issue of a writer’s personal beliefs got a lot of attention this summer, when, in the wake of the film release of Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s long-standing anti-gay vitriol became more public knowledge. I had always wanted to read the book, but I was suddenly being told I couldn’t read the book. But then, fans of the book told me it didn’t matter how awful Card was, I should go ahead and experience a great novel (but only if I could get a free copy).

The question takes on a slightly different color in the context of poetry, because the poet’s persona has different level of import in the reading process. Lyrical poetry in our post-Romantic world so often comes from an “I” who is associated with the author, or at lease with an idea of some inauthentic-but-nevertheless-accurate version of the author. I can understand why Auden might not want readers paying too close attention to his personal actions. He might have wanted his work to communicate on its own, without any distraction. I think many writers would rather subject their writing than their actions to endless scrutiny.  The question remains, though, why readers are so interested in scrutinizing those private actions.


Pamela Burger

Pamela Burger has a very short attention span, which is why she loves poetry. Her poems have appeared in several small magazines you might never have read. She lives in Brooklyn, teaches writing and literature, and is an instructional technologist for the Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College.