Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973) is associated with many places. He grew up in Birmingham, studied at Oxford, lived in Berlin, London and New York among other places, and died in Vienna. However, he has an association with York, too. He was born there, at 54 Bootham, a substantial three-story double-fronted house built around 1840.
It’s now Grade II* listed and part of a conservation area, and it’s been used at various points as a school dormitory and a Buddhist centre. It’s now the registered offices of the York Conservation Trust (there’s a picture of it and some notes on their website).
I’ve chosen to write about Auden despite his fleeting association with York, because aspects of his life and work remain very relevant to us today. He was very much a liminal figure, moving between different worlds, a private person who led a complicated, conflicted life, and who was often in the public spotlight – sometimes for reasons that he found embarrassing. It’s a position many of us are in as writers. And his life reflected both the problems of his time and, it seems to me, many of the issues of marginal and dispossessed people today – which is to say, almost all of us.
Auden was both praised and criticised for his left-wing political views. He was criticised for his rejection of religion and, later and from another perspective, for his return to it. He was dogged by his decision to move from the UK to New York in January 1939; some people felt he’d sought to escape the war and rumours to this effect circulated for years afterwards. And in 1951, he became a ‘person of interest’ to the FBI and MI5 because he’d been telephoned by Guy Burgess shortly before Burgess defected to the USSR. It was only decades after his death that the full story came out. Burgess had tried to phone Auden – they moved in similar social circles – but the call had come to Stephen Spender’s house, there was confusion as to whether Spender had told Auden about it or whether Auden had been too drunk to remember it, and in any case he never returned the call. Auden’s own ‘suspicious disappearance’ after the call was because he’d gone to Italy to be present for the rehearsals of a Jean Cocteau play he’d translated (the BBC recorded it for broadcast, though MI5 seemed unaware of this). Yet this transient and unasked-for association with the world of espionage shadowed Auden for many years.
Perhaps strangely, given the times he lived in and the laws against homosexuality that were current, Auden’s sexuality was never a matter of public discussion or criticism. His marriage to Erica Mann in 1935 was a strategy to enable her to escape the Nazis; they didn’t have a subsequent married life, though occasionally lived at the same address. He’d left England in 1939 with Christopher Isherwood, but they soon parted. He had many brief same-sex relationships, and developed a relationship with the poet, librettist and translator Chester Kallman; it’s been widely stated that they ceased to be sexually involved from 1941 onwards, though continued to live together as companions for the rest of Auden’s life.
And his sexuality was complicated: he wrote at one time that: “words so excite me that a pornographic story, for example, excites me sexually more than a living person can do.” (W.H. Auden, The Prolific and the Devourer, 1993: Ecco, New York, page 10 – the book was originally written in 1939, but never finished and never intended for publication).
Auden will be remembered by many for the clutch of well-liked poems that appeared during his lifetime. Probably his most accessible and best-known work, Night Mail, came about as the final part of the commentary in the Basil Wright film of the same name in 1936, which followed the journey of an overnight mail train from London to Scotland.
He may also be remembered for his time at February House, a property in Brooklyn he shared with Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, the American writer Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee and others. February House became, for a few years during World War II, one of the epicentres of New York culture. There’s even, now, a musical about the people and relationships within the house (by Gabriel Kahane and Seth Bockley) and more details of that period are in Sherill Tippins’ 2006 eponymous book, February House).
But interestingly, in some quarters he will be best remembered and applauded for material he never intended to publish.
Auden had written a poem with a gay theme, ‘The Platonic Blow’ (aka ‘A Day for a Lay’), in 1948 and circulated it privately to some of his friends. In 1965 a copy fell into the hands of Edward Sanders, of Fuck You Press in New York. Sanders published it. Auden initially denied having anything to do with it, though did eventually acknowledge it to one journalist in 1969.
In the years since, it’s become perhaps the iconic gay poem and, despite Auden’s reluctance to discuss his own sexuality, an encouragement to others to accept and celebrate theirs.
If there are lessons to be drawn from this, one is that fame and notoriety can come from unexpected quarters at difficult moments of one’s life. And another is that the legacy of a writer’s or poet’s work may be the inspirational impact of a single work on a social group that feels itself marginalised.
If you want to know more about The Platonic Blow, it’s been republished in many places and appears on quite a few websites – for example at www.lapetiteclaudine.com. You can also see it on YouTube, being read at a Bowery Poetry Club meeting (where it’s announced as the ‘Throbbing Sex Poem’). And there’s discussion of the piece in a range of places, including snopes.com and erols.com.
For more on Auden and the surprising complexity of his life and his work, there is of course the Auden Society website which includes a huge amount of material – recordings, recollections of others, scholarly articles and the full text of about 15 of his best-known poems. Oddly enough, though, you won’t find The Platonic Blow there.