Lovable Auden and his hidden furies

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mendelson2A young provincial teenager attended a fancy London literary party in the 1950s. His English teacher has abandoned him among the roomful of bigshots as she went to hobnob among the literati. “I was gauche and inept and had no idea what to do with myself,” he recalled.  Then one of the older guests befriended and advised him. “Everyone here is just as nervous as you are, but they are bluffing, and you must learn to bluff too.”

The older guest was W.H. Auden, and the act was one of many kindnesses performed by the poet, as recounted in “The Secret Auden” by Edward Mendelson (below right) in the current New York Review of Books here.  Apparently, Auden had a habit of slipping away from the great and the famous at gatherings, and seeking out the least important person in the room.

He also had a habit of funding the education of postwar orphans, and shaking the trees to keep Dorothy Day‘s homeless shelter from closing.  This was not the way many saw him, or the way he portrayed himself as “rigid and uncaring.” His motives were many, but one was certainly a profound self-knowledge.

earlyaudenmendelsonWrites Mendelson: “On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, ‘I am a good person,’ who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.”

Or, as his protégée Joseph Brodsky said, “Evil takes root when one man starts to think that he is better than another.” Maybe he got it from Wystan.

I didn’t know about this, either: Wystan, The Life, Love and Death of a Poet premiered last year at Oxford:


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2 Responses to “Lovable Auden and his hidden furies”

  1. Wallis Leslie Says:

    What a treat your blogs are Cynthia. How I wish Auden attended my first MLA/Stanford where I was more well and thoroughly snubbed by a couple of grad students looking for work than ever before or since. I’ve also been mulling your observation about writer’s envy when coming across a perfect sentence written by another writer. If you get any more publicity for “Another Look,” Levinthal Hall will need a balcony. The Roth event was a rousing good time.

    Thanks for the continuing fun,
    Wallis Leslie

  2. Cynthia Haven Says:

    Thank you, Wallis, for checking in! And yes, the Roth event was a lot of fun.

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