Posts Tagged ‘Benjamin Britten’

Song without music: Auden’s “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio”

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

auden-christmasW.H. Auden learned of the death of his mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden, by telephone in August 1941, while he was staying in Rhode Island. The international call was taken by his lover Chester Kallman, who came to Auden’s bedroom and told him they would not be attending a party that evening. Then he told him why.

“Auden was stunned and grieved, not only because he had been very close to his mother all his life. He was already in a state of emotional fragility, having learned just the month before that Kallman, whom he loved and to whom he considered himself married, had been having sex with other men and meant to continue the practice,” writes Alan Jacobs, editor of Princeton University Press’ splendid critical edition of Auden’s For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. Thursday is only the first of the Twelve Days of Christmas – if you haven’t seen the book already (it was published last year), you still have plenty of time to find it before Twelfth Night.

Auden would later write, “When mother dies, one is, for the first time, really alone in the world and that is hard” – Jacobs adds, “that experience of isolation was surely made far more intense through its arriving in the midst of hopes already ruined.”

A few weeks after the death, Auden moved to my own alma mater, the University of Michigan, to begin a year of teaching (his daunting course syllabus is here). And shortly after that he was applying to the Guggenheim to write “a long poem in several parts about Christmas, suitable for becoming the basis of a text for a large-scale musical oratorio.” That long poem was his attempt to see Christmas in double focus: as a moment in the Roman Empire and in Jewish history, and as an eternal and ever-new event.

His father, a learned and cultivated physician, was confused by the mixture of the past and present in the poem, the modern New York characters and the references to juke-boxes and clocks on the mantlepiece with ancient Judaea. Auden tried to explain in a long letter:

Sorry you are puzzled by the oratorio. Perhaps you were expecting a purely historical account as one might give of the battle of Waterloo, whereas I was trying to treat it as a religious event which eternally recurs every time it is accepted. Thus the historical fact that the shepherds were shepherds is religiously accidental – the religious fact is that they were the poor and humble of this world for whom at this moment the historical expression is the city-proletariat, and so on with all the other figures. What we know of Herod, for instance, is that he was a Hellenised Jew and a political ruler. Accordingly I have made him express the intellectual’s eternal objection to Christianity – that it replaces objectivity with subjectivity – and the politician’s eternal objection that it regards the state as having only a negative role. (See Marcus Aurelius.) …

I am not the first to treat the Christian data in this way, until the 18th Cent. it was always done, in the Mystery Plays for instance or any Italian paintings. It is only in the last two centuries that religion has been ‘humanized,’ and therefore treated historically as something that happened a long time ago, hence the nursery picture of Jesus in a nightgown and a Parsifal beard.


Inspiration from an Inkling

If a return to the older method seems startling it is partly because of the acceleration in the rate of historical change due to industrialization – there is a far greater difference between the accidents of life in 1600 AD and in 1942 than between those of 30 AD and 1600.

Kind of makes one chuckle, doesn’t it? As one taps on a keyboard to produce a message that, as soon as I press the “publish” button, will be instantly available around the world…

“Auden’s recognition that those last few centuries of the Roman Empire might serve as a mirror for the twentieth-century self-immolation of the West is the initiating insight of the project that would become ‘For the Time Being,'” Jacobs writes. Well, we made it to the twenty-first. The poem was rooted in his reading of Inkling Charles Williams, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Blaise Pascal, Soren Kierkegaard, and many others.

Stephen Spender said that the poem “has the power in some of the choruses, of bringing to mind the mighty chorales of Bach.” The poem was set to be set to music composed by Benjamin Britten. It never was. The poem was far too long for that. Only two bits were set to music, and one, “Shepherd’s Song,” was dropped from the poem before it was published. The poem, published at the height of the war in 1944, was dedicated to the memory of his mother, Constance Rosalie Bicknell Auden.

W.H. Auden in film, a remembered poem, and a forgotten murder

Friday, July 20th, 2012

The Making of the film "U S" – triumph and tragedy rolled into one

Some time ago we wrote about W.H. Auden on stage, in a new Broadway musical.  But how many know of his work on film?

David Collard writes in England’s Literary Reviewabout Auden’s lifelong fascination with film.  For six months from 1935 to 1936, Auden worked for the General Post Office Film Unit (GPO), which included the time that it produced  Night Mail, the Citizen Kane, Coal FaceNegroes (released as God’s Chillun), and The Way to the Sea – “all four films featuring brilliant modernist scores by the young Benjamin Britten,” according to Collard. “No artists of comparable stature had collaborated so closely since 1691, when John Dryden and Henry Purcell worked together on the ‘dramatick opera’ King Arthur.”

From "Runner"

Collard also writes that GPO, “despite its prosaic-sounding title, was for five years the most exciting, innovative and progressive cultural project in Britain, staffed by a dazzling cohort of international talents. In a short-lived flurry of commitment to the cause, Auden also lectured on film, wrote reviews, provided subtitle renderings of Russian peasant folk songs for Dziga Vertov‘s Three Songs of Lenin, and collaborated on various other projects, even appearing in front of the camera (disguised as a department store Father Christmas in Evelyn Spice‘s spirited Calendar of the Year).”

But all was not well:

Naturally insubordinate, however, Auden soon began to question what he saw as the compromise and hypocrisy implicit in a state-sponsored organisation that purported to criticise the state’s shortcomings. He resigned from the Unit following publication of a Listener article in which he attacked the documentary movement, before Night Mail became the Unit’s one great critical and popular success. The film has since tended to overshadow his other documentary achievements.

His favorite films...

Auden later seemed indifferent to films.  During a talk at Cambridge, his student host Paul McQuail recalled, “We sat and talked for an hour in a relaxed way, much of it about films: Auden’s most memorable remark, though we didn’t know how to take it, was that the films he liked most were the ones where animals talk with human voices. He mentioned Francis the Talking Mule as an example.”

The story has a happy ending, and then a sad one.  Auden returned to films with 1962’s  Runner, where he wrote a “verse commentary” for the documentary about the young Canadian distance runner Bruce Kidd.  A few years later, he participated in U S, a film about the U.S. and, well, us. It begins with breathtaking clouds and panoramic vistas, but didn’t pull back from the plight of Native Americans, slaves imported from West Africa, and America’s underclass.  The last caused problems.


From what Collard has cited, it appears that celluloid did not elicit Auden’s best poetic efforts.  I should know.  The rhythms of Auden are in my blood, thanks to Joseph Brodsky, who made us memorize hundreds of lines of poetry, many of them Wystan’s. It was not a popular activity then, and even less now.

So I was intrigued to learn that I have unexpected company as I champion the loving labor of memorization.  Over at, Josh Warn (any relation to the ezine’s founding editor Emily Warn?) recalled reciting Auden’s “Shield of Achilles” while dragging welding cables on a construction site, as a response to his companion wittily recounting Eminem’s rap lyrics.  Wrote Warn,  “the poem’s sixty-seven lines you restrain yourself from the familiar flurries of contemporary mediaspeak and follow phrasings that come from a deeper place.”  On the whole, it sounds more like he was showing off, especially since the floor grinders began whirring away and drowned out both of them.

He writes: “A good solid poem in your cortex can be almost like ballast in a ship’s hold. If turbulent mental activity surges, speaking a poem to oneself can be a way to even out the waves. I first learned this through my practice of memorizing Psalms. But even nominally secular poems recited aloud soothe, and not merely by providing a distraction from disturbing matters, but by the steady rhythm of their sound, and their effects on the breath.”

Beyond that, “The intense familiarity of a work known by heart allows happy moments of sensing the poem as a whole and in details. This pleasure is not simply the kick of solving a puzzle, nor my ironworker affinity for structure. There is also pleasure in sounds and rhythms, even the mouth pleasure of ‘unintelligible multitude’ [from Auden’s “Shield of Achilles”]. But at its best the experience of a good poem has to do with trying to apprehend a deeply known truth that another person could communicate only with a precise set of words.”




Auden’s film U S , on America ended the American way, with a murder. While filming in Appalachian Kentucky, Scottish-Canadian documentary filmmaker Hugh O’Connor was shot dead by a local landlord, Hobart Ison, who was infuriated by the filmmakers on his property, and enraged at the media images that he felt exploited and stigmatized Appalachia during Lyndon Johnson‘s War on Poverty.  Some of the jurors agreed.

“Following a hung jury at the end of his first trial, Ison pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to ten years and paroled after just one.”

Auden in the footlights: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead”

Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

Julian Fleisher as George Davis, Kristen Sieh as Carson McCullers, Stephanie Hayes as Erika Mann, and Erik Lochtefeld as W.H. Auden (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I’m a fan of New York City’s Public Theater, so I was especially cheered to read about its new world première musical February House this month.  How could one not be chuffed about a play that focuses on W.H. Audens house at 7 Middagh Street, and the miscellany of writers, composers, and artists it attracted for housemates?

I read about the production not in a New York paper – at least not initially – but rather in Jim Holt‘s charming post in the London Review of Books blog:

As a young man

Besides Auden, who lived on the top floor, the tenants were Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and – most improbably of all – Gypsy Rose Lee, who at the time was busy writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. Other occasional residents included Paul and Jane Bowles, Louis MacNeice, Richard Wright (who lived with his wife and child in the basement), and Golo Mann (who holed up in the attic). It was Anaïs Nin, a frequent visitor, who named it ‘February House’, because so many of the residents, including Auden, had birthdays in February. … Other than that, however, they seem to have had little in common except a commitment to their art and to not ever being bored. Cocaine is snorted in “February House”; bedbugs are extravagantly shuddered over; a good deal of whiskey is poured.

The LRB piece dwells on Auden’s mysterious connection with the number 7 and his grubby living habits throughout his life.  In a later residence, writes Holt, “So squalid was everything in the dusty, cold and bottle-strewn loft that [Igor] Stravinsky later told Edmund Wilson that Auden was ‘the dirtiest man I have ever liked’.”

Wish I could be in New York City to see the production (music and lyrics by Gabriel Kahane, based on a book by Seth Bockley.) I’ll have to settle for Dwight Garner‘s description in the New York Times:

They had both.

Sparks fly early and often. When Auden pretentiously blurts to McCullers that “I am a thinking-sensation artist in the Jungian sense, whereas you are clearly a feeling-intuitive type,” she takes out a flask, eyeballs him as if were a space alien, and says: “Uh huh. Gin?”

Auden seemed to enjoy McCullers’s impudence. He is, after all, the man who said, “Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.”

Auden and McCullers are a pure and defiant literary odd couple. Both stoke your imagination in February House, in part because of their youth, in part because both wrestle with where their obligations to art end and their obligations to politics begin. They are increasingly obsessed with what Lionel Trilling, in “The Liberal Imagination,” called “the dark and bloody crossroads where literature and politics meet.”

One quibble though, the NYT piece refers to “something once said about Pauline Kael and The New Yorker magazine: She gave it sex, and it gave her class.” The comment (as his hyperlink hints) was said about Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (using him and he rather than it) – and it was famously said by Katherine Hepburn.

His closing quote, however, is undisputed Auden: “Art is our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.”

A late 2020 postscript from Book Haven reader Dwight Green: 

I began reading Alan Jacobs‘ recent book Breaking Bread with the Dead and I wanted to look up the Auden quote where the title came from. Your blog came up first on the list, from a 2013 post you did. Here is the full footnote on the quote:
“Art is our chief means”: This is an image that Auden seems to have come up with late in his life, but he liked it enough to use it repeatedly. Its first occurrence I believe, came in a lecture he delivered in 1967: “Let us remember that through the great artists of the past could not change the course of history, it is only through their work that we are able to break bread with the dead, and without communion with the dead a fully human life is impossible.” W. H. Auden, The complete Works of W. H. Auden, vol. 5, Prose: 1963—1968, ed. Edward Mendelson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2015), 477.
I found the confluence of the book and your post funny and wanted to share what may be the source of it. Thanks!