A master of memorable speech

Feature: London, New York, Washington and Oxford will all host events for WH Auden's centenary, but next weekend the poet's …

Feature:London, New York, Washington and Oxford will all host events for WH Auden's centenary, but next weekend the poet's hometown of York gets in first, writes Niall MacMonagle

When a poem of his was spoken, in a regional accent by a gay man, in the 1994 film Four Weddings and a Funeral,WH Auden became an overnight success, with a poem he had written 58 years earlier. What Puccini's Nessun Dormadid for football fans, Auden did for unsuspecting cinema-goers.

Adolescents, especially, connected immediately with Auden's intense, extravagantly emotional "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone". The most lucrative British film ever grossed £130 million. A slim volume of Auden's love poems became a bestseller.

There's no resisting the over-the-top Auden: "I'll love you, dear, I'll love you/ Till China and Africa meet/ And the river jumps over the mountain/ And the salmon sing in the street,// I'll love you till the ocean/ Is folded and hung up to dry/ And the seven stars go squawking/ Like geese about the sky." But there's much more. Philip Larkin, in a letter written in October 1973, a week after Auden's death, identified what he termed "an odd dichotomy": "English Auden, American Auden; pre-war Auden, post-war Auden; political Auden, religious Auden; good Auden, bad Auden". Auden's life was varied, contradictory. His middle-class background meant public-school and Oxford. He published a first collection at 23.


One reviewer would not "dare even hazard a guess what his book is all about", but Auden was soon acclaimed. He travelled to Spain to support the Republicans, he travelled to China and Iceland. Though homosexual, he married ThomasMann's daughter Erika, allowing her to escape the Nazis. When asked, he immediately sent a telegram: "DELIGHTED".

Auden emigrated to the US in 1936 - "It's the only country where you feel there's no ruling class. There's just a lot of people" - and in 1939 met Chester Kallman at a New York poetry reading. They became lovers, exchanged wedding rings; he was 32, Kallman 18, and their relationship lasted 34 years. He dabbled in drugs, took LSD and "nothing much happened but I did get the distinct impression that some birds were trying to communicate  with me". In 1940 Auden had returned to religion, which he had once attacked, accepting that enquiries regarding the existence of God are "returned unopened to the sender".

American citizenship followed in 1946. He won numerous literary awards and was Oxford Professor of Poetry from 1956 to 1961.

He returned to Europe in the late 1950s and described his ageing face as "a wedding-cake left out in the rain".

THIS YEAR IS Auden's centenary. Special events are planned in London, New York, Washington, and Oxford, and he will be profiled in tomorrow's South Bank Show.

But York has first claim. Wystan Hugh Auden was born there on February 21st, 1907, and next weekend a conference is being held in the city of his birth.

Organised by Corkman Hugh Haughton of the University of York and JD Rhodes of the University of Sussex, poets, philosophers, psychologists and musicians will gather to celebrate and honour a poet Andrew Motion acclaims as "one of the three or four great poets of the 20th century".

On Friday evening students will perform Auden's The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest, and in Haughton's view "a unique undramatic commentary on drama"). Saturday's day-long conference has an international line-up including Adam Phillips (author of On Flirtation, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Boredand hailed by John Banville as "one of the finest prose stylists working in the language") on "Auden's Nothings"; Katherine Bucknell (editor of the Isherwood Diaries) on "Isherwood as Muse", and poet Rachel Wetzsteon on "Auden and the Sonnet". Other speakers - Stan Smith, Jenny Doctor, Katerina Deligiorgi, Keston Sutherland and Laura Marcus - focus on commemoration, music, philosophy, love and film.

ACCORDING TO JD Rhodes, "Auden had dropped out of curricula: you can now read English at university and not study Auden, whereas other modernists, Woolf or Eliot, offer 'the aesthetics of difficulty' and are always prescribed". Haughton agrees. "Auden represents a way of being modern - without being modernist - of being in the thick of the promiscuous cinematic metropolis without being TS Eliot." Hugh Haughton's own paper will focus on the "strange parallelism" between Auden and Eliot and Haughton's access to some of Eliot's unpublished correspondence with and about Auden will make for unique and original commentary.

Haughton sees both as transatlantic poets - "though they crossed it in different directions - and both were revolutionary conservatives who modernised the language of poetry and briefly but permanently embodied the zeitgeist of their time". Eliot's role as Auden's publisher will also be explored by Haughton: "The eminently greying Anglican adopting the queer Freudian enfant terrible- and the strange areas in which, despite their major differences, they overlapped: their interest in poetry and the city, anthropology and ritual, light verse, the renaissance of poetic drama, Dryden, Herbert, Stravinsky, and their shared distrust of Romanticism." And yet Haughton argues that "the more you pursue their shared ground, the more similar they seem, but the effect of their work - and personalities - still make it hard to hold the two of them in one's mind at the same time".

Larkin thought that WH hadn't written "much worth reading since 1939"; was he right? Hugh Haughton concedes that "WH did go off a bit. Like Wordsworth it's a strange case of a poet outliving himself, but going on producing - with more occasional hits than Wordsworth managed, I think".

Some later poems, though, are among his best: In Praise of Limestone, Musée des Beaux Arts, The Shield of Achilles, and reveal Auden's extraordinary ethical intelligence, magisterial images, intellectual range and his brilliant command of form. Nearing 60 and collecting his shorter poems, Auden threw out those that were "dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring".

"All I have is a voice" writes Auden in September 1, 1939, a poem that New York made its own post 9/11. But Auden's definition of poetry as "memorable speech" is one of the best. He celebrated friendship, feared loneliness and, in some of his most beautiful lines, Auden, remembering a magical summer evening with friends, speaks of how for that special evening, at any rate, "the lion griefs loped from the shade/ And on our knees their muzzles laid,/ And death put down his book".

His biographer, Charles Osborne, records how Auden, thinking of his own death, predicted: "I shall probably die alone at midnight, in a hotel, to the great annoyance of the management", and "the nicest way, I think, would be a heart attack, it's cheap and it's quick". Fate obliged. He died alone in a hotel room in Vienna on September 28th, 1973. In Praise of Limestoneends: "When I try to imagine a faultless love/ Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur/ Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape". And elsewhere he wrote: "A poet's hope is to be, like some valley cheese, local, but prized everywhere". That he is.

Niall MacMonagle teaches English at Wesley College, Dublin