W.H. Auden, poet, playwright, translator, critic, returns to Swarthmore this Sunday, Nov. 14, to give a lecture and poetry reading in Clothier Hall at 8:15 p.m.
His brief stay will give the College community a glimpse of a man who, according to the March 1962 Alumni Bulletin, is "the most distinguished exotic ever to be associated with Swarthmore, and certainly the most picturesque."
His association with the College stems back to a three-year stay here extending from autumn, 1942, to the spring of 1945. During this time he served in the capacities of Associate Professor in English, intellectual provocateur, and confirmed non-conformist, challenging the literary and social conceptions of the student body and faculty.
Auden's literary reputation was already great when he first came to Swarthmore in 1942. In October of that year a Phoenix headline read, "Rumors, Awe Surround Auden's Arrival Here." Today, his reputation, aggrandized by an additional 30-year output and the multiplier of time, tends to substitute a literary obelisk for a recognition of the poet's humanity as an individual. Perhaps some account of his years might change that.
Phoenix articles of that period seem to indicate that his first impact on the campus was a result of his highly individualistic appearance. One student, obviously impressed by his unruly mop of hair, commented that he looked "so English, like a thatched cottage." Another was heard to utter that he "looked like the village idiot." (Most seem to feel nowadays that his physiognomy has a certain noble or dignified air.)
In those days, however, Auden's actions seemed to have been not only carefully noted, but observed with the Sproul telescope. How else could the following account have appeared in the previously-quoted Alumni Bulletin? "He is reported to have worn no socks, except occasionally on his head in bad weather, and no underwear; to have used a rope for a belt, worn bedroom slippers on the street, and often entertained in bathrobe and slippers."
Eccentricity seems to have been Auden's hallmark. The bed he used while here at Swarthmore once belonged to Ehrlich, the discoverer of a medicine for syphilis. It was known that he was proud of that bed.
The above account is, of course, superficial. Auden made his presence felt due to his intelligence and energy. Apart from his teaching duties he was a frequent contributor to the Phoenix and the literary magazine (The Dodo), lectured on various topics, spoke at Collection, reviewed the College plays (always favorably), and served on committees for the judgment of student poetry.
In what perhaps has been the apogee of student drama here at Swarthmore, Auden helped produce a place he co-authored with Christopher Isherwood, The Ascent of F6. This play was so successful that it was invited to play on Broadway by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In terms of ambience, Auden seems to have found Swarthmore a genial place in which to work. In fact, it has been estimated that in literary output, the time he spent here was more productive than any other equivalent period in his whole career. At least one poem, "A Healthy Spot," is derived from his experiences here.
It is next to impossible to encapsulate the impact Auden had on Swarthmore during the time he was here. He prodded the imagination and the creativity of the students, certainly, but he also strengthened significantly the long-standing tradition of non-conformity and eccentricity at this College by his iconoclastic attacks on educational mores. After all, it was he who once joyfully proclaimed in the Phoenix, "Fellow Irresponsibles, follow me!"