At three-thirty in the afternoon of a windy day in March, 1922, a fifteen-year old boy was walking through an English field with a friend. "Do you write poetry?" said the friend to the small tow-headed boy. "No," was the answer. "Did you ever try?" "No." "Why don't you?" "I think I will," said the tow-headed boy. So he went home and began to write poetry that evening. His name was Wystan Hugh Auden.
Twenty-one years later, Auden says this was the turning point in his life, because from the age of four until that moment he had entertained the idea of being a mining engineer. "Not just any old mine," he adds hastily, "It had to be a lead mine. Coal, no. Zinc, no. God, absolutely no. It had to be a lead mine." Just what kind of a lead mine operator Auden would have made is a matter of some conjecture. But as a poet he today ranks with the foremost of the English modernists as a master of intermittently obscure and lucid, but eternally biting verse.
An expatriate Briton now Auden has occupied a position as associate professor of English since President Nason brought him here from the University of Michigan about a year ago. Preferring the "ungodly but intelligent to triumph" in his classes, Auden makes every effort for them to do so. Questions such as "Explain why the devil is (a) sad and (b) honest," given on an Elizabethan literature final, and his assignment for V-12 English Composition students to "write the events of the day backwards" indicate more of a sincere effort to get people to think than to learn by rote.
To trace the development of such an unusual individual, we must go back to York in 1907, where Auden was born, the son of a middle-class doctor and his middle-class wife. He had an uncle who wrote a large book on sulfuric acid, and a cousin living in Toronto who writes Latin grammars, but outside of them no literary talent exists or existed in his family. At the age of 18 months he moved to Birmingham where he spent most of his youth. His family were devout Episcopalians and at the age of five, young Auden became a boat boy in the local church for a year. The duties of a boat boy consisted of carrying a bowl containing a supply of incense which was used to replenish the burning incense in the censers carried by the thurifers. These thurifers were older, worldly wise and impatient, and Auden says it was rather a shock at first to be whispered at in the middle of a service, by an irate, incense-less thurifer. "Come here, come here, you bastard!"
This experience, however, inspired no iconoclastic tendencies on the part of the young and impressionable boy, for even today Auden is a devote Episcopalian by choice as well as habit. He readily confesses to a liking for forms - "rugs, jugs, and ritual," as he calls them - but he does not attach too much importance to them. Like manners, he says, they must not be taken too seriously. Auden attends the Episcopal Church in Swarthmore regularly, but always at the 8 o'clock service, because he does not like to listen to sermons.
During the last war Auden, like many other patriotic Britons, knitted a scarf. It took the whole war for him to knit it and it never did get quite finished, but it wasn't as bad as the scarf which one of his friends knitted. This school friend began his scarf at the beginning of the war, and couldn't bring himself to stop when he had made it a normal size, but continued unabatedly for several years until it had attained the rather unusual length of 60 feet. He used to keep it under his bed when not actually working on it. Auden says that when news of the Armistice came to him, his friend burst out crying and put the remarkable scarf in his closet.
To Be Citizen Soon
Auden, who becomes an American citizen next year, believes most Americans are lonely and shy. He thinks this is a reason for their gregariousness and love of organizations and meetings, which, because of this shyness, resemble a lot of people standing around in a bus station.
Auden is something of an individualist himself. On the campus he pursues a policy of following the straight, short line between two points, distaining the use of sidewalks. To most people, he presents a somewhat deceptive outward appearance, being described by some as a thatched cottage and by others as the village idiot.
His home, where he entertains in bathrobe and bedroom slippers, also bears the stamp of his personality. Auden lives alone at 16 Oberlin Avenue, in somewhat of a shambles on the first floor of a three or four family house. An air of curious incompleteness pervades the household - phonograph records piled in albums and stacks along the left-hand side of the room, huge plush armchairs and sofas on the right. The entire rug less room, with its small table holding a large bottle of red wine and piles of cigarette packs, suggests the atmosphere of some temporary campaign headquarters of a political party, although Auden assures us it is to be improved. He plans to build a large record cabinet to house his collection, and will soon adorn his now bare walls with large contour maps of the countryside which are his favorite wall decoration. "I'm very disorderly myself, but that doesn't mean I like being disorderly. I don't. I would just prefer servants of my own," he said. Taking us into the other two rooms, considerably neater, he showed us his prized possession: a monstrous centerpiece of wax flowers, carefully protected by a large glass cover ("Easily worth $40, and I bought it for only $10") and his large, low-set bed, once owned and slept in by Ehrlich, inventor of the syphilis cure.
Auden does his writing by the wax flowers, on the dining-room table, which is covered by stacks of books and papers since his eating is done not at home, but at the Dewdrop Inn or the Media Druggie. He is now engaged in editing a new Tennyson, but has been doing some poetry also. We inquired if it were true that on his frequent trips to New York, he plunges, as rumored, into dank little rooms in Manhattan slums to compose class-conscious verse. But Auden wistfully denies any such thing..."So romantic and exciting," he murmurs,..."my life is so dull."