A poet's guilty conscience


Arguably the English language’s greatest poet during the first half of the 20th century and one of the period's most engaged moral thinkers, W. H. Auden was a man wracked with guilt, said Columbia University scholar Edward Mendelson—and much of it was neurotic. On Thursday afternoon Chicago students and faculty crowded into Stuart 101 to hear Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, president of the W. H. Auden Society, and author or editor of nearly a dozen Auden books, deliver an hour’s worth of insight on the poet’s “inventive conscience.”

Auden's poems, Mendelson said, “allude to some great culpability,” and although the source of guilt changed from poem to poem, the guilt persisted. In “A Summer Night,” written in 1933, Auden ponders an unnamed “doubtful act” that allows “Our freedom in this English house / Our picnics in the sun.” Three years later in “Detective Story,” he declares, “Someone must pay for / Our loss of happiness, our happiness itself.” And "Musee des Beaux Arts," perhaps the Auden poem most often taught in high-school classrooms, describes Icarus crashing to Earth while the rest of humanity carries on indifferently: “And the expensive delicate ship, that must have seen / Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky, / Had somewhere to get to, and sailed calmly on.”

"But why," wondered Mendelson, “did Auden feel so guilty?” Standoffish in public, the poet was privately a kind and generous man. He paid for the college educations of two European orphans and corresponded with a convict who wrote to him from prison. For days he slept on a blanket outside a fellow church member's apartment to help her recover from night terrors. Likely, Mendelson concluded, Auden's self-blame stemmed from survivor's guilt: his relatively comfortable middle-class existence during the Great Depression, his escape from military service and from his native England during World War II, and his artistic occupation, which used others' suffering as literary material and inspiration.

What's more, Auden was gay, a “crookedness” that kept him out of the U.S. Army and which, Mendelson said, the poet may have traced back to a miscarriage his mother suffered before he was born. Quoting from a letter Auden wrote to a friend, Mendelson explained the poet's belief that if that other fetus had survived, he might never have been conceived. His life, therefore, came at the cost of another's death; in some sense, it was a “murder.” He considered his homosexuality the punishment. Like the miscarriage, his attraction to men, Mendelson said, “was another crime against childbirth and fertility.”

In his poetry, Auden “transformed his neuroses into ethical truths.”


Photos: Auden scholar Edward Mendelson explains the poet's "inventive conscience"; both faculty and students filed into Stuart 101 to hear him speak.

May 4, 2007