The upstairs neighbor, a diffident graduate student in English, knocked on the door to tell me W.H. Auden had died. He was close to tears and couldn’t stop shaking his head in disbelief. This was half a century ago, late September 1973. We talked books almost daily and a few months later would jointly interview the novelist John Gardner, but I couldn’t remember him ever saying a word about Auden. Like many of us he was blasé about having a great poet among our contemporaries. We took him for granted. I had first read the usual Auden war horses – which is not to disparage them -- in an Oscar Williams anthology nearly a decade earlier, which makes him among the poets I have consistently been reading for the longest time.
“Like his idol Mozart, he made music that was formally grave and joyous without forsaking the human impulse, the human aspiration, from which it sprang.”
That’s the poet L.E. Sissman, writing about Auden three months later in his “Innocent Bystander” column in the Atlantic. Sissman describes his early efforts as a poet as “turgid, maundering, soft-centered, and fraught with an illicit weight of Elizabethan borrowings.” Then he read the Englishman:
“It was not until I discovered Auden that winter that I met my Influence: the stern, minatory figure that, poetically speaking, put iron in my veins, bone in my backbone, and lead in my pencil.”
Two words characterized much of Auden’s poetry, nearly from the start – sophisticated (technically, emotionally, intellectually) and accessible. In certain quarters, the latter adjective is a dirty word. Auden wrote in such a way that he could touch any thoughtful reader equipped to appreciate “the human impulse, the human aspiration.” In his essay “Reading” (The Dyer’s Hand, 1962), Auden distills what might stand as his critical credo, known to every seasoned reader: “Pleasure is by no means an infallible critical guide, but it is the least fallible.” Take the 1941 poem “At the Grave of Henry James,” in which Auden addresses him as “Master of nuance and scruple, / Pray for me and for all writers living or dead.” Or his poem about another American novelist, “Herman Melville”:
“Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness,
And anchored in his home and reached his wife
And rode within the harbour of her hand . . .”
Sissman used these lines as one of the epigraphs (the other is from John Cheever) to his poem “The Nanny Boat, 1957” (Dying: An Introduction, 1968). He picks up Auden’s Homeric theme of homecoming in the poem’s closing lines:
“Around the bend
Under the El, and up West Cedar Street,
And up four flights to your apartment, where
You turn the fan on, and I’m home
At last with you the first time in my life,
My anchor, my harbor, my second wife.”
Like Auden, Sissman would die too soon, in 1976 at age forty-eight after surviving Hodgkin’s lymphoma for eleven years. Auden died of heart failure on September 29, 1973 at age sixty-six.