Paradoxical in the Extreme
W.H. Auden: A Biography
By Humphrey Carpenter
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Review Author: Arthur Livingston
This may well be the most thoroughly disappointing biography for some time. Oh yes, all the necessary information is interestingly and professionally packaged, and even charmingly composed in most places. But we have come to expect more than competence from Humphrey Carpenter’s biographies; we anticipate a quality of insight into the authors he writes about. Even when Carpenter has little sympathy with the compositions (as in the case of Charles Williams), he enables us to struggle with the man.
Here Carpenter gleefully parades Auden’s unfortunate sexual peccadilloes before the reader ad nauseam. The book is often little more than a disgraceful affront to the poet whose memory it is intended to preserve. I think it fairly safe to say that few Christian writers, not even St. Augustine at his most self-flagellating, would wish to be remembered primarily for their sins. But just as the reader thinks Carpenter’s fascination with Auden’s sodomous escapades has been thankfully retired for the duration of the volume, lo and behold, another scene of rather tiresome debasement pops up undesired. If Carpenter had made some genuine attempt to link Auden’s misfortune to an understanding of his verse, then there would have been some real point to dragging in all the sordid details of the poet’s various affairs. But these all-too-private liaisons present themselves before us with no other reason than that the author wants to talk about them, and in fairly graphic detail. Some passages verge on the pornographic (in its literal sense of attempting to arouse, presumably, homosexuals?).
I would not have hit Carpenter this hard had I not thought him capable of having written a superb biography of an important poet. Also, a writer who has intentionally sought out a specific readership creates for himself a moral obligation not to scandalize the larger part of that intended audience. It is this violation of due propriety that damages the integrity of Carpenter’s book.
As to Auden himself, we are presented with a paradoxical creature in the extreme, paradoxical in a manner few besides creative artists are likely to be (and perhaps it is better that way). Evidently a man of coarse, even slovenly, personal habits, Auden was as meticulous as T.S. Eliot in the precision of his verse. This is apparently indicative of a similarly odd juxtaposition of belief and habit at war that was characteristic of much of the man’s life. For example, as he grew older he became more and more addicted to alcohol and barbiturates; yet this period post-dated his conversion to Christianity, during which he reached his peak as an author closely affiliated with apologetic writing. It is hardly unusual when an otherwise devout believer cannot control some personal problems, or even a plethora of them. (Ernest Dowson, who wrote the most beautiful paean to viaticum in the language, poisoned himself slowly with absinthe and died as a relief from his nearly perpetual stupor at the age of 32. But Dowson never set himself up in public as a speaker, even unofficially, for Christendom. Auden did and there lies the rub.)
The problem seems to lie deeper than matters such as mere domestic clutter, overuse of artificial stimulation, or even habitual homosexuality. Auden, at least as Carpenter portrays him — and we have no reason to doubt his picture — appears not to have felt discernible remorse for the pattern of his life. Sometimes while reading the details, I nearly needed to pinch myself as a reminder that I was reading about the author of For the Time Being and Of Other Worlds. The disparity between belief and action seems to have reached beyond the all-too-predictable muddle of human affairs; the Aristotelian distinction between contrary and contradictory is applicable here. Contraries may be true; contradictories not. Carpenter shows us a contradictory Auden, and the mind wishes and searches over these pages in vain trying to discover the contrary Auden.
At this point I am not necessarily blaming Carpenter; after all, “judge not” is an injunction on us all, the biographer and reviewer included, and it is to be remembered that we are tripping lightly near forbidden ground when we attempt to assess anyone’s character. It is highly likely that internal contradictions eventually caught up with Auden, for in the last years of his life, when Oxford provided a final home for him, we watch a terribly pathetic old man, often shunned by colleagues at table and in the common room, endlessly repeating shopworn anecdotes and letting his appearance go to seed. The pertinent question is whether Auden’s character is confusing, whether Carpenter has confused the reader, or whether there is some admixture of both at work.
The problem may possibly be rooted in a streak of puritanism that lay deep in Auden’s system, for all his Anglo-Catholicism. Take this telling sentence of Auden’s: “The serious part of prayer begins when we have got our begging over with and listen for the Voice of what I would call the Holy Spirit.” Orthodox in an almost quaint way, no doubt; but look closer and it will be noticed that Auden is saying that petitionary prayer, which everyone who has thought on the subject must admit, is not as exalted or sublime as meditation or contemplation — petitionary prayer is not to be taken seriously and may not really be prayer at all, while serious prayer is reserved for only the most “spiritual” modes of approaching the Deity. This is most abominable. Are we really praying, then, when we ask God’s forgiveness? We are on the outskirts of the Manichean heresy at this point, if we have not indeed entered town.
Although the preponderance of the book leaves one with a sour taste — if not making up for it, at least helping to balance the picture, is the thorough portrait of the Auden who by diligence took his raw talent and transformed himself into one of the most skillful versifiers in English (or anywhere else) this century has yet produced. Examples of nearly every known form from sonnet to limmerick, Spenserian stanza to doggerel, parade across his pages, and in the quotations Carpenter offers. If this biography of Auden does nothing but shame poets who read him into studying prosody seriously, this project will have been worthwhile despite its other woeful failings.
©1983 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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