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Richard Davenport-Hines

Richard Davenport-Hines
London 1995

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It has been fourteen years since the last biography of Wystan Hugh Auden and Richard Davenport-Hines reappraisal of the poet is engaging and excellently written.

Unquestionably one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, W.H. Auden has achieved popular acclaim since the film Four Weddings and a Funeral and was voted many people’s favourite poet on Britain’s National Poetry Day.

Auden distrusted literary biographies because they were often studies in personality. The blurb on Auden claims the book is a bold reassessment, which sounds as though it could be a spiced up look at his personality. It is a tempting formula for biographers of well-known and much written about artists to follow. What Davenport-Hines offers, however, is an intelligent and informed insight. He focuses on the development of a genius, tracing the themes in his thought as well as commanding a wide view of literary history.

‘It’s the wrong blond’ Auden is said to have whispered when he was first introduced to Chester Kallman in 1939. The Bostonian intellectual became his lover however and the affair was life-long but painful. Auden’s conception of his passion for Kallman reveals two important things about the poet. Firstly, he invested love with a power to give coherence and completeness to everything. Auden always sought to unify experience and strove for integration and looked to his art to achieve it. On the other hand his dedication to becoming a great poet meant he inhabited a world in which, he said, ‘you must scease to expect to be happy, or successful in love, or at home or in any company’.

Davenport-Hines picks up Auden’s own image of the tycoon to portray the poet as hard-driven and a deeply feeling man who never gave into self- pity or self-satisfaction. At the same time he emphasises Auden’s frivolity and sense of fun. The sources make the narrative lively and immediate. One particular incident which illustrates Auden’s sense of social correctness took place at his house-warming when a drunken sailor in stockings stuck a kosher salami into his asshole and started singing ‘Anchors Aweigh’. Auden took offence because of the insult given to the guests who had brought the salami.

Davenport-Hines’ depiction is respectful of Auden’s opinions about biographies. He examines Auden’s work but never reduces it to a purely autobiographical meaning. There is a difficulty with his integrity, however and it is evident when he steps back to assess Auden’s interest in psychoanalysis. He seems to be uncertain what he would like to say and approaches the matter in a peculiarly generalised tone. He is similarly cautious when proposing his own analysis of Auden’s circumcision at the age of seven.

What is certain, however, is that Davenport-Hines can excite the interest of the uninitiated as completely as he can satisfy the expert.

Reviewed by Lucy Boardman


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