One day I met W.H. Auden

July, 1962–from a letter–

I met W.H. Auden some weeks ago in the common room at Newcastle University. Not just the usual handshake, but a real meeting, sitting right next to the great poet for about an hour. Auden talked about Ford Madox Ford with me, about his Rake’s Progress libretto for Stravinsky, and many other things, all very fascinating, but unfortunately a 70-year-old veteran of the Spanish Civil War (who had got an M.A. in the same convocation at which Auden was awarded an honourary doctorate) intervened and virtually silenced the poet, blabbing about memorable trivia, and apologizing endlessly with phrases like “I don’t mean to dominate this conversation,” “I hope I’m not boring anyone,” etc.–which of course made it worse. The old man was no phony–he’d met Trotsky and fought with Orwell and had much of interest to say–but too much–that was the problem. Nonetheless, Auden managed to entertain us (the group included Professor Peter Ure, and James Maxwell, the noted Shakespeare scholar) with anecdotes about Stravinsky, Eliot and others. For example: The only time TS Eliot ever blushed was when Archbishop Temple turned to him on a public occasion and said aloud: “Ah, yes, I do hope to meet you in heaven, Mr. Eliot; you’ve tried so hard.” Auden also reported the remark of Professor Dawkins, Professor of Modern Greek at Oxford, who commented on his teaching schedule: “I give a class a year, but not every year.” (That really encouraged my academic aspirations–unfortunately, I ended up being tagged as a teaching workaholic). Auden was very friendly; he was reputed to have been grumpy and difficult at this late period of his life, and supposedly drank incessantly–however, he was simply great at this meeting, friendly, patient, and vastly entertaining. A plump, benign Teddy Bear, his face wrinkled and etched by the years. I shook hands at parting and carried the imprint of the poet’s hand back to anoint the brow of my eldest son, and invoked the muse on his behalf.

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