W. H. Auden: ‘Well Grüß-Gotted’

A Celebration of the Poet Laureate at His Chosen ‘Heimat’ in Kirchstetten

W.H. Auden turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature | Photo: di Gesu/San Diego Historical Society

Auden’s beloved house In Kirchstetten. His study in the attic is now a museum open to the public | Photo: Leo Rollenitz

W.H. Auden

W.H. Auden turned down the Nobel Prize for Literature | Photo: di Gesu/San Diego Historical Society

It seemed to be the story of W.H. Auden’s life that just as he became successful somewhere, he felt it was time to leave. After departing London for New York in 1939, for what he sensed was a larger literary stage, he was finally granted U.S. citizenship in 1946.

But by then, he was already pulling up stakes and soon had rented a villa on the Neapolitan island of Ischia.

A decade later, with Italy’s top Feltrinelli Literature Prize in hand, Auden set off again, this time to buy a house of his own. Now, he wanted a German speaking country – but not Germany – and a place “with good wine and a big opera house.”

Auden found his new “Heimat” in a tiny Austrian village near St. Pölten, just outside of Vienna. As legend has it, on a damp, rainy October day in 1957, he and his friend Chester Kallman set foot for the first time in Kirchstetten, where they would spend every summer until Auden’s death in 1973 and where the poet is buried.

The weather was much better, glistening and warm, on Jun. 16, the day selected by the village elders to celebrate the poet’s 100th birthday.

It was a day of talks and readings, with a visit to Auden’s garret study, preserved as a museum in his honor. Kirchstetten is on the regional train line, a simple hour’s journey from Vienna, and not big enough to get lost in.

It was just after 10 a.m., the morning alive with bird song and the scent of acacia. Across the tracks, and around the corner in the Gemeindeamt, the Village Hall, events were just getting under way.

The day was to be a celebration of Auden the poet and Auden the neighbor, jointly organized by Deputy Mayor Maria Rolanitz and Auden scholar Andrew Singer, currently teaching at the Central European University in Budapest. Singer, in turn, had invited leading British poet Glyn Maxwell, just back from five years of guest professorships in New York, to help interpret and perform Auden’s work.

Maxwell was already speaking, as the door eased open and a new visitor slid quietly into a seat.

“…and the English countryside that had seemed so safe for so long, no longer seemed that way,” Maxwell was saying, describing the sense of danger Auden wanted to capture with “single lines standing there, trembling together.” We were in the mind of the poet.

In 1937, at the age of 30, Auden was already famous. His fellow writer and friend from childhood Christopher Isherwood described him as having the curiosity of a scientist combined with a love of music and ritual from his Anglican upbringing.

“When we collaborate,” Isherwood wrote, “I have to keep a sharp eye on him – or down flop all the characters on their knees. Another constant danger is that of choral interruptions by angel voices. If Auden had his way, he would turn every play into a cross between grand opera and high mass.”

Auden was also of Scandinavian descent and had been raised on Icelandic sagas, whose rhythms and imagery of feuds, dark threats, grotesqueries and practical jokes infuse his verse.

“It’s this saga quality,” explained Maxwell, “ that allows Auden to locate in his place of apparent safety, an outpost of decaying civilization encircled by unnamed peril [and to transform it into] a world of almost comically ordered institutions bordered by hostile territory.”

Auden's house in Krichstetten

Auden’s beloved house In Kirchstetten. His study in the attic is now a museum open to the public | Photo: Leo Rollenitz

Auden thus entered, and helped shape perhaps, the particular voice of 20th century British comedy that has continued on stage with Oh What a Lovely War and on film with Monty Python’s Flying Circus, “preoccupied with the ridiculous, figures who hold the trappings of power but none of the psychological force.”

It was “a poetry of warning,” Maxwell said, “clear that something was coming, filled with “directions of thought that won’t end happily.”

For writers, fame can be a coquette, and the judgments of history are often unfair. But there are few if any knowledgeable readers or literary scholars who would deny W.H. Auden a place among the great poets of the 20th century.

So Glyn Maxwell, for whom Auden is, without apology, the greatest English poet since Shakespeare, had looked forward to 2007 as a year of pageantry and celebration to honor Auden’s 100th year.

“And then… nothing,” Maxwell confessed in disgust, the outrage ringing in his voice. Auden had left Britain in 1939, just as the country headed into war, “and the British establishment never forgave him,” Maxwell said.

They also resented his openness about his homosexuality, which, common as it was among British upper class males – separated from families and females as they entered boarding school at the age of 8 – was something meant to be kept discretely behind closed doors.

Perhaps too, they resented his having been awarded the first-ever Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964, and then turning it down. It had been offered with a caveat – to him unacceptable – that he rewrite his introduction to a translation of the informal writings of the late Dag Hammarskjold, in which he had described the UN Secretary General as “a bearer of divine truth.”

Auden later admitted that he regretted turning down the prize, but not because of the honor, he claimed, but because he would used the money to buy a new organ for the village church in Kirchstetten.

In coming to Austria, Auden was making a philosophical as well as a life-style choice. To him, “the Germanic influence was an ethical one,” said Andrew Singer, when he took over the podium, based in the long history of German philosophy and Austrian intellectual and cultural traditions, reaching far back before the horrors of National Socialism.

“Auden saw World War II as a break-down on all sides,” Singer said, not a black and white division between tyranny and freedom. In addition, he cherished Austrian Gemütlichkeit, and as a strict Anglican, he felt accepted.

“With homage to Canterbury, I feel well Grüss Gott-ed,” he wrote in “Thanksgiving for a Habitat,” his poem of gratitude for his life in Kirchstetten. There he could “disconnect and feel safe,” Singer said, find an inner world where he was more in tune with himself.

“In the outer world, New York, everything had been democratized,” Singer explained. “But when everything was the same, nothing was sacred,”

After lunch, off we went to pay our respects to Auden’s house, about a 20-minute walk down the road to the village center, and up the hill to the edge of the forest. The house is privately owned, but the long attic study has been preserved as Auden left it and is open to the public.

As we climbed the outside stairs and entered under the eaves, the serenity of the space settled over us. His wooden writing desk was built into a dormer window in the first room, surrounded by shelves, that still holds many of his books – from Karl Kraus and Martin Heidigger to Virginia Woolf and detective stories by Agatha Christie. There was a rough country rug on the floor, comfortable chairs, an oil portrait of Auden and a scattering of local landscapes, and photos of some of his famous visitors: Isherwood, Stephen Spender, Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein.

In the second room, chairs were set out, and in front of a near life-size blow-up of the poet, Glyn Maxwell stepped forward to read. He has a fine, sonorous voice, and sent the phrases spinning across the room, reverberating against the wood and plaster Fachwerk of the garret.

 

…All the clocks in the city

    Began to whirr and chime:

“Oh let not Time deceive you,

    You cannot conquer Time…

 

In headaches and in worry

    Vaguely life leaks away,

And Time will have his fancy

     Tomorrow and today.”

 

This was a favorite, As I Walked Out One Evening. Then came Musee des Beaux Arts, inspired by Breugel’s famous painting of the myth of Icarus. Then In Memory of Sigmund Freud, and September 1, 1939, – “when only hate was happy,” Maxwell said.

One of Auden’s most famous poems – Funeral Blues – Maxwell decided not to read. This extraordinary poem has introduced Auden to millions with its inclusion in the film Four Weddings and a Funeral.   Instead, Maxwell asked the interpreter Elisabeth Girschele, to read her translation, bringing a sense and cadence of the poem, remarkably close to the original, to the German-speaking listeners.

At the end, we met Auden himself, in a filmed house visit made in 1967 by an ORF interviewer, when the poet was 60 years old. We arrived along dirt roads and met Auden in the courtyard, chatted about the house and garden, a bit about the outer trappings of his work, and then bundled off with him in his VW beetle to do his shopping in the village. Back in his study – where we too were sitting at that very moment – talk turned to current projects and collaborations. When suddenly, the interviewer asked, “Herr Auden, why actually do you write poetry?” The question was stunning in its simplicity, and Auden nearly laughed.

“Well, that’s hard to say,” he said, buying some time. And then he gave a real answer:

“I hope to give people pleasure. And at least, to make life a little more bearable.”

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