Feb 212018

Today is the birthday (1907) of Wystan Hugh Auden an English poet noted for a large body of poetry that  engaged with politics, morals, love, and religion, and varied greatly in tone, form and content. Auden was born in York, grew up in and near Birmingham in a professional middle-class family, attended English boarding schools, and studied at Christ Church college, Oxford, beginning in 1925. Auden was reintroduced to Christopher Isherwood in 1925 by his fellow student A. S. T. Fisher (they had known one another in boarding school). For the next few years Auden sent poems to Isherwood for comments and criticism. From his Oxford years onward, Auden’s friends uniformly described him as funny, extravagant, sympathetic, generous, and, partly by his own choice, lonely. In groups he was often dogmatic and overbearing in a comic way. In more private settings he was diffident and shy except when certain of his welcome. He was punctual in his habits, and obsessive about meeting deadlines, while choosing to live amidst physical disorder.

Auden started at Oxford with a scholarship in biology, but had switched to English by his second year. Friends he met at Oxford include Cecil Day-Lewis, Louis MacNeice, and Stephen Spender. These four were commonly, though misleadingly, identified in the 1930s as the “Auden Group” for their shared (but not identical) left-wing views. By the time I became interested in poetry as a teen in the 1960s they were known as the “Poets of the 30s” even though they were all, with the exception of MacNeice, still quite active. Auden left Oxford in 1928 having barely scraped through finals, with a degree in English.

After a few months in Berlin in 1928–29 he spent five years (1930–35) teaching in English public schools, then travelled to Iceland (where he believed he had ancestry) and China in order to write books about his journeys. He came to wide public attention at the age of 23, in 1930, with his first book, Poems, followed in 1932 by The Orators. Three plays written in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood in 1935–38 built his reputation as a left-wing political writer. He moved to the United States partly to escape this reputation.

Auden taught from 1941 to 1945 in U.S. universities, followed by occasional visiting professorships in the 1950s. From 1947 to 1957 he spent winters in New York and summers in Ischia. From 1958 until the end of his life he spent his summers in Kirchstetten in Lower Austria, where he died, and in his last 2 years he spent the winter months in a cottage on the grounds of Christ Church. I was an undergraduate at the time, and saw him wandering up St Aldates towards Carfax once or twice. My college was opposite Christ Church. He looked lost and bewildered – not the man I knew from his poetry.

Auden’s work in the 1940s, including the long poems “For the Time Being” and “The Sea and the Mirror,” focused on religious themes. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for his 1947 poem “The Age of Anxiety,” the title of which became a popular phrase describing the modern era. In 1956 he was elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford, and served until 1961. His lectures were popular with students and dons, and served as the basis of his 1962 prose collection The Dyer’s Hand.

From around 1927 to 1939 Auden and Isherwood maintained a lasting but intermittent sexual friendship while both had briefer but more intense relations with other men. In 1939 Auden fell in love with Chester Kallman and regarded their relationship as a marriage. The relationship ended in 1941 when Kallman refused to accept the fidelity that Auden demanded, but the two maintained their friendship, and from 1947 until Auden’s death they lived in the same house or apartment in a non-sexual relationship, often collaborating on opera libretti such as The Rake’s Progress, for music by Igor Stravinsky.

Many of Auden’s poems during the 1930s and after were inspired by unconsummated love, and in the 1950s he summarized his emotional life in a famous couplet: “If equal affection cannot be / Let the more loving one be me” (“The More Loving One”). He had a gift for friendship and, starting in the late 1930s, a strong wish for the stability of marriage. In a letter to his friend James Stern he called marriage “the only subject.” Throughout his life, Auden performed charitable acts, sometimes in public (as in his 1935 marriage of convenience to Erika Mann that provided her with a British passport to escape the Nazis), but, especially in later years, more often in private. He was embarrassed if they were publicly revealed.

Auden was a prolific writer of prose essays and reviews on literary, political, psychological and religious subjects, and he worked at various times on documentary films, poetic plays, and other forms of performance. Throughout his career he was both controversial and influential. Critical views on his work ranged from sharply dismissive, treating him as a lesser follower of the likes of W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot, to strongly affirmative, as in Joseph Brodsky’s claim that he had “the greatest mind of the twentieth century.” After his death, his poems became known to a much wider public than during his lifetime through films, broadcasts and popular media. This was once popular:

Auden died in Vienna in 1973, a few hours after giving a reading of his poems at the Austrian Society for Literature. He died at the Altenburgerhof Hotel where he was staying overnight before his intended return to Oxford the next day. He was buried in Kirchstetten.

Auden was a great admirer of M.F.K. Fisher — https://www.bookofdaystales.com/m-f-k-fisher/ In his introduction to Fisher’s The Art of Eating (1954) he writes: “I do not know anyone in the United States today who writes better prose.” He cites several examples, including this passage:

I now feel that gastronomical perfection can be reached in these combinations: one person dining alone, usually upon a couch or a hillside; two people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good restaurant; six people, of no matter what sex or age, dining in a good home. . . A good combination would be one married couple, for warm composure; one less firmly established, to add a note of investigation to the talk; and two strangers of either sex, upon whom the better-acquainted could sharpen their questioning wits.

The passage likely inspired Auden’s poem “Tonight at 7:30.”

My problem in finding a recipe is that Auden was not so much inspired by the food at dinner parties but by the company, and his admiration of Fisher concerns how she writes about people and places and things, not about recipes per se. Never mind. She gives a decent recipe for tapenade. I don’t know why she spells it tapénade: misplaced pretentiousness maybe. Tapenade is a Provençal dish consisting of puréed or finely chopped olives, capers, and olive oil. Its name comes from the Provençal word for capers, tapenas. It is a popular dish in the south of France, where it is generally eaten as an hors d’œuvre spread on bread, but sometimes it is used to stuff poultry for a main course. Tapenade’s base ingredients are capers and olives. The olives (most commonly black olive) and capers are finely chopped, crushed or blended. Olive oil is then added until the mixture becomes a paste. Tapenade is often flavored differently in varying regions with other ingredients such as garlic, herbs, anchovies, lemon juice or brandy. This is Fisher’s recipe slightly edited.

M.F.K. Fisher’s Tapénade


1 cup pitted, chopped black olives
½ cup anchovy fillets, chopped
½ cup canned tuna
1 tsp dry mustard
½ cup capers
1 cup olive oil
¼ cup lemon juice
1 ½ fl oz brandy


Pound the first six ingredients in a mortar to form a paste (I use a food blender on pulse). Add the olive oil slowly like making mayonnaise. Mix in the lemon juice slowly, and then the brandy. Store in a covered container in the refrigerator.

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