W. H. Auden in His Cluttered Kitchen
In 1952, Auden and his life-long companion moved to an apartment at 77 St. Marks Place in New York’s East Village. It was, more or less, Auden’s permanent home for the rest of his life.
During the initial years, Auden lived, however ambivalently, actively engaged in social and political interests, as well as enjoying his status as an internationally renowned poet. In his later years, Auden became increasingly withdrawn and lonely.
This was profoundly reflected in his writings, through which he deliberately attempted to discard much of his own public dignity, a significant sign that indicated the painful depth of his feelings of personal isolation. Many of his last poems spoke to, rather than about, silent objects and people who were either absent or dead. Runinations about “night” (the darkness and ending of one’s day/life) dominated his writings in 1972, and particularly in his poem “Lullaby” that was addressed to himself. In that poem, writing about sleep was framed by the language of finality: “Let your last thinks all be thanks,” anticipating a time of final endings, completions and a state surpassing all feelings of resentment.
On another note, Auden’s life-long anxieties about his seemingly paradoxical wishes to maintain a clear sense of autonomy, versus his strong needs for attachment, were perhaps no more clearly presented than in his book of poems, About the House, inspired by various rooms in his home. Writing about groups of people visiting in the “living room”, Auden’s thoughts turned to the impact of the size of such rooms upon the internal experiences of psychological boundaries versus a lack of boundaries.
If the room was too small, he believed that, “...people can’t forget at will that they’re not alone.” In other words, they can’t remember that while together (or part of a “we”), they are also alone, instead drowning in a sense of enmeshment, lack of personal identity, autonomy and achievement.
At another extreme, if the room was too large, it would encourage people to engage in ever-more strong efforts to make contact with each other, with intensively forceful attempts to achieve a sense of attachment, along with heightened wishes and strivings for nurturant dependency.
Near the very end of his life, Auden’s poem entitled “Loneliness” purported to convey his prediction that his intense feelings of solitude would be relieved on the following day, when his companion, Chester Kallum, was to return. In fact, the poem only addresses in the first person his own terrifying image of Loneliness itself, the “Gate-crashing ghost, aggressive / invisible visitor.”
Concluding this brief commentary, we return to Auden’s feelings of the dark night of his soul as the end of life approached, best captured in his poem entitled Lullaby:
Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from
Thoughtful children, and the grave
Proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.
Soul and body have no bounds:
To lovers as they lie upon
Her tolerant enchanted slope
In their ordinary swoon,
Grave the vision Venus sends
Of supernatural sympathy,
Universal love and hope;
While an abstract insight wakes
Among the glaciers and the rocks
The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.
On the stroke of midnight pass
Like vibrations of a bell
And fashionable madmen raise
Their pedantic boring cry:
Every farthing of the cost,
All the dreaded cards foretell,
Shall be paid, but from this night
Not a whisper, not a thought,
Not a kiss nor look be lost.
Beauty, midnight, vision dies:
Let the winds of dawn that blow
Softly round your dreaming head
Such a day of welcome show
Eye and knocking heart may bless,
Find our mortal world enough;
Noons of dryness find you fed
By the involuntary powers,
Nights of insult let you pass
Watched by every human love.
W. H. Auden