Roommates

W. H. Auden died on this day in 1973, aged sixty-six. In 1972 Auden returned to England to become a permanent poet/personality-in-residence at Oxford. While there he continued to work at a wide array of projects, but the biographies are full of anecdotes about his declining interest, especially in prolonging life by curbing the intake of vodka and cigarettes. One haiku from the very end — Auden’s last poem, according to companion Chester Kallman — turns the ambivalent mood into a sort of death rag: “He still loves life / But O O O O how he wishes / The good Lord would take him.” Another late poem, written after a visit to an elderly friend, adds details to the self-portrait Auden did not want; below are the opening lines to “Old People’s Home”:

All are limitory, but each has her own
nuance of damage. The elite can dress and decent themselves,
are ambulant with a single stick, adroit
to read a book all through, or play the slow movements of
easy sonatas….
…Then come those on wheels, the average
majority, who endure T.V. and, led by
lenient therapists, do community-singing, then
the loners, muttering in Limbo, and last
the terminally incompetent, as improvident,
unspeakable, impeccable as the plants
they parody.

Carson McCullers died on this day in 1967, aged fifty. Auden and McCullers lived together for a time in the early 1940s, sharing a Brooklyn residence that became a bohemian crash-house/salon for many. In February House, Sherrill Tippins describes the life and times of all those who stayed or passed through 7 Middagh Street — Benjamin Britten, Richard Wright, Paul & Jane Bowles, Thomas Mann’s daughter and son, Gypsy Rose Lee, Harper’s Bazaar editor George Davis, and others. Tippins got her title from Anaïs Nin’s observation that many of the house’s residents (Auden and McCullers included), were born in the month of February.

Auden seems to have been the self-appointed house-father, the one most interested in imposing some daily discipline. The writer James Stern described arriving to the house one day to find “George [Davis] naked at the piano with a cigarette in his mouth, Carson on the floor with half a gallon of sherry, and Wystan bursting in like a headmaster, announcing: ‘Now then, dinner!’” When Kallman recited his poem on this topic one evening, all the housemates (Auden included) shared an appreciative laugh:

Wystan is like the fire
That licks along the wood
Wystan is the desire
Of mankind for the good
Wystan is the poet
That makes the trees to grow
The trees don’t know it
But Wystan thinks so.