May 16, 2013

W.H. Auden’s “lost” journal recovered, 75 years later


One of three known journals written by W.H. Auden has been recovered nearly 75 years after it was written. This journal dates between August and November 1939. Auden died in 1973 at 66, and this sheds new light on an important year in the life of the poet, from the outbreak of World War II to the writing of “September 1, 1939.”

It also includes the period of time following the “eleven happiest weeks of my life”—the honeymoon period of his relationship with poet Chester Kallman, whom he refers to as “C.”

John Sutherland, author and academic, said to The Australian, “The interest will centre on the hazy area of Auden’s relationship with Chester and what seems, in terms of sex, to have been the happiest two years of his life.”

The recovered journal sheds light on an important period in history, and gives us a glimpse of Auden’s humor:

At 32 I suppose I shall not change physically very much for some time except in weight, which is now 154lb. I am happy, but in debt… I have no job. My visa is out of order. There may be a war. But I have an epithalamion (a poem to celebrate a marriage) to write and cannot worry much.

Edward Mendelson, the literary executor of Auden’s estate and an English professor at Columbia University, said in an interview with The Independent, “The journal gives a personal sense that we don’t really have elsewhere of Auden in this hugely important era.”

The ninety-six page notebook will be auctioned next month at Christie’s at an estimated value between £40,000 and £60,000. The auction house’s catalog describes it as the “most significant Auden manuscript to have been offered at auction.”

Auden gave the journal to his friend George Davis, a novelist and magazine writer, but all trace of it disappeared shortly after until recently.

Though there are many details about his relationship, it’s somewhat surprising that he didn’t include more reflections upon his religion.

Mendelson said in an interview with The Australian, “Any manuscript by Auden is exciting to have and I was delighted to see him talking personally about his beliefs and feelings, which are presented in a more abstract way in his poems.

“But I was a little disappointed. Auden was going through a great religious crisis at the time. He talked much about this in his letters, so what surprises me is that it doesn’t show up in the journal.”

Regardless, entries like this one, which appears to relate to Auden’s “September 1 1939,” make the discovery a valuable addition to Auden’s legacy:

Woke with a headache after a night of bad dreams in which C [Kallman] was unfaithful. Paper reports German attack on Poland. Now I sit looking out over the river. Such a beautiful evening and in an hour, they say, England will be at war.

Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.