On Saturday 7 October 1972, BBC Television broadcast the following interview with the poet, conducted by the chat show host Michael Parkinson, whose other guest that evening was Sir John Guilgud. Auden would die in September the following year - was this his last significant television appearance? He was in his anecdotage - most of the well-polished riffs were familiar, but to a popular audience unaware of his work this made for an excellent introduction. The interview has never been transmitted since, and readers of this blog may enjoy the following transcription. Copyright for this transcription rests with the BBC.
In his introduction to ‘a very special show’ Parkinson describes his guests as ‘two men who arguably the worlds’ best at their chosen profession. The first, someone who many regard as the greatest living poet . . . '.
Cleo Laine sings an arrangement of Tell me the Truth About Love, accompanied by John Dankworth and The Harry Stoneham Five. Then Parkinson introduces his first guest. Auden descends the staircase carefully and pauses to bow to the applauding audience, before shaking hands with the host and queryingly taking a seat on Parkinson’s left. He wears a buttoned single-breasted dovegrey suit, grey shirt and dark blue tie.
MP: So would you take it as a compliment if I said that lyric reminded me of Cole Porter at his very best?
WHA: I’d love to because I admire him enormously. My favourite composer for musicals I think is Hart, but Cole Porter is marvellous.
MP: Sadly there aren’t his calibre of writers . . .
WHA: Apparently wit has disappeared from popular lyrics as far as I can see.
MP: One wonders why that is.
WHA: It’s sad but . . . (shrugs).
MP: What’s extraordinary of course is that it all came together in the one period, didn’t it, of popular music . . .
WHA: Well it went on for quite some time. For a start it was Noel Coward, which is in the twenties, it went on . . . quite a time.
MP: Could I ask you when you first decided you wanted to be a poet?
WHA: Actually that was rather odd. It was one afternoon in March 1922. I was walking across a field at school with a friend of mine who later turned into a painter called Robert Medley, and he said ‘Do you ever write poetry?’ and I said ‘No, I’ve never thought of it’ and he said ‘Why don’t you?’ and at that moment I knew that was what I was going to do.
MP: You had no urge whatsoever up until that point?
WHA: Well looking back of course I can analyse certain things. I had this very elaborate imaginary world I lived in connected with lead mines and a certain kind of landscape and things which I learned from. But this came as quite a surprise for me.
MP: I was going to ask you about that childhood because your background was more scientific than artistic, wasn’t it?
WHA: No, well both, thank God, I had no nonsense about the two cultures, you know. My father was a physician, also a classical scholar, so the house was full of books, both books on science and books on literature, so it never occurred to me that these were two separate things. I actually went up to Oxford with an exhibition in Biology and there I must say – I always remember this very vividly – I had my oral, my viva, from Julian Huxley, who I knew of course very well who he was, and he showed me a bone and asked me what it was and I said ‘I think it’s the pelvis of a bird’ which happened to be the right answer and he said, you know, some people have said it was the skull of an extinct reptile. I’ve always remembered this!
MP: In that childhood Mr. Auden do you remember being influenced at all by any authors?
WHA: Oh yes of course the first time when I started to write my earliest influences probably were Hardy.
WHA: Then later Frost, Edward Thomas . . .
MP: But what about when you were very young?
WHA: Well before I was interested, as a child, things I liked were comic poetry and sort of sick jokes, Oh, mean I loved Cautionary Tales, I loved Strewwelpeter, I adored Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes, but that was before. I still love them too. So.
MP: Can you in fact remember your first poem?
WHA: No. I can remember the last line of the first poem I wrote, which was about Blea Tarn, which is in the Lake District. I know the last line ran: ‘And in the quiet oblivion of thy waters let them stay’. I can’t remember who ‘they’ were at all!
MP: You remember the tag line but not what went before it?
WHA: Not a bit.
MP: It’s rare that one gets to talk to a poet and what fascinates me about a poet is how he sees himself. I mean what is a poet? Is he an instructor? Is he an enchanter?
WHA: No. Well, first of all of course he’s a person who loves language. Firstly. And who likes . . . I mean I think poems . . . who likes playing verbal games. I mean I’m a passionate formalist on humanistic grounds. After all everyone knows if you play a game you can’t play it without rules. Make the rules what you like, but your whole fun and freedom come from working within them. Why should poetry be any different? There are a few poets like D. H. Lawrence you feel have to write in free verse, but I think they’re the exception not the rule.
MP: You make it sound almost as though, like a kind of formula, writing?
WHA: Well formula is one side of it. I know myself in order to write, at any given moment I have two things on my mind. One is a certain subject that I’m interested in and the other are certain formal questions connected with language, maybe metre, maybe diction, what have you. And, alright, the subject looks for the right form, the form looks for the right subject. When these things come together then you’re able to write.
MP: And when you have written it what is the ideal reaction from a reader?
WHA: I would say this: what one secretly hopes from a reader is on reading they’ll say: ‘My God I knew that all the time but I never realised it before.’ That sort of thing is the ideal reaction because then you know you’ve said something that’s true.
MP: Yes. What is the . . . You’ve had every kind of critical praise showered on you, but what is the greatest compliment you’ve ever had?
WHA: That I can easily tell you. Um, I don’t know if people here know about her. A marvellous woman in America called Dorothy Day, who ran the Catholic Worker Hostel. Very saintly character. Well she’d been put in jail for protesting against air-raid warden precautions, air raid precautions, and she was in the women’s’ jail on 6th Avenue and 8th Street where apparently the inmates only got a shower once a week. Well, it so happened that a poem of mine had appeared recently in the New Yorker of which the last line was: ‘Thousands have lived without love, not one without water’. Well one of Dorothy Day’s co-inmates was a whore, and she went off to her shower quoting this line of mine. I thought ‘My God!’ (slaps thigh).
MP: That’s praise indeed!
WHA: That is real praise you know.
MP: One wonders where she read the book.
WHA: Well she read the New Yorker. But oh I was so pleased!
(Auden lights a cigarette)
MP: Does er . . . You seemed to say when I asked you earlier about what a poet was, you seemed to deny the thing that a lot of people might suspect a poet hopes he could be, which is some kind of social or political reformer.
WHA: No. That they can’t be, at least not in the West. That is to say if you ask, by all means let a writer, a poet, if he feels like it, write what we now call an engagé poem, but he must not imagine that by doing so he will change the course of history. He might also remember that the chief benefactor from it is himself. I know this from the Thirties. I wrote a number of things about Hitler which I don’t take back for a moment. But who benefited from it? Me, because it gave me a certain kind of literary reputation among people who felt the same as I did. Nothing I wrote postponed the War for five seconds or prevented one Jew being gassed.
WHA: I mean, of course one could do them so long as one doesn’t imagine that one would change the course of history by doing it. I mean I think if you ask what the function of, not only of literature, of writing, but also of all the arts is, I would say firstly what Dr Johnson said: ‘The aim of writing is to enable readers a little better to enjoy life or a little better to endure it.’
WHA: And then, the arts are our chief means of communication with the dead. I mean after all Homer’s dead, his society’s gone, but we can still read the Iliad with relevance. And I personally think that without communication with the dead a fully human life is not possible.
MP: But are all artists equally impotent then in this area?
WHA: Yes. Well, there may . . . I man I think there are certain exceptions. We have to think about the societies we know. I would normally say that in the case of social and political evils only two things are effective. One is political action and the other is absolutely straight journalistic reportage of the facts. You must know what they are.
WHA: Now in certain countries like Russia it may be slightly different because they’ve never had a free press. Therefore a writer may say something which people can’t hear from any other source and the fact that he risks his liberty and perhaps his life to say it gives him a moral authority which writers in the West can’t possibly have.
MP: Yes. Could I ask you though what was your, then, therefore your purpose, you went to Berlin in the Thirties. You lived there obviously in a society that you hated, that . . .
WHA: I didn’t, no. I mean it was very important for me because, for this reason, that for my generation - which was too young for the First World War to be real, alright my father was at it, but it was quite unreal - when we were undergraduates we just thought we were back before 1914. After all England hadn’t had an inflation or civil war. It was only when I got to Germany, one realised the foundations were shaky. This was a very important experience naturally.
MP: Yes. But I wonder then it that society when you realised that, I mean, how you then regarded your art. You must have thought then that perhaps I can do something about it.
WHA: No, no I never thought that.
MP: Another thing too that I think interested me . . .
WHA: I mean naturally one writes about what moves one, I mean not long ago I wrote a poem about the invasion of Czechoslovakia, which I find from my spies is quite well known in Russia. But I know this won’t change anything. But I had to write it.
MP: I think a lot of people watching the programme who know of you would want to know why it was that you left England and went to America in . . . at the outbreak of war.
WHA: Well it was before the war.
WHA: Now this is difficult. On the whole I think when one makes a move one often doesn’t realise until later . . . why. If you ask me why I did it now, I would say that British cultural life as I knew it was a family life. One knew everybody. Well, you know it’s like with, with, with ordinary families. I love my family but don’t want to live with them.
WHA: And there’s another thing I would day, is that I agree with, um, Somerset Maugham who said in order to understand your own country you have to have lived in at least two others. I’m much more conscious of my sensibility of being British than I ever was when I lived here.
MP: Yes, but on the other hand of course if you take the knowledge of the family, it’s all very well living apart from the family but you then became an American citizen, which is really cutting your family off, isn’t it, in a sense?
WHA: No. Not at all. If you live in a country . . . um . . . I think it’s only fair that you should . . . I mean . . . if you’re . . . I decided that I would become an American.
MP: But do you feel an American or a Briton?
WHA: No. Oh wouldn’t call myself an American. I can call myself a New Yorker, which is a rather special brand of character. I think of myself as a New Yorker.
MP: Do you find it though, America, do you find it a more, a more stimulating environment to work in?
WHA: No. They pay more.
MP: It can’t all be the profit motive though, can it?
WHA: No no. But . . . no I wouldn’t say. It’s the only thing I would say. But I’m used to it. I’ve lived there for more than half my life. I’ve lived there for thirty-three years. Um . . .
MP: Why do they pay more? This is interesting about Americans, I mean are they . . .
WHA: They do! That’s all I can tell you. Why I don’t know. Thank God they do!
MP: I agree with you thank God and hope I can cop some of it one day! The thing that interests me about it you see, is, I mean, what is it? Is it that they honour artists more or is it that they’re more anxious to, to sort of . . .
WHA: I think it’s just the economy. I don’t know. I mean for example . . . I’ll give you a concrete example that happened. Alright. A few weeks ago I wrote a review for the New Yorker of the second volume of the Bernard Shaw letters. Alright - the cheque I got was for $2,255. Nice! Get that here!
MP: You’d have to write an awful lot of words to get that money here. My word you would. War and Peace wouldn’t get that here. What, what slightly sort of worries me though about this is that any artist has to have an environment which he feeds off, which stimulates him, and I would have thought that, I’m not now . . .
WHA: I can work pretty well wherever I am.
MP: You can?
MP: I mean, all you need is a room and . . . ?
WHA: A room and, you know. That, that I don’t find a real problem.
MP: Tell me about the lecture circuits that you do in America. I mean do you find those stimulating?
WHA: No. They’re tiring but they pay.
MP: Yes. But I mean are they, are they in . . . do you like doing them?
MP: Well I like meeting people. Mostly of course I talk to students. And funnily enough now I think often I get on better with them than I get on with their parents. I’ve become grandpa.
MP: But do you like this thing about standing up and acting?
WHA: Oh I don’t mind that a bit. I’m an old ham.
MP: (laughs) Would you be an old ham on our behalf then, and read us one of your latest poems?
WHA: Well this isn’t one of my latest but . . .
MP: It’s in your new collection, isn’t it?
WHA: It is a new collection.
MP: Which is this book here, Epistle to a Godson.
WHA: This is a poem which was written of course in ‘68. It’s called 'Moon Landing'.
(Auden recites 'Moon Landing' from memory. Audience applause is acknowledged by the poet with a slight tilt of the head.)
MP: You said earlier, Mr. Auden, that you saw the prime duty of the poet as being someone who guarded, I think, the language. Could you explain that?
WHA: Well as a poet, apart from being a citizen, one has one political duty, which is to try by one’s own example to protect the purity of the language, because when words lose their meaning then I’m quite sure physical violence takes over.
MP: Yes. And are we in danger now, do you think?
WHA: Always. All the time. I mean it’s appalling what happens, the lack of precision. I mean the . . how many people now, for example, think that ‘disinterested’ means ‘uninterested’, to take just a little point?
MP: You mentioned earlier also this thing about working with university students in the States and of course you’re shortly going to take up residence in Oxford again, back to where it all started really. Do you detect . . . I know it’s a phrase that you hate . . . any generation gap at all when you meet these people?
WHA: Um. Well. All I can say on that point is that if there is such a thing the people to blame are both the old and the young who won’t bother to learn their mother tongue.
MP: (laughs) Can I put it another way then? I don’t think we need argue about the fact that the students nowadays have got a different set of values and have broken down the traditions that existed in your day. Do you find yourself able to understand this or do you find yourself a traditionalist in the sense
WHA (interrupting): Well I am a traditionalist. I don’t want to go into this because it’s, it’s . . . I mean there are things that alarm me. Also for the young, because what I feel about a lot of the young now is they seem to be bored. Well when I was young of course one was often unhappy but I don’t ever remember having, in my life, having been bored. Or any of my friends. Some people are interested in sports, some people are interested in music, some people are interested in bird-watching and so on, but people had their thing. Now there does seem to be, as far as I can see, a boredom. And that upsets me.
MP: Do you . . . are you able to proffer any reasons?
MP: Any conclusions? I mean why do you think they’re bored?
WHA: This I don’t know. But um it does seem, as far as I can . . . It must be one of the reasons for the drug thing.
MP: Yes. I read in the cuttings actually, Mr Auden, that in fact that you once experimented with a drug, didn’t you?
WHA: (laughs) I don’t know what cutting you saw.
MP: It said you once took LSD.
WHA: Well that obviously wasn’t for me. I took it under medical supervision. I wouldn’t take it without, alright. The doctor came at 7.30 in the morning. Gave me the dose. I sat there. I sat there, waiting for something to happen. Nothing happened except a slight sort of schizoid dissociation with my body which I’m sure I can get anyway. (Laughter) About 10.30 when the effect was supposed to be at its maximum, we went round the corner onto 2nd Avenue In New York to have some ham and eggs. I was staring out of the window I thought ‘Ah now something’s beginning to happen!’ I thought I saw my postman, making signals. I came home. The bell rang, there’s my postman, he said: ‘I waved at you and you took no notice’. (Shrugs) Not for me. I’m probably too pickled in alcohol.
MP: (laughs) Yes that’s probably a better drug some would argue. I read also in the cuttings that you didn’t want to, or you didn’t ever contemplate writing your autobiography.
WHA: No I disapprove of wr . . . I mean because . . . A writer is a maker, not a man of action. That would mean in a sense everything he writes is a transmutation of his personal experiences. Nothing you can learn about his experiences would tell you why particular things are what they’re like. I mean that in the case of a man of action you may need to know things. So I think that, um, an author’s private life is of concern simply to himself and his family and his friends. It only becomes interesting actually, as a rule, in the case of people who are really bad hats. I mean Wagner’s life would be fascinating to read even if he hadn’t written anything.
WHA: Because he was such a monster!
MP: Well, W. H. Auden, thank you very much. We’re out of time for the moment but I’ll be talking to you again later. Thank you very much indeed.
WHA: (off mike) Shall I move over here? Where do I move? (Inaudible) Another genius?
MP: (off mike) No, no, no. Wait there.
Parkinson introduces a second performance by Cleo Laine, an arrangement by John Dankworth of Shakespeare’s song 'O Mistress Mine'. The next guest is Sir John Guilgud. Auden, now seated on Parkinson’s right, stands to applaud Guilgud’s arrival, a cigarette drooping from his lips. At one point in his interview Guilgud criticises directors who relocate Shakespeare in other periods and Parkinson asks Auden whether he agrees:
WHA: I do entirely. I think it’s awful. The only successful transportation of time I ever saw was Love’s Labour’s Lost done in the Edwardian period. I saw this in New York. Somehow it worked.
JG: Well it does sometimes work -
WHA: (interrupting) Practically never.
JG: - but I don’t want to see Shakespeare on skates.
WHA: No exactly! Quite! And the terrible thing of the Stage Directors taking over. It’s worse in opera, probably.
JG: I think it’s more difficult for the Stage Director to take over in opera
WHA: Anything to prevent you hearing the music!
JG: (laughs) That may be so.
Guilgud later talks about the decline in popularity of poetic drama, citing Eliot, Christopher Fry, Barrie and Goldsworthy.
MP: (addressing WHA) But there’s still a kind of elitist feeling about poetry in particular, I mean, isn’t there?
WHA: No I think obviously it appeals to a minority. I know certainly when I have to read there are a lot of students there that’s all I can say. And they seem to enjoy it.
MP: But the key word there was ‘minority’. Why should it be a minority?
WHA: Well, because it’s a rather difficult art. You’ve got to have, both to write it and to read it, you’ve got to have this passionate love of language.
WHA: And that is probably . . . a minority who have this.
WHA: I think. And look at the sales of poetry compared with novels
MP: But do you think children are taught the correct love of poetry or the proper love of poetry at school?
WHA: I don’t think you can. I would give them comic verse. Let them find out about "serious verse "(gesture) in quotes later.
Later in the interview MP moves from a discussion with JG about roles he has turned down, notably Beckett’s Endgame:
MP: W. H. Auden I read somewhere I think that you in fact occasionally review your work and take out certain poems that you don’t . . .
WHA: I revise. Because I agree what Valery said when he said a poem is never finished it’s only abandoned.
WHA: I mean there are certain poems I just dislike and try and take out. When I revise I don’t revise the thoughts or emotions but I feel the language is inadequate. Unmusical or vague, not precise enough – then one has to revise. It’s fun. (shrugs)
JG: Shakespeare would have revised a lot of his work if he’d had time. Or if he’d . . .
WHA: He might. Obviously he was a person who wrote with extraordinary fluency. We know that Ben Jonson complained. But it would be rather difficult I think very often to say ‘Well look here he should have revised this’. I think you’ll find it’s difficult. A great many writers think you should have boring passages to show up the good ones
WHA: I don’t think he does very much.
JG: Except all those kings and dukes and people in the Histories. . .
Auden makes no further contribution to the programme and as the credits roll prepares to leave, then sits back as Parkinson chats to Guilgud. After a moment he leans forward to join the conversation.
With Michael Parkinson were Sir John Guilgud, W. H. Auden, Cleo Laine, John Dankworth and The Harry Stoneham Five.
Sound: Laurie Taylor
Lighting: Ron Koplick
Production Team: John Fisher Patricia Houlihan Graham Lindsay
Design: Tony Halton
Director: Mel Cornish
Producer: Richard Drewett
This, let's not forget, was a national prime time show on a Saturday evening, just before Match of the Day. A lifetime ago.