He wanted to be a mining engineer or a geologist. Then just a month after his 15th birthday, he was walking home from school with a friend one day in March 1922 when the friend asked him if he wrote poetry. "No," he said. "Why don't you?" asked the friend. And that was when he decided to be a poet.
Auden recalled this in an interview with Paris Review, which appeared in its Spring 1974 issue, several months after his death at the age of 66 in September 1973. Now the interview can be downloaded as a PDF file from the Paris Review website and it's fascinating reading.
Artists and writers have no political influence, according to him. The history of Europe would have been the same had there been no Dante, no Shakespeare. A poet's duty is to "set an example of the correct use of his mother tongue which is always being corrupted".
Yet he says: "Poetry is not self-expression. Each of us has a unique perspective which we hope to communicate."
The world would be safer under women leaders, he says.
"I think foreign policy should be taken out of men's hands," he says. "Women have far better sense…With our leaders it is all too often a case of one little boy saying to another, 'My father can lick your father.'"
He could be talking of Hillary and Obama when he says:
"The difficulty for a man is to avoid being an aesthete — to avoid saying things not because they are true, but because they are poetically effective. The difficulty for a woman is in getting sufficient distance from the emotions. No woman is an aesthete. No woman ever wrote nonsense. Men are playboys, women realists. If you tell a funny story, only a woman will ask, 'Did it really happen?' I think if men knew what women said to each other about them, the human race would die out."
He talks about poetry, his preference for “formal verse” as opposed to free verse, the poetic drama he wrote with his schoolmate Christopher Isherwood, the influence on him of WB Yeats and the inimitability of TS Eliot who encouraged him and was the first to publish him in the magazine Criterion.
About Joyce, he says:
“Obviously he’s a very great artist, but his work is simply too long. Joyce said himself that he wanted people to spend their whole life on his work. For me life is too short, and too precious. On the whole, I like novels to be short and funny. There are a few exceptions, of course; one knows with Proust, for instance, that it couldn’t have been any shorter. I suppose my favourite modern novelists are Ronald Firbank and PG Wodehouse — because both deal with Eden.”
But even those who have little time for literature will enjoy his interview.
He had used a credit card only once, he says, to pay a hotel bill in Israel.
“I was brought up believing you should not buy things you cannot pay cash for,” he says. “The idea of debt appals me. I suppose the whole economy would collapse if everyone had been brought up like me.”
About marriage, he says:
“I am perfectly congenial to weddings, but what I think ruins so many marriages, though, is this romantic idea of falling in love. It happens of course, I suppose, to some people who are possessed of unusually fertile imaginations. Undoubtedly it is a mystical experience which occurs. But with most people who think they are in love I think the situation can be described far more simply, and brutally. The trouble with all this love business is one or the other partner ends up feeling bad or guilty because they don’t have it the way they’ve read it. I’m afraid things went off a lot more happily when marriages were arranged by parents. I do think it is absolutely essential that both partners share a sense of humour and an outlook on life.”
Auden was interviewed in his New York apartment. Looking back on his schooldays in England with Christopher Isherwood, he said:
“I was walking with Mr Isherwood on a Sunday walk — this was in Surrey — when Christopher said: ‘I think God must have been tired when He made this country’. That’s the first time I heard a remark that I thought was witty.”
This is a gem of an interview.