Monday, December 1, 2008

December 1947 - W.H. Auden

Wystan Hugh Auden (1907-1973)

My coldest memory is of the Christmas week of 1928 in Berlin. I had spent my month's allowance, and the friends from whom I might have borrowed were out of town, so that I could not afford to leave the house, and passed the days with my feet up on the very inadequate tiled stove, reading War and Peace for the first time, cold, hungry, and very happy. My hottest memory is of the first fortnight of August 1944, in New York City. I had money, friends, an electric fan, a shower, a refrigerator. I lay in a stupor wishing I were dead.

My feelings have been oriented by the compass as far back as I can remember. For reasons which will be, perhaps, more obvious to psychologists than to me, North and South are the foci of two sharply contrasted clusters of images and emotions. For example, as I reflect at this moment, I get the following associations: North--cold, wind, precipices, glaciers, caves, heroic conquest of dangerous obstacles, whales, hot meat and vegetables, concentration and production, privacy. South--heat, light, drought, calm, agricultural plains, trees, rotarian crowds, the life of ignoble ease, spiders, fruits and desserts, the waste of time, publicity. West and East are relatively neutral.

In this pattern, I think I detect two formative factors, Puritanism and Introversion. If, like me, you have been brought up to believe that man cannot, if he is to live rightly, surrender to his nature, but must, on the contrary, struggle with it; if again your temperament, like mine, is of the kind that prefers your own company or the company of one other to the company of several; if, when you go for a walk, you prefer the countryside to be uninhabited, except for yourself and your companion; if you are passionately convinced that a house should be a womb with small rooms, small windows, and thick walls, not a marketplace or a railroad station, then you are probably, like me, a cold weather man.

In hot weather what is bound to happen? Life will only be bearable if you relax, and your Puritan conscience will torment you. The lushness of summer vegetation will seem a dangerous temptation. You will have no peace, no retreat. Inside, windows and doors must be left open and you must lie in bed defenseless under a mere sheet. If you venture outside, the streets and the beaches are crowded with noises and heaps of people, and it will not be long before you find yourself wishing to heaven it were wintertime, when you could be sitting in front of the fire reading or having a really interesting, intimate talk.

Literature has not been fair to cold weather. In the past this was understandable enough: it was harder to keep warm in cold weather than cool in hot, and consequently the poets celebrated the coming of spring and summer, but let me hope that winter will find poets to sing its praises. Mr. T.S. Eliot made a promising beginning when he broke with tradition and called April the cruelest month.

I do not function properly until I can put the thick lining into my topcoat; faith and charity vanish abruptly in some dreadful explosion of heat around the end of March. When I buy my morning paper, after a brief glance at the obituary page, I turn to a close study of the weather report, the immediate importance of which transcends any domestic or foreign situation.

Should circumstances ever drive me, like Ovid, into exile, I shall retire, if I am allowed, to a little fishing town in Iceland at the bottom of a grim fjord where the sun is not seen for five months in the year. There, not I hope alone, I shall eat fish, play the phonograph, and die in the greatest contentment.


  1. Me, me! Wasn't he a wonderful man? I especially like the part about not enjoying summer because your Puritan side can't stand doing nothing.

  2. A very thought provoking piece of prose..lovely to chew on. I think I'd go with Auden and the North and cold (provided I can have the cosy stove to enjoy it from ..if that makes sense) although my enthusiasum is tempered by the fact that it is 9f out (-12c?) and I was out this morning in gloves that didn't pass the test, and my hands hurt..Erasmus the cat watched my suffering with sympathetic concern ..he is a nice cat

  3. I love winter. I wish I could express my thoughts like this.

  4. W. H. Auden was such a gracious and talented man. I think I may have to to do a tribute post to him.

    I'm adding your beautiful blog to my blogroll and bloglines feeds. Woot!

  5. This was a thoughtful post. Thank you for the images. I guess I'm living right now in larger rooms with open windows and doors, unprotected but for a light sheet at bedtimes. However, I loved the cozy life of living in the Midwest also with the freezing winters. I guess I'm a middle of the world sort of person.

  6. Hi Nan
    Just read this really great piece on Auden and Day Lewis. It's by Clive James. Hope you like it, here's the link.

  7. Well. Who could have said that better than he did? Not I. But as you know, I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for finding this bit and making it available to us all.


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