David Yezzi in The New Criterion:
Mr. Matthew Arnold. To him, Miss Mary Augusta, his niece: “Why, Uncle Matthew, oh why, will not you be always wholly serious?
—Max Beerbohm, in a caption
But why do you take everything I say so seriously?
—W. H. Auden to Stephen Spender
W. H. Auden collected hats, at least as a younger man (he subsequently renounced them). He had a workman’s cap that he picked up in Berlin and later consigned to the fireplace after throwing up into it, a panama hat that leant him the air of a lunatic vicar (his impersonation of which always brought the house down), and a mortarboard for his more donnish moods. In his biography from 1979 of the poet, Charles Osborne suggests that “there was a strong element of the poseur, the role-player, in the mature Auden.” This proclivity for assuming different guises extended not only to Auden’s choice of fancy dress but also to his weighing of intellectual matters: “He would adopt an attitude or an intellectual position,” Osborne writes, “sometimes in order to test his own ideas, at other times to goad a response out of someone else. His intellectual ebullience was such that he could present with equal force and conviction the opposing sides of an argument, and he frequently did so.” “He always tried things on for size,” his friend Christopher Isherwood once observed.