What can WH Auden do for you?

Jess Cotton in Prospect:

Tumblr_l9eyugtVw91qap7z5o1_500-300x195When Auden died in 1973, forty years ago last week, it would have been hard to imagine how popular he would become in the ensuing decades. Morose and solitary, he described himself, in a poem of the early 1960s, as a “sulky 56,” who had “grown far too crotchety” and found a “change of meal-time utter hell.” In those later years, Auden seemed a shadow of his former self: his reputation had been tainted by some rather unforgiving reviews. Philip Larkin, for one, had dismissed his “rambling intellectual stew;” Randall Jarrell painted a sorry picture of a man “turned into a rhetoric mill, grinding away at the bottom of Limbo.” Jilted by his handsome younger lover, Chester Kallman, Auden took leave of all worldly pleasures, living out his last few years in a small town near Vienna. The obituaries of the enfant terrible of poetry were detailed but rarely strayed from reflecting on his much-anthologised poems of the 1930s, “As I walked out one evening” and “Lullaby.”

Auden has always seemed ripe for quotation. One of Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 campaign ads included the signature line “We must love one another or die” from Auden’s poem “September I, 1939.” Two decades later, Auden’s lyric “Stop all the clocks” became the signature elegy of the AIDS era, and later made a cameo appearance in the 1994 romcom Four Weddings and a Funeral. Faber and Faber immediately cashed in withTell me the truth about love, a pamphlet which sold a reputed 275,000 copies. Auden’s lines are quoted, misquoted, appropriated, parodied, often without any attribution to the poet himself. Our language is peppered with his neologisms, not least the “Age of Anxiety,” defined in the OED as “a catch-phrase of any period characterised by anxiety or danger.”

More here.