“My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain,” quipped W.H. Auden. Indeed, by the age of 60, Auden’s face looked like the most-read library book in the most popular library; it exhausted any adjectives thrown at it—it was its own adjective. His friend Hannah Arendt said he looked “as if life itself had delineated a kind of face-scape to make manifest the ‘heart’s invisible furies.'”
According to one biographer, Auden suffered from something called Touraine-Solente-Gole syndrome,
in which the skin of the forehead, face, scalp, hands and feet becomes thick and furrowed and peripheral periostitis in the bones reduces the patient’s capacity for activity. There [is] no therapy for the syndrome, which does not affect either life expectancy or mental status, but which account[s] for Auden’s striking appearance of grave, lined melancholy.— “Auden,” Richard Davenport-Hines
Auden probably had never heard of TSG syndrome so he may not have known that his rapid aging was the result of anything other than how he was living his life. It was a life lived in a cloud of cigarette smoke and almost continuous writing. Fueled by amphetamines, which he believed made him more productive, he certainly was productive: four hundred poems (many very long), almost the same number of essays and book reviews, several full-length verse plays, and all written between the mid-1920s and his death in September 1973. At night, to bring that constantly working mind to some static place, he took sleeping pills and drank.
Towards the end, in May 1973, he wrote what may be his last popular, beloved poem, “Thank You, Fog.” He had lived in New York for decades and “Grown used to New York weather” and was “all too familiar with Smog.” Fog is unnamed until the end, the final word of the final line, but her name is knowable: Fog is smog’s “unsullied sister,” and years away from it had allowed the poet to forget “what/You bring to British winters.”
Auden in winter is a poet of few, but precious, loves: company and coziness. Fog brings both as he is kept in, with friends, for a week at Christmas. No birds outside, no outside, just friends doing crosswords and paying no mind to worldly concerns. The outside world, where one “minds one’s p’s and q’s,” only interrupts the proceedings in the form of the “Daily Papers,/vomiting in slip-shod prose/the facts of filth and violence/that we’re too dumb to present:/our earth’s a sorry spot.”
Warm by the fire, warmed by the company of friends, cozy. Aware that the earth’s a sorry spot, but unmoved by this for the moment, as coziness and comfort can sometimes trump it all. It is a cat dozing by a fireplace of a poem, and like a cat, it has claws: Who is the poet thanking? “No summer sun will ever/dismantle the global gloom.” (Ever? Ever.) “Thank you, Fog.”
Thank You, Fog by W.H. Auden
Grown used to New York weather,
all too familiar with Smog,
You, Her unsullied Sister,
I’d quite forgotten and what
You bring to British winters:
now native knowledge returns.
Sworn foe to festination,
daunter of drivers and planes,
volants, of course, will cause You,
but how delighted I am
that You’ve been lured to visit
Wiltshire’s witching countryside
for a whole week at Christmas,
that no one can scurry where
my cosmos is contracted
to an ancient manor-house
and four Selves, joined in friendship,
Jimmy, Tania, Sonia, Me.
Outdoors a shapeless silence,
for even then birds whose blood
is brisk enough to bid them
abide here all the year round,
like the merle and the mavis,
at Your cajoling refrain
their jocund interjections,
no cock considers a scream,
vaguely visible, tree-tops
rustle not but stay there, so
Your damp to definite drops.
Indoors specific spaces,
cosy, accommodate to
reminiscence and reading,
crosswords, affinities, fun:
refected by a sapid
supper and regaled by wine,
we sit in a glad circle,
each unaware of our own
nose but alert to the others,
making the most of it, for
how soon we must re-enter,
when lenient days are done,
the world of the work and money
and minding our p’s and q’s.
No summer sun will ever
dismantle the global gloom
cast by the Daily Papers,
vomiting in slip-shod prose
the facts of filth and violence
that we’re too dumb to present:
our earth’s a sorry spot, but
for this special interim,
so restful yet so festive,
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, Fog
* * * *
From the day the above was first published on this web site, in November 2014, this brief consideration of W.H. Auden in autumn has been one of the most frequently visited essays here.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for April 20 asks us to reflect on the word, “Fog.”
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Is it possible that I saw a movie on Netflix about this man?? This women, or both? I’m sure I did, and I watched it to the end. I wish I could remember the name of it. Oh well, what I remember is the haunting quality of the film, and I read as they spoke.
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I don’t think there’s an Auden documentary on Netflix … or is there? You have sent me hunting. Thanks for that.
I love Auden. His poetry comes up in movies now and again (his complete works amounts to about 400 poems, long and short). One became famous about 20 years ago in the movie “Four Weddings & a Funeral”:
Thank you for reading my writings, SparkyJen!
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I could be way off. There’s just something about his face that looks so familiar to me. Either I’ve connected before, or I was suppose to connect today via your blog. Wow! Puzzling, but I like it.