Kevin Saving on
'Gare du Midi'
by WH Auden
A nondescript express in from the south,
Crowds round the ticket barrier, a face
To welcome which the mayor has not contrived
Bugles or braid: something about the mouth
Distracts the stray look with alarm and pity.
Snow is falling. Clutching a little case,
He walks out briskly to infect a city
Whose terrible future may just have arrived.
Christened 'Wystan' (after a ninth century Saint) by his affectionate, upper-middle-class parents, Auden's childhood, public-schooling and progression to Christ Church, Oxford were all unexceptional enough. It was during his time at university that he would make the contacts, flaunt the politics, generally strike the pose that would so distinguish him from his contemporaries.
'Coming down' with a poor, Third Class degree (or, 'a poet's Third'), Auden would decamp to the louche counter-kultur of Weimar Germany where he could more easily indulge his homosexual inclinations in pick-up bars like 'The Cosy Corner' in Berlin.
Embarking (upon his return for financial reasons) on a less than whole-hearted career in teaching, he managed to attract the attention of T.S. Eliot at Fabers and placed his first book, Poems, with them in 1930. Thereafter, Auden's prolific output of poetry, verse-plays (co-authored with his sometime lover, long-term friend, Christopher Isherwood) and travel books would establish him as a leading voice of the Left in Nineteen Thirties Britain - alongside his 'MacSpauday' 'Gang' of Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender and Cecil Day Lewis. In 1935, a marriage of convenience to Erika Mann (daughter of the novelist, Thomas), which allowed her to sidestep Nazi persecution, was closely followed by employment with the GPO film unit - his most celebrated collaboration, Night Mail, featured a score by another friend, Benjamin Britten.
Auden's two, most practical, attempts to advance the cause of anti-fascism appear, on closer examination, to have been shambolic at best. Volunteering his services to the Republicans as an ambulance driver during the Spanish Civil War, the poet - whose vehicle-handling skills are reported to have been atrocious - ended up driving nothing more dangerous than a mule (which promptly kicked him) miles behind the front-line. His second venture, chronicling the Sino-Japanese conflict in company with Isherwood, resulted in the joint-production Journey to a War. Although this time the two writers did manage to briefly inspect the front - such as it was - the most perilous of their pursuits probably involved sampling their hosts' eccentric cuisine.
After their homecoming from China in 1938 the two intrepid and indefatigable travellers (with Isherwood's latest boyfriend in tow) were off to Belgium for the festive season. Here they joined up with Gerald Hamilton (the prototype of 'Mr Norris' in Isherwood's Mr Norris Changes Trains) whom both had known in Berlin. During this fortnight in Brussels (December 1938) Auden wrote a stream of about a dozen poems, including the famous 'Musee des Beaux Arts' and his 'Gare du Medi', reproduced above.
Something of this poem's sinister tone might be explained by the coincidence that Auden had just finished reading Graham Greene's novel, Brighton Rock. He was also, of course, much exercised by the prospect of germ warfare and the immanence of a second world war. Auden had, since that July, been experimenting with Benzedrine, an amphetamine (and at that time a non-prescription drug) at breakfast, which he counter-acted with Seconal at night. This self-medication would continue until the former drug's reclassification in the Nineteen Sixties.
'Gare du Midi' (or 'South Terminus') retains a curious relevance and, with the advent of 'Dirty Bombs' (nuclear devices small enough to be contained in a suitcase) may even be considered prescient. It was first published in the spring, 1939 edition of New Writing and was included in Auden's February, 1940 collection Another Time (the first of his books to be debuted in the United States) under the auspices of Random House.
Together with the two poems mentioned previously, this volume also incorporates other verse written in the late Thirties including 'Tell me the truth about love', 'Stop all the clocks', 'Miss Gee', 'Lullaby' (Lay your sleeping head, my love...), 'Roman Wall Blues', 'Law like Love', 'Epitaph on a Tyrant', 'The Unknown Citizen', 'Spain', 'In Memory of W.B.Yeats' and 'September 1, 1939'. The quality of this work makes Another Time easily its author's best, most sustained collection (though it received, for the most part, a frosty reception in Britain).
The reasons behind this lack of critical acclaim are not hard to fathom: Auden and Isherwood, turning their backs on their homeland, had taken passage for New York on board the liner, 'SS Champlain', which left Southampton on 18th January, 1939. This flight from a country which was soon to declare war upon a totalitarian regime - the likes of which Auden had for so long, and which such eloquence, opposed - was never, quite, forgiven him. Questions were even asked at the time in Parliament.
WH Auden would find love in America with a much younger Brooklyn Jew, Chester Kallman (to whom Another Time would be dedicated). He would, eventually, apply for American citizenship and return to Germany (after V.E. Day) as an Honorary Major with the US Strategic Bombing Survey. He would die of a heart attack, after one of his poetry readings, alone, in his Viennese hotel room, at the age of sixty six.
Auden, W., WH Auden, A Selection by the Author, Penguin (1958)
Bennett, A., Poetry in Motion, BBC (1990)
Davenport-Hines, R., Auden, Heinemann (1996)
Fuller,J., WH Auden: A Commentary, Faber (1998)
Osbourne, C., WH Auden, The Life of a Poet, Michael O'Mara Books (1979)
Kevin Saving © 2008