WE GOT OFF THE SUBWAY in the East Village and walked to St. Mark’s Place. An hour and a half early, we strolled the surrounding blocks. I wore my only suit, a white shirt, and a tie, Sharon one of her best dresses. Grad students at the University of Denver, we had been married for a year and a half.
I should have been excited, but now, the dread that had built up for weeks rose like bile in the back of my throat. What if I make a fool of myself? I agonized. What if he’s so disappointed he asks us to leave after forty-five minutes?
It was March 1969. I was twenty-five, Sharon the same age. I’d met several famous people in my life, but none of whom I was in such awe. For years, I’d considered W. H. Auden the greatest living poet. I knew hundreds of lines of his verses by heart. Poems such as “September 1, 1939” and “The Shield of Achilles” spoke to me of some transcendent understanding of human fate. Their sheer range was dazzling, from the plain and oracular–
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
to the lyrical and erudite–
Thetis of the shining breasts
Cried out in dismay
At what the god had wrought
To please her son, the strong
Iron-hearted man-slaying Achilles
Who would not live long.
The previous year, Vanguard Press had published my first book, The Mountain of My Fear, an account of the first ascent of the West Face of Mt. Huntington in Alaska, which four of us had pulled off in the summer of 1965. Only hours after we reached the summit, on the thirty-second day of the expedition, a rappel anchor had failed, and Ed Bernd had fallen 4,000 feet to his death.
My title was taken from “Two Climbs,” a love sonnet of Auden’s written in the 1930s. The crucial lines: “Upon the mountains of my fear I climb: / Above, a breakneck scorching rock; no caves, / No col, no water.” In the Vanguard offices the previous spring, my editors had urged me to write little messages in copies of my book to send to dignitaries who we presumed had some interest in mountaineering, in hopes of eliciting blurbs: Bobby Kennedy (who had been dragged up Mt. Kennedy in the Yukon by Jim Whittaker and others), Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (who had recently climbed the Matterhorn), and the like.
Only Auden responded. His brief note left me in a state of disbelief short-circuited by elation.
Dear Mr. Roberts:
I have seldom, if ever, felt so honored as I do since receiving The Mountain of My Fear with your inscription.
I have read a good deal of mountain-climbing literature ever since, as a boy, I was enthralled by Whymper’s account of the ascent of the Matterhorn, and I have no hesitation in saying that your book is one of the finest of its genre I have ever come across.
I wrote back an effusive thank-you letter, and to my surprise, Auden wrote again. After a few exchanges, he added, “Do you ever get to New York in the winter? If you do, I hope we can arrange to meet.”
I knew that over the years Auden had become disenchanted with “September 1, 1939,” and he had omitted it from his collected poems. Yet he had never explained why that stirring affirmation on the threshold of World War II–some had called it the greatest poem of the twentieth century–had fallen into his disfavor. In one letter I asked why.
He wrote back, “How good or bad the poem is I don’t know and don’t care. What I do know, is that I should not have written it. In general I am always worried when I find I can immediately wow an audience with a poem; it makes me feel as if I were a Hitler.”
A few days before Sharon and I were due to arrive in New York, I sent a postcard to tell Auden the dates of our visit to the city. He answered, “Since I assume your ‘our’ is not regal, I shall expect both of you for lunch at 12:30 on Tuesday, March 25th.”
At last, the appointed hour arrived. Sharon and I had expected a famous poet to live in a luxury penthouse, but 77 St. Mark’s Place looked as dingy as the adjoining brownstones. Inside the door, my dread mounted with my exhilaration as I searched for the apartment buzzer. One card read “INCOME TAX RETURNS.” Near it, a scrap of paper had been wedged into the name-slot. Smudged letters in blue pencil read simply “AUDEN.” I pushed the buzzer.
He greeted us from the second-floor landing. Climbing the stairs, I instantly recognized the remarkable face, which I had seen in so many photos–lined, furrowed, shopworn yet somehow exuberant. Many had tried to describe that visage, but Auden’s own caricature was the most apt: “like a wedding cake left out in the rain.” As he ushered us into his apartment, Sharon and I felt boorishly overdressed. Auden had thrown on a wrinkled blue tie and a threadbare jacket, but his shirt was spotted with food stains. In lieu of shoes, he wore carpet slippers.
The high-ceilinged garret was dimly lit and strewn with clutter: books and old 78 rpm records piled on every surface, including the floor. One nook had been cleared for guests, where a low coffee table faced a pair of couches and a pair of end-chairs. As soon as we sat down, Auden poured dry vermouth into ill-washed juice glasses, which he refilled as soon as they got half-empty. Sharon and I had never before drunk vermouth, and mistaking it for an innocent wine, we were soon alarmingly smashed. But the drink allowed me to relax.
A certain awkwardness nonetheless prevailed. Auden kept jumping up to go into the kitchen to fix our lunch, leaving Sharon and me to stare at each other and murmur inanities. Sharon later said she got so drunk so fast that she was afraid she’d spent the whole three hours with Auden without uttering a word.
After half an hour, he asked us to adjourn to the dining room. By now, it came as no surprise that the table was covered with bread crumbs. Auden laid bowls of soup in front of us, and then apologized for taking his own soup in the kitchen so he could finish cooking. The awkwardness intensified. “It’s quite good, isn’t it?” one of us ventured after a spoonful of Campbell’s-variety vegetable broth.
The meal Auden served consisted of eggs fried sunny-side-up, Polish sausage, and canned baby peas. “What a strange lunch!” I wrote later in a note to myself–but of course Auden had simply laid out a traditional English midday repast. All through the lunch he told stories, talking with his mouth full, while he poured Italian red wine into yet more unwashed juice glasses. At one point he gestured at Sharon and me and said, “That’s right where Tom and Valerie used to sit, holding hands throughout lunch.” It took me a moment to realize that he was referring to the great poet T. S. Eliot and his second wife.
Auden cleared the dishes, and we moved back to the living room, where we took our assigned seats around the coffee table. In the forty-eight years that have passed since that encounter, I have never again witnessed such a dazzling flow of wit and erudition and sheer verbal pyrotechnics. Auden laughed at his own jokes, but was as attentive to my earnest remarks as he was happy to call upon his limitless storehouse of apercus. Though some of the stories he told us had appeared in others’ memoirs of chats with Auden, I never had the sense that he was delivering a performance. Every twist of conversation provoked a new anecdote.
Throughout the early afternoon, Auden drank steadily, almost compulsively. And by Sharon’s reckoning, he smoked a pack and a half of cigarettes during the time we spent together. Yet nothing impaired the flow of speech, not a single slurred word or “where-was-I?” lapse. I knew that Auden detested talking about his own poetry, but it was hard to restrain myself, for that was what I most longed to ask him about. Instead, we got to talking about Iceland, where Auden had spent the summer of 1936, and which he had praised as possessing “the most magical light of anywhere on earth.” Then to my surprise, he asked me about The Mountain of My Fear. How was the book selling? What was I working on next? Elaborating on his own interest in mountaineering, he mentioned that his brother John had been a member of a Himalayan expedition with Shipton and Tilman in the 1930s, though he couldn’t remember exactly where.
I was ignorant then of that foray into the uncharted Karakoram north and west of K2, though soon enough I would read Shipton’s rhapsodic account of the great reconnaissance in Blank on the Map. The team’s geologist John Auden played a vital role, nursing the ailing Tilman back to health during the early stages of an expedition that Shipton recalled as “an experience of real freedom rounded off with the peace and content of an arduous job of work completed and enjoyed.”
Our conversation veered to the aftermath of Huntington, when I faced the duty of visiting Ed Bernd’s parents in Philadelphia to try to explain to them how and why their son had died. My account prompted Auden to mention what he called the two hardest tasks he’d ever undertaken. One was to tape-record for the BBC an obituary of T. S. Eliot in December 1964, just weeks before his lifelong friend died of emphysema. The other had come shortly after the end of World War II. While collecting survey information for the US government, Auden was stationed at an empty house in Germany. The homeowners, ardent Nazis, had fled, leaving their two children in the care of their grandparents. During the parents’ absence, the grandparents had poisoned themselves and the children. It fell to Auden to deliver the news to the parents upon their return.
Throughout our tete-a-tete, I was nursing a secret agenda, waiting for the right moment to spring it on the poet. Starting in 1963, I’d gone on Alaskan expeditions for six straight summers. During the first five, on unclimbed routes and peaks in the Alaska Range, I’d done battle with five-day storms, unpredictable avalanches, and barrages of falling rock. But in August 1968, with five teammates, including Sharon, I had ventured into the western Brooks Range. There, during an idyllic month of blueberry-picking and tundra-lounging, three of us had made the first ascent of Mt. Igikpak, the highest summit for 285 miles in any direction. After the Kichatna Spires and the Revelation Mountains, the Brooks Range seemed so benign, so gentle, so lovely, that it seduced me into undervaluing its challenges. For 1969, only five months hence, I’d organized another expedition, to the Arrigetch, thirty miles east of Igikpak, where all the finest peaks remained unattempted.
My secret agenda was to invite Auden to join us in the Arrigetch. I fantasized that my comrades and I would go off each day to climb, while Auden puttered around base camp. Some days I would reserve for strolls with the poet across the tundra or into side valleys. If he thought Icelandic light was magical, wait till he basked in the 24-hour days of the Brooks Range. I imagined endless evenings in front of willow-twig camp res as we discussed poetry and life.
About two hours into our visit, I popped the invitation. Auden looked startled. At once he thanked me, but protested that Alaska was out of the question.
As we chatted on, I struggled to suppress my disappointment, while Auden voiced his skepticism about modern science: “There are certain ideas I refuse to accept. Like the notion that a solid object”–he banged his fist on the coffee table for emphasis–“is a collection of vibrating molecules that are partly somewhere else.” Or that seasonal change was due solely to the tilt of the earth’s axis as it wheeled around the sun. “Perhaps the earth simply wants to change seasons,” he offered.
I told Auden I thought he would have made a good novelist. He vehemently disagreed. “There have been very few good poet-novelists,” he pronounced. “Chiefly D. H. Lawrence.”
“What about Thomas Hardy?” I interjected, determined to keep up my end of the literary conversation.
Auden smiled. “Hardy was a good influence on me, because it was reassuring to see how much bad poetry he wrote.” At once he quoted a quatrain to illustrate. (I wish I could retrieve it now.)
There was no way I could keep up with Auden, even as my vermouth-and-wine miasma wore off. But when would I ever again be in the presence of such genius?
Sharon and I must have overstayed our welcome, for abruptly our host announced that he had to go out “to buy stamps.” Sheepishly we put on our coats, and Auden escorted us down the staircase.
On the corner of St. Mark’s and Third, Auden pointed us to the nearest subway stop. I said, “Thank you so much for the lunch,” but he seemed impatient to get away. We shook hands, and then he turned and strode off up Third. He was still wearing his carpet slippers.
AS HEADY as our long seance with the poet had been, I came away from it with a vague dismay that had clouded my spirit during the last hour, after Auden had turned down my invitation to the Brooks Range. In some notes I jotted down about a week later, as I tried and failed to recapture the brilliance of Auden’s conversation, I wrote, “I had a sense of faint disappointment when it was all over, which I find hard to pin down. Was it that I felt I hadn’t learned anything new about Auden? That I hadn’t made any real impression on him, that I was one of a dozen encounters for him each week? That he may even have been disappointed in me?”
What was I thinking? According to his biographer, Humphrey Carpenter, by 1969 Auden’s daily intake of alcohol included at least “several strong vodka martinis before dinner” and more than a bottle of wine after. And “he was still a very heavy smoker, and more than once nearly set fire to himself in bed.” For years, Auden had awakened in the middle of the night, and, unable to get back to sleep, had dosed himself with more vodka. In the mornings, to rouse himself for work, he popped uppers such as benzedrine.
By any standard, Auden was in terrible physical shape by the time we met. On the landing as he greeted us, he had seemed out of breath. On the sidewalk afterward, he wheezed as he walked with us down the block. The wonder was that all the booze and cigarettes seemed to take no toll on his creative output, for he would continue to write memorable poems and mordant essays during the remaining years of his life.
Had Auden joined us in the Arrigetch, our team would have faced a medical crisis on the first or second day. That August a Super Cub landed the five of us on a gravel bar on the Alatna River, seven miles from the base camp we planned at the junction of Arrigetch Creek and a nameless side valley. It took us two hard days (four of us carrying seventy-pound packs) to reach that camp, as we bashed our way through dense alder thickets and waded the bone-chilling torrent of Arrigetch Creek. The whole month of August turned out to be unseasonably cold, with five snowstorms and temps often in the 30s. We made five first ascents, but Sharon’s rambles were confined to hikes up the valleys.
If by some miracle Auden had made it to base camp, he would have been utterly miserable there. My three fellow climbers were guys in their early twenties, not exactly litterateurs. Indeed, the ambiance of camp inclined closer to frat-boy hijinks than to an artists’ salon. What they would have made of Auden, or he of them, seems unimaginable today. And, as Sharon pointed out, without a drop of vermouth on hand (let alone vodka martinis), Auden would have been decidedly out of sorts. During our month in the Arctic, we quaffed not a single ounce of alcohol.
All this seems far clearer after decades of retrospect than it did in 1969. In my first letter to Auden after our New York luncheon, I had the gall to voice the disappointment that had nagged at me toward the end of our meeting. The grievance I clung to came down to the petulant complaint, Auden didn’t take my invitation seriously. He didn’t take me seriously.
Auden replied: “I am sorry you were disappointed at our meeting (I wasn’t). I was, actually, enormously flattered by your invitation to join you on your Brooks Range Expedition. If I seemed not to take it seriously, it was because, for me, it was not a serious possibility a) because I am 62 and b) because I have to be in Europe in the summer and in New York in the winter.”
That gracious rejoinder must have straightened my rudder, for I seem to have fired back an apology as abject as my first salvo had been impudent. In July Auden wrote: “Of course we’re going to be friends. The truth is we are both rather shy, a trait of which, on the whole, especially in these days, I approve.”
AUDEN MAY HAVE BEEN, as he claimed in his first note to me, a lifelong devotee of mountaineering literature, but his attitude toward climbers, even toward mountains themselves, was a distinctly ambivalent one. Had I paid more attention in 1969, I might have realized as much–and learned something valuable from what he wrote.
Probably the most serious outdoor adventure of Auden’s life came during that summer of 1936 in Iceland, when he and his fellow poet Louis MacNeice tagged along on an eight-day circuit by pony around the Langjokull icefield, organized by a schoolmaster friend who brought along four eager students. In Letters from Iceland, one of the wackiest travel books ever written, MacNeice narrates the journey in a campy, mock-heroic epistle “Hetty to Nancy,” in which he turns the boys into schoolgirls and Auden and himself into fuss-budget maidens who are out of their element camping in the wilderness.
The same year, Auden collaborated with Christopher Isherwood on a play they called The Ascent of F6. Every bit as outre and hermetic as Letters from Iceland, F6 is a pastiche satirizing the British attempts on Everest, the fascism nascent in Europe, and the cult of heroic manliness in general. The principal character, Michael Ransom, is a famous mountaineer modeled on Lawrence of Arabia and George Leigh Mallory. (As a schoolboy, Auden had attended one of Mallory’s lectures on Everest.)
Less farcically, Auden addresses climbing in “Mountains,” one of a set of seven “Bucolics” written in 1952-53. Here the ambivalence becomes manifest:
…Those unsmiling parties,
Clumping off at dawn in the gear of their mystery
For points up, are a bit alarming;
They have the balance, nerve,
And habit of the Spiritual, but what God
Does their Order serve?
Auden’s critique of climbing–of wilderness adventure in general–would fully resonate with me only some fifteen years after we met. In my late thirties, as my own climbing tailed off, I began to write in earnest about exploration, and I realized that in my “hard” years I had lavished an unexamined romanticism on the deeds of rope and ice axe. My own nagging doubts–What good does mountaineering do anyone else? What sort of egomania lies beneath the passion to be first to plunge into terra incognita?–matured into a healthy skepticism. Indeed, Auden had been saying as much all along: What god does our order serve?
IN MY TWENTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD VANITY, I had taken Auden’s dismissal of my invitation to the Brooks Range as a personal rejection. But I needed only a couple of months to regain my equilibrium and realize how kind to me the great poet had been. Even before we met, he asked my permission to include an excerpt from The Mountain of My Fear in a “commonplace book” he was compiling–an anthology of quotations that had had special meaning for him across the years. The book appeared in 1970 as A Certain World, where the passage was paired with an account by Coleridge of an epic in the Lake District, under the twin rubrics of “Climber, An Amateur” and “Climber, A Professional.” The Coleridge excerpt recounts an ill-advised solo descent of Broad-crag, during which the poet contemplated a nearly twelve-foot drop to a ledge “so exceedingly narrow…that…I must of necessity have fallen backwards & of course killed myself.” My own passage was a lyrical account of our reaching the summit at 3:30 a.m: “Nothing stirred, only we lived; even the wind had forgotten us.”
When he learned that I was writing a second mountaineering book (Deborah: A Wilderness Narrative), Auden insisted on reviewing it for The New York Times. Deborah is about the collapse of an idealized friendship–mine with Don Jensen–during a nightmarish forty-two-day failure on one of Alaska’s most daunting mountains. But what Auden found in the book were the traces of love between comrades, a fragile intimacy that had deep personal meaning for him, recurring in his poems with a haunting sense of loss. In “First Things First,” for instance, Auden evokes waking alone on a stormy winter night, as unbidden memory “reconstructed a day of peculiar silence” that
…had me walking
On a headland of lava beside you, the occasion as ageless
As the stare of any rose, your presence exactly
So once, so valuable, so there, so now.
Auden ended the review, “As [Roberts] gratefully acknowledges, there were many good moments of warmth, joy and brotherhood. The difficulty for a writer about such moments is that it seems to be a law of language that happiness, like goodness, is almost impossible to describe, while conflict, like evil, is all too easy to depict.”
What, after all, had I hoped to achieve by inviting Auden to the Brooks Range? Why wasn’t chatting about life and poetry in his New York garret as satisfying as the promise embedded in my fantasy of a colloquy around an Arctic campfire?
During those grad-school years, I was struggling with an existential dilemma. Since childhood I had been a dyed-in-the-wool atheist, thanks in part to my Unitarian mother and astronomer father. Auden himself had been an agnostic through his blazing twenties and early thirties, only to undergo a sudden and irreversible conversion to the Church of England around 1939.
One day during the winter in Sharon’s and my own garret in Denver, I had a lightning insight. My three favorite living writers were Auden, C. S. Lewis, and Graham Greene. The first two were staunch Anglicans, the last a confirmed Catholic. Clearly those three men were far smarter than I was. What did they know that I had never learned?
Through the rest of 1969, I kept up my correspondence with Auden, and in December we met again in his New York apartment, this time without Sharon. Instead of lunch, Auden served coffee, followed by martinis. I came to that second meeting with a very different agenda from the Brooks Range invitation. I wanted Auden not merely to be my friend, but to serve as my spiritual guide. (That inchoate longing, I later realized, had lain beneath my daydream of our base camp seance on Arrigetch Creek.) Toward the end of our second get-together, I summoned up the nerve to unload my dilemma on the chain-smoking poet sitting opposite me at the coffee table. Haltingly, I trotted out my confusion. My rational atheism had come to seem smug and thin. The mystic world of belief and redemption gleamed faint but tantalizing on the horizon.
Auden seemed interested. “The trouble is,” I said, “I just can’t make the leap of faith.” What had I hoped for? That he would murmur, Come, my son, let me show you the way? Instead, Auden abruptly laughed. “I’m afraid I can’t help you with that!” he said. I laughed myself, but I was stunned by his rebuke–and in the next instant, by my own naivete. With that exchange, the gleam on the horizon flickered out for good. Almost five decades later, I remain the intransigent atheist I prided myself on being at age eight.
I HAD THOUGHT AUDEN felt comfortably and permanently installed at 77 St. Mark’s Place. After all, in “On the Circuit,” a funny poem about traveling around the US giving poetry readings, he wrote, “Spirit is willing to repeat / Without a qualm the same old talk, / But Flesh is homesick for our snug / Apartment in New York.” Little did I know that Auden had grown bitterly tired of his winter menage. In a letter to his longtime companion, Chester Kallman, he complained, “New York is hell.”
In 1972 Auden left New York City for good, returning to England after thirty-three years, having departed his native country with Isherwood in 1939. In America, Auden reinvented his poetic style, repudiating the engage prophetic stance that had won him so many admirers back home, and eventually disowning such works as “September 1, 1939”–the poem, he became convinced, that “I should not have written.” Ensconced now in borrowed rooms at Oxford, he was not happy. Only the months he spent in his summer home in Kirchstetten, Aus- tria, guaranteed him solace and joy.
On September 28, 1973, Auden gave a poetry reading in Vienna, then, declining a dinner in his honor, returned to his hotel. The next morning Kallman found him “turning icy-blue on a hotel bed,” as he wrote in a rather banal poem. The official cause of death was a heart attack. Auden was sixty-six.
IN THE LETTERS he sent me after our second meeting, Auden sometimes enclosed the most recent poem he had written, weeks before its publication. In an age before Xerox machines, he typed out each word on the piece of stationery he sent me.
I learned about Auden’s death in The New York Times. Despite all the indications of his poor health, the news came as a shock. Somehow I had imagined that he and I would meet occasionally over vodka martinis into the indefinite future. Thirty years old when Auden died, I had still never been to Europe, but if I had known that I would never get another chance, I would have flown to Vienna, rented a car, and driven to Kirchstetten to spend an afternoon with him in the domicile whose glories he had sung in the collection About the House. In “Thanksgiving for a Habitat,” for instance, he had written:
…what I dared not hope or fight for
is, in my fifties, mine, a toft-and-croft
where I needn’t, ever, be at home to
those I am not at home with, not a cradle,
a magic Eden without clocks,
and not a windowless grave, but a place
I may go both in and out of.
After his death, Auden’s literary executor, Edward Mendelson, published Auden’s plea that all the correspondents he had written to during his prolific life destroy his letters “when they’re done with them.” Forty-four years later, I doubt that very many of the thousands of epistles Auden wrote to his friends have been put to the torch.
I still have mine.
[Letters from W. H. Auden are quoted with the permission of his Estate.–Ed.]