In The New York Review of Books, Edward Mendelson writes about a mostly unknown side to W.H. Auden:

W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.

I learned about it mostly by chance, so it may have been far more extensive than I or anyone ever knew. Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in New York. She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.

Someone else recalled that Auden had once been told that a friend needed a medical operation that he couldn’t afford. Auden invited the friend to dinner, never mentioned the operation, but as the friend was leaving said, “I want you to have this,” and handed him a large notebook containing the manuscript of The Age of Anxiety. The University of Texas bought the notebook and the friend had the operation.

From some letters I found in Auden’s papers, I learned that a few years after World War II he had arranged through a European relief agency to pay the college costs for two war orphans chosen by the agency, an arrangement that continued, with a new set of orphans every few years, until his death at sixty-six in 1973.

And on and on. These acts of compassion, Mendelson suggests, were motivated in part by Auden’s sense of his own egotism:

He was disgusted by his early fame because he saw the mixed motives behind his image of public virtue, the gratification he felt in being idolized and admired. He felt degraded when asked to pronounce on political and moral issues about which, he reminded himself, artists had no special insight. Far from imagining that artists were superior to anyone else, he had seen in himself that artists have their own special temptations toward power and cruelty and their own special skills at masking their impulses from themselves.

And Auden moved away from political poetry, Mendelson writes, to avoid making claims of ”moral or personal authority” in his work.

Mendelson goes on to suggest that we need to be more like Auden. There are, he writes, two “sides” to the current “modern intellectual climate”:

On one side are those who, like Auden, sense the furies hidden in themselves, evils they hope never to unleash, but which, they sometimes perceive, add force to their ordinary angers and resentments, especially those angers they prefer to think are righteous. On the other side are those who can say of themselves without irony, “I am a good person,” who perceive great evils only in other, evil people whose motives and actions are entirely different from their own. This view has dangerous consequences when a party or nation, having assured itself of its inherent goodness, assumes its actions are therefore justified, even when, in the eyes of everyone else, they seem murderous and oppressive.

This does not mean that Auden did not write against evil, Mendelson notes, but that he attempted to avoid the overly simplistic dichotomy, to take one example, of evil dictators, on the one hand, and a wholly innocent populace on the other.

It’s a beautiful essay, and it is instructive and challenging to learn about this side of Auden, though I wonder if Mendelson slightly oversimplifies the problems of speaking publicly on evil.

First, and not to detract from but add to Mendelson’s argument here, there is a danger in being too egalitarian in dealing with evil in that it can dilute real differences of magnitude. The selfishness of the dictator, which leads him to slaughter millions of people, is far worse than the self-absorbed activist who tub-thumps to increase his popularity. And always noting the shared motivation in the two acts can blur real differences. (Mendelson notes this when he writes that Auden did not believe that there was “no difference between himself and Hitler”)

Second–which I don’t think contradicts the above, but I could be wrong–I would add that the compassion of those on what Mendelson has somewhat awkwardly labeled the Auden side of the dialectic (Auden must be rolling over in his grave right now) is not so much motivated by the evil they sense within but have never “unleashed.” Rather, it is based on the evil they have unleashed in thousands of small ways and a sincere–but unfortunately always temporary–recognition that these evils are at root, if not in extent, the same as the Hitlers of the world–limited, as they are, by occasion and other things.

Anyway, read the whole thing, if for nothing else than the wonderful Auden anecdotes.