Every writer is
different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words
down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in
between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Wystan Hugh (WH) Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973) was born into a professional
middle-class family in York, England, and grew up in and near Birmingham. After
high school he went on to study English at Christ Church, Oxford, where he first
started writing poetry, and subsequently spent five years (1930–35) teaching in
English public schools. He then traveled to Iceland and China in order to write
books about his journeys. He moved to the United States in 1939 and became an
American citizen in 1946. From 1941 through 1945 he lectured in American
universities. From about 1958 until the end of his life he wintered in New York
and summered in Kirchstetten, Austria.
was to some extent unashamedly gay at a time when being gay bore much more of a
social stigma. He was a serious scholar of poetry and English literature and
spent an appreciable amount of time in coaching students in the art and craft
of writing. He was a poet and playwright, and also librettist of considerable
scope and skill, collaborating on numerous projects with such famous composers
as Benjamin Britten. As a poet he was a natural, and penned thousands of poems
with what seems like consummate ease – aware of the rules of formal poetry but
without being rigidly bound by them.
us is how he managed to lead a productive life, given his self-confessed often sybaritic
lifestyle. There was a key to how he maintained his output and it came down to
discipline – of a certain sort – and drugs.
considered it a sign of weakness that he had to rely on artificial stimulants
to maintain his workday discipline. Nevertheless that is what he did. He started
his days with Benzedrine, or “bennies” (an amphetamine that at the time was a
legitimate treatment for narcolepsy and lethargy in patient, but which was
later used as an artificial stimulant that was used recreationally). This
enabled him to be alert and active and to get through the work of the day quite
In the evenings
he would consume quantities of alcohol and barbiturates to calm him down so
that he could eventually sleep: he called this whole regime "the chemical
life." The barbiturates helped him to sleep, but just in case he woke in
the night he would have a bottle of vodka by his bedside to swig.
And so each day
wound in with this lurching from extreme consciousness to drugged stupor, in and out, right up to his mid-sixties. Of course, the bennies,
the alcohol and the barbiturates had a tendency to ravage the body. So, Auden's
death from heart failure at age 66 was, to a considerable extent, a result of
his decades of practicing, with the complicity of his doctors, "the
It is a moot
point whether W.H. Auden could have produced such marvelous poems as “Funeral
Blues,” “September 1, 1939,” or “As I Walked Out One Evening.” without
resorting to artificial means. He was an almost matchless technician when it
came to formal poetry, so when he was on his game he was sublime. Could he have
maintained his output in the absence of drugs? How much longer could he have
been productive without them? Who knows? We have to be thankful for what he
managed to produce in his – by modern standards – relatively short life.
Labels: As I Walked Out One Evening, barbiturates, Benjamin Britten, bennies, benzedrine, drugs, funeral blues, Kirchstetten Austria, New York, September 1 1939, WH Auden