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A Few Things Auden Never Wrote

By Edward Mendelson

Like almost every major writer, Auden has often been given credit for remarks he never made and lines he never wrote. This page is an incomplete catalogue of a few of them.

Quotations from Jonah Lehrer's Imagine

A book by Jonah Lehrer, Imagine (2012), purports to quote Auden on his use of drugs. One quotation is about caffeine and nicotine: "I need them quite desperately." The other is about benzedrine: "The drug is a labor-saving device. It turns me into a working machine." Two endnotes in the book refer to Richard Davenport-Hines's Auden and to an essay by Davenport-Hines in The Cambridge Companion to W. H. Auden, edited by Stan Smith. Neither of the two purported quotations appears in either work, and no evidence seems to exist that Auden said or wrote either of them. The second seems to derive from Auden's references (in his gatherings of aphorisms "Squares and Oblongs" and "Writing") to caffeine, benzedrine, and other substances as "laborsaving devices."

"Roast Poet"

In 1958, the Gaberbocchus Press, a small press in London, published the fifth in its "loose-leaf" series of folded broadsides, Roast Poet, by W. H. Auden. It reads in full: "If a poet demanded from the State the right to have a few bourgeois in his stable, people would be very much astonished, but if a bourgeois asked for some roast poet, people would think it quite natural." (The original is broken into five lines as if written as verse; the first four lines end "State", "stable," "astonished," and "poet,".) Beneath the text is the attribution: "(from the Preface to Isherwood's translation of Baudelaire's Intimate Journals; Methuen, 1949.)". This is not, in fact, in Auden's introduction to the Isherwood's translation, nor is it in Isherwood's preface, but is an excerpt from Baudelaire himself (as translated by Isherwood); it may be found in Baudelaire's "Squibs," item XVII.

A blurb for the poet Rod McKuen

In 1976, three years after Auden's death, a collection by the popular folk-singer and poet Rod McKuen, The Sea Around Me . . . The Hills Above, was published in London by Elm Tree Books, an imprint of Hamish Hamilton. A blurb on the front jacket flap (repeated on the rear cover) quoted Auden: "Rod McKuen's poems are letters to the world and I am happy that some of them have come to me and found me out." Auden, who was generous but not prodigal with blurbs, may indeed have written this; the qualifying "some" has an authentic ring. However, when a similar but not identical collection of McKuen's poems,  The Sea Around Me, was published in 1977 by Cheval Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, New York, Auden's blurb, quoted on the front jacket flap, had inexplicably been posthumously rewritten. It now read: "Rod McKuen's poems are letters to the world and I'm happy that many of them came to me and found me out."

Later still, on McKuen's web site, perhaps around early 2002, Auden's blurb had changed again, and now read: "Rod McKuen's poems are love letters to the world and I am happy that many of them came to me and found me out." (A few other versions of this sentence appear in McKuen's writings, perhaps quoted from memory.) In one detail, this later version may be more authentic than even the earliest one, as printed in 1976, because Auden may well have written "love letters to the world" and not "letters to the world" as the 1976 version has it. But Auden almost certainly wrote none of these versions exactly as they appear on McKuen's books and web pages.

We are all on earth to help others . . .

Auden is commonly cited as the author of the sentence that he called "the conceit . . . of the social worker—'We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know'" (Prose, vol. 2, p. 347; cf. variants on pp. 160, 180, and 424). He never claimed credit for it, and was in fact quoting  a well-known English music-hall and radio comedian John Foster Hall (1867-1945), who called himself The Revd. Vivian Foster, the Vicar of Mirth. Details may be found elsewhere on this site.

A quotation about leadership

Once every few hours, someone on Twitter posts a quotation attributed to Auden that seems in fact to have been the work of a clergyman named W. A. Nance: "No person can be a great leader unless he takes genuine joy in the successes of those under him." Auden never said anything of the kind, but anyone who posts this sort of thing will never be convinced of it.

A ballad that begins "All stories have two kinds of characters"

A three-page typescript poem formerly in the possession of Irwin Ehrenpreis at the University of Virginia was circulated among his acquaintances as an unpublished poem by Auden. Professor Ehrenpreis wrote to me on 26 July 1976 that the poem was written by Daniel Albright, and that he, Ehrenpreis, had misunderstood a joke by Daniel Albright about its authorship. The typescript is titled "Ballad"; it begins, "All stories have two kinds of characters"; it concerns someone named Mary Methane. It is noted here in case anyone should encounter a copy described as Auden's and mistakenly believe it to be his. A handwritten note on one photocopy reads "(published in The Anonym Christmas 1975)". This publication is unlisted in library catalogues and may be as mythical as Irwin Ehrenpreis's attribution of the poem to Auden.

December 2007; updated May 2022.

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