W.H. Auden


W. H. Auden was only a few years older than I am now when in my early 20s he seemed to me half as old as time.

W.H. Auden

Delusion thinks that the self is a steady axle, and everyone else spins about in the turmoil of change and its toll on the flesh. W. H. Auden was only a few years older than I am now when in my early 20s he seemed to me half as old as time. His face was so wrinkled; I had never seen anything like it. I had seen weather-beaten faces blown red and scuffed by gales and wars, but I had never seen so many wrinkles. A friend of his from schoolboy days remarked that it seemed to have come on all of a sudden.

It also struck me as rare and quite noble that so English an Englishman should have such a love for New York: not the anthropological curiosity and patronizing romanticism many of his countrymen have for the city, but an outright love for it. He lived here long enough and was often back and forth when not living here. Through friends he came to me, and I knew so little about him that he found my ignorance relaxing. On the few occasions we discussed much, it was never of literature, although he had sharp views on Prayer Book revision. He was prescient in the damage that changes to the texts would do to the English church of his allegiance. It had gone so far that he was muttering about becoming Russian Orthodox. Romanism would be too much of a surrender. He particularly objected to changing the Holy Ghost to Holy Spirit because, he fragilely argued, whiskey is a spirit, too.

Of whiskey he had come to know quantities, and on one occasion, I had to help him into a taxi when he was on the verge of passing out. I had not known anyone that far gone, and I recall the straining dignity with which he conducted himself in an awkward condition. Only later did I learn of his multiple sadnesses and moral ambiguities, but not once in our company did his demons make him say or do anything beneath the holiness that he deeply wanted. He was a studied actor and enjoyed the part he paved for himself. I have never been able to play "background music" since the time he came in carpet slippers to a black-tie sherry party I gave for him and bellowed over my Victrola: "Do you want to listen to me or to that?"

Unlike many actors on the shaky stage of culture in the 1960s, he knew that no drama matches the eternal drama of Redemption. He wrote:

Just as we were all, potentially, in Adam when he fell, so we were all, potentially, in Jerusalem on that first Good Friday before there was an Easter, a Pentecost, a Christian, or a Church. . . . Few are important enough to imagine being Pilate or good enough churchmen to suppose we might have been of the Sanhedrin. In my most optimistic mood I see myself as a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria visiting an intellectual friend. We are walking along, engaged in philosophical argument. Our path takes us past the base of Golgotha. Looking up, we see an all too familiar sight – three crosses surrounded by a jeering crowd. Frowning with prim distaste, I say, 'It's disgusting the way the mob enjoy such things. Why can't the authorities execute criminals humanely and in private by giving them hemlock to drink, as they did with Socrates?' Then, averting my eyes from the disagreeable spectacle, I resume our fascinating discussion about the nature of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.

I take those lines as an indictment of myself, for all the while I was prodding Auden for something shining to say about the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, that wrinkled face was engraved with intimations of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, and I in my young clumsiness with deep things just kept pouring him some lesser spirit on ice. He had lived long enough in New York to require ice with his whiskey.

Auden admired Kierkegaard for making Christianity seem bohemian. He was looking in a mirror. His Oxford college finally agreed to place a small portrait of him in its great hall, but in the most bohemian corner next to the kitchen. Much of him still is in New York, and when the smoke was twirling so cruelly above the city in the days after September 11, 2001, there were those who remembered verses some veiled prophet inspired him to write in 1939: "The unmentionable odour of death Offends the September night."



Rev. George W. Rutler. "W. H. Auden." Cloud of Witnesses - Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive (New York: Scepter Publishers Inc., 2010): 17-19.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Scepter Publishers Inc.

This article appeared first as one of the "Cloud of Witnesses" columns Father Rutler wrote for Crisis. It is included in his book, Cloud of Witnesses - Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive.


Father Rutler received priestly ordination in 1981. Born in 1945 and reared in the Episcopal tradition, Father Rutler was an Episcopal priest for nine years. He was received into the Catholic Church in 1979 and was sent to the North American College in Rome for seminary studies. Father Rutler graduated from Dartmouth, where he was a Rufus Choate Scholar, and took advanced degrees at the Johns Hopkins University and the General Theological Seminary. He holds several degrees from the Gregorian and Angelicum Universities in Rome, including the Pontifical Doctorate in Sacred Theology, and studied at the Institut Catholique in Paris. In England, in 1988, the University of Oxford awarded him the degree Master of Studies. From 1987 to 1989 he was regular preacher to the students, faculty, and townspeople of Oxford. Cardinal Egan appointed him Pastor of the Church of Our Saviour, effective September 17, 2001.

Since 1988 his weekly television program has been broadcast worldwide on EWTN. Father Rutler has published 17 books, including: Cloud of Witnesses - Dead People I Knew When They Were Alive, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, A Crisis of Saints: Essays on People and Principles, Brightest and Best, Saint John Vianney: The Cure D'Ars Today, Crisis in Culture, and Adam Danced: The Cross and the Seven Deadly Sins.

Copyright © 2010 Father George William Rutler

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