Wystan Hugh Auden is one of the best-known Anglo-American poets of the 20th century. His early influences were Blake, Hardy, Manley Hopkins, Frost, and Dickinson. But, as is the case with geniuses, he formed his own style soon enough.
In addition to poetry in practically every form and style, he was also a noted playwright, librettist, editor, and essayist and managed to cover almost every theme or subject that he came upon.
Among literary circles, it is also widely-accepted that much of contemporary Western poetry owes a great deal to Auden for bringing the musicality and rhythms of everyday conversation into the art of poetry.
In present-day culture, Auden is most well-known for the poem, ‘Funeral Blues‘ (full text here), which was recited by John Hannah in the 1990s movie, ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral‘. This was originally a cabaret song, set to music by friend and composer, Benjamin Britten, and performed by the singer, Hedli Anderson, in a play that Auden and another writer and friend, Christopher Isherwood,had co-written — ‘The Ascent of F6‘. There aren’t any original recordings of it in the public domain, it seems. But, Welsh mezzo-soprano, Della Jones, who is known for her renditions of Britten’s works, does have a recording of this song. It is safe to say that Scotsman, John Hannah, has eclipsed her as the voice for this song/poem.
Auden is also well-known for his eulogy for the great Irish poet, W B Yeats, ‘In Memory of W B Yeats‘, which is more haunting than the latter poem, particularly with his incantatory reading. It is also popular as a reading at funerals.
There were the famous film + music + poetry collaborations between Auden and music composer, Benjamin Britten, before they fell out with each other. For example, ‘Night Mail‘, from the now-classic 1930s film documentary of the same name. It inspired many other such uses of poems set to music in ads and films for a while. So terrific.
Fans also enjoy his many love poems. Some of these were written as cabaret songs, like the aforementioned ‘Funeral Blues‘ (full text here), and set to music by, again, Benjamin Britten. After the renewed interest in Auden due to ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral‘, ten of Auden’s love poems were re-printed as a collection called ‘Tell Me the Truth About Love: Ten Poems‘, along with an audio version by John Hannah. The collected poems vary in mood, emotion and style to cover various aspects of love. Also, they include some of the cabaret songs, of which this song-poem is one. First written / published in April 1936, it is about the anxiety of a love affair being found out. It is also a satirical observation of human nature. And, though it doesn’t appear to have been set to music originally by Britten, there is a popular breathy musical rendition by Carla Bruni, former first lady of France, model and singer.
So let us now turn to the specifics. Auden starts with a truism about secrets and how they must always come out. With words like “delicious”, “ripe”, “intimate”, and “desire” in the first three lines, he gives us an immediate sense of how we all have a hunger and a passion for the knowledge of secrets. There’s also the insight that secrets are never as much fun as when they are shared between friends — “over the tea-cups” and “in the square”. As if, perhaps, the hunger and passion are only sated through the act of revealing a secret, not simply the keeping or learning of one. And he throws two clichés into that fourth line with “still waters run deep” and “there’s never smoke without fire”. These are to point out that the secret could be something rather ordinary — something expected, almost, like the certain promise of those clichés. They also keep an informal conversational tone going, as I’d mentioned earlier.
What I like is how he’s given us both a sense of time and occasion for this outing of secrets — only when the secret is “ripe” and something to be shared between friends who are intimate. This tells us that the secret had probably been hidden and forming for some time and that it is so particular that you would not share it with just anyone. So, while he does not explicitly say that it is about a love affair, he infers that it is a matter of the heart with some clever phrasing. Don’t you think? With just a few everyday words and even clichés, he packs in quite a bit in this first verse — not an easy thing to do as many poets know.
Both the second and third verses use words in a rising-falling rhythmic manner, which is accentuated by repetition and alliteration. This is, most likely, where Auden intended for the cabaret-style belting out to occur. It is also a sort of listicle for the many everyday instances that might harbor and then give away all kinds of secrets. Auden’s point is that everything around us has an untold story beyond its surface impression. And every little thing could give away a secret, whether we wish it to or not. Notice, also, how his listed examples go in descending order of magnitude — he starts with a mysterious corpse in a reservoir, and ends with the simple handshake and involuntary cough. And how they include the imaginary as well — e.g. the “ghost on the links.” All of which is to say that, not only are there hidden stories behind both the real and imaginary things that our eyes observe, but that our minds are just as prone to seek out clues where there might be none.
His last line, “There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.” is interesting. The implication is that people always look for the scandalous, hidden, and private aspects of others. Which is why, of course, the secret always comes out in the end. This kind of pathological curiosity is part of human nature, of who we are — whether we’re rubbernecking a highway disaster or getting sucked into the celebrity scandal du jour. In fact, one of the signs of clinical depression is when a person loses such curiosity or interest in other human beings.
So, in the end, this is not exactly a jolly poem. But then, we don’t enjoy Auden for that as much as for giving us technical virtuosity, sharp insights, and accessibility. With this poem, we get all of that. It may not be saying something new. Very few poems do that. But, it’s how he says it that matters most.
This too, then, is one of the truths about our strongest emotions: however much we may choose to keep them hidden or unspoken, for whatever personal reasons, they will give themselves away through even small gestures or looks — the secret will, at last, get out.
At Last the Secret Is Out
At last the secret is out, as it always must come in the end,
The delicious story is ripe to tell to the intimate friend;
Over the tea-cups and in the square the tongue has its desire;
Still waters run deep, my dear, there’s never smoke without fire.
Behind the corpse in the reservoir, behind the ghost on the links,
Behind the lady who dances and the man who madly drinks,
Under the look of fatigue, the attack of migraine and the sigh
There is always another story, there is more than meets the eye.
For the clear voice suddenly singing, high up in the convent wall,
The scent of the elder bushes, the sporting prints in the hall,
The croquet matches in summer, the handshake, the cough, the kiss,
There is always a wicked secret, a private reason for this.
~ W H Auden, ‘Tell Me the Truth About Love: Ten Poems‘.
There are many books about Auden, including his own personal writings like letters, etc. My personal favorite is a small volume by Alexander McCall Smith. I wrote a micro-review of it recently in a series on bibliomemoirs:
What W H Auden Can Do For You by Alexander McCall Smith(2013) – This one is a true pleasure. It is also one of the rare bibliomemoirs that focuses on a poet. McCall Smith’s many novels reference a lot of Auden’s poetry, so it is clear that he is not only a big fan, but also something of an Auden scholar. I remember listening to a podcast a few years ago when McCall Smith described meeting the old, disheveled Auden at a reading or some such public event. And how, even though Auden shuffled onto the stage in his carpet slippers, flies undone and food stains on his clothes, people were so in awe of him that, as soon as Auden began to speak, it was as if none of that mattered. This particular book is part of a book series by Princeton University called ‘Writers on Writers‘, which includes other similar homages (see #9.) The beauty of this book is that it appeals to non-academics and scholars alike; Auden fans and non-Auden fans alike. While enriching our understanding of various Auden poems, it also gives us insight into McCall Smith’s own evolution and inspiration as a writer. One of the best on this list, I promise you.
Auden was also a rather generous and altruistic man. Some of the stories of how he helped others surfaced long after his death. This article discusses some of them.