Auden dines with Barry Humphries

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Auden arrives in New York
26 January 1939, Australia Day

When he sailed into Liberty's arms
He entered a new harbour.
When he sailed into my dream,
He began to talk of eros agape lust
and longing, of love and self-acceptance
of how words can be flowers
or dead leaves, can be bed-mates
or jailers in the night.

The face that was etched, finely grained,
was still wide and open, corruscated and corrugated
would come in time with whiskey and smokes.
The habits of living are often
The habits of dying — dulce et decorum est.
We do remember him more than others.


Devices for comfort

It is perfectly consistent with Wystan's habits day by day,
That under the dining table there should be a chamber pot
Antique and ceramic in a Victorian way.
Valerie came to dinner and the Stravinskys too,
In the small Greenwich Village garret occupied by two.
Drinks flowed like the unchecked cistern,
And Wystan and Chester meddled about in the kitchen.
Valerie stretched her legs, as good secretaries do,
And, suddenly, she felt something hard against her shoe,
Peering beneath the doily she saw the pot,
Brimful and briny with the outpourings of the lot.
Manners maketh the woman, and she lifted the pot
Post-haste to its bathroom spot.
Dinner resumed. Chester was called to account,
Looking under the table he was denied his fount.
'Wystan, darling,' he cried, holding his pants, 'where's the
Zabaglione we prepared for dessert.'


W.H. Auden and B. Humphries dine together

'Every man carries with him through life a mirror,
as unique and impossible to get rid of as his shadow.'

'Did I ever tell you of the Summer Fair?
Cherry Grove was the place and we all were there.
Fancy dress was the order of the day
so I, armed in Anglicanism, dressed with cope and mitre
and all that a Bishop can wear,
gaiters gartered and tight with emoluments
I journeyed into the park where all were gay
and each of us frolicked in our own special way.'

I have this photograph of a wartime nurse,
a lady tall in stature guards the two of us
a tower of rectitude, battalion bosoms,
and mother sends this to the battlefront —
'This is a picture of a frustrated hen
who is suffering from ingrowing virginity.'

That's Auden I later learn.
Mother knew a thing or two, but
didn't give much away.
No wonder expulsion was a habit
like the Craven 'A' cigarettes she ate.

No wonder B. Humphries esquire
late of Camberwell
__________________potted plants
__________________potted wives and lives
__________________picket fences
wanted to meet Wystan.

And so to an Oxford high table
where the manners were known to be stable
where corpulence was respectable,
and flatulence venerable,
and dons at dining are notoriously hospitable.

And so we learn that W.H.A.,
having spent a long time in the U.S.A.,
loved Martinis like matins
__________________a twist of lemon
__________________a skewer of olive
__________________gin and vermouth
__________________bitters for taste
not the College sherry — and well I sympathise —
which was de rigeur
sweet and passé

Auden rose to his feet
'I should like to make 49 points.'
The scholar stitched up with laughter
silence floated to the rafters
and the sherry was gulped down in all its sickliness.

'Hic et Ille'
This and that, here and now
a sort of fastidious compliment to pretension.
Recess for Lucky Strikes.
But, Oh! my goodness it was all good fun
and where else could you match it?

'But I have to work, or else who am I?
What I fear is that on Judgment Day
one's punishment will be to hear God
reciting by heart the poems I
would have written had my life been good.

I have the habit of art.'

And other ones innumerable.

We are all so envious my friend.

What a dinner!
Salmon entrée, then beef with Yorkshire pudding.
Carpet slippers, frayed at the edges,
Drafts of 'The Dyer's Hand' dangling pocketless,
'Mirror, mirror on the wall ...
who is the most crumpled man of all?'

'Let it always be autumn under your arms,'
said Auden.

An advertiser's dreamworld copy.

'Let your armpits be charmpits,'
said Barry,
from the land where follicles are fashion
where B.O. was banished with a rub and a scrub
fragrance and fertility
oils suppurating with spermitic agility.  

Peter GebhardtPeter Gebhardt is a retired school principal and judge. His most recent book is Black and White Onyx: New and Selected Poems 1988-2011. This year is the 40th anniversary of the death of the poet W.H.Auden in Vienna.

Topic tags: new australian poems, Peter Gebhardt, William Auden, Barry Humphries



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Existing comments

Thank you Eureka Street and Peter Gebhardt! 3 gems, lovely memorials to a wonderful poet. I remember being shown several photos of Auden: he had a cigarette in every one.....and i remember his wonderful English versions of Brecht's songs in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.
John Jacobs | 05 March 2013


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