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December 17, 2007

separate spheres

gaudens-statue-1.jpg [Tomb of Marian Adams, by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, DC; photo credit: http://www.quidplura.com] I blogged the other day ("family secrets") about some of the surprises and new perspectives which our genealogical database of Auden's might precipitate in his readers. Sometimes, though, just the opposite will be the case. Sometimes, we will get striking new, empirical support for his airier or more unsubstantiated assertions.

Take this famous paragraph from the essay "As It Seemed to Us", written in 1964: "On the whole, the members of my father's family were phlegmatic, earnest, rather slow, inclined to be miserly, and endowed with excellent health; my mother's were quick, short-tempered, generous, and liable to physical ill-health, hysteria, and neuroticism. Except in the matter of physical health, I take after them" (see Forewords and Afterwords, pp. 498-99).

This dichotomy notwithstanding, there were some limited, but striking, similarities between the early lives of Constance Rosalie Bicknell and George Augustus Auden. Both were young children amongst large broods of siblings (she the youngest of eight; he the seventh out of eight), both suffered the very early loss of their fathers (she never knew hers at all) and both had to cope with the early death of a sibling (William Auden died at the age of 15 in when George Auden was six; Arthur Bicknell was killed in a railway crash at the age of 20 when his sister Constance was 12). No wonder that as adults both Constance Bicknell and her future husband chose the medical profession.

But, beyond those similarities, the Auden database, provisionally titled "Family Ghosts", confirms two cultures embodied in the early experiences of Auden's parents: one culture of life and one of death. The two Auden family deaths I have mentioned, those of the Rev. John Auden in 1876 and of William Auden in 1878, were the only ones which George Auden had to confront before a new family generation came into being with the birth of his own first child in 1900.

Born on 27 August 1872, Gorge Auden was, as I said, one of eight siblings (seven brothers and one sister), he had three uncles and four aunts. Before the arrival of Bernard Auden in York on 5 July 1900, within his immediate family circle "only" Dr. Auden's father and one brother had died — that is, there were two deaths amongst his relatives out of a possible 14 (an 86% survival rate).

By stark contrast, Constance Rosalie Bicknell, born on 13 February 1869, was one of five sisters and three brothers; she and her siblings had nine uncles and five aunts. Only a few months after baptizing his own youngest daughter at Southwold Church, Suffolk, Rev. Richard Bicknell died at Christmas in 1869. In the subsequent years, the toll of Bicknells and Birches amongst Constance Bicknell's closest relatives is a sombre one. 30 Jan 1880: her mother, S. A. Birch, dies; 26 Feb 1881: brother, A. H. Bicknell is killed; ca 1884: her aunt, E. E. Birch, dies; 29 June 1884: her uncle, H. M. Birch, dies; 28 March 1892: her favourite aunt, G. Bicknell, dies; 5 July 1893: her favourite uncle, C Bicknell, dies; ca. 1896: her aunt, L. R. Birch, dies; 1897: her uncle, J. W. Birch, dies; 27 July 1898: her uncle, A. F. Birch, dies; ca. 1900: her aunt, L. Birch, dies.

Thus, her father and mother as well as one brother, four uncles and four aunts had died before 5 July 1900 when her first child was born — 11 deaths out of a two-generation family circle of 21 (a survival rate for her Bicknell and Birch relatives of only 48%). By the time Constance Auden became a mother, she had experienced very much more close-at-hand death and suffering, very much more "abandonment", than her husband had.

[image ©2007 Nicholas Jenkins]

These mortality figures, hitherto unknown, illustrate the vastly greater casualty rate amongst members of Mrs. Auden's family than amongst those of Dr. Auden's. Dr. and Mrs. Auden's youngest son's mind, both poetic and schematizing, makes crucial, dark, ambiguously mythic equations on the base of this elemental differentiation.

For W. H. Auden, one parent, and perhaps one gender, is associated with a culture of life and one with a culture of death. But, and this is the vital point, the culture of art is associated with the world of death. Within the universe of Auden's work, the gravitational pull of the culture of life, personified as Eros perhaps, holds in place such terms as masculinity, "cure", prose, sexual health, personal weakness and timidity, humour, science, modern techniques and knowledge, while around the latter (call her Thanatos, Thetis, Gaia) constellate qualities and associations such as femaleness, morbidity, suffering and sexual repression, as well as the for Auden self-immolating arts of poetry and music, along with mysticism, emotional strength, and the spiritual authenticity experienced in loss.

Auden's poetry sprang from the dynamic between those two powerful forcefields or systems. Neither system, until the very end, overwhelmed the other: the poetry is the record of the interference patterns between the systems. So, when in the mid-1960s Auden started obsessively repeating stories about how unfitted his parents were for each other, he was articulating, in barely displaced terms, "Thoughts of his own death" as a writer and a man. These premonitions suddenly preoccupied him “like the distant roll | of thunder at a picnic.”

Except "in the matter of physical health", this poet had seemed all his life to be an Auden and not a Bicknell. But in fact, Auden died horribly prematurely. Born the youngest of three sons, he was the first of the triumvirate to die. His mother was 72 when she expired in her sleep one August night during 1941. In 1973 in Vienna, when W. H. Auden's body stopped working and finally moved beyond all ideas of dawns, waking and response, at 66 he was even younger, and proved even more Bicknellesque, than Mrs. Auden had been.

Posted by njenkins at December 17, 2007 01:30 AM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins