‘In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise’
It is a quaint and curious custom to visit the graves of the lofty dead. One did not know this musician or that poet, the honored guest did not choose the stone or the setting, and yet one is there, hoping the dead will yet speak.
Wystan Hugh Auden died on September 29, 1973, at the age of 66. Mercantile members may experience a frisson of apprehension to learn that Auden died in his sleep after giving a poetry reading to the Austrian Society of Literature in Vienna. He and his companion Chester Kallman had just closed up the summer house Auden bought in 1950, an hour west of Vienna in the village of Kirchstetten. Auden wanted to be buried there and asked for a traditional Austrian funeral mass. One can imagine Auden in Britain, or Berlin, or New York, where he famously moved in 1939. Perhaps less so in a small mittel-european hamlet, but he returned every summer and was much appreciated by his neighbors. When Auden turned 60, he received a birthday delegation at his front door consisting of the mayor, village dignitaries and two children in Austrian country dress reciting what sounds like German doggerel. Auden is charmed and courtly.
One might profit on this graveside visit to read any of Auden’s very great poems. One might appropriately turn to the elegy he wrote on the death of another great poet, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” the last lines of which appear above and on the memorial in Westminster Abbey. (Auden’s literary executor, Edward Mendelson, wrote an excellent essay on it in his book Later Auden.) But on this anniversary I will listen to Auden reading his ballad “As I walked out one evening.” The poet speaks directly to us, forty years after his death.
Who says you cannot conquer Time?