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Auden in a time of public shaming

Sunday, 21 February, 2016

On this day in 1907, the poet Wystan Hugh Auden was born. Alexander McCall Smith, author of What WH Auden Can Do For You, describes him as an astonishingly versatile lyricist who “wrote about rocks, about love, about psychoanalysis, about the bacteria that live on our skin, about war and about cooking. In the Thirties he was a political poet; after going to America he re-embraced Christianity. In his later years he became positively Horatian in his tastes, preaching the virtues of the domestic life and simple pleasures.” Auden is kaleidoscopic and timeless; At Last the Secret is Out is the proof.

    Background: The British writer/actor Stephen Fry made headlines earlier this week with a joke about his friend, costume designer Jenny Beavan. Following Beavan’s appearance at the BAFTA film awards, Fry said, “Only one of the great cinematic costume designers would come to the awards ceremony dressed like a bag lady.” Furious accusations of misogyny followed and, appalled by the humourlessness of the PC mob, Fry quit Twitter.

Jon Ronson explores this kind of public humiliation in So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, a book about reputation in an era of hysteria and recreational rage. The flames of shame are fanned today on social media but this is just an amplification of what was common in Auden’s time because “there is always a wicked secret” and it will 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 tell to the intimate friend;
over the tea-cups and into 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 (1907 – 1973)

WH Auden


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