Every writer is different. Each has his or her own way of working, a method for getting words down on paper. Some are procrastinators, some are methodical, some write in between juggling a daytime job and caring for a family.
Wystan Hugh (WH) Auden (21 February 1907 – 29 September 1973) was born into a professional middle-class family in York, England, and grew up in and near Birmingham. After high school he went on to study English at Christ Church, Oxford, where he first started writing poetry, and subsequently spent five years (1930–35) teaching in English public schools. He then traveled to Iceland and China in order to write books about his journeys. He moved to the United States in 1939 and became an American citizen in 1946. From 1941 through 1945 he lectured in American universities. From about 1958 until the end of his life he wintered in New York and summered in Kirchstetten, Austria.
Auden’s life was to some extent unashamedly gay at a time when being gay bore much more of a social stigma. He was a serious scholar of poetry and English literature and spent an appreciable amount of time in coaching students in the art and craft of writing. He was a poet and playwright, and also librettist of considerable scope and skill, collaborating on numerous projects with such famous composers as Benjamin Britten. As a poet he was a natural, and penned thousands of poems with what seems like consummate ease – aware of the rules of formal poetry but without being rigidly bound by them.
What interests us is how he managed to lead a productive life, given his self-confessed often sybaritic lifestyle. There was a key to how he maintained his output and it came down to discipline – of a certain sort – and drugs.
Auden considered it a sign of weakness that he had to rely on artificial stimulants to maintain his workday discipline. Nevertheless that is what he did. He started his days with Benzedrine, or “bennies” (an amphetamine that at the time was a legitimate treatment for narcolepsy and lethargy in patient, but which was later used as an artificial stimulant that was used recreationally). This enabled him to be alert and active and to get through the work of the day quite productively.
In the evenings he would consume quantities of alcohol and barbiturates to calm him down so that he could eventually sleep: he called this whole regime “the chemical life.” The barbiturates helped him to sleep, but just in case he woke in the night he would have a bottle of vodka by his bedside to swig.
And so each day wound in with this lurching from extreme consciousness to drugged stupor, in and out, right up to his mid-sixties. Of course, the bennies, the alcohol and the barbiturates had a tendency to ravage the body. So, Auden’s death from heart failure at age 66 was, to a considerable extent, a result of his decades of practicing, with the complicity of his doctors, “the chemical life.”
It is a moot point whether W.H. Auden could have produced such marvelous poems as “Funeral Blues,” “September 1, 1939,” or “As I Walked Out One Evening.” without resorting to artificial means. He was an almost matchless technician when it came to formal poetry, so when he was on his game he was sublime. Could he have maintained his output in the absence of drugs? How much longer could he have been productive without them? Who knows? We have to be thankful for what he managed to produce in his – by modern standards – relatively short life.