These letters were sent by W H Auden to his friend and fellow Oxford undergraduate William McElwee between 1927 and 1929. The letters were written while Auden was finishing his studies in Oxford, and while he was living in Berlin in 1928.
Auden’s letters include references to the progress of his work and the books he’s currently reading. In one Auden tells McElwee that he has bought him a birthday present: Katherine Mansfield’s Journal, of which he states ‘Her remarks about the relationship between art and life are true for the most part’. The letters also show Auden’s struggle with university examinations and his insecurity about his academic abilities: ‘Schools are becoming a nightmare; I have even less character or intellect than I thought.’
Auden’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter has suggested that Auden developed feelings for McElwee, which were probably not reciprocated. This collection of letters includes two poems that Auden sent to McElwee, ‘Quique Amavit’, which he dedicated to him, and ‘Easter Monday’.
Auden in Berlin
During the 1920s, Berlin established a reputation for its cosmopolitan nature and its acceptance of homosexuality. After he finished his studies and before looking for a job, Auden decided to spend some time in Berlin. There he worked on the dramatic piece Paid on Both Sides, which he sent to Eliot to be published in The Criterion. In his letters to William and Patience he portrays his stay in the city as exciting and sexually liberating, describing his current lover as ‘a cross between a rugger hearty and Josephine Baker’.