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W. H. Auden on Ischia

Updated: Jul 5, 2022

Because none of us are traveling much these days, I have decided to return to my favorite Mediterranean islands in my blog. I have a backlog of posts in my head about the various islands I have visited in the last few years, and my memories of them have seen me through some of the darkest days of the last few months. All the islands in mare nostrum--from the largest like Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, Corfu, and Crete, to the smallest like Pantelleria, Paros, Ustica, and the Tremiti-- have a particular smell. A mix of pine, sea salt, lavender, sage, and citrus, it is the smell of summer.

I have long wanted to write about Ischia because among the island’s many charms is the fact that W.H. Auden summered there for a decade. From April 1949 to the fall of 1958, he and his partner Chester Kallman idled away several months of the year at their little house in Forio on the western side of the island.

Even writing about it now, I still find it remarkable. I have done a fair amount of scholarly work on Christopher Isherwood, and while he was busy becoming Californicated throughout the forties, Auden remained resolutely a New Yorker. In temperament and physique, Auden was a man suited to northern climes, and whenever he visited Isherwood in Santa Monica, he made it a point to never to go near the beach. (Self promotion alert: Isherwood in Transit, edited by Jim Berg and Chris Freeman and published by University of Minnesota Press, has just come out. I have a chapter, “Isherwood as Travel Writer,” in the volume.) He was often sunburned, but on Ischia he loved the sea, the light, the port, and the people.

Ischia was called Pitecusae in ancient times and is known locally as l’isola verde, the green island. The largest island in the bay of Naples, Ischia is a watercolor of green, blue, and white, and Auden took to it immediately for its Edenic beauty and its sensuous and desultory way of life. In the poem “Ischia,” written soon after his arrival in 1948, he captures the island’s power to enchant:

I am presently moved by sun-drenched Parthenopea, my thanks are for you,

Ischia, to whom a fair wind has

brought me rejoicing with dear friends

from soiled productive cities. How well you correct

our injured eyes, how gently you train us to see

things and men in perspective

underneath your uniform light.

But Auden was not Isherwood; sunshine and a heady lifestyle were not enough to hold his imagination. His complicated, creative intellect found a match in the complex, deep history of the island. It’s evocative that the island is a spent volcano, whose power bubbles just under the surface, escaping in vents from the gorges that run down the sides of Mount Epomeo and creating the therapeutic thermal baths that attract so many visitors. These boiling springs, mysterious and restorative, reflect the island, and “betray her secret fever, /Make limber the gout-stiffened joint/ And improve the venereal act.”

If the geology weren’t suggestive enough (Auden has another poem from same period entitled, “In Praise of Limestone”), Ischia’s founding myth claims that the Giant Tifeo was chased from Olympus by Jupiter and then chained and dropped into the sea. His restive body is said to have formed the island, and so you’ll find places named Testaccio (Head), Ciglio (Eyelash) and Piedimonte (Foot). The fumaroles, an originally Neapolitan word for thermal vents, are evidence that Tifeo still breathes from beneath the sea.

But what must have really amazed Auden was Nestor’s Cup. Tucked away in the very unassuming local museum, the 8th-century BC cup is inscribed with a three-line epigraph in Euboian letters that refers to The Iliad. It is the only extant piece of poetry dating from the same time as the epic masterpiece. Being on Ischia, redolent of Homer’s stories and Odysseus’s voyages, had to have an effect on him and probably inspired his Shield of Achilles, which won the National Book Award in 1956.

Over the millennia, Ischia has lured many to its shores. Like most islands in the Mediterranean, everyone passed through at one time or another, from the Greeks and Romans to the Saracens and the Aragonese. The Argonese Castle, which dominates a cliff on the eastern side of the island looms over sea. There has been some kind of fortress on this promontory since 474 BC. It has changed hands and grown in size over its 2500-year history, but it was Alfonso of Aragon in 1423 that constructed most of the huge complex we can visit today. The castle was a small city, housing nobles, military, some of the local population, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption, and the Poor Clare’s convent, with its rather gruesome putridarium.

There the bodies of dead nuns were stored in wall niches, seated on masonry chairs with a central hole and bowl beneath to collect the liquids of decomposition. Once the bodies reached a proper stage of decomposition, tended by novice nuns, the bones were collected, cleaned, and stored in an ossuary. I can only wonder what Auden would have made of that.

In her book, Wystan and Chester, Thekla Clark writes about their intimate relationship, which was born and flourished during the summers on Ischia. Thekla was close to both, at one time even flirting with the idea of accepting Wystan’s marriage proposal, but she was too level headed to agree. She was willing, though, like a lot of Americans right after the war, to accept the adoration of the locals. She writes that on Ischia, which was desperately poor, they arrived “rich (by island standards), blond, young, handsome, conquerors, and happy.” Both she and Auden suspected that the adoration was bad for them, but at that moment, history favored them in a way that would not last, and they played their parts accordingly.

Auden held court every evening at the Caffe International, or Bar Maria, which still occupies the same spot in the central piazza of Forio. Auden and Chester were always there, along with one or two other expats or temporary visitors, and often an English or American student who heard that Auden could be found there. Bar Maria is still the place to people watch.

The forties and fifties must have been a magical time on Ischia, which is probably why Anthony Minghella chose to film his version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley here. Highsmith perfectly captures those heady expat times, when being blond, American, and therefore comparatively rich, left many an American jaded by the untrammelled capitalism of the post-war period. In the film, but more so in the novel, that naïve confidence in American exceptionalism proves murderous, killing the very way of life that attracted them to the Mediterranean in the first place.

But still, the thought of Ischia then is thrilling: Luchino Visconti, Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams, Pierpaolo Pasolini, Sir William Walton, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, Alberto Moravia, Pablo Neruda, Jackie Kennedy, Aristotle Onassis. All were there at one time or another.

Towards the end of 50s, life on the island changed for Auden. After a series of scandals concerning the houseboy, Giocondo, and Chester’s various liaisons, life on the island soured. Ischia had also begun to attract too many English tourists, boozy and loud, so the sunny idyll began to fade, and he once again desired colder climes and less sensuous locals.

The next move was to Austria, just outside Vienna. His last salute to Ischia, its easy way of life and its deep historical truths, is in his wonderful poem “Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno”:

To “go southern", we spoil in no time, we grow Flabby, dingily lecherous, and Forget to pay bills: that no one has heard of them

Taking the Pledge or turning to Yoga

Is a comforting thought—in that case, for all

The spiritual loot we tuck away,

We do them no harm—and entitles us, I think

To one little scream at A piacere,

Not two. Go I must, but I go grateful (even

To a certain Monte) and invoking My sacred meridian names, Vico, Verga,

Pirandello, Bernini, Bellini,

To bless this region, its vendages, and those Who call it home: though one cannot always Remember why one has been happy, There is no forgetting that one was.


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