That Time W.H. Auden Wrote a Letter to the Microbes on His Skin

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

My colleague Cari wrote a fascinating piece yesterday about the unique “microbe aura” that hangs in the air around our bodies:

Once you leave a room, this signature, as unique as fingerprints, can offer clues to whoever comes afterwards about who you are and where you’ve been. Past research has shown that it’s possible to lift someone’s microbiome from surfaces they’ve touched, sequencing the DNA of bacteria left on kitchen counters, floors, and bathrooms for clues about the person who left them there. ... In a small study published today in the journal PeerJ, researchers from the University of Oregon and the Santa Fe Institute found further support for the idea that this signature might be able to identified by sampling only the air in a room.

The poet W. H. Auden would have been excited to hear about this. In 1969, having learned from Scientific American that his skin, like all human skin, was covered in microbes, he wrote “A New Year Greeting” to his body’s microscopic colonists—wishing them a happy new year, apologizing for any inconveniences, requesting that they “behave as good guests should” and not give him acne. Delightfully, Auden considers their mythology:

By what myths would your priests account
        for the hurricanes that come
    twice every twenty-four hours,
        each time I dress or undress,
    when, clinging to keratin rafts,
        whole cities are swept away
    to perish in space, or the Flood
        that scalds to death when I bathe?


Auden imagines his microbes as his guests, himself as host and planet and god. And he wonders what will happen to them when he dies. Despite the teeming life on his skin and the world he so vibrantly imagines, apocalypse will come for his microbes; their world will turn suddenly cold, and Auden himself will be nothing but “a Past, subject to Judgement.”

It’s a bleak turn for a whimsical poem to take. To me, though, Cari’s piece offers a kind of consolation. Life moves in the air around us; there are traces of our identities lingering in the spaces we leave. And in Auden’s case, my colleague Adam Chandler coincidentally lived in that space for a year—inhabiting Auden’s Past. Adam shares his Judgment:

The only thing rarer than Auden’s talent might be the lightning flash of real-estate luck that allowed me to live in his former apartment in Brooklyn Heights for a year. It was on the top floor of a five-story walk-up and it had beautiful molding, dark hardwood floors, and a roof with a tiny view of the Manhattan skyline and the East River.  Auden lived there 70 years before me, but his ethereal “Yeasts, Bacteria, and Viruses” were nowhere to be found.  

For a while, my roommate and I were convinced we had some special access to his ghost; it was always eerily quiet in the apartment until a huge gust of wind came up from the river or a garbage truck came barreling down the street at 5 AM.  “Evil is unspectacular,” he once noted. If anything, Auden's remaining traces were on the street, where a plaque on the building brought admirers of him and his microbes, conflicted as they were, to the sidewalk outside from all over the world. I was just dumb enough to pay rent.

You can listen to Auden’s ghost reading “A New Year Greeting” here.