IN SPITE OF CHRONIC anxiety about the posthumous publication of his own biography and letters, Auden was an inveterate consumer of other people's. In the last decade of his life, he reviewed a preponderant number of books related to creator's lives, and he would inevitably begin with a testy aside: "In principle I object to biographies" or "It is not often that a knowledge of an artist's life sheds any light on his work." He could even rejoice in the destruction of Byron's journal and insist that Keats' letters -- "after the first serious hemorrhage" -- should have been published anonymously, if at all. But then, with almost comic inconsistency, he would proceed to snoop and relish and interpret with inspired impertinence. Of poet A. E. Housman, for instance, he wrote: "I am pretty sure that in his sexual tastes he was an anal passive."

Now comes the first biography of Auden himself, and the good news is that Charles Osborne -- a translator and maverick member of Britain's literary establishment -- has lovingly set Auden's injunctions aside and observed what he practiced rather than what he preached. The result is a brisk, generous, often funny, but by no means merely doting book. The Auden who blithely admitted he had never finished Don Quixote, who advised us to "Read The New Yorker, trust in God/And take short views" and who once said, speaking of Ronald Firbank's novels, "A person who dislikes them, like someone who dislikes the music of Bellini or prefers his steak well-done, may, for all I know, possess some admirable quality, but I do not wish ever to see him again," comes through triumphantly, winningly, intact. So does the often tiresome crank who was a martyr to corns and could admonish his host if dinner were a minute late.

It is necessarily an interim book, of course (though the hilariously tender account of Auden's funeral will certainly be quoted in all biographies to come). But its present importance lies in the fact That Auden's homosexuality is cheerfully disclosed and everywhere related to his lifework. There is more than mere gossip value here. At his most characteristic, Auden was analytic, interpretive. From his earliest to his last poems, he diagnosed our communal ills. Hence it is of paramount relevance -- as it would not be, for instance, with Wallace Stevens or Paul Valery -- to know just what shaped and tempered his private life. Thanks to Osborne, we can now glimpse the origins of all that imagery about secret frontiers, codes, spies, "the enemy," the "Double man" and "letters to a wound," as well as better understand the mixture of camp and gravity in Auden's makeup which once prompted him to "assert dogmatically that this season the man of good will will wear his heart up his sleeve and not on it."

His life was not without suffering -- he was prone to a formidable array of psychosomatic ailments -- but basically it was happy, productive and lucky. Beginning with a high-minded mother and "a home full of books," it went on to an Oxford education, a wanderjahr in Berlin absorbing the language of Brecht and Weill, and a precocious poetic debut under the aegis of T. S. Eliot. By the time he was 30 (1937) he was famous. Coming to settle in America two years later, he met true love in the person of a young poet named Chester Kallman, once described by Katherine Anne Porter as looking like "a combination of young satyr and newly made eunugh, who sat with a blind, self-conscious, sullen stare on his face, jolly well knowing he was simply irresistible in that pose." There were ups and downs -- including, on Auden's part, an affair with a lady -- but essentially the die was cast. "Being sexually jealous like a wife, anxious like a nanny, and competitive like a brother is not easy for my kind of temperament. Still, it is my bed and I must lie on it."

In the next three decades Auden became the most adaptable and least lazy man of letters since Dr. Johnson. In addition to the poems, he wrote plays, travel books, translations, articles and reviews (he was perhaps the best reviewer of his generation), librettos, lectures. His very last poem was a workaholic's sigh: He still loves life but O O O O how he wishes the good Lord would take him. Which was precisely what happened, in his sleep, after a successful reading in Vienna, during the night of September 28-29, 1973.

It is too soon to evaluate Auden as a poet. He has been called a transatlantic Goethe, though a wandervogel Horace might be closer to the truth. Certainly he perfected the poem which, as Louise Bogan said, "seems as simply composed as a passage in conversation," -- e.g. "Musee des Beaux Arts," "In Praise of Limestone," and the sheaves of linked haikus scattered through his later books. And at the least, he left several hundred of the most memorable lines in English poetry.

But this Auden has been visible for years. Less known, except to his friends and until Osborne's biography, has been the Other Auden, the personality destined to become -- like Gertrude Stein and Goethe and Dr. Johnson and Oscar Wilde and D. H. Lawrence -- a permanent character in Euro-American culture, Johnson had Boswell, of course, as Goethe had Eckermann and Gertrude had Alice. If only Chester Kallman had realized the possibilities of his position! Instead of writing verse that nearly perished under the spreading Auden tree, he might have kept an astonishing diary. But even as it is, an Auden myth is in the making. For no one who ever encountered him seems to have come away without an anecdotal image. To a pair of Yale students on the New Haven train who sent him a note saying, "We can't wait any longer. Are you really Carl Sandburg?" he primly replied, "You have ruined mother's day."

The last time I saw him, some 18 months before his death, he was in gentle but sturdy form. Our host, Irving Drutman, was one of Auden's oldest friends in America, so he felt at ease. Auden wore house slippers, of course, arrived promptly at seven and left abruptly at 9:30. By my count, he drank five martinis, most of two bottles of burgundy, and he especially commended the mashed potatoes. The talk was intimate, though never malicious. He confessed that he had once stood at a urinal with T. S. Eliot, but been too shy to snatch a glimpse. He also acknowledge using the neologism "hideola" in one of his best poems ("Music is International"), defining it as a "tiresome, unattractive homosexual." As he was leaving he declared that the final curtain of Cocteau's Knights of the Round Table was one of the great endings in world literature, and as his own exit line of the evening, he paused at the door to quote: "Il faut payer . . . Il faut payer . . . One must pay . . . One must pay . . . ."