With Slip and Slapdash
- The Complete Works of W.H. Auden. Vol. III: Prose, 1949-55 edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton, 779 pp, £29.95, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 691 13326 3
Auden more than once explained that his business was poetry and that he wrote prose to earn his keep while pursuing that ill-paid vocation. Luckily he had another powerful reason for writing prose: ‘unless I write something, anything, good, indifferent, or trashy, every day,’ he told his friend James Stern, ‘I feel ill.’ Spurred on by these complementary inducements – the need to make money and the need not to be sick – he wrote quantities of prose. It appeared, over the years, in an impressive range of journals, from Eliot’s Criterion and Leavis’s Scrutiny to Vogue and the New Yorker; from the Daily Herald to many and various obscure little magazines. He reviewed books of almost all sorts and found further occasions for writing prose – lectures, pensées, forewords, afterwords, theological essays, opera programmes and sleeve notes – and by no means all these pieces could fairly be dismissed as what Milton called writings of the left hand. He looked into other writers for thoughts that might help him shape his own meditations, his repeated attempts to express his own peculiar versions of the truth about God, history, the natural world, love. Some of those writers were fashionable, some not; he seemed indifferent to such considerations, and for the most part addressed himself as thinker or as artist to whatever topic attracted his attention in either capacity. For example, he admired, as if he were a modern expert, the professorial medievalist W.P. Ker, and regarded George Saintsbury’s Historical Manual of English Prosody (1910, useful to poets and other interested parties, but now, I daresay, rarely consulted) as his authority on that subject.[*] He was all for making it new, but not in quite the same way as Ezra Pound. At one point he too could have produced a reading list of essential books; but as time went by he seemed to care less than he had in his wilder, more assertive days about convincing or converting others.
In his early New York years he was much taken with the Christian existentialism then flourishing, and especially by Kierkegaard (who provided a valued philosophical schema with his aesthetic-ethical-religious triad). Zahl und Gesicht, a work by the exiled Austrian philosopher Rudolf Kassner, was among the books he described as having ‘so essentially conditioned [a writer’s, i.e., his] vision of life that he cannot imagine who he was before he read them’. Another important work was Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s strange book Out of Revolution, which Mendelson identifies as a formative influence on The Age of Anxiety.
He read intensively, and mainly with his own intellectual needs in mind. Like many heavy readers he loved detective stories, but he took them seriously, prefixing to his essay ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ a heavy Pauline epigraph: ‘I had not known sin, but by the law.’ He always had gurus – Gerald Heard, Charles Williams, Georg Groddeck, Homer Lane. Some quietly faded away, but with a few he enjoyed an enduring sympathy: Forster and Virginia Woolf, for instance, and Eliot, with the respect due to the publisher of his first book of poems, but staying well short of idolatry. Such connections ensured that he wrote many letters; he asked that they be destroyed after his death, but clearly many were not. There will be more work for editors.
[*] Saintsbury has an eloquent chapter condemning English syllabics. Auden must have considered and rejected it, for something like half of his poetry is written in syllabics. He got the idea from Marianne Moore and developed it in his own way. It can be unobtrusive: it is possible to admire ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’ without noticing that it is in syllabics. However, Louis MacNeice once scolded me for praising a syllabic poem by Thom Gunn, arguing that the practice would be ruinous to the English verse tradition – which is more or less what Saintsbury said.
Vol. 30 No. 4 · 21 February 2008
In his review of Volume III of The Complete Works of W.H. Auden Frank Kermode refers to the young Auden fancying ‘himself as qualified to lay down the law to an awed class’ and claims that ‘when compelled into it he disliked the life of the schoolmaster’ (LRB, 7 February). There is, however, ample evidence from the vivid memories of many of his former pupils at the Down’s School, Colwall, where he taught from 1932 to 1935 and for a short time in 1936, that they were far from awed: he always preferred an atmosphere of informality and taught through classroom games, with actions as well as words. Indeed it was the boys there who gave him the nickname of Uncle Wiz. A number of his pupils from those days became lifelong friends, notably the designer Michael Yates, who recalled his classes as ‘in turn traditional, original or a plain riot of fun’.
He himself referred to these years as among the happiest of his life, even if he chose schoolteaching faute de mieux. It was hard to earn a living as a writer in the 1930s. While there he had a major experience of what he subsequently realised was Christian love one summer evening with a group of his colleagues. This was the subject of his poem ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed’, written at the time and dedicated to the school’s inspirational headmaster, Geoffrey Hoyland. Benjamin Britten went to stay with him in Colwall several times and joined in the life of the school, as did Louis MacNeice, who later sent his son there. John Masefield and his wife also came to see him and the school was impressed: the poet laureate! Auden also founded and edited the school’s literary magazine, the Badger, in which he published some of his own work and to which he occasionally contributed new poems for the rest of his life.
Vol. 30 No. 5 · 6 March 2008
Hugh Wright protests that Auden enjoyed his time as a schoolmaster more than I’d suggested he did (Letters, 21 February). Teaching was one of the ways in which Auden made a living. He obviously preferred others. He enjoyed clowning for the boys at Larchfield but we are told by one of them that the class was nevertheless ‘overawed’ by him. John Fuller says that ‘Auden as a schoolmaster was an orator,’ and The Orators, in which a good deal of law is laid down, was written at Larchfield. The quasi-mystical experience at the Downs School could presumably have happened anywhere, among other not necessarily intimate friends. I could quote other scraps of evidence in mitigation; but Hugh Wright’s case is the stronger.
Vol. 30 No. 7 · 10 April 2008
Frank Kermode repeats Auden’s revisionist claims about the spiritual revelation he experienced one night in June 1933 at the Downs School in Malvern (Letters, 6 March). The poem published in postwar collections as ‘A Summer Night’ is a severely truncated and revised version of the untitled poem beginning ‘Out on the lawn I lie in bed’ from Look, Stranger! (1936). The postwar version drops four stanzas from the original, three of which make it clear that the revelation it celebrated was a secular, political one. It is completely consistent with the other ‘quasi-mystical’ but undoubtedly Communist poems in the same volume, in particular ‘Brothers, who when the sirens roar’ (dropped completely from Auden’s postwar oeuvre). Both versions of the poem record an experience of intense, almost ecstatic solidarity with his fellow teachers. But the omitted stanzas make a point of contrasting their privileged ‘freedom in this English house’, their ‘metaphysical distress’ and liberal ‘kindness to ten persons’, with the ‘wretchedness’ of ‘The gathering multitudes outside/Whose glances hunger worsens’ (not difficult to know who was meant by this in 1933). The mysterious ‘crumpling flood’ that will soon ‘force a rent’ through the ‘dykes of our content’, which survives in the final version, is not mysterious at all in the original. It is the coming revolution, in which Auden acknowledges that ‘we dread to lose/Our privacy.’ The idea that this poem offers a ‘vision of agape’, in which the young Auden experienced the first inklings of his wartime return to the Christian communion, is a cover story that he put forward with some insistence in his 1964 introduction to Anne Fremantle’s book The Protestant Mystics. Poets are entitled to tamper with their poetry, and even to rewrite their past, but we shouldn’t connive at their little white lies.
Nottingham Trent University