I really mean like

Michael Wood

  • BuyThe Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose Vol. IV, 1956-62 edited by Edward Mendelson
    Princeton, 982 pp, £44.95, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 691 14755 0

In a poem from the early 1960s, ‘On the Circuit’, W.H. Auden describes himself as ‘a sulky fifty-six’, who finds ‘A change of meal-time utter hell’, and has ‘Grown far too crotchety to like/A luxury hotel’. There is plenty of self-parody in this picture – a little later in the poem he identifies his worry about where the next drink is coming from as ‘grahamgreeneish’ – but this was a time when Auden was rearranging his sense of himself and of his world. Comedy was one sort of arrangement, and an important feature of his view of life; but he was seriously ‘unsettled’, as Edward Mendelson says, and had acquired ‘a profound new sense of menace and dread’.

He had become professor of poetry at Oxford in 1956, although he was still mainly living in New York, and in 1958 he had shifted his summer residence from Ischia to a small town near Vienna, taking leave thereby, he said, of all kinds of fantasies he now felt too old for. Mendelson wonders whether one of Auden’s reasons for moving to Austria, although ‘perhaps too deep to have been conscious’, might have been ‘his wish to live in a culture that … could not escape from its awareness of its own guilt’. This is a plausible thought and, even if not true psychologically, would still work as the kind of parable that Auden, in his prose even more than in his poetry, teaches us how to read. Like other northerners, he had, he suggests in the poem ‘Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno’, brought questions about change to an unchanging Italian place, ‘hoping to twig from/What we are not what we might be next’, and he needed to take off before the south became a habit:

If we try
To ‘go southern’, we spoil in no time, we grow
Flabby, dingily lecherous, and
Forget to pay bills

Still, he will ‘go grateful’, he says, glad

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

It is part of the same change that he now wishes to pay homage not to ‘Provocative Aphrodite’ or ‘Virago Artemis’, for all their powers over the world of nature and desire, but to a quieter, more discriminating classical figure, Clio, the Muse of History. In the world of those major goddesses it is ‘As though no one dies in particular/And gossip were never true’. Clio by contrast is

Muse of Time, but for whose merciful silence
Only the first step would count and that
Would always be murder.

She is to ‘forgive our noises/And teach us our recollections’, and Auden reminds us that poetry has no special place in her attention:

I dare not ask you if you bless the poets,
For you do not look as if you ever read them,
Nor can I see a reason why you should.

This last stanza offers us a bit of that humility that Auden was often tempted to overdo, but it also chimes with a recurring trope in modern literature in English. Marianne Moore says of poetry that she too dislikes it; Eliot tells us that it doesn’t matter; Auden says it makes nothing happen. In fact, none of these propositions represents anything like the whole story for any of these poets, but there’s an element of affectation here all the same, an unseemly wooing of the philistine. Neither Mallarmé nor Valéry ever expressed any interest in a muse who didn’t bother to read poetry – they knew that the world was already full of people saying that it didn’t matter, and saw no reason to join the chorus, even out of strategy.

Auden’s realignments are the continuing subject of The Dyer’s Hand, which he published in 1962, the only book of prose, Mendelson informs us, that he devised as a single volume. Auden is characteristically both direct and sly about what he thinks the book is – sly in the way only determinedly direct people can be. He writes poetry for love, he tells us, and criticism for money, and because people ask him to write it. He is glad to have been professor of poetry because without the job ‘I should never have been able to pay my bills.’ He doesn’t believe in systematic criticism, finds it ‘lifeless, even false’, so he has reduced his critical pieces, ‘when possible, to sets of notes’. None of this is untrue, but truths can be used as smokescreens. The last sentence of the foreword gives the game away. ‘The order of the chapters, however, is deliberate, and I would like them to be read in sequence.’ Whatever the origin of these pieces, and however he feels about criticism, he has composed a book, indeed a great book, and we should not be surprised to find him saying in a letter that it ‘contains all the autobiography I am willing to make public’. It is the autobiography of a writer who is also a reader, and it is a reading of its time. Other books published in 1962 – the titles really do suggest something of a climate – were Another Country, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, A Clockwork Orange, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, The Golden Notebook, Pale Fire and The Kindly Ones.

Volume IV of Auden’s prose – Volumes I to III cover the years 1926-1955 – is, like the others, edited by Edward Mendelson with unparalleled care and discretion, but it allows us an additional pleasure, since The Dyer’s Hand occupies its last major part. Thus we can read that book as Auden wanted us to, before or after we look at the rest of the prose. Or we can read the pieces of the book in their chronological order, in which case we shall keep coming across mentions of the initial versions of the chapters of The Dyer’s Hand, spread out between 1956 and 1962, and we could read the chapters as we meet them in this way. Or we could just dip and skim in the whole volume, go away and come back, guided by names and titles and chance – there’s plenty to keep us busy. It’s pretty clear both that Auden needed the money and that he liked this way of making it.

Since The Dyer’s Hand is an old friend whom I have not seen for some time – if I had a shelf where I could find my favourite books it would sit next to Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral – and since I have never read its chapters in sequence, I chose the first method: took the book as a book and then went back to the essays and reviews. The result was not just intriguing but moving. It’s true that The Dyer’s Hand is not systematic criticism, or systematic anything, and Mendelson reminds us that Auden ‘never explained in detail’ what he meant by the order we were supposed to follow. There is a critical story here, though, and a very particular critical music in the organisation of the themes and their variations. The chief themes are the dream of Eden, the fallen world outside the dream, the chance of innocence, the constant negotiation, in literature and opera, between what we want and what there is, and Auden’s method is to see what a whole range of works, heavy and light, have to say about these matters. There is a great deal of shrewd and intimate writing on Shakespeare, there are wonderful remarks on Don Quixote, extraordinary essays on Byron, Dickens, Ibsen, Frost, Marianne Moore, D.H. Lawrence; but when Auden wants to evoke ‘a parable of agape’, or ‘Holy Love’, he talks about Bertie Wooster’s relation to Jeeves. Bertie in his blithering is a comic model of humility, and his reward is Jeeves’s immaculate and unfailing allegiance. There is also an appealing moment when Auden, suggesting that popular art is dead and that ‘the only art today is “highbrow”,’ suddenly remembers he has to make an exception: ‘aside from a few comedians’. He says he learned long ago that ‘poetry does not have to be great or even serious to be good, and that one does not have to be ashamed of moods in which one feels no desire whatsoever to read The Divine Comedy.’ At another moment he insists that ‘among the half dozen or so things for which a man of honour should be prepared, if necessary, to die, the right to play, the right to frivolity, is not the least.’

This is about as serious as one could get about not being serious, and helps us to see what his cagey remarks about poetry most often mean. They recur here – Byron’s work was dry as long as he ‘tried to write Poetry with a capital P’, the Marianne Moore phrase is cited, we are reminded that it is possible to live without art – but when Auden is not being anxious about poetry’s getting above its station he himself advances amazing claims for it. ‘The mere making of a work of art is itself a political act’ because it reminds ‘the Management … that the managed are people with faces, not anonymous numbers.’ The Management here resembles the administration of what he elsewhere calls Hell, ‘for in Hell, as in prison and the army, its inhabitants are identified not by name but by number. They do not have numbers, they are numbers.’ For Auden the notion of the face is even more important than the name, and appears all over the book. The hero of modern poetry is ‘the man or woman in any walk of life who … manages to acquire and preserve a face of his own’. Few Americans have faces, Auden says, citing Henry James (‘So much countenance and so little face’): ‘to have a face … one must not only enjoy and suffer but also desire to preserve the memory of even the most humiliating and unpleasant experiences of the past.’ We can see why Auden was afraid of going rotten on an Italian island. ‘A human face,’ he says again, ‘is the creation of its owner’s past,’ and ‘a caricature of a face admits that its owner has had a past, but denies that he has a future.’ Auden completes this thought with a fine aphorism:

We enjoy caricatures of our friends because we do not want to think of their changing, above all, of their dying; we enjoy caricatures of our enemies because we do not want to consider the possibility of their having a change of heart so that we would have to forgive them.

In this register but now about as far from frivolity as one could be – it’s true that Auden isn’t always in favour of frivolity; he doesn’t like it in the Greek gods, for example – he says that ‘every good poem is very nearly a Utopia,’ and ‘every beautiful poem presents an analogy to the forgiveness of sins.’ And again, shifting to music but not exactly leaving the other arts behind: ‘Every high C accurately struck demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.’ Art saves us from anonymity, resembles forgiveness, and dramatises the freedom of labour and choice. Why would the author of these claims want to be so diffident about it elsewhere, and so eager to believe that the Muse of History doesn’t have to pay any attention to it? The short answer has to do with tact and tactics. He is afraid that even true claims for art will become false when stated; their very utterance will do them in, shift them to the realm of pomp and abstraction. The longer answer is found in the thematic arc of The Dyer’s Hand as a whole.

The book moves from reflections on reading and writing to the role of the poet in the world; from questions of the self to those of relations with others, especially the connection between master and servant, between guilty community and fictions of innocence, and from there to the austere lessons of the work of Franz Kafka. Then comes a section on Shakespeare, including major essays on The Merchant of Venice and Othello. The move to the animal worlds of Lawrence and Moore is prompted by the inhuman (or all too human) curiosity of Iago about the evil he can do for no apparent reason; and ideas of goodness in Moore invite a section on ‘the American scene’, which is where the otherwise separate worlds of history and desire come closest to meeting – because America is a place where ‘liberty is prior to virtue,’ or at least this is the ‘presupposition … for which this country has come, symbolically, to stand’. And then in two subtle changes of key – you wonder why you didn’t expect them – Auden, who has from the very beginning been contrasting the fallen actual world to a whole set of attempts to picture alternatives to it, puts paradise and its opposite together in a theory of comedy, and ends his story with disappointments that even music cannot allay. Every high C is a triumph, but The Tempest, for example, cannot live up to the melancholy lyrics of its best songs. Prospero says he forgives his brother, but he only means he has trapped him. ‘Justice has triumphed over injustice, not because it is more harmonious, but because it commands superior force; one might even say because it is louder.’ And when Prospero is not too loud he is too quiet. The tone of his talk about returning to Milan at the end of the play, Auden says, is that ‘of one who longs for a place where silence shall be all’.

Auden’s readings are predicated on a grim and intricate realism about the way he thinks things are. ‘In the real world, no hatred is totally without justification, no love totally innocent.’ Or: ‘The historical world is a fallen world, i.e. though it is good that it exists, the way in which it exists is evil, being full of unfreedom and disorder.’ Even the Christian God is in trouble, because he has created ‘a world which he continues to love although it refuses to love him in return’. But then precisely because the world is like this, realism in art must always be subordinate to other projects of the kind we have already seen: rescues of individuality, sketches of forgiveness, proofs of human independence, to which he would certainly add models of redemption. Art can’t redeem the world, and that is why we must be modest about it. But it can show us what redemption would look like, and this is why it matters. Auden modulates these thoughts through the idea of Eden, which is the largest connecting theme of the whole book, and his mode of interpretation is to find a parable, or something like a parable, in every work that matters to him.

Right at the beginning he gives us a questionnaire he has devised for critics, who he thinks need to tell us what their idea of Eden is – his assumption is that writers of poetry and fiction come clean about theirs in their work. Eden is not just paradise but the particular paradise we each like to imagine we were thrown out of. We can’t go back, but the imaginary memory will say a lot about who we are. Auden’s questions are about, among other things, preferred landscape, language, religion, form of government, means of transport, formal dress and public statues, and his own answers, in order, are ‘Limestone uplands like the Pennines’; ‘Of mixed origins like English, but highly inflected’; ‘Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way’; ‘Absolute monarchy, elected for life by lot’; ‘Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, narrow-gauge railroads, canal barges, balloons’; ‘The fashions of Paris in the 1830s and 1840s’; and ‘Confined to famous defunct chefs’. In a slightly less playful tone he tells us that ‘the fantasy … which the detective story addict indulges is the fantasy of being restored to the Garden of Eden, to a state of innocence, where he may know love as love and not as the law.’ He distinguishes firmly between Eden as a dream of the past and the New Jerusalem as a project for the future. In Eden, he says, ‘it is absolutely required that one be happy and likeable,’ whereas in New Jerusalem ‘it is absolutely required that one be happy and good.’ And in the most brilliant of Auden’s riffs on this subject Mr Pickwick gets thrown out of the Eden of his ignorance of evil, ‘but, instead of falling from innocence into sin … he changes from an innocent child into an innocent adult who … lives … in the real and fallen world.’ Falstaff too lives in a kind of Eden until his old friend Hal says he knows him not – there are forms of irresponsibility that would be regrettable in life but in their fictional forms are indispensable for thinking about what life might be – and he can’t imagine keeping his word, Auden says, ‘for a promise means that at some future moment I might have to refuse to do what I wish, and in Falstaff’s world to wish and to do are synonymous.’ As are not wishing and not doing. ‘In his soliloquy about honour, his reasoning runs something like this: if the consequence of demanding moral approval from others is dying, it is better to win their disapproval; a dead man has no audience.’ We might put this magnificent argument alongside Auden’s half dozen or so things which a man of honour ought to be prepared to die for, including frivolity. Falstaff is saying that not even that idea is frivolous enough.

To see Pickwick and Falstaff in this way is to see them as figures in parables about innocence and wishing, and Auden insists again and again that parables are what he is looking for. A Shakespearean tragedy for him is ‘both a feigned history and a parable’; Henry IV has, ‘in addition to its overt meaning, a parabolic significance’; Iago is ‘a parabolic figure for the autonomous pursuit of scientific knowledge through experiment’ – bit of a stretch, this one. Henry James’s story ‘The Great Good Place’ is ‘a religious parable’ about ‘a spiritual state’. Nathanael West’s works are not novels or satires but ‘parables about a Kingdom of Hell whose ruler is not so much the Father of Lies as the Father of Wishes’.

There is a logical snag here, though, and it reflects not Auden’s unmistakeable success in what he is doing but his worry about it. Thinking about Kafka’s parables, he distinguishes the genre from novels and plays in which ‘a good critic can make others see things … which, but for him, they would never have seen for themselves.’ This can’t happen with parables, whose meaning is different for every reader. ‘To find out what, if anything, a parable means, I have to surrender my objectivity and identify myself with what I read.’ A critic who ‘tries to interpret a parable … will only reveal himself’. Auden does seem pretty clearly to be saying that one can’t do at all what he does so well throughout this book. What is happening here? Well, first he is trying to trace out an important distinction, which we might mark by saying that we interpret novels and plays, but apply parables: that we find ways not so much of understanding them as of putting them to use. More significantly and quite characteristically, he is exaggerating the difference between two conceptual siblings. He loves to set up pairs and have them slug it out: reader and writer, chance and providence, deed and behaviour, pardon and forgiveness, the sacred and the profane. But his objectivity and his subjectivity are not the opposing parties he takes them to be, nor are they in any critic. Criticism, as Roland Barthes says, begins when we think about our subjectivity, not when we get rid of it. When Auden writes subjectively, he often says what we feel. He does this when he writes objectively too, although sometimes he simply voices the general wisdom of the psychoanalytic mid-century in Manhattan: ‘Leontes is a classical case of paranoid sexual jealousy due to repressed homosexual feelings.’ What he has found in the parables of Shakespeare, James, West and others is precisely the possibility of different experiences meeting without cancelling each other out or occupying all the interpretative space. Auden is revealing himself throughout the book, but not only revealing himself. He is finding shapes and structures in literature that teach us without telling us what to do.

Even his quizzes and classifications have an air of parable about them, a sense that we need to work with them, that they will help us most if we do more than just read them. Here is his test for the critic:

Do you like, and by like I really mean like, not approve of on principle:

1) Long lists of proper names … ?

2) Riddles and all other ways of not calling a spade a spade?

3) Complicated verse forms of great technical difficulty … ?

4) Conscious theatrical exaggeration … ?

‘If a critic could truthfully answer “yes” to all four,’ Auden says, ‘then I should trust his judgment implicitly on all literary matters.’ We can imagine taking this test quite literally, and failing it or passing it, or finding it ridiculous. But we could also think of it analogically. Then we would wonder what kind of critical interests were being sought and excluded, and we could look for examples, just as we are invited to describe our own idea of Eden. Again, in another very funny passage Auden evokes four kinds of critic he hopes a poet might not turn into: ‘a prig, a critic’s critic, a romantic novelist or a maniac’. The first is a person ‘for whom no actual poem is good enough’; the second manages ‘to deprive someone who has not yet read [the poem] of all wish to do so; the third finds a ‘happy hunting ground’ in the ‘field of unanswerable questions’, and the fourth has a theory that turns the poem into an endless puzzle. The parable here is a bit like Walter Benjamin’s notion of the story. What it’s asking for is not acceptance but adaptation: we are to find our own four varieties of critic that get on our nerves.

After or apart from The Dyer’s Hand, the prose in this large volume feels miscellaneous – because it is miscellaneous. But there are extraordinary treasures here: fine swipes at Rilke (‘a lot of humourless and unmanly fuss’) and Dostoevsky (‘though … of course, a great genius, I cannot bear him’), plenty of complaints about Yeats (‘I sometimes feel that the question “Is this statement true or false?” has never occurred to him’); a haunting, repeated definition of Hell borrowed from Charles Williams (‘nobody is ever sent to hell; he, or she, insists on going there’). There is a letter to the Sunday Times correcting the suggestion that Auden had snubbed Guy Burgess when he was in disgrace. It was true, Auden said, that he had been out when Burgess called, but that was all. ‘It would be dishonourable of me to deny a friendship because the party in question has become publicly notorious.’ There is a fine, cautious, detailed review of volumes of verse by Philip Larkin and Geoffrey Hill; there are notes on Ford Madox Ford, Saint-John Perse and many others. And above all there is a beautiful, puzzled essay on Cavafy in which Auden, who firmly believes you need to know his or her language, and perhaps even be a native speaker, to read a poet properly (‘to pass judgment on poetry written in another tongue than one’s own is impudent’), tries to explain how he can genuinely get so much out of Cavafy, and how Cavafy can be such an influence on him. ‘I can think of poems which, if Cavafy were unknown to me, I should have written quite differently or perhaps not written at all.’ All this without Greek. Auden doesn’t succeed in his explanation. He suggests it must be ‘a tone of voice, a personal speech’ that comes across, ‘a unique perspective’, a ‘sensibility’. But this is just waving words, saying that Cavafy is Cavafy, and Auden’s problem remains, as he well knows. We understand, even expect, poems to get lost between languages, but we scarcely know what it means for a translation to arrive and feel right and stay with us.