There is an academic myth (vaguely Victorian in feeling but probably, like most Victorian principles, dating back a half-century earlier) that scholars study facts whereas critics make it all up out of their own heads. It afflicts English studies as it does most others, and had a recent airing in John Carey’s inaugural lecture at Oxford which proposed that scholars handle texts whereas critics only vandalise them by reading them. This double and triple illusion usefully affords occasion for simple restatements: that, for instance, to read at all is in itself a creative and interpretative act, an evidence of mind which it dignifies human beings to perform; that scholars and critics alike read inventively, to some extent knowing what they are looking for and to some extent finding it; that there is no such thing as a ‘text’, and if there were it would degrade literature to be treated as one – and there was probably no such thing as a fact, either, until some human being invented it. The only difference is that some people are much better readers than others, whether of books or of reality, better in the sense of ‘truer’, more accurate and more revealing: and may well be helped to be so by being rid of the illusion that as ‘scholars’ they have some easy, advantaged road to the truth.
This myth of scholarship seems extra liable to crop up where the lives of poets are concerned, and not necessarily because (or not only because) the biographer may suffer from its illusions, but because the very concept of the ‘life’ of a poet seems unavoidably to entail them, and the writing of the life to foster and promote them. It is partly that biographers are a species of historian, and historians are still – or so it appears – likely to console themselves with the thought that they are primary servants of Fact, and therefore engaged with truth. But also poets do seem to be exceptionally difficult subjects, because both they and many of the people they move among may well prove more expert – because more professional – realists of the imaginative life than even the biographer himself. A man who, to put it simply, has made a very great success in public of being a poet in private may, while retaining a capacity for the most scrupulous personal honesty, at the same time make it remarkably difficult to define what is, or is not, a ‘fact’ of his ‘life’. If both Eliot and Auden, to name only two, showed a strong disinclination to have their lives written, the reason may not have been that they had secrets to hide, or disliked public discussion of their work, so much as that they recognised that the biographer is, like the critic, as much a writer as themselves, and as writer a rival and competitor: one whose treatment or re-treatment of the poet’s own materials of experience might prove considerably less expert than the poet’s own, while also, given the nature of the market, more likely to last. Moreover the poet will probably start with the handicap of being dead.
Humphrey Carpenter’s excellent life of Auden has a nice turn of phrase in recounting the moment when Stephen Spender, arrived in an Oxford of the later Twenties which was pervaded by the legend of Auden, at last met his fellow undergraduate and ‘found the reality just as remarkable as that legend’. The story appears to have come from Spender, himself equipped with a vigorously romantic imagination and to that degree already much acquainted with legends; and it helps to show how much Carpenter’s splendidly documented and always enjoyably told nearly five-hundred-page life of Auden poses the problems of telling a life in which legends and reality were already peculiarly interfused. Nor is this an oblique way of impugning the biographer’s accuracy. Carpenter seems thoroughly well documented; as well as having been able to rely as fully upon a wide circle of the poet’s friends and acquaintances as if this were (as it is not) an official biography, he has evidently depended on or even worked fairly closely with Edward Mendelson, perhaps Auden’s ‘scholar-in-chief’, his literary executor and the editor who worked directly according to his wishes. And yet legends afflict Mendelson’s work as well. After his edition of the Collected Poems, which retains Auden’s own order and chronology, Mendelson edited The English Auden, which offered most of the poet’s pre-1939 work in its first-published, unrevised form for those who (unlike the editor) preferred their Auden neat; and in the useful scholarly Preface to that edition Mendelson referred to the period in the mid-Thirties when Auden worked with the GPO Film Unit, adding humorously that ‘his colleagues may have hesitated to give him [great] responsibility: when he directed a brief shot of a railway guard, the guard dropped dead a minute later.’ Without mentioning Mendelson, Carpenter quietly corrects this in an illuminating footnote: ‘According to Auden, “We got a shot of a guard at Crewe, and he dropped dead about thirty seconds later.” This made a good story, but the truth, according to [Basil] Wright, is that the man was not a guard but a senior railway official, and it was not until some weeks later that he died.’
The difficulties can be measured by saying that such scholars as Carpenter in his new Life, and Mendelson himself in his valuable study of the Early Auden – a critical essay devoted to the period covered by The English Auden – are themselves good storytellers, both the biography and the critical study being in their different ways expert performances, the first highly readable, the second formally elegant; and they are both involved with a person or persons for whom the interaction of ‘legend’ and ‘reality’ was to some large extent the stuff of human existence. Indeed, Mendelson’s very theme is that interaction, and his book is highly thematic, interpreting Auden’s lived intellectual progress in terms of the suggestive symbols thrown out by the poet’s own work – thus, in a characteristic couple of sentences from Mendelson: ‘Auden’s maps were real, but he kept them tightly folded. Auden was training himself in a topography of the actual, but for the moment his landscape forbade him to participate in it ...’ There are moments when a reader can hardly help wondering whether it can conceivably be safe or decorous to place such stress on symbols derived from a poet whose chief doctrinal teaching concerned the untrustworthiness of such poetic usages. Auden himself, a great Lewis Carroll fan, would possibly have said that Mendelson gets away with it by paying the images extra; and the prose does have at moments a slightly expensive quality.
Carpenter tends to run into the opposite problem: not so much of overvaluing symbols as of underestimating the potency of their makers. There are some splendid stories in his first two hundred pages particularly, whose charm derives in part from their being presented as biographer’s facts, from their cool randomness of occurrence: but it is again hard to believe that the ‘facts’ have not already been transmuted by letter and anecdote, that the odd black poetry of Auden’s Thirties existence didn’t take some of this quality from its being made so by its participants, who were, after all, some of the best writers of the period. It may not be easy to gauge the documents of an age that invented such brilliant documentaries, and whose novelists pretended to be a Camera.
Take one of Carpenter’s best stories, Auden’s marriage and more particularly its immediate aftermath. Thomas Mann’s daughter Erika – who though once-married was not very likely to marry again – was a cabaret artiste whose heroically anti-Nazi material had lost her her German passport, and who therefore approached the nearest Englishman, Christopher Isherwood, and proposed that he should provide her with a substitute by marrying her. Isherwood backing down, Auden – who all his life seems to have retained and exercised his own very special form of gentlemanliness – had the buck passed on to him and accepted it with alacrity. Very soon after, his new wife’s ex-colleague, a very large and formidable lady equally unconjugal in temperament, found herself in the same quandary, so Auden (exclaiming ‘What else are buggers for?’ in a perhaps only slightly complex tone) produced like a rabbit out of a hat a friend of E.M. Forster’s, who happened to be slight in physical build, though surely large in moral stature. Carpenter describes the ceremony in cool flat prose, the huge bride and tiny groom, the splendid bouquet and the amazed registrar, and Auden buying everyone large brandies in a pub ‘declaring “It’s on Thomas Mann.” He would have played the pub’s piano to add some jollity to the occasion, but the instrument proved to be locked, and when R.D. Smith asked for the key he was told that the pub’s landlord had just died and had been laid out on the billiard table in the bar next door ...’
It would be folly to challenge so capable an Auden scholar as Carpenter on the factual truth of this story, nor would one want to. But Carpenter begins his biography by stating flatly that it is not to be a work of literary criticism. It is clear that to him the life comes first: and yet he may be treating as ‘life’ what is already half-literature, and therefore demands a different kind of reckoning. I suspect myself that in a life of a writer some literary criticism is unavoidable; and that this story of the second wedding – to take only one casual example in well over four hundred pages – is simply a little too good to be true, too shapely, too Thirties, too sour – sweet and sadly farcical. Its mocking image of Auden derives, one would have thought, in part from Auden himself and in part from the two witnesses at the marriage, R.D. Smith (later a distinguished BBC producer of drama and already clearly with a good eye for it) and Louis MacNeice, whose impassive fantastic wit lights up every one of the handful of pages on which he appears. It is MacNeice who remarks of his fellow poet on their trip to Iceland together that ‘everything he touches turns to cigarettes,’ and that Auden in his special Iceland gear of seven or eight layers of clothing looked amphibian: ‘When he walks he moves like something that is more at home in the water.’ In fact, this talent for deadpan farce in the protagonists may surely have affected another of Carpenter’s calm factual accounts, the trip to Iceland itself, where Auden, MacNeice and a friend of Auden’s slept ‘the night at Reykjavik lunatic asylum as guests of the doctor in charge who talked to them in Latin ... [Later,] Auden, MacNeice and Yates slept at the Salvation Army hostel, into which they managed to smuggle a bottle of Spanish brandy obtained from the British vice-consul ...’
In both these cases there is no question of suggesting that the accounts are untrue. It is merely worth pointing out that the very reason why they help to contribute to so enjoyable a biography is that they contain problematic dimensions within themselves: they are already to some extent literature, events and accounts already formed and worked upon interpretatively by their earlier recorders. They add to Carpenter’s Life an element of legend perhaps not sufficiently taken stock of. And what is true in a small way of these localised passages proves true also of the whole of these otherwise admirable and scholarly books. In the amassment, sorting and presentation of data relevant to Auden’s work and life Carpenter’s W.H. Auden: A Biography and Mendelson’s critical study of Early Auden take their place at the centre of Auden studies, particularly when considered within that large-scale process of systematic tidying-up which has developed in the eight years since the poet died. They are both highly informative and dependable in that whole area of Auden’s career that involves external relationships on which facts can be provided. Carpenter is excellent on the complicated genesis and evolution of such collaborative works as The Dog Beneath the Skin, and on the previous plays which survive digested within it; Mendelson offers some fascinating information about the poet’s debts and sources – as, for instance, the phrases from a topographical description of England which can be made out clearly in the beautiful Chorus, ‘The Summer holds ...’, from that same play. But at the same time, while he appreciates the virtues of these two informative studies, a reader may well finish them instructed but also aware that the biography and the critical essay are alike interpretative, an image of Auden that is not and cannot be complete and objective; and this is all the more true, the more both books follow a kind of ideal of impersonal high-powered scholarship – because it is this very un-self-questioning trust in ‘impersonality’ that proves most self-limiting, least flexible in practice. Perhaps no scholarly essay is safely embarked on without some belief in the indeterminacy principle, or the fact that a recorder by recording invariably alters what he sees.
One simple example may serve to show the way in which an innocent scholarly method may accidentally distort, or at any rate silently condition, readers’ assumptions about the writer so dealt with. There are certain presuppositions which these two books share, and which can therefore be regarded as an incipiently ‘established’ and consequently powerful image of the poet in question; and one of the most important is reflected in the form of both books. Neither makes particular display of having a form, and both therefore escape the imputation to which they would be liable as works of art (rather than works of scholarship): that of having specific limits – of being coloured and conditioned in a certain way or towards a certain kind of meaning. Nonetheless each does have a form, and in essence it is the same form, the more potent as it is more tacit.
Mendelson’s critical study, Early Auden, covers precisely the area of his English Auden: that is to say, it takes us up to that moment early in 1939 when the poet left England for America. The bipartite division which dictated the structure of The English Auden (and will presumably dictate a volume on ‘Later Auden’) may be assumed to be partly prompted by Auden’s own division of his poems into groups for his 1966 Collected Poems. In the two previous collected editions of 1945 and 1950, Auden had arranged his verse in the alphabetical order of first-line initials; but for the 1966 volume Auden arranged his poems in more or less chronological sequence, making breaks, moreover, at what he called ‘each new chapter of my life’ – 1932, 1938, 1947 and 1957 (where he terminated). It seems to make a distinct psychological difference that this is therefore a ‘retrospective’ rather than truly collective volume: its author-editor, being still alive and writing – and indeed under sixty at the time, with a conceivable quarter-century of writing still ahead of him – could be presumed free to rethink these patterns again, producing ideas as different again as these were from the 1945 and 1950 sequences. It is, at all events, a very different matter when a posthumous editor and critic offers a volume as self-contained as The English Auden. This most certainly implies no criticism of that beautifully edited and presented volume: but its very excellence, taken together with Early Auden, gives the two books together a force of imposition not easy now to elude.
This is made far greater by the substance of Early Auden. Mendelson’s essay has that sophisticated self-awareness, that self-autonomy, characteristic of much recent American criticism. It makes of the disjunction in Auden’s career, at the end of the decade, not merely an accident but a means, and not merely a means but an end: it internalises it into the form of decision. Mendelson’s account of what constituted Auden’s career is exceedingly shaped and shapely, it is both purposive and – one would say if the word were not so tendentious – tendentious: it tells intently and insistently the story of how Auden came to decide, in seeking steadily for some means of overcoming his own profound isolation, that he must at last leave his ‘island’, England. This thesis the critic converts into an historical psychodrama making consistent use of the poet’s own images and symbols, and framing each chapter into a microcosm of the whole, which in its turn utilises the profoundly Audenesque concept of Journey or Quest across a territory at once inward and outward – thus: ‘When the vision faded Auden again found himself on the frontier ...’ And: ‘The young poet-healer who made England his school-room ... had retired to give some new thought to the curriculum.’
The effect of this self-defining, expressive if tacit pattern is to give enormous importance to the imputed division in Auden’s career, and moreover to introvert that event into the poet’s will and consciousness, as though the move to America were not only the most important thing that happened to him but as though it were important precisely because in some form it expressed his deepest wishes. And it is a striking fact that this same pattern is given an equivalent significance by Carpenter. In his Preface, Carpenter modestly and amiably defends himself against Auden’s proscription of biography, making it his apologia that he thinks of the poet as a ‘man of action’. How he describes those actions, therefore, is a matter of some weight, particularly since most of his readers cannot help reading the life in order to see what light it throws on the poems: since Carpenter would hardly be writing the life if Auden had not distinguished himself as a poet. The single most immediately perceptible factor in the biography is its division into two rather more than half-way through. Of this 450-page biography, the first section is entitled ‘England’, the second ‘America – and Europe’. The first slightly longer section comes to a resounding close on page 249, with the boat train bearing off Auden and Isherwood, leaving E.M. Forster and a friend of Isherwood’s waving on the platform: ‘ “Well,” said Isherwood “we’re off again.” “Goody,” said Auden.’ There we finish until, after blank pages to mark the crossing (rather as in The Winter’s Tale or To the Lighthouse), we start again with Part II on page 253, accompanying the two poets into New York under heavily falling snow, and with the news announced that Barcelona has fallen at last – that the Republican cause is in effect defeated, and world war therefore now unavoidable.
It is difficult to gauge from the rest of the Life whether the biographer really intended the full force of this boat-burning climax, which does tend to make of Auden and Isherwood not merely deserters but conscious deserters, abandoning their country in the full knowledge of coming war (other of Carpenter’s references seem to suggest that Auden, who had a strong moral but fallible political sense, thought the war would not take place). If Carpenter had been that other kind of ‘historian of fine consciences’, the novelist, his intention at this point would be plainer. But later in his Life it is possible to feel very uncertain as to whether he can be aware of what is implicit in his own shaping of materials. From a larger point of view, this division into two encourages the sense of how thin both Auden’s active and creative life became once he had moved to America. For Carpenter breaks at page 249, and of these first pages some seventy are given to childhood and adolescence, and then a whole 170 to Auden’s first ten or twelve years as a writer. The second section of the Life covers Auden’s later 34 writing years, and yet is given only 200 pages. Carpenter himself explains that after the Fifties poetry did not play the ‘central and vital part’ in Auden’s life that it did during the Twenties and Thirties, but was rather ‘a series of footnotes to his life’. If those 34 years of life have deserved only 200 pages, and the poetry is only a ‘series of footnotes to’ them, the poems must be thin indeed. And yet in the closing paragraphs of his Life Carpenter rebukes those (by implication) ‘less perceptive’ critics who see in Auden’s career a decline. That decline Carpenter has himself figured for us. For if poetry is not the most important thing in Auden’s life, it is hard to see why Carpenter should have given so large a section of his biography to the poet’s first most creative decade, granted that in the next ‘action’ packed 34 years the poetry has dwindled to a ‘series of footnotes’. If poetry is the most important thing in Auden’s life, it is hard to see why it is so wrong to impute some degree of decline (in any case, a natural human factor) to those long later years, for which even the biographer can spare less than half his space.
If there is confusion here, it derives perhaps from some central uncertainty in the book as to what it is a biographer of a poet is actually writing about – what constitutes the ‘life’. What remains clear is that Carpenter shares Mendelson’s premise that Auden’s life and career and poetry divide into two distinct sections, the ‘English’ and the ‘American’, the ‘early’ and the ‘late’, the ‘attractive’ or ‘exciting’ and the ‘honest’ or ‘true’ – for these are the moral categories in which Carpenter describes the posited change in Auden’s style. It must be said that all these divisions only follow very obvious categorising tendencies in Auden himself, whose thought patterns make him one of the most dualistic poets who has ever written; and that in this shaping of the poet’s life, as in so much of the externally informative in what they offer, both biographer and critic are acting in some accord with Auden’s work. Similarly this division of Auden’s life into these two sections makes some perfectly good sense at the literal or historical level, in that Auden did leave England shortly before war was declared, and showed no signs whatever of wanting or intending to return in the course of the war, unlike (say) Britten and Pears, who did so return after some three years in America: and it is an important fact, since it surely had immeasurable results, not limited to the simple dislike and disapproval lastingly felt by many who stayed on in a small and impoverished country that was to defend civilisation more or less on its own until the third year of the war.
For Auden to leave England at that time had a kind of terrible gracelessness from which the poet’s reputation has never really recovered. (It is suggestive that both these volumes have at moments a certain defensiveness which is perhaps their least pleasing quality: it rises at times to a sort of Anxiety of Establishment, a closing back-to-back to fight off any alien low interloping criticism of the poet, which surely Auden himself – who hated Maestrodom – would not at all have cared for.) At all events, it is reasonable for Carpenter to devote careful and lengthy consideration to this much-discussed action. Not finding a single motive for it, he impartially lists a number of motives proposed both by Auden himself and by friends and acquaintances, and leaves the reader to decide or let the issue stand as it does. And yet this gesture on Carpenter’s part is not quite as impartial as it seems, for it excludes one possibility: and it is precisely that possibility which it may be most important to allow for, in considering Auden’s work. ‘Significance’ may lie in effect or in cause, and they are not the same thing. What neither Carpenter nor Mendelson leaves quite enough room for is the possibility that Auden (who at the end of his life wore dark glasses, ‘for no apparent reason’, as Carpenter says, but perhaps to ward off the sight of things) decided nothing at all, or simply did not know why he acted as he did: that in the general pattern of his life the crossing of the Atlantic was a significant non-event. Poe’s famous story of the Purloined Letter tells of an object that was ‘hidden’ only by being exposed beyond certain habitual expectations: Auden’s departure may be an event that in the same way does not demand the search for hidden motives. Both Carpenter and Mendelson are at least conceivably hindered by a wrong hypothesis concerning ‘action’. The right question is not ‘Why exactly did Auden leave England?’, but ‘When did Auden ever stay anywhere for long?’ The poet was clearly possessed by that restlessness of the depressive temperament which Dr Johnson once summed up in an ashamed letter to Boswell: ‘I was glad to go abroad, and, perhaps, glad to come home; which is, in other words, I was, I am afraid, weary of being at home, and weary of being abroad. Is not this the state of life?’
Certainly Auden wrote in a comparable letter in 1939, ‘I never wish to see England again,’ but he unsaid it later. His relationship with places was clearly the same as that with the people around him, which Carpenter’s documentation throws so much light on in the Life. Auden approaches everyone with real and great and even innocent warmth (‘I can’t tell you what a pleasure it is to collaborate with you,’ ‘one of the greatest men I’ve ever met’, ‘really extremely nice’; he seems rarely out of love; even the marriage to Erika Mann he took very seriously, ‘swiftly came to admire her’, tried to maintain relations). And yet, as Spender narrates, friendships broke down, people drifted away, Auden ‘ended rather isolated’. The poet seems to have turned to the idea of each new place with delight, and yet his life there became so depressing despite all his attempts that he could rarely, it appears, stand more than a decade in any one place: or perhaps it could not stand him. In 1948, after nine years of toing and froing within America and between America and Europe, he began to rent his house in Ischia and half settled in there; in 1958 he left Ischia (‘Never never will I go back there again’) and purchased his much-loved house in Kirchstetten, Austria; in 1972 he sold his flat in New York, where he had always maintained a foothold, and returned to Oxford, which he evidently saw as a place to die happily in – though he was not, in fact, happy there, and died a year later in a hotel in Vienna. Carpenter narrates all these changes with great lucidity, and Mendelson, too, brings out the fact that even the ‘early Auden’ was really at home nowhere, much though he longed for a home, but existed always ‘on the frontier’. Thus, though when Auden after a few months in America used in a public statement the phrase ‘We in England’, Carpenter calls it ‘surprising in the circumstances’, a redefinition of the circumstances would not find it surprising. Auden always in some sense stayed at home: a friend he met after his translation to America, James Stern, later described him as ‘the most unalterably English, the most unlikely expatriate’, and Nicholas Nabokov similarly spoke with affection of Auden’s ‘clumsy laughter, his assertive way of telling not quite exportable (English parsondom’s) jokes’. The poet himself, when asked about his nationality, would say: ‘I’m a New Yorker.’
Both Carpenter and Mendelson allow their (perhaps not entirely conscious) imposition of form to be conditioned by their silent interpretation of Auden’s whole life, in which they see this one action, the crossing from England to America, as a wholly significant factor. If it was significant, it certainly needs to be seen clearly: for evidently much depended on it then and much depends now on the interpretation of it. But to see it clearly need not be to see it as important in the fabric of Auden’s real life, and any importance it has need not be the importance of decision. Mendelson quotes a journal entry made by Auden during the early Thirties and concerned with Freud, which says: ‘the real “life-wish” is the desire for separation.’ And the critic himself charts out the conflicts of this ‘life-wish’ with splendid fullness and interest. It drove Auden, by a series of mixed impulses and half-awarenesses, half-decisions, into a departure from his country after a decade’s serious and in some sense impassioned identification with it. Of the possible ways of looking at this event, in Auden’s case that of ‘motive’ seems least fruitful. Since the poet seems to have believed, like many other people in England at that time, that war was not going to take place, the most striking aspect of the event is the bad luck of its bad timing, which left Auden framed for ever afterwards in an imputation of cowardice and disloyalty. And yet bad timing and bad luck are not, as it happens, wholly external factors: ‘accident’ is not random when we talk of the accident-prone. Auden is surely a person who seems to attract the words ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ about his fortunes, words which are also important in his poetry; and they perhaps reflect a certain quality of the out-of-control about this clever and talented man. In the wealth of personal reminiscence that has appeared since the poet’s death (Osborne’s biography as well as Carpenter’s, Spender’s collection of salutes from friends and acquaintances) there are frequent recollections of Auden’s peculiar physical clumsiness. Nicholas Nabokov’s striking phrase extends this to the poet’s ‘clumsy laughter’, and perhaps one ought to extend it even further, and see a kind of large generic clumsiness in the whole conduct of Auden’s life, a helpless gracelessness or unluck that often spoiled what he intended. It was bad luck (one might say) that war came so soon, unreckoned on; bad luck that no sooner had Auden reached America than he fell wildly in love with what appeared to be the first wholly reciprocating person he had ever met, an action that certainly made any intentions of return that he might have formed go for nothing. But the feeling for Kallman was perhaps a more essential, a more characteristic gesture, on Auden’s part, than any sheerly rational decision to change continents could have been. For love, like Auden’s affiliation to ‘luck’ and ‘unluck’, went with everything in his life that was irrational, out of his control. All the symbols of decision in Auden’s poetry, and all his proclamations of the importance of choice, have the excitement and beauty of the things which it is not natural for us in ordinary life to achieve.
The division of Auden’s career into two halves which in Carpenter and Mendelson is near to becoming ‘authoritative’ or ‘established’ is regrettable not simply because it places extreme emphasis on this one action of Auden’s. If the event may have been to some degree a non-event, the action an inaction, then the emphasis serves to conceal both this fact and the corresponding importance of that species of non-event or inaction in Auden’s actual writing. In making the life seem different from what it may have been, it distorts the sense of the work. This is merely a matter of stress, and one would not want to ignore the amount of ordinary good sense in this conventional account of the poet’s life and actions. It does all the same neglect qualities which become very important in the poetry, however much overlooked or underestimated they are there. Isherwood once described Auden’s poems as ‘like rabbits produced from a hat – they couldn’t be talked about before they appeared.’ This element of profound irrationality, a kind of creative inaction, is something which Auden’s own descriptions of the writing process lay much stress on (and which appears perhaps in the poems in the strong affection for animals, all the ‘ears’ that ‘poise before decision, scenting danger’) but which critical accounts of his work rarely pay much attention to. It must be presumed that this is one of the losses which has accompanied gains on other fronts in our approach to the arts during the last century. Moving away from the Victorian notion of poetry as ‘magic’, we have learned to respect the intelligence of poets: unfortunately we seem also to have unlearned how to recognise intelligence.
Mendelson’s persuasive, well-supported and self-consistent thesis gains its strength and coherence largely from the degree to which it ‘rationalises’ Auden – converts the act of making in him into a peculiarly willed and deliberative process, marked out at every stage by a system of choice. And it is the critic’s very respect for his subject that urges him to write in this way: he sees Auden as that respect-worthy object, an out-and-out all-round top-level success, who ‘became the most inclusive poet of the 20th century, its most technically skilled, and its most truthful’, a man who, in Mendelson’s eyes, achieved his whole career as would a general his most famous campaign, one who, ‘rejecting the romantic premise that individual vision is the true source of poetry, willingly submerged his personality in collaboration with others’. And Mendelson finds that beautiful, lazy and ardent poem ‘A Summer Night’ an action like Caesar’s crossing of the Rubicon, ‘a prodigious step, made in opposition to the reigning assumptions of almost two centuries of philosophy and art’.
There is a real sense in which these statements are probably true (although it is interesting that Auden himself found Brecht, the literary figure with whom Mendelson links and compares him, ‘a horrible man’). It is when the critic gets nearer to the actual writing process that he helps one to define the sense in which something has nonetheless gone wrong here: The unstable tone is one of the barriers Auden uses to isolate himself from his readers, or at least to keep his relation with them radically problematic ...’ ‘Auden in his early poems treats the separation of language from the world as the ultimate subject to which all writing refers ...’ Auden ‘now tried replacing his first theory with its exact opposite’. It is this last sentence that at last encourages a reader to sit up suddenly and find the terms of his No. If Auden’s thought was any good, it was not arrived at like this; and if it was arrived at like this, it does not deserve to have a book written about it. Mendelson is lured into a theory about thinking, about writing, and even about living itself, which is worth protesting against because it is so very prevalent in sophisticated criticism. And if this is what he assumes to be Auden’s theory rather than his own, then he has the problem of explaining how Auden ever wrote any good poetry by it.
Strikingly, this is an image of Auden’s character which seems to be at least in part shared by his biographer, for early in his life of the poet Carpenter firmly concludes his brief description of Auden’s childhood with this summary: The chief characteristic of his childhood was security, a security that gave him the immense unshakable self-confidence that was his overriding attribute.’ If this ‘self-confidence’ was ‘unshakable’, it is presumably Carpenter’s conclusion that Auden retained it all his life. And yet it is a part of the value of this biography that it offers such full evidence that seems simply to contradict the conclusion he maintains: or at least to qualify and complicate it. It seems as if the poet could hardly frame a memory of the past that was not loaded with anxiety, melancholy, even terror. On the page facing the reference to ‘unshakable self-confidence’ is quoted Auden’s earliest memory, of an occasion when he was five years old and his parents went to a party in travesty – in clothes they had exchanged with each other: ‘I was terrified.’ This primal scene is succeeded by his prep school, solely populated by ‘hairy monsters with terrifying voices and eccentric habits’: and the prep-school recollections of insult and humiliation, though classic and archetypal, are too many to quote here. At home, Auden’s mother (or so a visiting friend of the boy’s felt, or was told by Auden) ‘disapproved of almost anything Wystan said or did’. At Oxford, ‘I was more unhappy than I have ever been before or since’ (and the third-class degree earned by this first-class intellect was one of the worst pieces of unluck in his life). So it goes on through the Thirties: even Iceland, before the kind and uproarious MacNeice arrives, is misery (‘You can’t imagine any of them behaving like the people in the sagas, saying “That was an ill word” and shooting the other man dead’). On a slow boat to China with lsherwood, Auden wept and said ‘no one would ever love him.’ And the withdrawal a few years later of Kallman from any very close relationship seems more or less to have finished Auden off. When this large-scale literary figure bought, at 50, his little house in Austria, he ‘sometimes ... stood in the garden with tears of gratitude and surprise that he possessed a home of his own.’
Auden was clearly sometimes capable of high spirits too. More importantly, he inherited from his parents an ideal of public service, of social behaviour, and above all of self-control, that made it extremely unlikely that he would ever reveal his deeper feelings to casual acquaintances; and he was obviously in a simple way publicly shy all his life. Auden developed, in fact, a standard of ‘shop-front’ which led to a real schism in public and private behaviour, a division in what he seemed and really felt. And this was a characteristic consistent from his earliest schooldays – ‘to his school-fellows he may have seemed self-assured, but in his own eyes he was largely a failure ... he felt himself (he said) to be “grubby and inferior and dull ... doomed to a life of failure and envy” ’ – right up to the moment many years later when what he had hoped was a ‘marriage’ with Kallman broke down: ‘His loyalty to Chester meant that very few friends were aware that there had been a change in the relationship between them ... Only occasionally did his deeper feelings become apparent.’
The subject of Carpenter’s life cannot have been characterised by ‘immense unshakable self-confidence’, and is unlikely to have written the kind of verse displaying the qualities of purposive decision which Mendelson’s technique implies. In his own eyes, in fact, Auden was a man whose ‘mind works ... not slowly but weakly, passively, impotently’; who could often feel he had ‘even less character and intellect than I thought’; a man who believed he needed his steady ritual, once in America, of boosting and tranquillising drugs because he was ‘fundamentally a weak character’, only enabled to act at all by virtue of the will-power supplied by drugs. Carpenter tends to some extent, having recounted all this, to brush it aside, as he does also the question of neurosis in Auden – choosing to give little space to the subject of the poet’s parents, and his relation with them. These choices are Carpenter’s own, and are perhaps made in the fear of spoiling the poet’s public image: or perhaps the biographer himself is impatient with such evidences of the more private self.
There can be little doubt that Auden was either born with problems or suffered real damage in his earliest years from his loving but highly masculine and domineering mother. To ignore this fact would be to fail to understand how a child of such large talents, one so intensely clever and lively, became a person to whom certain kinds of decision and action were evidently impossible. Auden grew up a person of ‘surface’ and ‘depths’: on the surface was an extreme aggressive ebullience, an energetic dogmatic strength perhaps only accentuated almost to the point of caricature by the sense always of weakness, even of void, beneath. And this is surely the curious complex quality or character that comes through directly in the poems: a huge vitality of surface outgoingness, of intellectual life and energy, that is (precisely) of the surface, because powered only by a sense of internal void, of weakness, of failure, almost non-existence. Whether or not this is neurotic, in his poetry Auden managed to correlate surface and depth as he could almost never in life; he wrote a poetry in which the ‘unluck’ of his life became the ‘luck’ of his verse. And by virtue of this capacity it achieved, perhaps, that normative quality which is the opposite of neurosis. It is Auden’s sense of failure which is the true success of his poetry. He found a manner and a depth that could make a reader feel what Johnson said in his letter to Boswell: ‘Is not this the state of life?’
The side of Auden’s poetry that speaks of experience rather than communicating information of one sort or another is, as John Bayley has said in his elegant and persuasive essay on the poet, often rather neglected by Auden criticism, which tends (Bayley suggests) rather to describe a poem’s views or contents than to say how it works. Bayley’s own answer to this question is that Auden was a certain kind of symbolist, but one who leans very lightly on what he is doing – ‘Auden is very much a new type of aesthete, who sees art not as religion but as a game, to be played with as skilful and individual a touch as possible’ – and he stresses that at Auden’s most characteristic ‘we find it almost impossible to take him seriously.’ Carpenter clearly shares this reading of the poet, speaking of The Orators as ‘fundamentally largely a joke’, and of Auden a little later as ‘still flirting with the Lawrentian Fascism with which he had amused himself in The Orators’.
Yet it is Carpenter who also quotes Spender’s impression (apparently from a letter from the poet) that The Orators was composed ‘in sweat and blood’. There is surely something in Auden, as a poet and not as a teacher or preacher or any kind of purveyor of wisdom, that is to be taken seriously. And perhaps Bayley’s ‘game’ or ‘playing’ (however closely they follow Auden’s own theorising) errs as much as Carpenter and Mendelson in their stress on the predominance of will, the superiority of detachment. The essence of the game is its choice of limits, which is what differentiates it from most of human life, where the limits are not chosen but there from the beginning. Both John Bayley and Humphrey Carpenter see very much the same Auden, and it is a seeing and not a hearing: for what they leave out of their account is the sound, as it were, of Auden’s human voice, which governs and controls the ‘playful’ images. The interesting thing is that the poetic voice is not itself playful. Nor does this voice have quite the qualities which Bayley ascribes to the verse, as Carpenter to the man – ‘rhetorical, self-confident to the point of arrogance, intent on securing the advantages of an immediate effect’: it is rather the sound of a man who – however complicatedly – knows that he sounds like this, assents to sounding like this, but is not like this (‘To his school-fellows he may have seemed self-assured, but in his own eyes he was largely a failure’). The unchanging sound of Auden’s verse, through all its changes and its brilliances and its nonsenses, is the sound of someone putting up a shop-front, or putting on a turn, or playing to the gallery: the sound, precisely, of a kind of comic heroic despair, as of one who knows exactly what junk he is selling but has to keep on with it because there is nothing whatever else to do.
The relation of the poet’s ‘voice’ to his materials is not unlike that of Prospero to Ariel – though it was Caliban, as Carpenter tells us, that Auden saw as his part in life and chose to play at school. Of the several ambitious long poems which Auden wrote in the decade after he settled in America, probably the most enjoyable is ‘The Sea and the Mirror’, a kind of poetic footnote or cast-list or final bow by the characters of Shakespeare’s Tempest fitted into that ambiguous moment before the curtain has quite come down; and of all these ‘Epilogues’ the best is the last and only prose one, that delivered by Caliban. This enormous monologue is delivered by Caliban in the most unlikely and indecorous or ‘Ariel’ style possible, the beautiful mannered orotundities of late Henry James; it is essentially about the impossibility of Art; and it comes to a climax in a wonderful long period detailing absolute ridiculous theatrical failure: ‘Our performance – for Ariel and I are, you know this now, just as deeply involved as any of you – which we were obliged, all of us, to go on with and sit right through to the final dissonant chord, has been so indescribably inexcusably awful ...’
This fifty-line apologia (at the end of the monologue) for sheer rock-bottom failure, which is only forgivable because it knows, devoutly, just how terrible it is, is a triumph which initiates that late phase in which it amused Auden to adapt to Christian truths a high theatrical camp surely learned from the opera-loving New Yorker Kallman. But the passage is in any case only a late virtuoso form of what every poem of Auden’s says in some way, and the saying constitutes the poet’s seriousness beyond that ‘mystery and charm’ which Bayley rightly praises. Carpenter quotes a splendid description of Auden (as Caliban again, perhaps) in the mid-Thirties by Harry Watt, who directed Night Mail with Basil Wright:
He looked exactly like a half-witted Swedish deckhand; his jacket was far too short in the sleeves, and he had huge, boney red hands and big, lumpy wrists and dirty old flannel trousers and an old sports jacket and this blond towhead, and then the rather plummy, frightfully good accent, which was very surprising coming out of him ... There, on that old Post Office table, he wrote the most beautiful verse. He kept bringing it, and – the cheek of us, in a way – we turned down so much. He’d say, ‘All right, that’s quite all right. Just roll it up and throw it away.’
In a way, every poem that Auden wrote carries a device saying ‘Just roll it up and throw it away’ – a device which is essentially that fugitive tone of comic despair never quite localisable but always recognisable as the Audenesque. It is embodied, for one thing, in the richness and bulk of a career – nearly fifty years of good writing – that at the same time was peculiarly involved with the expendable, with the collaborative and the commissioned, with a politics and a theology each of which demotes poetry to the second-best, with momentary tasks and purchasable needs. If the early verse is engaged with a love that will certainly pass, the later exists in a ‘suburb of dissent’: what they have in common, beyond their alteration from the ‘attractive’ to the ‘honest’ or the ‘exciting’ to the ‘true’, is a shared understanding that existence is always askew from where it ought to be or might be, as the personnel in Auden’s poems are always cut off from Eden and doubtful about Heaven, or as a ‘dear one is mine as mirrors are lonely’.
This sense of the askew, of inhabiting a moment that gains definition only from the degree to which it lacks the absolute, pervades Auden’s verse from first to last. This is why it is a poetry of fragments and splinters, always changing styles and doxologies. We recognise the Audenesque by the way things don’t fit: epithets together (‘tolerant, enchanted’, ‘warm and lucky’) or objects with their figures of speech (‘the winter holds them like the Opera’) or style with substance (camp with Christian, Horatian with Ischian, medieval alliterative verse with lost souls in a New York bar, haikus with home truths). The revisions Auden made to his earlier poems are mistakes, and are indefensible, because he tried to improve something whose character it is to be unimprovable – ‘wrong from the start’; he tried to polish poems whose art it is to voice, with the most exquisite accuracy, that ‘clumsiness’ which so many friends record in anecdote, whose authenticity is a fractured syntax and a melodramatic language of gesture. One of the saddest, most characteristic stories Carpenter tells describes how Auden double-sold The Double Man, offering it to Lehmann for the Hogarth Press while still contracted to Faber’s, where Eliot promptly published it as New Year Letter. Auden answered Lehmann’s angry letter with no more than a telegram saying: ‘I am incapable of dealing with this.’ The poet’s life, like most people’s, was clearly full of things which he was ‘incapable of dealing with’: but it was his gift to harness that incapacity, his talent to ride the nightmare:
And all sway forward on the dangerous flood
Of history, that never sleeps or dies,
And, held one moment, burns the hand.
It is this particular sense of the ‘dangerous flood’, of History as something that over rides, which humanises Auden’s poetry most often; and it is this that militates, too, against that deliberative, purposive and successful quality which Carpenter and Mendelson tend to endow it with. ‘Today,’ Auden says, ‘the makeshift consolations’: he is the genius of the makeshift, the virtuoso of contingency, and to perfect his achievement is to endanger his essential character. There is really no ‘Auden story’ to tell, either in biography or criticism, because his life clearly got nowhere, and his art was not of the kind that develops steadily and out of itself. He was, rather, like Dryden, a professional poet, endlessly generously responsive to the demands and challenges of the moment. His career has no real pattern just as his life has no real form: there are only the enormous number of good poems which he wrote, all of them highly vulnerable to criticism for one thing or another. Why not?
Listen to Seamus Perry and Mark Ford discuss Auden's life and work on the LRB Podcast.