‘That is the way things happen,’ Auden writes in ‘Memorial for the City’, a poem Edward Mendelson dates from June 1949,
for ever and ever
Plum-blossom falls on the dead, the roar of the waterfall covers
The cries of the whipped and the sighs of the lovers
And the hard bright light composes
A meaningless moment into an eternal fact
Which a whistling messenger disappears with into a defile:
One enjoys glory, one endures shame;
He may, she must. There is no one to blame.
Except that this is not the way things happen, only the way we have been taught to see them, by epic poets and the news camera. ‘Our grief is not Greek,’ Auden adds, meaning that the story of our time is not helpless pain and pity, however noble, not the repetitive horror of fame or disgrace or death without meaning on an indifferent earth.
As we bury our dead
We know without knowing there is reason for what we bear.
We should probably add straightaway that the ancient Greeks also knew this, even if their reasons were different, so their grief wasn’t Greek in this sense either, but Auden’s point remains, a post-Holocaust secularisation of T.S. Eliot’s thoughts about time. ‘Only through time time is conquered,’ Eliot wrote, and for Auden human time, which he elsewhere calls ‘a City/where each inhabitant has/a political duty/nobody else can perform’, is the realm in which we find guilt and responsibility, and through them pardon. ‘In Time we sin,’ Auden writes in yet another poem. ‘But Time is sin and can forgive.’ Whereas
The crow on the crematorium chimney
And the camera roving the battle
Record a space where time has no place.
In ‘Homage to Clio’ (June 1955), Auden pursues similar thoughts, but is kinder to the camera, which becomes the means not of freezing time, but of marking the silent specificity of the passing moment. There are plenty of statues of Aphrodite and Artemis, and none of Clio, Auden says, but this doesn’t mean he hasn’t seen her.
I have seen
Your photo, I think, in the papers, nursing
A baby, or mourning a corpse: each time
You had nothing to say and did not, one could see,
Observe where you were, Muse of the unique
Historical fact ...
‘Lives that obey you move like music,’ the poem goes on, ‘Becoming now what they only can be once.’ And then: ‘It sounds/Easy, but one must find the time.’ Mendelson finds in this ‘casual-sounding’ play on words ‘a breathtakingly compressed and moving statement of the myriad challenges and regrets of private life’. And not only of private life. Finding the time means abandoning the privileged perch on the crematorium chimney, remembering in their unrepeatable individuality the baby and the corpse and the nurse and the mourner, and it may mean refusing the ‘hard bright light’ of many accepted notions of art, ancient and modern.
‘The moral argument of Auden’s whole career,’ Mendelson says, commenting on the passage I quoted at the start, ‘and the explicit argument of the later sections of this poem, is that someone is to blame.’ The difference between Eliot and Auden, Mendelson argues, is that Eliot believed that ‘the disasters of his time were the product of futile and anarchic disorder’, while Auden was inclined to see them as the product of ‘effective purposive evil’. Eliot, I suspect, fully believed in evil as well as futility and anarchy, and the trick here is not to make Auden sound simply more of a moraliser than Eliot was. Mendelson doesn’t always avoid this effect, and describes the average folk in Auden’s ‘Terce’ (October 1953), who are just trying to get through an averagely selfish day, as committed to ‘absolutely self-centred fantasies of a world in which reality has been suspended in one’s own favour’. It’s true that these people, who are us (‘At this hour we all might be anyone’), are about to take part in the Crucifixion, but our shallowness rather than any more grievous moral error is the point. Still, Mendelson’s overall argument, traced in meticulously documented detail, is very persuasive. ‘To be forgiven,’ Auden wrote in a prose work he never finished, ‘means to realise that one has never been judged except by oneself’, and it’s hard to imagine Eliot writing that. Hard even to imagine Auden writing it in the early, pre-American phase of his life. ‘Someone is to blame’ doesn’t mean pointing the finger or finding a scapegoat; it means accepting rather than eluding guilt, and for Auden the fact of blame is also a chance for forgiveness.
Mendelson describes Later Auden as ‘a history and an interpretation of W.H. Auden’s work from the time he moved from England to the United States in 1939 until his death in 1973’. The book is not a biography, although it frequently and usefully adduces biographical details. Or perhaps it is a biography of the work, with a little help from the life of the man. ‘The best part of a writer’s biography,’ Nabokov said, ‘is the story of his style,’ but Later Auden is not quite that. Mendelson has a very good ear, and there are plenty of remarks about verse forms and diction, but the bulk of the book concerns Auden’s working and reworking of his shifting themes, his shabby-looking but entirely honourable quest for what Mendelson calls ‘wisdom’. Auden himself, quoted by Mendelson, said he had two questions when reading a poem. ‘The first is technical: “Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work?” The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: “What kind of guy inhabits this poem?” ’ Mendelson likes and understands the contraptions, but his book is about the guy in the poems.
Mendelson is Auden’s literary executor and tireless editor, and he effectively goes back over Auden’s working life, reading his reviews, his lectures, his letters, his notes, alongside the poems and the libretti, never losing track or patience. He is not unduly polite about Auden, or excessively discreet, and he has a mind of his own. He is less defensive about Modernism than he was in his Early Auden (1981), more convinced that Auden’s stature can take care of itself. The storyline of the book is pretty compelling for such a quiet life, mainly because Auden’s mind is so interesting, and because it left so many traces. His love affair with Chester Kallman figures quietly but firmly throughout the book, along with his summers (from 1948) in Italy, and his purchase (in 1958) of a house in Austria. We learn a lot about his reading, and quite a bit about his politics. In America he moved from left to centre, and then off again towards the dissident left. One of his finer semi-political gestures was his gift of money to a charitable shelter accompanied by his unsuccessful attempt to say on American television that charity should go to ‘the undeserving poor’. Mendelson sees very astutely that Auden was more troubled by honours and success than he was by apparent failures and defections. ‘He had shrugged off the denunciations in the British press and Parliament that followed his departure for America in 1939, but he could not so easily shrug off the inner wound inflicted by public honour in 1948’ – i.e. the Pulitzer Prize. But I’m not sure Auden shrugged off any of the denunciations all that easily, and I’m pretty sure he couldn’t shrug off a wound at all, but the point is a good one. For Auden the inner accuser was always louder than the outer one – the second is the one to be found ‘crying in a cocktail glass’, as we read in The Age of Anxiety – and the inner one had a field day when Auden was being rewarded for something. Although he was happy and flattered to return to Oxford to become Professor of Poetry, he had, at the same time, what he called ‘a very unpleasant dark-night-of-the-soul sort of experience’. This seems a bit excessive, even for a person going back to his old college, but the excess, I take it, is in the psychological pattern rather than the description.
There are one or two moments of bathos. Kallman becomes Auden’s Beatrice, because he tells him to stop biting his nails, and Auden stops. You don’t remember this bit in the Purgatorio? Well, Beatrice ‘both rebukes and heals the lover’s weakness’, so it’s pretty close. Or again, while it’s a good idea to get people to understand the continuing, typological force of the Crucifixion by analogy, not any analogy will do. The event at the centre of ‘Horae Canonicae’ is ‘the specific historical act that was performed in first-century Jerusalem and simultaneously any apparently trivial act you may do that harms another person when you did not consciously intend to do harm’. I think we’re going to need to think of something a little more violent and terminal if we’re going to get the hang of it. Auden divided people into those who feel depressed in the morning and fine later in the day and those who feel fine in the morning and have a low spell in the afternoon. He belonged to the latter group, and said he thought ‘his low ebb in the afternoon was a remembrance of the Crucifixion’. I take it Auden was joking, but I don’t quite see what the joke is, and Mendelson reports the story straight.
But then Mendelson is particularly persuasive about Auden’s return to Christianity in 1940. Indeed, he makes that Christianity itself sound a lot more interesting than it usually does. This is because the roles played by Kierkegaard and the ‘radical form of Protestantism’ of Tillich and Niebuhr are well explored, and because Auden’s faith, in several important ways, kept him away from conservatism rather than led him to it. The faith was also a road to self-knowledge. Why does Auden believe in Jesus Christ rather than, say, Socrates or Buddha or Confucius or Muhammad? Because ‘none of the others arouses all sides of my being to cry “Crucify him”.’ When Auden thinks of the wrath of God, in a passage Mendelson quotes from Forewords and Afterwords, he says very precisely: ‘The wrath of God is not a description of God in a certain state of feeling, but of the way in which I experience God if I distort or deny my relation to him.’ This is manifestly the same Auden as the one who earlier specialised in poems of sexual and political betrayal, where the very idea of virtue finds out vice in otherwise anodyne people. ‘Lay your sleeping head, my love,/Human on my faithless arm.’ The beauty of these lines is inseparable from their hint of an eagerness to betray, their delicate pride in the freedom of faithlessness. And, of course, inseparable from the tenderness these very feelings provoke.
‘You hope, yes,’ Auden wrote in an undated postscript to ‘The Cave of Making’ (July 1964), ‘your books will excuse you,/save you from hell,’ but God may well judge us by our misses rather than our hits.
God may reduce you
on Judgment Day
to tears of shame,
reciting by heart
the poems you would
have written, had
your life been good.
This makes God something of a sadist, but perfectly corresponds to Mendelson’s picture of Auden’s troubled quest. I find myself thinking of a moment in a story by Julio Cortázar where the (familiar) idea that the best biography of an artist is his work is given a new twist. The phrase is used by a jazz critic about a saxophone player modelled on Charlie Parker. The Parker figure quotes the phrase back at the critic, and says it isn’t true, not because his life explains his work but because his real biography is neither in the records he made nor in the life he lived, but in the numbers he wanted to play and couldn’t. In the solos God already knows by heart, Auden would say. And it is the great merit of Mendelson’s book that we are taken so closely through the poems Auden did write that we almost see the ones he didn’t. Not because his life wasn’t good, but because he wasn’t always the poet he wanted or needed to be.
‘Believe it or not, I have got better,’ Auden wrote in an unsent letter of 1947, defending his new poetry and his current objections to older poems like ‘Spain’ and ‘September 1, 1939’, with their much-quoted lines ‘History to the defeated/May say alas but cannot help or pardon,’ and ‘We must love one another or die.’ But the critical question, which Mendelson addresses throughout his book, is really whether Auden had got worse, whether the ‘English Auden’, a person of glittering, memorable talent, had disappeared without a trace, leaving only a fussy, well-regarded, comfortable ‘American Auden’ in his place. Auden himself was clear enough. ‘If by memorability, you mean a poem like Sept 1st, 1939, I pray to God that I shall never be memorable again.’ But maybe he just decided not to be memorable again, and wasn’t. And since he kept insisting he was a minor poet, perhaps he was. There is a dangerous moment when Mendelson’s defence of the later Auden almost caves in on itself. ‘Auden had perfected a technique of writing about the darkest possible subjects in a tone that deceived real or imaginary enemies into thinking him too mild and avuncular to bother contending with.’ With a technique like that you could deceive your real and imaginary friends too, but Mendelson goes on to say that Auden had learned this tactic from Frost, and the danger is over, or at least diminished. It is possible to sound light about dark subjects, and simple about complicated ones. It’s also possible to trivialise important subjects, and Auden was pretty good at that too, but Mendelson is not arguing that he didn’t trivialise, only that he didn’t always trivialise once he was in America.
I don’t think the critical argument really pits the English Auden against the American, the early against the later. It pits the English Auden and the early American one, say up to 1948, against the Auden after that, and it asks how many good poems he wrote in his last 25 years. This means we don’t have to argue about the elegies for Yeats and Freud (1939), New Year Letter (1940), The Sea and the Mirror (1944), ‘In Praise of Limestone’ (1948), and much else. But we do have to look at ‘The Shield of Achilles’ (1952) and ‘Horae Canonicae’ (1949-1954), and Mendelson makes large claims for ‘First Things First’ (1957) and ‘River Profile’ (1966). ‘Horae Canonicae’, he says, is ‘arguably’ Auden’s greatest work, ‘the richest and deepest of his poems about the fatal irreversible acts of the human will’. ‘First Things First’ is an ‘imposingly great poem’; ‘River Profile’ is ‘the greatest poem of his last years, and one of the greatest and strangest poems of its century’.
I should at this point confess to an involvement in Mendelson’s work, or at least mention an exchange. In his acknowledgments Mendelson says he has attempted ‘throughout this book’ to answer the questions I asked in a review of Auden’s Collected Poems in 1977. These mainly concerned the themes of betrayal and pardon in Auden, and they are copiously and lucidly answered – in fact they are made to look like better questions than they were. A related question, though, concerned the knock-on effect of Auden’s worries about who could be trusted with what. Did he think he could be trusted with the fate of poetry, in the way that Yeats and Eliot and Frost, for all their differences and doubts, knew they could? And if he didn’t trust himself, should we trust him? Apart from wondering whether he was up to the job, did he think the job was up to much? His later work is full of what Donald Davie, thinking of Larkin, called ‘diminished expectations’. ‘No world/wears as well as it should,’ Auden writes. Love is ‘far too/Tattered a word’ to describe a casual but agreeable affair. Minor ailments warn against ‘the flashy errands’ of dreams. ‘Ordinary human unhappiness/is life in its natural colour, to cavil/putting on airs.’
This is all very sensible and may even be true, but what has happened to Auden’s idea of poetry as praise? ‘There is only one thing that all poetry must do,’ he said in his first Oxford lecture. ‘It must praise all it can for being and for happening.’ Maybe ‘all it can’ is a larger restriction than it looks, meaning either the paltry best contemporary poetry can manage or the poor selection of candidates on offer. Not all of late Auden is like this, but a lot is. Perhaps Auden was, as he modestly said, just pottering. Modestly: ‘His thoughts pottered/from verses to sex to God/without punctuation.’
The critical argument can’t be taken far by claims for or denials of greatness – the term itself is too baggy and undiscussable. But if much of late Auden is thin and oddly wordy, all of it is intelligent, and much of it is funny, and there are late lyrics which compare happily with anything he wrote early in life. This memory (January 1965) of an old love, for instance, the same love, Mendelson tells us, which inspired ‘Lay your sleeping head’:
Since then, other enchantments
have blazed and faded,
enemies changed their address,
and War made ugly
an uncountable number
of unknown neighbours,
precious as us to themselves:
but round your image there is no fog,
and the Earth can still astonish.
Or this almost Yeatsian evocation (June 1965) of what a love that was not faithless would look like:
How, but with some real focus
could I, by analogy,
imagine a love
that, however often smeared,
shrugged at, abandoned
by a frivolous worldling,
does not abandon?
Or the fabulous linguistic performance of ‘A Bad Night’ (June 1969), which Auden calls ‘a lexical exercise’. The poet makes his way home
Clumsied by cold,
By blouts of hail
Or pirries of rain,
On stolchy paths
Over glunch clouds,
Where infrequent shepherds,
Sloomy of face,
Snudge of spirit,
Snoachy of speech,
With scaddle dogs
Tend a few scrawny
It isn’t easy to share Mendelson’s high enthusiasm for ‘First Things First’ or ‘River Profile’. The former has a wonderful line about gentle hearts being ‘extinct like Hegelian bishops’, but it also has ‘a storm enjoying its storminess’, and the sadly fluffed emotion of ‘your presence exactly/So once, so valuable, so there, so now’. This is Auden precisely in the mode his attackers object to. ‘River Profile’ is more interesting: a brilliantly crowded portrait of a river which is also a human body, rising out of ‘a bellicose fore-time’ and ending as it reaches the sea in ‘its final/acts of surrender, effacement, atonement’. The river has become ‘a huge amorphous aggregate no cuddled/attractive child ever dreams of’, and death will prove, we hope, that ‘unlovely/monsters ... can be translated/too.’ This is moving, but not all that strange, as the strangenesses of the century go. ‘Horae Canonicae’, with its varied procession through the church offices of the day – Prime, Terce, Sext, Nones, Vespers, Compline, and Lauds – and its centring of the Crucifixion in the midst of ordinary, shabby life, is vivid and ambitious, and contains fabulous lines, but the art here, surely, consists in a subtle evasion of greatness.
Can poets (can men in television)
Be saved? It is not easy
To believe in unknowable justice
Or pray in the name of a love
Whose name one’s forgotten: libera
Me, libera C (dear C)
And all the poor s-o-b’s who never
Do anything properly, spare
Us in the youngest day when all are
Shaken awake ...
The theological moment is beautifully got into the conversational rhythms, and the poor s-o-b’s are appealing, but the comic modesty of the gesture is important. We can’t help the undeserving poor by claiming they are deserving too in their way.
But then ‘The Shield of Achilles’ offers what has always seemed to me one of the most acute images there are of the world since the mid-century, since almost every trouble spot we can think of, from Ireland to South Africa to the Middle East and elsewhere, will unhappily confirm Auden’s insight into all the moral casualties represented by the boy ‘who’d never heard/Of any world where promises were kept/Or one could weep because another wept’. Bad enough to live in a world where these things don’t happen; almost unthinkable to live in a world where you’ve never even heard of them happening. And of course we are at this moment living through another part of the same poem:
Out of the air a voice without a face
Proved by statistics that some cause was just
In tone as dry and level as the place:
No one cheered and nothing was discussed;
Column by column in a cloud of dust
They marched away enduring a belief
Whose logic brought them, somewhere else, to grief.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.