‘You really cannot tell fully about a thing until the man’s work is all there,’ Auden said in an interview a few months before he died. Thanks to the magnificent efforts of Edward Mendelson, it’s now all here: prose, plays, libretti and, finally, the poems, coming to just over 7500 pages all told. Sizing up these volumes, one might take courage from a line in ‘The Labyrinth’: ‘Assume this maze has got a plan.’ Many maps have been offered over the years to assist the reader-quester, but if somebody gets a map out in one of Auden’s poems it’s usually because something has gone wrong. In one lyric a lover is advised to ‘Stand up and fold/Your map of desolation’; a later work raises a toast to those who avail themselves of ‘the most reliable maps’: ‘to Them, naturally, our sincerest and oldest regrets.’
Auden country still feels unchartable, a space into which you are dropped, given a few co-ordinates and left to fend for yourself. The opening poem of his first collection – privately printed by Stephen Spender in 1928 – sets and upsets the scene:
The sprinkler on the lawn
Weaves a cool vertigo, and stumps are drawn;
The last boy vanishes,
A blazer half-on, through the rigid trees.
This isn’t quite cricket. We may approve the orderly syllable count, but the rhymes are playing truant. The vignette resembles the ‘lovely innocent countrysides’ Auden would later imagine, which allow for the possibility of ‘the sudden intrusion of a horrid corpse onto the tennis court or into the greenhouse’. The definite articles teeter between the emblematic and the specific (‘the last boy’ might be the end of childhood, or just a straggler), and there’s a doubt about how or whether the images add up: those stumps are accoutrements of a particular culture, but the larger pieces of wood, the ‘rigid trees’, are immovable – and less readable. As the boy vanishes through them – either donning or discarding the blazer – we wonder a bit about the perceiver. What does the watcher of this figure know, or wish to know?
Poems like this could be making too much of too little, or perhaps it’s the other way round. Elsewhere Auden quotes from one of his touchstones, Charles Williams, who writes of overwhelming yet undefinable moments, those in which ‘a hand lighting a cigarette is the explanation of everything; a foot stepping from the train is the rock of all existence.’ From the start, the Auden effect was an odd blend of the diagnostic and the atmospheric, with the latter somehow complicating the former. Sometimes it’s a mock-heroic toying (‘O Who is trying to shield Whom?/Who left a hairpin in the room?’), but often it’s a more unnerving collision and collusion of worlds:
The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
The desert sighs in the bed,
And the crack in the tea-cup opens
A lane to the land of the dead.
These vistas owe something to Auden’s first love, Thomas Hardy, and especially to what he described as Hardy’s way of ‘looking at life from a very great height’, his willingness ‘to see the individual life related not only to the local social life of its time, but to the whole of human history, life on the earth, the stars’. At his most characteristic, Auden manages to sound both omniscient and a little lost. A cool vertigo.
‘He was, of course, the first “modern” poet.’ Larkin’s scare quotes are a reminder that Auden had reservations about modernity. ‘What do you think about England,’ the Old Boy asks in The Orators (1932), ‘this country of ours where nobody is well?’ Auden came of age between the wars, and his work offered itself as both aggressive and complicit. And yet his technical skill, along with the vigour of his poetry, didn’t seem quite of a piece with the general historical outlook. ‘On the sopping esplanade or from our dingy lodgings we/Stare out dully at the rain which falls for miles into the sea.’ The weird uplift the rhyme gives to ‘we’ lends the doldrums a flicker of impudence. John Bayley heard in these lines Auden’s enjoyment ‘of the possibilities of making the situation stylish … the esplanade, and the hilarious precision of sopping and dingy, only give the reader that retrospective warmth which comes from remembering the boredom and glamour of childhood holidays’. And the glamour, too, of a certain kind of agency: ‘Every high C accurately struck,’ Auden once wrote, ‘demolishes the theory that we are the irresponsible puppets of fate or chance.’ The sense of foreboding or foreknowledge in the poetry is gainsaid by the line-by-line surprises as you read it – as you move, say, from a ‘cigarette-end smouldering on a border’ to the ‘plate-glass windows of the Sport Hotel’ to the ‘strangled orchards’ to ‘the infected sinus, and the eyes of stoats’. These words all come from ‘Consider This and in Our Time’, written in 1930, and may well be there to push home the message that we’re going to the dogs. But the staged apocalypse feels serendipitous, chancy, thrilling.
Hardy, Eliot and Yeats loomed large in Auden’s pantheon, but he wasn’t about to be co-opted into anyone else’s story of tradition and the individual talent. He had a penchant for anagrams, and was pleased to know himself as someone who might ‘hug a wet shady nun’ (the best he could do for ‘T.S. Eliot’ was ‘litotes’). It’s noteworthy that Eliot appears by name in Letter to Lord Byron (1937), where Auden laments the fact that Eliot finds his addressee ‘uninteresting’. Like Byron, Auden would reinvent himself from abroad, and his move to the US in 1939 was in many respects a resistance to what was expected of him. Although he had become famous for capturing the mood of a generation – left-wing, class-conscious – he couldn’t rest easy in the generation of a single mood. ‘Poetry is the clear expression of mixed feelings,’ he observed in a note to The Double Man (1941), and such feelings come to the fore when he’s on the move. ‘In Memory of W.B. Yeats’ – a vital work of transition, and the first poem he wrote in America – notes that ‘Far from his illness/The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests.’ A part of Auden ran with them, and his comment about Spender’s elegies is revealing: ‘I suspect that your real personal feelings about the deaths of others are: Goody. He’s dead and I’m alive.’ The same could be said of Auden’s own relationship with his past selves.
‘The real “life wish”,’ he wrote in an early journal, ‘is the desire for separation, from family, from one’s literary predecessors.’ But the poetry took shape as a drama of desire, nagged by a suspicion that one can’t be a self by oneself. For every Auden poem that dares to hope the soul may ‘be weaned at last to independent delight’, there is a voice in the wings whispering something not unlike what Auden said of Oscar Wilde – ‘Alone, he does not know who he is.’ The unanchored ‘you’ that often appears is Auden talking partly to himself and partly to another, a lover, a reader, an antagonist, uncertain about how close these shady characters can or should be brought. His distinctive contribution to modern lyric was to situate the couple, its most enduring emblem, in history and to wonder whether they were the herald or the evasion of the ideal community. ‘Touching is shaking hands/On mortgaged lands,’ he says in an early poem, and elsewhere ‘business shivered in a banker’s winter/While we were kissing.’
‘While’ is one of the most important words in Auden’s work. It makes pleasure and disquiet not opposites so much as partners. Yet the magic of his writing – and magic, according to him, is what we secretly want art to be – often lies in its refusal to let the voice of experience take precedence over the need to stay susceptible. He begins The Sea and the Mirror (1944), his reworking of The Tempest (he referred to it as his ‘ars poetica’), by having Prospero define magic as ‘the power to enchant/That comes from disillusion’, but the poetry also appears to feel that disenchantment can itself be an illusion. The villanelle he gives to Miranda, ‘My Dear One is mine as mirrors are lonely,’ expresses this view:
He kissed me awake, and no one was sorry;
The sun shone on sails, eyes, pebbles, anything,
And the high green hill sits always by the sea.
‘No one was sorry’ admits to a world in which people might be, but doesn’t concede to it. With its transvaluation of everything via that ‘anything’, and its blissed-out drift from recollected past into incantatory present, the villanelle is one of Auden’s most radiant hymns to the power of lyrical utterance. There’s a coda, though: Caliban’s withering speech on art’s place in society, pitched in the late style of Henry James where happy endings are in short supply. ‘We should not be sitting here now, washed, warm, well-fed, in seats we have paid for, unless there were others who are not here … others who have not been so fortunate.’ Near the end of his life Auden said that Caliban’s speech was the poem of which he was most proud, yet as he was shaping it he acknowledged the strangeness of his creative impulse: ‘I am attempting something, which in a way is absurd, to show, in a work of art, the limitations of art.’
The absurdity ran deep, manifesting itself in Auden’s later work as a distrust of his own lyrical gifts. ‘The problem of every writer,’ he wrote in the late 1940s, repeating the comment in his inaugural poetry lecture at Oxford a few years later, is that ‘having spent twenty years learning to be himself, he finds that he must now start learning not to be himself.’ This process often took the form of a disavowal: Auden cut some poems from later editions and tinkered with countless others. Mendelson has been editing him for nearly half a century, sometimes opting for a text that honours ‘final intentions’, as in the Collected Poems, published in 1976, and sometimes, as in The English Auden, published in 1977, returning to earlier versions. Here, he prints the poems in their original form and meticulously records all later revisions at the ends of each volume (the textual notes take up nearly six hundred pages). Appendices contain unpublished poems and songs, verses Auden wrote for magazines at schools where he was teaching, and transcripts of several abandoned poems. Mendelson has also provided contents pages for collected and selected editions of Auden’s work, as well as lists of recordings and the choices he made when invited to include his work in anthologies. Taken together, these volumes show, in unparalleled detail, the effort Auden made to keep himself in flux.
On occasion you sense the strain of that effort, and the Auden who distrusts himself isn’t always to be trusted – when he says, for example, that his earlier poems were ‘trash’ or ‘dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring’, or evidence of ‘a disease’. He very much liked having an audience but was also fearful of the corrupting effects of being read and admired. And his feeling that too much was being made of his poetry, and of Poetry more generally, led him to some odd insistences. In The Dyer’s Hand (1962), he repurposed comments that first appeared in 1948:
A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a nightmare of horror for, given the historical reality of actual men, such a society could only come into being through selective breeding, extermination of the physically and mentally unfit, absolute obedience to its Director, and a large slave class kept of out sight in cellars.
You sense the self-lacerating pleasure he took in writing that, and this seems to be part of the point. It’s true that those who take it upon themselves to speak as directors or saviours in Auden’s poetry tend not to come with ringing endorsements. One thinks of the doomed heroes in the early work, or of the ballad of Victor, who, carving knife in hand, sings ‘I’m the Resurrection and the Life’ as the blood of his sweetheart runs down the stairs. An extreme example, admittedly, but Auden’s work is often unsure about the prospects of justice, poetic or otherwise. In ‘Spain 1937’ and ‘September 1, 1939’, talk of ‘the Just City’ or of a realm that exists ‘wherever the Just/Exchange their messages’ doesn’t ring true, not least because of the capital letters.
Auden always seemed to want – or need – to remain defeated by himself, which helps to account for the fact that as he became more sceptical about the power of words, he wrote even more of them. Although the essays, lectures and reviews are often brilliant, their deus ex machina quality cuts both ways; as Randall Jarrell noted, readers of his prose are continually exclaiming ‘Now I see!’ and also ‘You’ve traded your soul to the devil for nineteen million generalisations.’ God as well as the devil probably has something to do with it. After his conversion to Anglicanism in 1940, Auden sometimes succumbed to ‘the preacher’s loose immodest tone’, but one should bear in mind his warning to a friend: ‘Always remember, please, my phantasy of myself as the Mad Clergyman.’ Making himself a stock character in the fiction of his own life allowed him to make use of his idea of himself as a public figure who had ‘responsibilities’. His fondness for a joke made by John Foster Hall, the music hall and radio comedian known as the ‘Vicar of Mirth’, speaks volumes: ‘We are all here on earth to help others, what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.’
The comedian in Auden dies hard, even though the dark grotesqueries of the early work are transposed into religious key later on – from the claim in For the Time Being (1944) that all are ‘ironically assisted to their comic bewilderment by the Grace of God’, to his praise of the spirit of the carnival in Epistle to a Godson (1972), which looks to finish ‘on a serio-comic note with legends/of ultimate eucatastrophe,/regeneration beyond the waters’. To swim in later Auden is to enter very different waters. Take two endings, the first from 1929:
In sullen valley where is made no friend,
The old gang to be forgotten in the spring,
The hard bitch and the riding-master,
Stiff underground; deep in a clear lake,
The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there.
And the second from Bucolics in 1952, in which, having admitted that ‘A haunted lake is sick,’ he quickly moves on:
But that’s not going to stop me wondering what sort
Of lake I would decide on if I should.
Moraine, pot, oxbow, glint, sink, crater, piedmont, dimple … ?
Just reeling off their names is ever so comfy.
The first is appalled yet transfixed, and there’s nothing comfy about that ‘lolling’; the second has found a rhythm and a syntax for ‘wondering’ about things, not at them. And as he moves from image to discursiveness, the reader is reimagined too. In 1929 we eavesdropped on agitation; now we’re being invited to pull up an armchair.
Looking back over the shape of Auden’s career, Clive James spoke of a steady journey towards paraphrasable clarity, along with a shift away from excitement and towards satisfaction. To understand Auden, he added, ‘we need to understand how a man with the capacity to say anything should want to escape from the oppression of meaning too much.’ Mendelson has been one of the most eloquent defenders of the later work – Early Auden, Later Auden is an indispensable study – and has claimed that late Auden knew he was working at the height of his powers. Reading the work from beginning to end in this edition, though, I didn’t share his confidence. Another poem from Bucolics, in praise of ‘plains’, ends with a confession:
Though I can’t pretend
To think these flats poetic, it’s well at times
To be reminded that nothing is lovely,
Not even in poetry, which is not the case.
A lovely sentiment, if not always quite the case. Maybe that’s why we only need reminding of it ‘at times’: one feels that part of the problem with Auden’s later poetry is that he rarely allowed himself to forget it.
Still, to insist on a firm division between the two periods – along with a firm preference for one or the other – is to miss the fact that both go into the making of some of his greatest poems. ‘The Fall of Rome’ (1947), for example, has many qualities one would recognise from the dawn of the Audenesque: a postwar utterance with a strong sense of foreboding; line-by-line electric shocks that hook up decadence and debasement (‘Fantastic grow the evening gowns … The sewers of provincial towns’); and a return to those early landscapes and lost souls (a lonely field where the rain lashes an abandoned train; an ‘unimportant clerk’ who writes ‘I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK/On a pink official form’). Yet the poem doesn’t have the obdurate syntactical strangeness of early Auden, and to pass from its penultimate to its last stanza is to move from an almost Juvenalian mercilessness into another realm:
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.
In his textual notes Mendelson generally sticks to details about composition, publication and variants, and is careful to point out that he has made no effort to interpret the poems. But he sometimes includes Auden’s later explanations, and in a note to the final stanza here he quotes someone called W.P. Nicolet, who claims to have had a hunch verified by Auden: ‘The reindeer are in motion because of the shifting migration patterns of the northern peoples which will eventually bring dying Rome into direct confrontation with the Germanic tribes which are destined to provide the coup de grâce.’ This may be why the reindeer are on the move in history, but they are on the move in the poem for other reasons too. Or, indeed, for no reason that can be definitively tracked: they may simply be a stunning sign of life’s tenacity, or of the imagination’s need to be waylaid by an elsewhere, even – or especially – when in the midst of creation.
James Schuyler recalled that Auden once told him off for separating a modifier from its noun (‘“red” – end of line – “rose”’): ‘It’s very tempting, my dear.’ Very. As in ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, which describes Bruegel’s Icarus, in which ‘the sun shone/As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green/Water’. This slight pause or swoop tells of a captivation that exists before, and possibly after, any considered judgment about the thing ostensibly being described: a boy is falling out of the sky and into the sea, but what a strangely gorgeous green. In ‘The Fall of Rome’ the abruption of ‘vast/Herds of reindeer’ is not only raising an alarm about the possibility of other vast hordes, but revelling in the act of seeing. ‘How beautiful it is,’ Auden writes in a later poem, ‘that eye-on-the-object look’ people have when they are caught up in something that absorbs them. The absorption is something of a mystery to the watcher as well as to those who study him – as inscrutable as the reindeer, or those miles and miles of golden moss. ‘If you have to know exactly what was on my mind when I wrote something,’ he observed elsewhere, ‘you’ll never be able to read it.’
The older Auden became steadily more willing to say what was on his mind, with mixed results. Yet his refusal to fit into any straightforward narrative of progress or development had been there from the start. Back in 1937 Edmund Wilson had complained that ‘his technique has seemed to mature, but he himself has not grown up.’ Auden would have resisted the logic implied by that ‘but’; he was fond of Nietzsche’s definition of maturity in Beyond Good and Evil – ‘to have reacquired the seriousness that one had as a child at play’ – and elsewhere insisted 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 makes it sound as though the right might also be a duty, and Auden’s long-standing need for what he called ‘a poetic love of fun’ was itself a commitment to the sort of bafflement that sometimes comes with precocity. In a poem written a year before his death in 1973, he insisted that art is ‘fun, a playing with truths, and no game/should ever pretend to slay the heavy-lidded riddle,/What is the Good Life?’
Admittedly, the gamesome poet is often a rather ponderous creature (‘Auden Ludens’, as Donald Davie pointed out, was often ‘Auden in short pants, acting the little horror’). But his vision of other people playing rarely feels actorly, and it takes us close to the centre of what art meant for him. In a lecture on ‘Poetry and Freedom’, given at Swarthmore in 1945, he noted that ‘the freedom which is asserted by the choice of the rules makes the game important,’ and when he’s commemorating his literary precursors it’s striking how often he returns to the image of the child at play. It appears in his poems on Montaigne, Voltaire, Lear and Freud, and in ‘At the Grave of Henry James’ it becomes a cipher for the artistic process: ‘With what an innocence your hand submitted/To those formal rules that help a child to play.’ There is a possible tension here between the freedom asserted by the ‘choice’ of the rules and the innocence of having ‘submitted’ to them; for Auden, play is artistic because it both accepts and resists the world. The true player is compelled as well as liberated.
This may be why innocence doesn’t feel merely innocent in these poems. Auden’s people like to reminisce about how as youngsters they ‘burned alive’ stolen tyres in vacant lots, or to think of a space where children at play ‘needn’t know they’re not happy’. What he appears to cherish above all is a heedless, ruthless truancy. In ‘Musée des Beaux Arts’, for example:
when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there must always be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood
The interesting word here is the one that hardly ever appears in Auden: ‘specially’. Given the light drum roll of ‘reverently, passionately’, one might have expected ‘especially’ to complete the triad, but ‘specially’ is more like a word a child might use – just a little more offhand, too taken up with play to coddle any distinction the aged might wish to make between the miraculous and the non-miraculous.
The work is of course conscious of a menacing historical landscape – ‘the torturer’s horse’ appears as war approaches (‘Musée des Beaux Arts’ was written in December 1938) – but one also senses in Auden an obscurely personal working through of his earliest memories and demons. A formative family romance hovers in the wings – ‘Mummy doesn’t play; she punishes,’ his brother, John, apparently declared – and his need to punish the torturer frequently takes shape as a return to his first playground: ‘Always my boy of wish returns/ To those peat-stained deserted burns,’ he wrote in New Year Letter. Auden went forward by returning to his roots, and the landscape of his youth keeps coming back at important moments. In one of his first love poems for Chester Kallman he recalls:
When I hunted the Good Place,
Abandoned lead-mines let themselves be caught;
There was no pity in the adit’s face,
The rusty winding-engine never taught
One obviously too apt, to say Too Late:
Their lack of shyness was a way of praising
Just what I didn’t know, why I was gazing,
While all their lack of answer whispered ‘Wait,’
And taught me gradually without coercion,
And all the landscape round them pointed to
The calm with which they took complete desertion
As proof that you existed.
The calm persistence of something that should have been long abandoned – a lead mine, a memory, childhood itself – is always an intimation for Auden, a dream of a possible future. The same rhythm can be felt at the end of ‘In Praise of Limestone’, where he addresses Kallman again: ‘when I try to imagine a faultless love/Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur/Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.’
Some years later, speaking of ‘a numinous encounter’, Auden remembered coming unexpectedly across a derelict iron foundry in the Harz Mountains during a stay in Germany. It wouldn’t have been numinous if the foundry hadn’t been derelict: his fascination with machines is bound up with his interest in things that carry the trace but not the presence of the human. A poem is one such machine. He liked to think of poetry as a ‘verbal contraption’, and as a tireless tinkerer with metrics his move to syllabics is noteworthy in this respect. Around half of his poetry is written in syllabics (he paid tribute to Marianne Moore, confessing that he’d stolen a great deal). The mode, he explained, was an attempt to escape from a conventional pattern of iambics and trochees without losing ‘the sense of pattern’, and this ambivalent relationship with structure is one of his distinguishing features as a person and a poet.
On the one hand, Auden was obsessive about time (‘He checks his watch over and over again,’ a guest observed. ‘Eating, drinking, writing, shopping, crossword puzzles, even the mailman’s arrival – all are timed to the minute and with accompanying routines’); on the other, his space was a complete mess. ‘The speed with which he could wreck a room was barely credible, certainly dangerous,’ one friend wrote, and he seemed to be allergic to cleanliness too. In a forlorn attempt to tidy his flat, Vera Stravinsky once emptied out what she took to be a bowl of dirty water on his bathroom floor; it was in fact a chocolate pudding, made in the same basin into which Auden often pissed. Alan Bennett’s question (in the LRB of 23 May 1985) seems right: ‘Where, one wonders, did one wash one’s hands after one had washed one’s hands?’
Auden grew up to be, in Kallman’s words, ‘the most dishevelled child of all disciplinarians’. ‘I hate living in squalor – I detest it!’ he told a friend, ‘but I can’t do the work I want to do and live any other way.’ The life of his poetry comes out of this dialectic of clocked chaos. When you read Auden what you hear is an immaculate sense of timing, but you see pretty much anything: ‘juke-boxes on the Moon’, or ‘The best deep-frozen fish-sticks you can buy’; a poem can move from talk of ‘cyclotrons’ to ‘a Thingummy’ within a few lines. ‘Something unexpected is always turning up,’ he says of the writer’s experience in The Dyer’s Hand, ‘and though he knows that the Censor has to pass it, the memory of the lucky dip is what he treasures.’ This memory animates his best work, sees him pushing and trusting to his luck, always courting some sort of beginning. Even when contemplating his own death he imagines his flesh dreaming of another existence, praying for him to die ‘so setting Her free to become/irresponsible Matter’.
Auden’s love of machinery – verse or any other ‘rusty winding-engine’ – is, finally, a feeling for the human body itself as a ‘corporeal contraption’, something that both is and is not him. And his need to solicit the strangeness of himself via a visceral shock to the system repeatedly calls him back, throughout the long haul of his writing life, to one particular moment: waking. There’s a side of Auden which knows that history is the nightmare from which we’re trying to awaken – and that ‘No one is ever spared except in dreams’ – but he is often seduced by a feeling that is antecedent to knowing. One of the many riches of Mendelson’s edition is a note featuring fragments from early drafts of the lyric ‘Prime’, along with Auden’s detailed account of how he wrote it (clearly a work he cherished, it became the opening section of ‘Horae Canonicae’). ‘Prime’ re-enacts in slow motion the moment when ‘Without a name or history I wake/Between my body and the day’:
Unvexed, for the will has still to claim
This adjacent arm as my own,
The memory to name me, resume
Its routine of praise and blame
Auden needed and feared that routine, but what he was frequently after in poetry was the instant just before it. ‘Prime’ takes its bearings from his enraptured reading of Paul Valéry’s notebooks (‘one of the most interesting and original documents of “the inner life” in existence’), and particularly, I think, from the eventfulness of an inkling Valéry has at dawn: an ‘autogenesis’, he calls it, ‘as if there were a moment (extremely fragile) in which you are not yet the person that you are, and you could come back to life as someone else!’ Poetry offered Auden a waking from the self, not simply to it. And it continued to keep him hungry for things that might spin him in and out of history, things through which he could test, find and lose himself. James Fenton recalled visiting him towards the end of his life, when Auden – feeling a bit glum about his work – spoke about his wish to discover a new influence to bounce off. Plucking a name from the air, Fenton suggested Clough. ‘Clough?’ Auden replied. ‘No, I’ve been through Clough. I was thinking of the Beatles.’
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