Golden Boy

Denis Donoghue

  • W.H.Auden: The Critical Heritage edited by John Haffenden
    Routledge, 535 pp, £19.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 7100 9350 0
  • Auden: A Carnival of Intellect by Edward Callan
    Oxford, 299 pp, £12.50, August 1983, ISBN 0 19 503168 7
  • Drawn from the Life: A Memoir by Robert Medley
    Faber, 251 pp, £12.50, November 1983, ISBN 0 571 13043 7

Auden’s reputation couldn’t have got off to a faster start. In January 1930 Eliot printed ‘Paid on Both Sides’ in the Criterion, and let it be known that he thought its author an especially promising poet. In September 1930 Auden’s Poems came out. ‘Dare I spot him as a winner?’ Naomi Mitchison asked in one of the earliest reviews. A few months later William Empson wrote at some length about ‘Paid on Both Sides’. He was impressed by Auden’s ability to make ‘psychoanalysis, surrealism, and all that’, all the irrationalist tendencies ‘which are so essential a part of the machinery of present-day thought’, take their place in ‘the normal and rational tragic form, and indeed what constitutes the tragic situation’. The play – Empson took it as that, not as the ‘charade’ Auden called it – had ‘the sort of completeness that makes a work seem to define the attitude of a generation’. This notion, that Auden was in straightforward possession of all the available forms of knowledge and lore and that he could speak to the issues they proposed, largely accounted for the reception of The Orators when it appeared in May 1932. By the end of that year, Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Geoffrey Grigson, Michael Roberts, Bonamy Dobrée, John Hayward and Graham Greene had nominated Auden as the new voice. The six odes and the epilogue of The Orators, Greene said, justified Auden’s ‘being named in the same breath as Lawrence’.

But Greene had some misgivings. ‘The subject of the book,’ he said, ‘is political, though it is hard to tell whether the author’s sympathies are Communist or Fascist; they seem a little vaguely and sentimentally directed towards a “strong man”, a kind of super-prefect, for the book has a light smell of school changing-rooms, a touch of Stalky.’ The question of Auden’s relation to school changing-rooms – whether it was a valid incorporation of adolescent experience in a mature sense of life, or merely a deplorable fixation – remained in the margin of several early reviews. Everybody was ready to salute a new poet, a golden boy; The Waste Land was ten years back in literary history; conditions had changed enough in ten years to make the new decade want its voice. But The Dance of Death (1933) didn’t please many readers. I think it made some of Auden’s elders hang back – Yeats, Mrs Woolf, Orwell, and others.

But it was F.R. Leavis who, nearly from the start, put forward the essential critical question. He wasn’t interested in Auden’s representative status or his claims to testify to a new sensibility. He described ‘Paid on Both Sides’ as a work which, ‘in its combination of seriousness and flippancy, presents in the form of a feud between two hostile parties the stultifying division in [Auden’s] own consciousness’. It expressed ‘an essential uncertainty of purpose and of self’, such that Auden’s ‘assured personal manner’ covered something very different. Taking up Empson’s account of the work, Leavis alluded to Empson’s own poems and their superiority, in mastery of their emotions, to Auden’s. ‘The difference,’ Leavis said, ‘might be described as that between working things out (Mr Empson’s way) and letting them work themselves out.’

When he dealt with Auden in Scrutiny, Leavis continued to enforce the same account of his work. ‘He hasn’t, at any rate, the organisation corresponding to his local vitality, to the distinction of his phrasing and imagery at their best.’ Auden’s irony, in fact, ‘is a matter of his being uncertain whether he is engaged mainly in expressing saeva indignatio or in amusing himself and his friends’. That phrase – ‘and his friends’ – points to something Leavis didn’t elaborate: his sense that there was a relation between the group-sensibility which Auden represented, the motif of school and its heroes, and Auden’s complacent disinclination to decide how seriously he should take his themes. As leader of a group of expensively educated young men, Auden was protected against ‘all contact with serious critical standards’.

The fact that Leavis offered the precise critical challenge didn’t mean that it was taken up in his terms, or indeed in any other terms. At a fairly early point, Auden seems to have decided that he wouldn’t be, or wouldn’t long remain, entirely serious. The decision didn’t, I think, coincide with his departure for America. Isherwood and Auden sailed from Southampton on 19 January 1939. In April, Auden was visited by Chester Kallman, and that was that – the rest is lore, gossip, and history of a kind. But Auden’s dealings with Kallman had far more bearing upon his decision to stay in America than any large reflections upon the state of the world, the impending war, or his position as a coterie poet in London. Still, his experience in America showed Auden that he could live more freely in New York than in London, and elude the demands upon him which issued from his being leader of the English band. American readers weren’t much interested in English premonitions or lurid melodramas of frontiers and passwords. Over the American years, Auden found it easy to become a presence, a personage, the object of deference and curiosity, a campus poet commanding higher fees by reading poems than by writing them. The question of the level of his seriousness wasn’t raised in America, because American readers had never been involved – as English readers had been – in the promises Auden’s poems appeared to make. He could start again from the fame he had acquired in darker circumstances.

After 1939, Auden’s reputation depended upon national differences. American readers were quite happy to take whatever he gave them: urbane conversation-pieces, light verse, vers de société, occasional reversions to European storms and stresses. They were gratified to have him in their presence, an endorsing figure rambling around St Mark’s Place and writing virtuoso items which scintillated in the New Yorker and other magazines. He showed what native gifts and intelligence could do, stimulated by American conditions of freedom, liveliness and money: all the better if the show indicated that a man could be released from the danger and gloom of wartime England. The American readiness to be pleased appears in the response to Auden’s books as they appeared, duly welcomed by a line of critics from Edmund Wilson to John Updike. There were exceptions. Joseph Warren Beach thought Auden’s textual shenanigans were treachery, Randall Jarrell thought Auden’s wit and elegance quite enjoyable up to a point – or rather, up to the point of their becoming needlepoint – but after that a pretty dispiriting spectacle. Reviewing The Shield of Achilles, he said that ‘Auden is using extraordinary skill in managing a sadly reduced income.’ But, in general, American critics said yes to whatever Auden gave them. Robert Lowell in 1967 expressed his gratitude for Auden’s many-sided gifts: ‘I am most grateful for three or four supreme things: the sad Anglo-Saxon alliteration of his beginnings, his prophecies that seemed the closest voice to our disaster, then the marvellous crackle of his light verse and broadside forms, small fires made into great in his hands, and finally for a kind of formal poem that combines a breezy baroque grandeur with a sophisticated Horatian simplicity.’ Besides, American readers like to see a poet doing many different things well rather than one thing supremely.

English readers, it is my impression, have remained standoffish. Some of them still resent Auden’s decamping to America in 1939. There is also, in several of the English pieces John Haffenden has recalled and reprinted, a touch of satisfaction that Auden never again wrote as well in America as he had written in England in the wretched Thirties. Donald Davie hasn’t wanted to come out to play with the ludic Auden of The Shield of Achilles: ‘The form of the Bucolics – improvisation turned inside out – was a good idea, but it let him in for the other thing he has to guard against, pirouetting and posturing in the public eye.’ Frank Kermode has been a bit un-English in giving the Auden of Epistle to a Godson the run of the OED playground, and he has accepted that the book ‘will hardly vex or bother anybody: it will give pleasure to all who have learned to take pleasure from his games, and bore or disappoint those who either haven’t, or who gave him up when he grew quieter, more explicit, more conversational.’ That seems about right, but some English readers haven’t been willing to let the question of Auden pass so genially. Philip Larkin’s review of Homage to Clio is the document to read, when this response to Auden is in question.

Larkin’s view was – and still is, I suppose – that nothing Auden wrote after 1939 added to his reputation: no one ‘is going to justify his place in literary history by The Shield of Achilles any more than Swinburne’s is justified by Poems and Ballads: Third Series.’ The point of Auden’s early poems was that they were committed to their period and its obsessions: ‘feeling inferior to the working class, a sense that things needed a new impetus from somewhere, seeing out of the corner of an eye the rise of Fascism, the persecution of the Jews, the gathering dread of the next war that was half projected guilt about the last’. But this structure of themes, and the unease with which Auden sensed them, came to an end in 1939 with the removal to America and, a few months later, the war. ‘At one stroke he lost his key subject and emotion – Europe and the fear of war – and abandoned his audience together with their common dialect and concerns.’

Just for a handful of dollars he left us? The note of rebuke in that ‘abandoned’ can’t be evaded, because it is enforced by ‘their common dialect and concerns’. The point is underlined by Larkin’s insistence that Auden didn’t even make himself a genuine American, which he should have done once he had cut his ties to England: ‘he has not adopted America or taken root, but has pursued an individual and cosmopolitan path which has precluded the kind of identification that seemed so much a part of his previous successes.’ Auden, Larkin said, ‘no longer touches our imaginations. My guess is that the peculiar insecurity of pre-war England sharpened his talent in a way that nothing else has, or that once “the next War” really arrived everything since has seemed to him an anti-climax.’

Larkin’s argument hasn’t been met in anything I have seen. Maybe critics find it a hard matter to deal with, as it obviously touches upon ‘Little Englander’ sentiments and sour grapes. Leavis’s case was argued so repetitively in Scrutiny that it has been allowed to subside into a rather small context. A full account of it would have to draw upon Leavis’s sense of Eliot, too, as much as his irritated dismissal of Auden: because it would bring forward the question of a poet’s dealing with the English language, his sense of it as a collaborative effort, and the ambiguities and uncertainties Leavis thought of as issuing from an ‘American’ rather than an ‘English’ relation to the language. Such an account would require much tact in treating issues of social class, the sensibility of ‘the happy few’, and the allowance, if any, to be made for a mentality most evidently that of a ‘citizen of the world’.

I mention these matters partly because they arise from Haffenden’s book and partly because the absence of any considerations of real critical force from Edward Callan’s book explains its blandness. No consideration such as may be brought into view by mentioning Larkin and Leavis is allowed to ruffle the surface of Callan’s prose. A chapter on Auden’s disenchantment with Yeats is regarded as ‘the focal point of the book’s central theme: Auden’s fear of the dangers of our intellectual inheritance from Romanticism both in politics and literature, and his rejection of its onesided Platonist presuppositions in favour of a Christian regard for the unity and coinherence of nature and spirit’. Well, yes, I suppose so: but a reader would be naive to expect that anything of critical moment would issue from such an inquiry. There are interesting biographical details; several useful – I mean it, useful to a reader of the poetry – pointers toward the sources of particular poems. I’ve verified this by reading an article in Scientific American, January 1969: Mary J. Marples’s ‘Life on the Human Skin’, the main source of Auden’s ‘A New Year Greeting’. But Callan doesn’t ask any question about the precise quality of Auden’s work, or its force now that all the evidence is in. Auden has sailed into academic rest, no questions asked of his work except that it minister to a charmingly idiosyncratic image, a personality. Everybody’s Wystan.

The golden boy is again displayed in Robert Medley’s memoir of the Group Theatre, Drawn from the Life. Medley was Auden’s first love, apparently, though not his first lover. Auden fell for him at Gresham’s in 1921 and wrote him a poem about a pretty boy at a swimming-pool. Medley was remarkably slow to get the message, and didn’t till Auden’s mother came upon the poem and read it closely enough to see what it was about. In the event, Medley was first seduced by Garrow Tomlin: the much-delayed bedding-down with Auden happened at Oxford some time later. But Medley’s true lover was Rupert Doone, who had been apprenticed to Cocteau in that capacity. Doone’s career as a dancer was thriving till Diaghilev died, but there was no future for him under different management. So he started the Group Theatre, and Medley joined him as stage designer. Drawn from the Life is full of detail about their attempt to save poetic drama with kindness. Auden and Isherwood – or Wystan and Christopher, as they appear in the book – were supposed to be the big writers for the Group. But productions of The Dance of Death, The Dog beneath the Skin and On the Frontier were not enough to make the Group more than a footnote in the history of the theatre. Besides, Auden and Isherwood were always on the look-out for bigger casts and wider screens. The book has the customary illusions and gestures. Critical discrimination is not on offer. A reference to Auden as ‘the most famous poet since Byron’ is supposed to justify the axiom of ‘Auden’s genius’ six pages later.