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.’

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