Sounding Auden

Seamus Heaney

I want to explore the relation between the kind of poetic authority which W.H. Auden sought and achieved and what might be described as his poetic music. By ‘poetic authority’ I mean the rights and weight which accrue to a voice, not only because of a sustained history of truth-telling, but by virtue also of its tonality, the sway it gains over the deep ear and, through that, over other parts of our mind and nature. By ‘poetic music’ I mean the more or less describable effects of language and form by which a certain tonality is effected and maintained. I shall listen in to some passages of Auden’s work and try to describe what is to be heard there; I shall also try to follow some of the echoes which the passages set up and ask how these echoes contribute to the poetry’s scope or suggest its limitations.

In his prose, Auden constantly returned to the double nature of poetry. On the one hand, poetry could be regarded as magical incantation, fundamentally a matter of sound and of the power of sound to bind our minds’ and bodies’ apprehensions within an acoustic complex. On the other hand, poetry is a matter of making wise and true meanings, of commanding our emotional assent by the intelligent disposition and inquisition of human experience. In fact, most poems – including Auden’s – constitute temporary stays against the confusion threatened by the mind’s inclination to accept both accounts of poetic function in spite of their potential mutual exclusiveness. But ‘confusion’ is probably far too strong a word, since Auden is able to make a resolving parable of the duality, assigning the beauty/magic part to Ariel and the truth/meaning part to Prospero and proposing that every poem, indeed every poet, embodies a dialogue between them. Ariel stands for poetry’s enchantment, our need to be bewitched: ‘We want a poem to be beautiful, that is to say, a verbal earthly paradise, a timeless world of pure play which gives us delight precisely because of its contrast to our historical existence.’ This want, of course, if fully indulged, would lead poetry into self-deception – hence the countervailing presence of Prospero, whose covenant is with ‘truth’ rather than ‘beauty’ – ‘and a poet cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly.’

All this is self-evident. Yet how we answer questions about the value of Auden’s poetry will have to do with the relative values we attach to poetic sense and poetic sound: it will have to do with the way we answer the question which Auden himself posed in his delightful short poem ‘Orpheus’: ‘What does the song hope for?’ ‘To be bewildered and happy/Or most of all the knowledge of life?’ Auden’s own unsatisfactory resolution of a similar crux, his famous revision of ‘or’ to ‘and’ in the line ‘We must love one another or die,’ may suggest a quick answer at the outset: song hopes to be ‘happy’ and to possess the knowledge of life. But to come so quickly to so glib a conclusion would rob us of the pleasure of enquiring into the fabric of the poetry itself.

Hard-bitten, aggressively up-to-date in the way it took cognisance of the fallen contemporary landscape, yet susceptible also to the pristine scenery of an imaginary Anglo-Saxon England, Auden’s original voice could not have been predicted and was utterly timely. In the late Twenties and early Thirties, he caught native English poetry by the scruff of the neck, pushed its nose sharply into modernity, made it judder and frolic from the shock over the course of a decade, and then allowed it to resume a more amiable relation with its comfortably domestic inheritance. His opus represents in the end what his insights insisted upon in the beginning – the necessity of a break, of an escape from habit, an escape from the given – even though he insists upon the necessity of these acts of self-liberation only to expose their ultimately illusory promise.

Correspondingly, his career represents the full turn of the wheel from his initial rejection of a milieu and a tradition to his final complaisant incorporation within them. It is as if, like Tiresias, he foresuffers all, and yet, for all that he knows, knows that he will find neither escape nor completion. Or perhaps one should say instead that he will find neither forgiveness nor salvation – things which can only be found by setting historical time in relation to another eternal life that looks over the shoulder of history itself:

She looked over his shoulder
    For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities,
    And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
    His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
    And a sky like lead.

This is the goddess Thetis at the shoulder of the thin-lipped armourer, Hephaestos, and the poem it comes from, ‘The Shield of Achilles’, represents Auden in his composed, equably mature poetic years, taking the sad universal view of historical cycles. The melodious note of those lines and their impassiveness are the result of the kind of synoptic wisdom which this poet settled into and settled for. But I wish to begin with a much earlier poem which he eventually entitled ‘Venus will now say a few words’. Here Venus stands for the gate and goad of life, the sexual constant and eternal drive. She – or it – addresses an unspecified subject who is characteristically on the verge of what he hopes will be significant action. And, as usual, his choice and crisis and action are perceived to be as necessary as they are undesired.

Your shutting up the house and taking prow
To go into the wilderness to pray,
Means that I wish to leave and to pass on,
Select another form, perhaps your son;
Though he reject you, join opposing team,
Be late or early at another time,
My treatment will not differ – he will be tipped,
Found weeping, signed for, made to answer, topped.

Do not imagine you can abdicate;
Before you reach the frontier you are caught;
Others have tried it and will try again
To finish that which they did not begin:
Their fate must always be the same as yours,
To suffer the loss they were afraid of, yes,
Holders of one position, wrong for years.

This has the young Auden’s typical combination of doomwatch and kicking energy. The voice of the inevitable is speaking, the voice of evolutionary force, the voice of what he would eventually and notoriously, in the last stanza of ‘Spain’, call History. So it is proper that the poem should move with piston-fired inevitability and that its driving force should be generated by the couplet, that little pile-driver among the metres, banging, knocking, butting, beating time. And it is also proper that the poem should sound incapable of ‘help or pardon’, those palliatives which History, in the crucial stanza written eight years later, would still be unable to extend to the defeated. There, however, History was going to be allowed to say ‘Alas’, and while the message in the lines quoted above may indeed be unpardoning, the voice is kept from going over the top into punitiveness or vindictiveness by Auden’s muffling the drum of rhyme. Pararhyme, Wilfred Owen’s technically simple but emotionally complicating innovation, had been applied by Owen most systematically in the poem ‘Strange Meeting’, which dramatised an encounter between doubles and also lamented the collapse of trust in progress and all such melioristic notions. Owen had further declared that ‘all a poet can do today is warn.’ So, poetically and historically, it is proper that Auden’s poem of admonition should also employ pararhyme and thereby echo the earlier one.

The verse lines, therefore, reach like sounding lines down to the mud of Flanders, back to that ‘conscientious objector with a very seared conscience’. Owen’s joining up, his training of recruits to kill and be killed, the terrible strain which he inflicted on himself by maintaining a patriotic courage in the face of personal revulsion and trauma – all this did not release him from the recognition that nothing would be improved by his sacrifice. This also made Owen a true precursor of the Auden of ‘Spain’, the poet who connived in what he deplored, that which he would at first call ‘the necessary murder’ and then, in a more generally lenient revision, ‘the fact of murder’.

Owen must have been in Auden’s mind, if only as a technical exemplar. But I want to keep sounding things, perhaps beyond due measure, and go further back to another English soldier-poet who lived under the shadow of public danger, on the toppling wave of critical times. Almost certainly he was not on Auden’s mind, but he did come into mine. The reference in the lines I quoted to the topping – that is, the hanging – of a son recalled Walter Ralegh’s sonnet to his son, his wag, his pretty knave: and to remember Ralegh’s lines is to gain a new perspective on Auden. Ralegh’s poem is tender and morbid, haunted by a suppressed conviction that what it presents as a merry if minatory fancy has indeed the status of an awful prophetic dream. The surface noise of the thing is cheery but its background music is the dolorous, steady roll of tumbril wheels.

Long before the unconscious forced itself into language as a Freudian concept, it was playing like St Elmo’s fire round the lines of a poem such as Ralegh’s. The crucial difference between Auden’s canvassing of the hanged son image and Ralegh’s poetic compulsion to it lies in just this division between pre-Freudian and post-Freudian awareness; and while Auden gains immensely in poetic strategy because of the advance, he does lose somewhat in poetic energy. Where Ralegh’s vision of the dreadful rises like a ballad woodcut from the folk imagination, bearing an aura of déjà vu and the uncanny, Auden’s feels more like the result of consulting an index of motifs. The rat-a-tat-tat of Auden’s poem’s movement, the half-donnish expectation that we will pick up an allusion to Horace’s fugitive changing the skies but not his fate as he hastens overseas, the hip talk about an ‘opposing team’ within a context that pretends to the oracular, the gradual accession of a fast tone over a solemn occasion – all this comes from Auden’s strategic intelligence being just that little bit too much in control of things.

What is in evidence here is his ambition to write a new kind of English poem with what he described in his poem to Christopher Isherwood as a ‘strict and adult pen’. Elaborating on this, in his introduction to The Auden Generation, Samuel Hynes characterises the sought-after new art as follows: ‘Auden was urging a kind of writing that would be affective, immediate, concerned with ideas, moral not aesthetic in its central intention, and organised by that intention rather than by its correspondence to the observed world. The problem he posed was not simply a formal one – finding an alternate way of writing Georgian lyric or a realistic novel – but something more difficult: he was asking for alternative worlds, worlds of imagination which would consist of new, significant forms, and through which literature could play a moral role in a time of crisis.’ This is well said and could apply to another poem which I also want to place in alignment with ‘Venus will now say a few words’ in order to search out what remains ultimately unsatisfactory about Auden’s poem. Hynes could be describing work that would be done a couple of decades later than Auden’s by the historically-tested imaginations of post-war poets in Eastern Europe: and indeed the poem we have been lingering over belongs to a genre which was only fully born after the induced labour of the Nazi experience. The kind of work I am thinking of is represented by Czeslaw Milosz’s ‘Child of Europe’, of which this is Section Four:

Grow your tree of falsehood from a small grain of truth.
Do not follow those who lie in contempt of reality.

Let your lie be even more logical than the truth itself.
So the weary travellers may find repose in the lie.

After the Day of the Lie gather in select circles,
Shaking with laughter when our real deeds are mentioned.

Dispensing flattery called: perspicacious thinking.
Dispensing flattery called: a great talent.

We, the last who can still draw joy from cynicism,
We, whose cunning is not unlike despair.

A new humourless generation is now arising.
It takes in deadly earnest all we received with laughter.

‘Child of Europe’ is both historical and parabolic; it has gone far past the simplicity of confession and its reticence is that of the morning after savagery. It is the cry of a moral creature being racked by the turn which history is taking in the Europe of the Forties, and equally it is a psychic model, sprung from a source somewhere between nightmare and haughtiness, every bit as much an apparition out of the personal depths as Ralegh’s prophetic frisson. Which is another way of saying that its reach in is as long as its reach out, that it is equally efficacious as satire or self-scrutiny. Compared with it, Auden’s lines are in the dock for cleverness, although to say so is to be unfair to the poet who had broken through at this time with a kind of poem which carried the English lyric well beyond the domestic securities of the first-person singular: carried it, in fact, towards that kind of impersonal, eschatalogical poetry of post-war Europe of which contemporary English poetry is just now beginning to take proper cognisance.

From the first, Auden’s imagination was eager to make a connection between the big picture that was happening outside in Europe and England and the small one which was being shown inside himself: he sensed the crisis in a public world poised for renewal or catastrophe as analogous to an impending private crisis of action and choice in his own life. Poets with a firmed-up sense of themselves and their art had reacted in the past to such counterbalancing pressures in a variety of ways: with therapeutic autobiographical essays like The Prelude or In Memoriam; with meditative lament like ‘Dover Beach’; with a projection of the self’s revolutionary glamour in ‘Ode to the West Wind’; or a parade of its patrician autonomy in The Tower. But all of this work came from poets with established habits of address, and footholds in a social and literary landscape which they could regard as more or less stable. Meanwhile, in conditions where the ground might open under the present, a newer approach which Eliot had dubbed ‘the mythical method’ had become available. This was the art of holding a classical safety-net under the tottering data of the contemporary, of paralleling, shadowing, archetypifying – the art practised in Ulysses and The Waste Land and the early sections of Pound’s Cantos. This was more like what Auden needed: yet Auden, unlike the masters who produced these works, was neither expatriate nor antagonist. He was English, in place, and aching for relation. Consequently, he had more fidelity to the traditional modes of English poetry than the first Modernists had, was less eclectic in his literary tastes and sources, and much more at home in a domestic English landscape and history. He did, however, have a strong intuition of the unreliability of the shelter which all of this offered, and while he naturally cherished it, he had a strong urge to divest himself of it.

He was hungering for a form. In his unformed needs and impulses he was rehearsing the scenario which Martin Buber outlines in I and Thou as follows:

This is the eternal source of art: a man is faced by a form which desires to be made through him into a work. This form is no offspring of his soul but is an appearance which steps up to it and demands of it the effective power. The man is concerned with an act of his being. If he carries it through, if he speaks the primary word out of his being to the form which appears, then the effective power streams out, and the work arises.

This is a firm and lucid account of what in experience is elusive and tenebrous; and in its conception of power streaming out and of the work arising as the primary word is spoken, it represents a way of acknowledging the kind of governing power to which the young Auden’s tongue gained access when acts of his being issued in his own words – those entirely persuasive, if estranged and estranging words of his famous earliest poems.

This new lyric was dominated by a somewhat impersonal pronoun which enclosed much that was fabulous, passional and occasionally obscure. Its manifestations were an ‘I’ or ‘we’ or ‘you’ which could arrest, confuse and inspect the reader all at once. He or she seemed to have been set down in the middle of a cold landscape, blindfolded, turned rapidly around, unblindfolded, and ordered to march and to make sense of every ominous thing encountered from there on. The new poem turned the reader into an accomplice, unaccountably bound to the poem’s presiding voice by an insinuation that they shared a knowledge which might be either shameful or subversive. In Hynes’s terms, it presented an alternative world. To get into the first line was to have crossed, like Mr Benn in the children’s story, the line between the usual and the other dimension. Even Eliot’s openings, startling as they were, could not equal Auden’s for de-familiarising abruptness. Eliot still pushed the poem out with the current of rhythmic expectation; the words sailed off relatively unhampered towards attainable syntactical or scenic or narrative destinations.

    Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky ...

    All right, then. Let’s go.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring ...
    OK. Keep talking. What else
    was bothering you?

Here I am, an old man in a dry month,
Being read to by a boy, waiting for rain.
    Sure. Of course you are.

Auden’s openings, on the other hand, were launched against a flow. The craft itself felt watertight and shipshape, but its motions seemed unpredictable, it started in mid-pitch and wobbled:

Who stands, the crux left of the watershed,
On the wet road between the chafing grass ...
    Between grass? What do you
    mean? Where is this anyway?

Taller today, we remember similar evenings
Walking together in a windless orchard ...
    Taller what? Whose orchard
    where?

These famous early poems gave me enormous trouble when I was an undergraduate. Confident teachers spoke of Geoffrey Grigson’s advice to Thirties poets to ‘report well. Begin with objects and events.’ These poets were socially concerned, we were told; they were tempted by Communism, wanted to open some negotiation with popular culture, and to include the furniture of the modern technological world in their lyrics. Fine. This was OK for the nude giant girls behind Spender’s pylons and the knockabout farce of Louis MacNeice’s ‘Bagpipe Music’. But Auden was supposed to be the main man: so where did all this lecture-note stuff get you when in the solitude of your room you faced the staccato imperatives of a passage like this?

Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed:
This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here.
Beams from your car may cross a bedroom wall,
They wake no sleeper; you may hear the wind
Arriving driven from the ignorant sea
To hurt itself on pane, on bark of elm
Where sap unbaffled rises, being Spring;
But seldom this. Near you, taller than grass,
Ears poise before decision, scenting danger.

My teachers had used the word ‘telegraphese’, so I assumed I was in its presence here, the enigma and abruptness of the thing suggesting as much the actual chattering of a machine relaying signals as the condensed idiom of a decoded, printed message. So, all right, telegraphese. Yet to what end? I felt excluded. I had indeed been blindfolded and turned around only to find myself daunted by a landscape that both convinced me and shrugged me off.

It would have been better had those teachers been in a position to quote what Geoffrey Grigson wrote four decades later, in Stephen Spender’s volume of memorial tributes. There, talking about the first poem of Auden’s which he had encountered, one never to be republished, Grigson spoke of its having arisen out of an ‘Englishness’ until then unexpressed or not isolated in a poem: ‘In the poem, he [Auden] saw the blood trail which had dripped from Grendel after his arm and shoulder had been ripped off by Beowulf. The blood shone, was phosphorescent on the grass ... It was as if Auden ... had given imaginative place and “reality” to something exploited for the Examination Schools, yet rooted in the English origins.’ Grigson also spoke of ‘assonances and alliterations coming together to make a new verbal actuality as it might be of rock or quartz’, which is precisely what this slab of verse felt like to me when I first encountered it, and why I still rejoice in it. It is responses and formulations such as Grigson’s, which have little to say about the young poet’s shifting allegiances to Marx and Freud, that are the ones which count for most in the long poetic run, because they are the most intrinsically sensitive to the art of language.

Much has been written about the ideological and theological strenuousness within this poet’s career. Much commentary has been generated by his subsequent revision or excision from the canon of his work of many explicitly political and hortatory utterances made during the time of his most ardent address to public themes. Less appears to have got said about the melodies and densities of the poems themselves, on lines such as those sketched out by Grigson. Impressionistic and text-centred as such criticism may be, it still has a place in verifying the reality of poetry in the world. It may not be as up-to-date in its idiom as that found in some recent Auden commentators, such as Stan Smith, whose deconstructionist tools yield many excellent insights: Smith maintains that early Auden, for example, is both afflicted and inspired by his perception that he is the product rather than the producer of several world-shaping discourses. It may be that Grigson’s way of talking about poems is not as strictly analytical as this, but the way it teases out the cultural implications and attachments which inhabit any poem’s field of force is a critical activity not to be superseded because it is so closely allied, as an act of reading, to what happens during the poet’s act of writing.

A new rhythm, after all, is a new life given to the world, a resuscitation not just of the ear but of the springs of being. The rhythmic disjunctions in Auden’s lines, the correspondingly fractured elements of narrative or argument, are wakenings to a new reality, lyric equivalents of the fault he intuited in the life of his times. ‘The Watershed’ is, according to Edward Mendelson’s introduction to The English Auden, the earliest of the poems preserved in the standard Collected Poems, and reads in places as if a landslide had happened while the lines were being formed or a slippage had occurred between mind and page:

This land, cut off, will not communicate,
Be no accessory content to one
Aimless for faces rather there than here.

What bothered and excluded me when I read this as an undergraduate still excludes me but bothers me no more. The difference is that I am now content that Auden should practise such resistance to the reader’s expectations. I take pleasure in its opacity and am ready to accept its obscurity – even if it is wilful – as a guarantee of the poet’s implacable testimony to the gulf which separates art from life. This is not to say that there is no relation between art and life but to insist, as Lazarus in bliss insisted to Dives in torment, that the gulf does exist.

A poem floats adjacent to, parallel to, the historical moment. What happens to us as readers when we encounter the poem depends upon the kind of relation it displays towards our historical life. Most often, the relation is placatory and palliative, and the poem massages rather than ruffles our sense of what it is to be alive in experience. The usual poem keeps faith with the way we talk at the table, even more with the way we have heard other poems talk to us before.

Out on the lawn I lie in bed,
Vega conspicuous overhead.
    In the windless nights of June.

Yes, yes, we think – more; more. It’s lovely, keep it coming. The melody allays anxiety, the oceanic feeling of womb-oneness stirs, joy fills the spirit’s vault like the gleeful chirp of an infant reverberating in a cathedral:

That later we, though parted then
May still recall these evenings when
    Fear gave his watch no look;
The lion griefs loped from the shade
And on our knees their muzzles laid,
    And Death put down his book.

This exemplifies the hymn-singing effect of poetry, its action as a dissolver of difference, and so long as it operates in this mode, poetry functions to produce a sensation of at-homeness and trust in the world. The individual poem may address particular occasions of distress such as a death or a civil war or a recognition of the sad fact of betrayal between lovers: but as long as its tune plays into the prepared expectations of our ear and our nature, as long as desire is not disallowed or allowed only to be disappointed, then the poem’s effect will be to offer a sense of possible consolation. It is perhaps because of Auden’s susceptibility to this tremblingly delicious power of poetry that he constantly warns against it. ‘In so far as poetry, or any other of the arts, can be said to have an ulterior purpose, it is, by telling the truth, to disenchant and disintoxicate.’

Auden, however, practised more enchantment than this would suggest, so it is no wonder that he was impelled to keep the critical heckler alive in himself. After the mid-Thirties, the iambic melodies and traditional formal obedience of his poems, the skilful rather than sensual deployment of Anglo-Saxon metre in The Age of Anxiety, would certainly suggest a weakening of his original refusal of the conventional musics, and a consequent weakening of the newness and otherness of his contribution to the resources, if not to the supply, of poetry itself. As he matured, he may have regretted the scampishness with which he played around in his younger days when, as Christopher Isherwood reports,

He was very lazy. He hated polishing and making corrections. If I didn’t like a poem, he threw it away and wrote another. If I liked one line, he would keep it and work it into a new poem. In this way whole poems were constructed which were simply anthologies of my favourite lines, entirely regardless of grammar or sense. This is the simple explanation of much of Auden’s celebrated obscurity.

No doubt this betrays an irresponsibility, but it does represent a strong life-urge in the artist himself. To avoid the consensus and settlement of a meaning which the audience fastens on like a security blanket, to be antic, mettlesome, contrary, to retain the right to impudence, to raise hackles, to harry the audience into wakefulness – to do all this may not only be permissible but necessary if poetry is to keep on coming into a fuller life. Which is why, as I said, I am now ready to attend without anxiety to these oddly unparaphrasable riffs in the very earliest work.

At the beginning of ‘The Watershed’ the wind is ‘chafing’, a word which until this occasion had seemed bereft of onomatopoeic life: now it allows us to hear through its lingering vowel and caressing fricative the whisper and friction of wind along a hillside. But this unresisted passage of breath is complicated by the meaning of something rubbing, being fretted and galled and hence inflamed. The word suggests that the topographical crux (of the watershed) which has been left behind is now being experienced as, and has been substituted by, a psychological crux, a condition of being subject to two contradictory states – of having to suffer at the same time an utter stillness and a susurrus of agitation. Similarly, the grammatical peace of this present participle is disturbed by a lurking middle voice: the grass is chafing, active, but insofar as the only thing being chafed is itself, it is passive. Then, too, the participle occupies a middle state between being transitive and intransitive, and altogether functions like a pass made swiftly, a sleight of semantic hand which unnerves and suspends the reader above a valley of uncertainty. By the second line the reader is made into that ‘stranger’ who will be addressed in line 19. In fact, the first two words put the reader to the test, for we are not immediately sure whether ‘Who stands ... ’ initiates a question or a noun clause. This deferral of a sense of syntactical direction is a perfect technical equivalent for that lack of certitude and intuition of imminent catastrophe which gives the poem its soundless climax and closure.

Yet for all the rightness of ‘chafing’ there is no sense of its having been chosen; it is completely free of that unspoken ‘N.B. Here be sport for diction-spotters’ which hangs over the more deliberate, lexicon-oriented Auden of the last years, when he had begun to resemble in his own person an ample, flopping, ambulatory volume of the OED in carpet-slippers. Remember the unravelling wool of the title poem in Thank you, Fog:

Sworn foe to festination,
daunter of drivers and planes,
volants, of course, will curse You,
but how delighted I am
that You’ve been lured to visit
Wiltshire’s witching countryside
for a whole week at Christmas ...

That ‘witching’ is beautiful, permissive, wryly and late-comerly literary: yet its very relish of its own dexterity is tinged with tedium, even for the poet (and the same holds, only more so, for ‘festination’ and ‘volants’). Whereas ‘chafing’ strikes the rock of language and brings forth sudden life from the rift, these later words are collector’s items, lifted in huffing pleasure but without the need and joy which attended the earlier discovery.

Happily, there is no need to go on about this. Later Auden is a different kind of poetry: by then, the line is doctrinaire in its domesticity, wanting to comfort like a thread of wool rather than shock like a bare wire. There is an un-self-pitying air of ‘Let us grieve not, rather find/Strength in what remains behind’ attendant upon the whole performance and I quote the fog passage only to remind you again of the extent to which Auden’s poetry changed its linguistic posture over four decades. In the very beginning, the stresses of Anglo-Saxon metre and the gnomic clunkiness of Anglo-Saxon phrasing were pulled like a harrow against the natural slope of social speech and iambic lyric. The poem did not sail with the current: it tangled and hassled, chafed, ‘hurt itself on pane, on bark of elm’. What was happening in such rare musical eddies was what T.S. Eliot called ‘concentration’, a term which he employed when addressing the ever-pressing question of the relation between emotions actually experienced by the poet and the emotions which get expressed – or better, get invented – in a poem. ‘We must believe that “emotion recollected in tranquillity” is an inexact formula,’ Eliot wrote in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’: ‘For it is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor, without distortion of meaning, tranquillity. It is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all; it is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation. These experiences are not “recollected”, and they finally unite in an atmosphere which is “tranquil” only in that it is a passive attending upon the event.’

We are in the presence of such concentration when we read a poem like ‘Taller today’. This lyric is obviously not meant to fall into step with our usual commonsensical speech-gait, nor is it eager to simulate the emotional and linguistic normality of ‘a man speaking to men’: rather, it presents us with that ‘new thing’ which abides, as I have suggested, adjacent and parallel to lived experience, but which, in spite of perfect sympathy for those living such experience, has no desire to dwell among them:

Noises at dawn will bring
Freedom for some, but not this peace
No bird can contradict: passing, but is sufficient now
For something fulfilled this hour, loved or endured.

The tranquillity of this has as much to do with what the words achieve as what they recollect. Not, perhaps, the peace which surpasseth understanding, more that which resisteth paraphrasing – a peace, anyhow, ‘no bird can contradict’. So all right, even a bird’s motion equals a disturbance or ‘contradiction’ within such deep stillness and fulfilment: yet somehow the bird in the passage hardly attains enough physical presence to be able to contradict anything. For example, if we put it beside Hardy’s dew-fall hawk ‘crossing the shades to alight/Upon the wind-warped upland thorn’, we know Hardy’s to be a dark transience of wing-beat, a palpable, air-lofted glide, a phenomenon out there, in the twilight, whereas Auden’s bird is an occurrence in here in the twitch of a nerve, an ignition of energy which happens when certain pert, thin, clicking vowels are combined in a swift reaction:

                   but not this peace
No bird can contradict: passing, but is sufficient now
For something fulfilled this hour, loved or endured.

The contrapuntal, lengthened-out, interrupted see-saw movement of those lines is as important as their beautifully elaborated and uncomplicating meaning. The hammer of modern English metre, what Robert Graves called the smith-work of ti-tum, ti-tum, is going on during the deeper, longer oar-work of Old English, and the ear, no matter how ignorant it may be of the provenance of what it is hearing, picks up on the contest. This contest, perfectly matched, undulant yet balanced, is between the navigating efforts of a singular, directed intelligence and the slug and heave of the element in which it toils, the element of language itself.

Auden’s work, from beginning to end, is lambent with active intelligence – the greatest intelligence of the 20th century in the opinion of Joseph Brodsky. Indeed, Brodsky’s essays on Auden, collected in his recent prose volume Less than One, are thrilling evidence of what can happen when ‘the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living’ and a poet finally becomes his admirer. There will be no greater paean to poetry as the breath and finer spirit of all human knowledge than Brodsky’s line-by-line commentary on ‘September 1, 1939’, if commentary is a word applicable to writing so exultant, so grateful and so bracingly ex cathedra. He gives definitive credit to Auden’s brilliant subjugation of all the traditional poetic means to his own purposes, his melding of rhyme, metre, vocabulary and allusion in the ray of his civilised and ultimately humble mind. Yet it is possible to grant the justice of Brodsky’s praise and still regret the passing from Auden’s poetry of an element of the uncanny, a trace of the Ralegh frisson, of the language’s original ‘main woe, world sorrow’. The price of an art that is so faithfully wedded to disenchantment and disintoxication, that seeks the heraldic shape beneath the rippling skin, that is impelled not only to lay down the law but to keep a civil tongue, is a certain diminution of the language’s autonomy, a not uncensorious training of its wilder shoots.

Again in Buber’s terms, we might say that the more Auden’s poetry gained sway over the world of It, the less empowered was its address to the intimate world of Thou. Those obscure early poems had been unaccommodating and involuntary efforts to speak the primary and utterly persuasive word. They were, in both the literal and slangier senses of the phrase, ‘far out’ – even at the times when they kept tight in to the metrical rule and spoke the first language of the child’s story book:

Starving through the leafless wood
Trolls run scolding for their food;
And the nightingale is dumb,
And the angel will not come.

Cold, impossible, ahead
Lifts the mountain’s lovely head
Whose white waterfalls could bless
Travellers in their last distress.

Although this does not strike back at a rhythmical angle against the expectation of the well-tuned ear, its metaphysical geography remains very different from the consoling contours of the ‘real world’ of the familiar. Long before the parable poetry of post-war Europe, Auden arrived at a mode that was stricken with premonitions of an awful thing, and was adequate to give expression to those premonitions by the strictly poetic means. But this unified sensibility fissured when Auden was inevitably driven to extend himself beyond the transmission of intuited knowledge, beyond poetic indirection and implication, and began spelling out those intuitions in a more explicit, analytic and morally ratified rhetoric. In writing a poem like ‘Spain’, no matter how breathtaking its vistas or how decent its purpose, or a poem like ‘A Summer Night’, no matter how Mozartian its verbal equivalent of agape, Auden broke with his solitude and his oddity. His responsibility towards the human family became intensely and commendably strong, and the magnificently sane, meditative, judicial poems of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties were the result. We might say that this bonus, which includes such an early masterpiece as ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ and such a later one as ‘In Praise of Limestone’, represents an answer to the question posed in ‘Orpheus’. That answer inclines to say that ‘song’ hopes most of all for ‘knowledge of life’, and inclines away from the ‘bewildered’ quotient in the proffered alternative: ‘to be bewildered and happy’. To put it another way, Auden finally preferred life to be concentrated into something ‘rich’ rather than something ‘strange’ – a preference which is understandable if we consider poetry’s constant impulse to be all Prospero, harnessed to the rational project of settling mankind into a cosmic security. Yet the doom and omen which characterised the ‘strange’ poetry of the early Thirties, its bewildered and unsettling visions, brought native English poetry as near as it has ever been to the imaginative verge of the dreadful and offered an example of how insular experience and the universal shock suffered by mankind in the 20th century could be sounded forth in the English language. And what one cherishes most in his subsequent work are moments when this note gains another memorable hearing:

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.