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.

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