Bobby-Dazzling

Ian Sansom

  • W.H. Auden: Prose 1926-38, Essays and Reviews and Travel Books in Prose and Verse edited by Edward Mendelson
    Faber, 836 pp, £40.00, March 1997, ISBN 0 571 17899 5

W.H. Auden’s first published book review appeared in the Criterion in April 1930, and his first sentence cuts a dash: ‘Duality is one of the oldest of our concepts; it appears and reappears in every religion, metaphysic and code of ethics; it is reflected in (or perhaps reflects) the earliest social system of which we have knowledge – the Dual Organisation in Ancient Egypt; one of its most important projections is war.’ If one’s looking for evidence of the poetic style in the prose, it’s all here: the bobby-dazzling grand statement; the vague, adult gesture towards philosophy and religion and anthropology; the brow-furrowing reminder of war; the lolloping punctuation; the careful suggestion of wide reading and the faint twinkle of self-conscious word-play. In 1930 Auden was a 23-year-old Oxford graduate, recently returned from a year in Berlin, who had finally had his first collection of poems accepted by Faber. He was a young man beginning to make his mark on the world; he was discovering his voice, and his role. He had decided to become a teacher.

Auden taught full-time for five years, from 1930 to 1935, at Larchfield Academy in Helensburgh, not far from Glasgow, and at the Down’s School in Herefordshire, and during that time he published The Orators (1932), The Dance of Death (1933) and, with Christopher Isherwood, The Dog beneath the Skin (1935), as well as writing most of the poems which were to appear in Look, Stanger (1936). It was the period of the great outpouring of his talent, and, as this first volume of his collected Prose reveals, much of his effort went into essay-writing and reviews. The longer essays of the period, produced every couple of years or so – ‘Writing’ (1932), ‘The Group Movement and the Middle Classes’ (1934), ‘Psychology and Art Today’ (1935), ‘The Good Life’ (1935) and ‘Morality in an Age of Change’ (1938) – are well known and much remarked on by critics and commentators, but this collection now makes clear the full extent of Auden’s work as a reviewer.

He contributed not only to the Criterion, but also to the Twentieth Century, the Architectural Review, Scrutiny, the Listener, the New Statesman and Nation, New Verse and the Daily Telegraph. He was practical and sensible in his recommendations (‘First and foremost we should all be very grateful to Mr Henderson and Messrs Dent for making the whole of Skelton’s work at last accessible to the general public in easily legible type and at a very reasonable price’); enthusiastic (‘No one who is interested in anything at all should fail to read this book’ – of Liddell Hart’s T.E. Lawrence); and nicely cheeky (of Churchill, ‘The old humbug can write’; Baden Powell, ‘nice old gentleman as he must be, is a ... Happiness-addict’). Within a short time he’d mastered all the tricks of the reviewer’s trade. He damns with faint praise (of Elsie Elizabeth Phare’s The Poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins he withers, ‘Miss Phare has written a book of 150 pages about a major poet’), charms as he disclaims (reviewing books on architecture: ‘I’d better say at once that I know nothing more about architecture than any other member of the professional classes who has had a suburban home, been educated at boarding schools and universities, spent holidays in lodgings by the sea, and visited old churches on a bicycle’), and feigns humility (in a note on Surrealism in New Verse – ‘My only knowledge of Surrealism is derived from Mr Gascoyne’s books, a few French writers like Breton and Aragon, some paintings of Dali, Ernst and others, and from the pages of the Minotaur’). The writing is slick and smooth, well-egged and oiled, with a tang and a hint of salt, like a good mayonnaise. His two finest moments come in Scrutiny in September 1932, in the second issue of the magazine, in which he concludes a review of books on education with a high camp flourish (‘But what can one do? Dearie, you can’t do anything for the children till you’ve done something for the grown-ups’) and in a gossipy review of The Book of Margery Kempt for the Listener in 1936 in which he describes how the poor woman ‘went off her head after child-birth’ and quips that she would be wonderful to meet on a ’bus’. The quick-whisking wit and hand-wringing are all highly entertaining. If Auden hadn’t left England for America in 1939 he might have become Alan Bennett.

He did of course leave, but he left behind his poems, and there is great pleasure to be had in tracking the movement of phrases and ideas between the prose and the poetry, although it’s sometimes difficult to calculate the direction of the flow, whether from prose to poem, or poem to prose (a problem that will undoubtedly be solved when Edward Mendelson concludes his uniform edition of Auden’s complete works with a fully appendixed and noted Collected Poems). In an article in September 1932, for example, Auden can be found moaning about ‘the system’ and the fact that ‘no one can afford to stop and ask what is the bearing of his work on the rest of the world, its ultimate value ... Should he stop for one moment, there’s his ego dinning like a frightened woman, “But what’s going to happen to me? You’ll be sacked without a testimonial.” ’ In the same month he published ‘A Communist to Others’ in the Promethean Society magazine, the Twentieth Century, the second verse of which reads:

We know, remember, what it is
That keeps you celebrating this
  Sad ceremonial;
We know the terrifying brink
From which in dreams you nightly shrink
‘I shall be sacked without,’ you think,
  ‘A testimonial.’

Sometimes the transfer from prose to poem is slower, and takes longer. There are phrases from an article, ‘A Poet Tells Us How to Be Masters of the Machine’, published in the Daily Herald in 1933, for example, which don’t bob up again for quite some time: ‘When people are anxious,’ runs the prose, ‘leisure becomes a vacuum to be forcibly filled – never be alone, never stop to think. Half the machinery of the world is running today not to satisfy any real want, but to stop us remembering that we are afraid.’ You can catch the drift of these lines six years later in stanza five – ‘a real morsel’, according to Joseph Brodsky – of ‘September 1, 1939’:

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

In places the language has been worn smooth: the alternative of ‘not to ... but to’ rubbed down to the old-fashioned one-word, ‘Lest’ – a ‘Victorian echo’, Brodsky notes, whose cold summons leads the reader deep into the Tennysonian ‘haunted wood’. At other points, the contours are made rougher, and sharper: the already insistent ‘never be alone, never stop to think’ becomes frantic in ‘The lights must never go out,/The music must always play’.

Auden’s reviewing functioned partly, therefore, as a kind of workshop for his poetry, a sounding board, giving him the space and time to buff up his cadences and even to knock together some big ideas. When he writes in an article in 1933 that the aim of literature, ‘like that of psychoanalysis, is primarily destructive, to dissipate a reaction by becoming conscious of it’, he is clearly beginning to put together a crucial strand of his thinking, one that doesn’t become fully articulated for another ten years, in a famous phrase from his review of Eliot’s A Choice of Kipling’s Verse: ‘Art, as the late Professor R.G. Collingwood pointed out, is not Magic, i.e. a means by which the artist communicates or arouses his feelings in others, but a mirror in which they may become conscious of what their own feelings really are: its proper effect, in fact, is disenchanting.’ Similarly, when he writes in 1932,

It is going on. It is going to be like this tomorrow. Attendance-officers will flit from slum to slum, educational agencies will be besieged by promising young men who have no inclination to business, examiners chuckle over a novel setting of the problem of Achilles and the Tortoise, fathers sell grand pianos or give up tobacco, that little Adrian or Derek may go to Marlborough or Stowe ...

he is beginning to beat out both the rhythms and rhetorical structures of ‘Spain’ (‘Yesterday ... today ... Tomorrow’) and to formulate its strange utopian classifications:

Tomorrow the rediscovery of romantic love;
The photographing of ravens; all the fun under
Liberty’s masterful shadow;
Tomorrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician.

Some of the more famous catch-phrases take the opposite route to the march of the material in ‘Spain’, working their way from poem to prose, making the reviews a kind of dumping ground, or an overflow. Poems (1930), for example, ended with the line about ‘New styles of architecture, a change of heart’, and the same heart murmurs can still be heard in a review of a novel by David Garnett in 1931 (‘The non-committal manner is not a change of heart’) and again some years later in an article in Scrutiny: ‘People and civilisations are saved by a change of heart.’

This volume provides a unique opportunity to view Auden’s ideas incubating and hatching and his language finding its feet, a privileged perspective that would once have taken months of patient fieldwork with microfiches and notebooks in Colindale and Bloomsbury, armed with plenty of change for the photocopier and an edition of Mendelson and Bloomfield’s long out of print Bibliography. This volume obviously can’t answer the big question, ‘Where do poems come from?’, but it does allow a good look at some of the main areas. Of course, there’s not always much activity going on; the alchemical transformations don’t always take place. A lot of the prose remains base matter, with a fair amount of wind and puffery, of a kind that in later life Auden was studious to avoid, such as the pompous ‘Message to the Chinese People’, published in the Far Eastern Magazine in April 1939, which sounds like an old Gaumont British newsreel:

During the recent crisis in Europe, it may well have seemed to you that the West had forgotten China. This is not true. In these tragic and difficult days through which we are living, we would like to tell you, the Chinese nation, that there are people in England, and not a few of them, who know that the struggle in which you are so heroically engaged, is an essential part of the struggle for Freedom and Justice which is going on in every country in the world.

There is some dross in here, then, but there are also enough titbits and quality leftovers to fill a whole basket, obiter dicta dropped casually and at random throughout the essays and reviews: ‘Metre is a repeated pattern arising from excitement (a dance)’; ‘Literary forms do not exist outside our own minds’; ‘Reading is valuable just because books are like people and make the same demands on us to understand and like them’; ‘There must always be two kinds of art, escape-art, for man needs escape as he needs food and deep sleep, and parable-art, that art which shall teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love.’ In the Foreword to his 1963 collection of essays, The Dyer’s Hand, Auden wrote that ‘there is something ... lifeless, even false, about systematic criticism’ and he offered the book to readers re-arranged and ready-ruffled: ‘In going over my critical pieces, I have reduced them, when possible, to sets of notes because, as a reader, I prefer a critic’s notebooks to his treatises.’ The extraordinary fragments that make up this book (including appeals for money on behalf of the Group Theatre and reviews of crime novels for the Daily Telegraph) make even The Dyer’s Hand look like a unified whole.

This is not to deny that throughout the Thirties Auden was making various attempts at thoroughness. Prose 1926-38 includes the famous long essays, all of which go about busily systematising in matters of religion and ethics, literature and psychology, and also brings together Auden’s numerous scattered writings on education, which are at least as comprehensive, and arguably more significant. His ideas about education were formed by his everyday experience in the classroom and were an attempt to provide a serious critique of the profession of which he was a part, an enterprise unique among the great English-language 20th-century poets: it’s as if Eliot had written books on banking, or Pound had trained as an economist.

In his thinking about education Auden was both a radical and a conservative. He was happy with certain questionable assumptions – the idea that more schooling equals more education, for example – but in many of his ideas he anticipates the work of maverick theorists like Paul Goodman and Ivan Illich. No fact-grubbing educationalist, he set about dehoking and demystifying the teaching and learning process with an extraordinary passion, and many of his recommendations and suggestions have the simple, beautiful, unworkable logic of the visionary and idealist. In his essay ‘The Liberal Fascist’ (1934), for example, he suggests that there should be only a small number of professionals, and a much larger group of conscript teachers: ‘Every citizen after some years in the world would be called up to serve his two or three years teaching for the state, after which he would return to his job again.’ This is a brilliant idea, but one that would never work: it would offend against the careerism and professionalism now so prevalent even among liberals in the education establishment (whom Auden would also have offended with his claim that many teachers were ‘silted-up old maids, earnest young scoutmasters, or just generally dim’).

His most sustained and thoughtful piece of writing about education came in a Hogarth Press pamphlet, Education: Today – and Tomorrow, published in 1939 and written in collaboration with fellow schoolmaster T.C. Worsley (Auden, according to Mendelson, on information from Worsley, wrote about 80 per cent of the whole). In it Auden and Worsley attack specialisation (‘The corpus of knowledge is so great that one don is as ignorant as the man in the street of the labour of the don on the next staircase’), question the bland assumption that the purpose of education ‘is the production of useful citizens’ (‘good God, what on earth is a useful citizen just now?’), warn against the dangers of ‘love smarm’ and certain forms of ‘liberal’ education (‘progressive techniques make demands which only the exceptional teacher can meet’), worry about the trials and temptations of the pedagogue (teaching ‘offers special opportunities to all who love power, influence over other people, freedom from contradiction, and the company of the immature’), extol the virtues of independent learning (‘most people who can learn ... will teach themselves’), question the purpose of examinations (‘the examination racket is puzzling because it is impossible to trace its authors. No don or teacher has a good word for it, yet it persists. Can the answer be simply that employers want to save themselves trouble in filling posts?’) and even describe public schools as ‘economically parasitic’. It’s iconoclastic, rip-roaring stuff, and should be recommended reading on every BA and MA course in education in the country, although it would perhaps be better for students to discuss the ideas rather than merely to read about them. ‘Our education,’ Auden recognised in 1933, ‘is far too bookish.’

Auden’s own practice didn’t always match up to his grand theories. He seems to have been given to bullying and displays of eccentricity in the classroom, and clearly enjoyed the company of young men and boys for reasons that were not wholly educational. In 1929 he acted as a personal tutor to the young Peter Benenson, who later went on to become one of the founders of Amnesty International. ‘He had some very odd ideas,’ Benenson recalled in an interview in 1978. ‘He decided that it would do me no harm, as I was a spoilt kid of the rich ... if I ate all of my food off the floor. He took great delight in taking the grapes one by one, throwing them on the floor and telling me to pick them up.’ And apparently he kept up the clowning when teaching in schools, where, according to Humphrey Carpenter in his biography of Auden, ‘one of his tricks was teaching the boys to stick stamps on the ceiling by flicking them up on pennies’; another trick was to pretend to cut off his penis. But for all that his ideas were impractical, and his approach eccentric, his writings on education and his experience as a teacher were feeding his poetry and helping to make it what is was: preachy, dogmatic, allusive, eclectic, jokey and conspiratorial. Auden’s poetry of the Thirties should come marked with one of the stickers that used to be produced by the National Union of Teachers and proudly displayed in the back of 2CVs and Volkswagen Beetles: ‘If you can read this, thank a teacher.’

As well as the essays and reviews, Prose contains the full texts of Letters from Iceland and Journey to a War, both of them complete with original photographs and maps, and a warehouse of appendices by Mendelson on ‘Auden as Anthologist and Editor’ (which includes his contributions as editor of the Down’s School magazine, the Badger), ‘Reported Lectures’, ‘Auden on the Air’, ‘Public Letters Signed by Auden and Others’, and even ‘Lost and Unwritten Work’ which ‘describes prose works written by Auden that never appeared, and works that he planned to write but never completed’. It is a gorgeous and painstaking piece of work: Auden seems to have known exactly what he was doing when he appointed Mendelson, then just 25 years old, as his literary executor in 1972. ‘Wystan says that he has just met a young man who knows more about him than he knows himself,’ Chester Kallman remarked at the time. Wystan was right. Under Mendelson’s guidance, the full, extraordinary extent of Auden’s work is finally beginning to emerge. We already have the Collected Libretti and Collected Plays, and now, with the early reviews and essays, this first volume of the Prose assembles the shin-bones and toenails of the corpus.