What Kind of Guy?

Michael Wood

  • Later Auden by Edward Mendelson
    Faber, 570 pp, £25.00, May 1999, ISBN 0 571 19784 1

‘That is the way things happen,’ Auden writes in ‘Memorial for the City’, a poem Edward Mendelson dates from June 1949,

                           for ever and ever
Plum-blossom falls on the dead, the roar of the waterfall covers
The cries of the whipped and the sighs of the lovers
And the hard bright light composes
A meaningless moment into an eternal fact
Which a whistling messenger disappears with into a defile:
One enjoys glory, one endures shame;
He may, she must. There is no one to blame.

Except that this is not the way things happen, only the way we have been taught to see them, by epic poets and the news camera. ‘Our grief is not Greek,’ Auden adds, meaning that the story of our time is not helpless pain and pity, however noble, not the repetitive horror of fame or disgrace or death without meaning on an indifferent earth.

                 As we bury our dead
We know without knowing there is reason for what we bear.

We should probably add straightaway that the ancient Greeks also knew this, even if their reasons were different, so their grief wasn’t Greek in this sense either, but Auden’s point remains, a post-Holocaust secularisation of T.S. Eliot’s thoughts about time. ‘Only through time time is conquered,’ Eliot wrote, and for Auden human time, which he elsewhere calls ‘a City/where each inhabitant has/a political duty/nobody else can perform’, is the realm in which we find guilt and responsibility, and through them pardon. ‘In Time we sin,’ Auden writes in yet another poem. ‘But Time is sin and can forgive.’ Whereas

The crow on the crematorium chimney
And the camera roving the battle
Record a space where time has no place.

In ‘Homage to Clio’ (June 1955), Auden pursues similar thoughts, but is kinder to the camera, which becomes the means not of freezing time, but of marking the silent specificity of the passing moment. There are plenty of statues of Aphrodite and Artemis, and none of Clio, Auden says, but this doesn’t mean he hasn’t seen her.

                      I have seen
Your photo, I think, in the papers, nursing
 A baby, or mourning a corpse: each time

You had nothing to say and did not, one could see,
 Observe where you were, Muse of the unique
Historical fact ...

‘Lives that obey you move like music,’ the poem goes on, ‘Becoming now what they only can be once.’ And then: ‘It sounds/Easy, but one must find the time.’ Mendelson finds in this ‘casual-sounding’ play on words ‘a breathtakingly compressed and moving statement of the myriad challenges and regrets of private life’. And not only of private life. Finding the time means abandoning the privileged perch on the crematorium chimney, remembering in their unrepeatable individuality the baby and the corpse and the nurse and the mourner, and it may mean refusing the ‘hard bright light’ of many accepted notions of art, ancient and modern.

‘The moral argument of Auden’s whole career,’ Mendelson says, commenting on the passage I quoted at the start, ‘and the explicit argument of the later sections of this poem, is that someone is to blame.’ The difference between Eliot and Auden, Mendelson argues, is that Eliot believed that ‘the disasters of his time were the product of futile and anarchic disorder’, while Auden was inclined to see them as the product of ‘effective purposive evil’. Eliot, I suspect, fully believed in evil as well as futility and anarchy, and the trick here is not to make Auden sound simply more of a moraliser than Eliot was. Mendelson doesn’t always avoid this effect, and describes the average folk in Auden’s ‘Terce’ (October 1953), who are just trying to get through an averagely selfish day, as committed to ‘absolutely self-centred fantasies of a world in which reality has been suspended in one’s own favour’. It’s true that these people, who are us (‘At this hour we all might be anyone’), are about to take part in the Crucifixion, but our shallowness rather than any more grievous moral error is the point. Still, Mendelson’s overall argument, traced in meticulously documented detail, is very persuasive. ‘To be forgiven,’ Auden wrote in a prose work he never finished, ‘means to realise that one has never been judged except by oneself’, and it’s hard to imagine Eliot writing that. Hard even to imagine Auden writing it in the early, pre-American phase of his life. ‘Someone is to blame’ doesn’t mean pointing the finger or finding a scapegoat; it means accepting rather than eluding guilt, and for Auden the fact of blame is also a chance for forgiveness.

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