With Slip and Slapdash

Frank Kermode

  • The Complete Works of W.H. Auden. Vol. III: Prose, 1949-55 edited by Edward Mendelson
    Princeton, 779 pp, £29.95, December 2007, ISBN 978 0 691 13326 3

Auden more than once explained that his business was poetry and that he wrote prose to earn his keep while pursuing that ill-paid vocation. Luckily he had another powerful reason for writing prose: ‘unless I write something, anything, good, indifferent, or trashy, every day,’ he told his friend James Stern, ‘I feel ill.’ Spurred on by these complementary inducements – the need to make money and the need not to be sick – he wrote quantities of prose. It appeared, over the years, in an impressive range of journals, from Eliot’s Criterion and Leavis’s Scrutiny to Vogue and the New Yorker; from the Daily Herald to many and various obscure little magazines. He reviewed books of almost all sorts and found further occasions for writing prose – lectures, pensées, forewords, afterwords, theological essays, opera programmes and sleeve notes – and by no means all these pieces could fairly be dismissed as what Milton called writings of the left hand. He looked into other writers for thoughts that might help him shape his own meditations, his repeated attempts to express his own peculiar versions of the truth about God, history, the natural world, love. Some of those writers were fashionable, some not; he seemed indifferent to such considerations, and for the most part addressed himself as thinker or as artist to whatever topic attracted his attention in either capacity. For example, he admired, as if he were a modern expert, the professorial medievalist W.P. Ker, and regarded George Saintsbury’s Historical Manual of English Prosody (1910, useful to poets and other interested parties, but now, I daresay, rarely consulted) as his authority on that subject.[*] He was all for making it new, but not in quite the same way as Ezra Pound. At one point he too could have produced a reading list of essential books; but as time went by he seemed to care less than he had in his wilder, more assertive days about convincing or converting others.

In his early New York years he was much taken with the Christian existentialism then flourishing, and especially by Kierkegaard (who provided a valued philosophical schema with his aesthetic-ethical-religious triad). Zahl und Gesicht, a work by the exiled Austrian philosopher Rudolf Kassner, was among the books he described as having ‘so essentially conditioned [a writer’s, i.e., his] vision of life that he cannot imagine who he was before he read them’. Another important work was Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy’s strange book Out of Revolution, which Mendelson identifies as a formative influence on The Age of Anxiety.

He read intensively, and mainly with his own intellectual needs in mind. Like many heavy readers he loved detective stories, but he took them seriously, prefixing to his essay ‘The Guilty Vicarage’ a heavy Pauline epigraph: ‘I had not known sin, but by the law.’ He always had gurus – Gerald Heard, Charles Williams, Georg Groddeck, Homer Lane. Some quietly faded away, but with a few he enjoyed an enduring sympathy: Forster and Virginia Woolf, for instance, and Eliot, with the respect due to the publisher of his first book of poems, but staying well short of idolatry. Such connections ensured that he wrote many letters; he asked that they be destroyed after his death, but clearly many were not. There will be more work for editors.

Some influences may seem trivial; a thought or a phrase encountered in his youth might remain hidden in memory for years and emerge in answer to a particular summons. For instance, Anthony Collett’s remarkable book The Changing Face of England (1926) was mined rather thrillingly in ‘O love, the interest itself in thoughtless heaven’, published in Look, Stranger!, and is boldly present in the opening chorus of The Dog beneath the Skin. These poems belong to a time when Auden was, as John Fuller puts it, ‘unafraid of magnificence’. Many years later, when he had repudiated that sort of magnificence, he discovered that he needed Collett again, and, after a successful search for a copy of The Changing Face of England, wrote ‘In Praise of Limestone’. He could not praise limestone without thinking about his English youth, and so fragments of Collett reappear in the text, not as the bolder large-scale thefts of the earlier poems, but unobtrusively, as if indispensably assimilated.

The debt to Collett, unimportant in itself, emphasises the personal character of Auden’s philosophical trajectory. The other members of ‘the Auden generation’ believed, as he did, that the old ways of getting educated and finding one’s true self had failed, but they didn’t share his peculiar interests or match the scope and eccentricity of his reading. Isherwood, though always a friend, distanced himself physically and spiritually. Chester Kallman, though himself the cause of much, mostly unhappy, speculation about the nature of love, fell short of his lover’s needs or demands.

Settled in New York, establishing acquaintances yet still in a sense isolated, he turned more and more insistently to religion. He learned much from the rather severe but public-spirited Protestantism of Reinhold Niebuhr, and did not reject the religious experiences he had brought with him from England, notably a powerful memory of Charles Williams, in whose presence he had sensed a ‘personal sanctity’. Conscientious examination of his religious position in these years ended with his acceptance of the Anglo-Catholicism of his youth, qualified by the severities of Karl Barth and a great amount of reading, talking and writing, very well described by Mendelson in Later Auden.

Working so often to deadlines, he had the benefit of a peremptory conscience. Mendelson remarks in his introduction to this new volume that when Auden agreed to write an essay or a review ‘he typically finished the job weeks or months ahead of his deadline’ and always took care to give value for money. In his last years his obsession with such bourgeois virtues as punctuality, not one for which poets are noted, but insisted on even in other poets’ houses, puzzled all who were aware that in other respects he welcomed or accepted a messy, even squalid, way of life. But this duality was characteristic, and the messiness somehow made the nursery ethics and the nursery slang more acceptable.

New Year Letter (which in America was called The Double Man) has an epigraph from Montaigne: ‘We are, I know not how, double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn.’ At one point in that pivotal poem, written quite soon after his arrival in New York, he imagines himself being judged by Dante, Blake, Rimbaud, Dryden, Catullus, Tennyson, Baudelaire, Rilke, Hardy ‘and many others’, and makes confession of his faults:

Time and again have slubbered through
With slip and slapdash what I do,
Adopted what I would disown,
The preacher’s loose immodest tone;
Though warned by a great sonneteer Not to sell cheap what is most dear

He took the Shakespearean warning seriously. Writing this in his thirties, Auden must have been thinking of the early years when his tone might justly be called loose and immodest, to the degree that he later wanted to jettison much of his early work, and could describe his most ambitious poem, The Orators, as ‘a fair notion, fatally injured’, and himself, its author, as ‘someone talented but near the border of sanity, who might well, in a year or two, become a Nazi’. Graham Greene, reviewing The Orators, found the 24-year-old Auden’s virtuosity ‘amazing’; but unable to decide whether his sympathies were Communist or Fascist, Greene settled for saying they were ‘directed towards “a strong man”, a kind of super-prefect, for the book has a slight smell of school changing-rooms, a touch of Stalky’. And the young Auden did seem to fancy himself as qualified to lay down the law to an awed class. When compelled into it he disliked the life of the schoolmaster, but it took him some time to rid himself of such fancies, and the stern expository manner that went with them.

The seriousness of whatever law he was laying down would sometimes call for rigour in the style of the argument. He might begin by stating that the topic under consideration could be announced in three (or four, or nine) principal headings, all to be developed in what followed – without discursive ease, and promising no jokes. The prose of this new volume is not altogether free of this form of intellectual bullying, though one senses the writer’s growing desire to be rid of a manner he feels he must condemn (a double man, in this respect also). And so the style becomes more sociable, even on occasion what he called ‘comfy’, more in the manner of Uncle Wiz, a name conferred by affectionate friends.

This latest instalment of Edward Mendelson’s edition of the Complete Works contains Auden’s prose writings from a mere six years, roughly the poet’s forties. It was preceded by two large volumes covering 1926 to 1938 and 1939 to 1948. The three total more than two thousand pages and there will have to be at least one more volume, covering the period between 1955 and Auden’s death in 1973. When you add in the volumes already devoted to plays, libretti, poems, it becomes hard to avoid describing the whole enterprise as heroic. In fact it could also be described as unique, for no other 20th-century English poet has been so fully and patiently honoured. We are now hearing of a project to do something on these lines for T.S. Eliot, but that will be the work of many years and has hardly begun. This huge project is well advanced. Auden appointed Mendelson his literary executor in 1972 and time has shown this to have been an inspired choice. The work of collection and editing – Auden didn’t keep copies of his shorter pieces – required many laborious and skilful feats of scholarship, supported by Mendelson’s biographical studies, Early Auden (1981) and Later Auden (1999), and by an indispensable bibliography.

The first volume of prose was bulked out by the inclusion of most of the two travel books, Letters from Iceland, in collaboration with MacNeice, and Journey to a War, with Isherwood in China. Letters from Iceland includes the virtuoso ‘Letter to Lord Byron’ and much entertaining prose, if you don’t mind that a lot of it is very cliquish. Few reading it today for the first time will need convincing that the annotation of the long and gossipy ‘Auden and MacNeice: Their Last Will and Testament’, an apotheosis of clique, must have stretched to the limit the knowledge and patience of the editor, even with the collaboration of some survivors and some modern Auden scholars, especially the learned if slightly disapproving John Fuller in his commentary on the poem. Auden himself wondered if it wasn’t too obscure, and thought of dropping it, but fortunately let it stand. Like other parts of Letters from Iceland it remains a source of pleasure, and is work of a kind that neither Auden or MacNeice ever returned to. The book resulting from the bold China visit has a particular interest because in 1939, the year of its publication, both authors took off to America. Here ended Auden’s First Period. His career divides into periods almost as easily, and doubtless as misleadingly, as Shakespeare’s or Beethoven’s.

This new volume, covering 1949-55, is Second Period Auden, and on the whole less fun. It contains the short critical book The Enchafèd Flood: The Romantic Iconography of the Sea, made up of a lecture series given at the University of Virginia – the same series that gave rise to Eliot’s suppressed volume After Strange Gods. It is not easy to imagine what these lectures sounded like, since the book avoids anything resembling a discursive style, or any sign of the speaker’s wish to ingratiate himself with his audience. Instead, it offers what is in effect an anthology of passages from Baudelaire, Horace, Coleridge, Byron, Rimbaud, Blake and The Hunting of the Snark, with a rather chilly mandarin commentary. Its hero is the Melville of Moby-Dick and Billy Budd, and its theme is ‘the nature of Romanticism through an examination of its treatment of a single theme, the sea’. Melville provides the central examples, though the sea’s opposite, the desert, is represented by Wordsworth’s dream allegory in The Prelude of the Arab on the dromedary, bearing a stone and a shell.

The lectures were an unrelenting assault on the intelligence and stamina of the Charlottesville, and potentially of any other, lecture audience. The most interesting is the third, condemning the figure of the romantic artist-hero, requiring the renunciation of his ‘Promethean pride’ and replacing him with ‘the less exciting figure of the builder, who renews the ruined walls of the city’. At one point Auden quotes these lines of the Button-Moulder in Peer Gynt:

To be one’s self is to slay one’s self
But as perhaps that explanation
Is thrown away on you, let’s say,
To follow out, in everything, What the Master’s intention was

He comments thus: ‘Man’s being is a copulative relation between a subject ego and a predicate self. The ego is aware of the self as given, already there in the world, finite, derived, along with, related and comparable to other beings. It is further aware of the self not only as existing but also as potential, as not fully actual but as a self which becomes itself.’ Ibsen’s thought is clear and closer to Auden’s own position at forty than his commentary can manage.

Nevertheless, The Enchafèd Flood, like much else in this book, testifies to the admirable breadth and intensity of Auden’s preparatory reading. It was occasionally whimsical or defiant of conventional tastes and assessments. His literary opinions were not always immune to challenge. His devotion to Tolkien was such that any refusal, however polite, to accept that author’s achievement as beyond criticism entailed exclusion from the company of critics he would thenceforth pay attention to. His opinion that the Jacobean theatre produced only one good play not by Shakespeare (The Changeling) is frankly silly. He affirmed with his customary authority that ‘the disappearance’ during the 16th century, of ‘allegory as a common literary genre’ signalled ‘revolutionary changes in sensibility’, yet allegory, though it changed, did not disappear. He was himself a habitual allegorist, not only in this book but in poems earlier and later. He could tell readers of the New York Times that the novels of Ronald Firbank are allegories of the Earthly Paradise, ‘a world of pure being; what people are and what they want or ought to become are identical’. He had always been interested in the subject, and in the introduction to his multi-volume anthology, Poets of the English Language, he systematically sets out nine rules of allegorical thinking for all who have difficulty reading medieval poetry. The introductions to these volumes are far from what might be expected of an academic anthology, being original and convincing accounts of the history of English prosody and related matters; only the treatment of allegory is tedious.

When all is said about his foibles, his occasional desire to dazzle, the essays in this collection are not only brilliant but nearly always, at some level, very serious. The Button-Moulder gives Peer information, rather grim as it happens, concerning the self, and Auden accepts the correction or reform of the self as a prime human responsibility and a matter with which poetry should be concerned, difficult because of what he called ‘the radical gulf between the Christian faith and all worldly values’, and difficult, too, because of an innate doubleness in the self. Hence the habitual pairings and opposites: agape and eros, nature and history, order and disorder, the familiar English iambic line and American syllabics, which, having weighed the objections, he adopted and, as he explained in a letter to Marianne Moore, justified as a ‘means to achieving a balance between freedom and order’.

The volume ends just before Auden’s election as Oxford Professor of Poetry. He gave the required nine lectures, which appeared in various forms, along with other writings, in The Dyer’s Hand (1962). The contents will doubtless reappear, presented with the same scrupulosity, in Mendelson’s next enormous volume.

[*] Saintsbury has an eloquent chapter condemning English syllabics. Auden must have considered and rejected it, for something like half of his poetry is written in syllabics. He got the idea from Marianne Moore and developed it in his own way. It can be unobtrusive: it is possible to admire ‘In Memory of Sigmund Freud’ without noticing that it is in syllabics. However, Louis MacNeice once scolded me for praising a syllabic poem by Thom Gunn, arguing that the practice would be ruinous to the English verse tradition – which is more or less what Saintsbury said.