That’s what Wystan says
- Early Auden, Later Auden: A Critical Biography by Edward Mendelson
Princeton, 912 pp, £27.95, May 2017, ISBN 978 0 691 17249 1
What became of his face? In his memorial address Stephen Spender, who had known Auden since they were undergraduates, contrasted the young man, Nordic and brilliant, with a ‘second image of Wystan … of course one with which you are all familiar: the famous poet with the face like a map of physical geography, criss-crossed and river-run and creased with lines’. By the early 1970s, everyone was familiar with it: it was the face of a celebrity, a guest on the Parkinson talk show, wreathed in fag smoke and opining splendidly. And it remains pretty well known: the quirkiest testimony to its renown comes in The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett’s play about Auden and Benjamin Britten, when two of the wrinkles come alive and engage in a brief dialogue about themselves. As its furrows gradually deepened, the face was captured by some remarkable photographers, including Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon and Jane Bown, and a string of artists. The vigorous scribble of Feliks Topolski naturally found him a good subject, as did the heroic sculptural instincts of Henry Moore, who drew Auden’s skin from memory on hearing of his death – ‘the monumental ruggedness of his face, its deep furrows like plough marks crossing a field’. Probably the most beautiful and attentive drawing had been done five years earlier by David Hockney, in which Auden appears wrapped up in himself and a cigarette: ‘I kept thinking,’ Hockney reportedly said afterwards, ‘if his face looks like this, what must his balls look like?’ Not everyone was struck in quite that way, but everyone was struck, and Auden himself realised that he had not lost his looks so much as become photogenic in a new and unexpected way. ‘Your cameraman might enjoy himself,’ he told an interviewer from the Sunday Times colour supplement, ‘because my face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain.’
That remark has become well known too, and perhaps it has lodged in people’s memories because it is something more than merely droll: it is rather sad. Under what circumstances might a wedding cake be left out in the rain? Something farcical but catastrophic must have happened, the marquee collapsing or the bride absconding – just the sort of ominous, unexplained narrative of which you catch glimpses in the young Auden’s clipped, absorbing poems. This is the conclusion of ‘1929’:
The hard bitch and the riding-master,
Stiff underground; deep in clear lake
The lolling bridegroom, beautiful, there.
You cannot say what, but something bad has happened here: it is one of the characteristics of an Auden poem that you feel an unwritten story pushing at its edges.
Contemporaries were not slow in attributing whatever had happened to his face to a more pervasive damage: ‘those famous deep wrinkles’, Hannah Arendt remembered, ‘as though life itself had delineated a kind of face-scape to make manifest the “heart’s invisible furies”’. She was quoting one of Auden’s own poems, ‘The Capital’, which describes how, beneath the efficient public orderliness of Brussels, implacable and unacknowledged forces distort the private selves of its inhabitants: ‘the lonely are battered/Slowly like pebbles into fortuitous shapes.’ In truth, Auden’s face was probably the result of a medical condition called Touraine-Solente-Golé syndrome, or so his polymathic friend Jacques Barzun proposed, and the medical authorities seem subsequently to have agreed. The exposure of fair northern skin to a decade of Ischian sun, not to mention his superhuman consumption of Player’s, and all the benzedrine, could hardly have helped. But Michael Davidson, an early mentor, was not alone in seeking a more symbolic explanation and in seeing ‘those singular corrugations’ as the ‘seismic result of terrific intellectual commotion’. Auden seemed in later years to have been encased behind a great mask, from which he would only occasionally peep out: Matthew Spender recalled ‘a direct, blue-eyed stare’ lasting two seconds, ‘then he’d pull back within his usual frontiers, as if he’d corroborated some long-held suspicion’. The change could be disturbing for old acquaintances. Margaret Gardiner, who met Auden in the 1950s for the first time since before the war, was shocked at ‘his face … unimaginably creased and craggy’: ‘it took me some time to rediscover the young face I had known beneath this new mask. Then the two merged and after that I always saw him with a kind of double vision.’
Auden’s admirers have often been drawn to think about him in terms of double vision: some of the most strikingly intuitive portraits by Beaton show the young poet in a slightly eerie double exposure, so that he appears imperfectly to overlap with himself. For his readers, the question of double vision has often been a matter of trying, as Gardiner did, to hold two apparently quite different Audens together in the mind, somehow joining in a single conception the charisma of the early star, with all his sudden and surprising brilliance, and the ruminative, bookish, self-deprecating urbanity of the older man. By his own criteria, this made Auden a ‘major poet’, that is, one who ‘writes differently in youth, in middle age and when old’. The young poet started poems better than anyone since Donne, but how did the poet responsible for such epochally compelling opening lines as
Consider this, and in our time,
As the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman:
The clouds rift suddenly – look there
At cigarette-end smouldering on a border
At the first garden party of the year
become the writer who eased himself into verses with the air of someone settling down after dinner and about to hold forth (these lines are from ‘Moon Landing’)?
It’s natural the Boys should whoop it up for
so huge a phallic triumph, an adventure
it would not have occurred to women
to think worth while
‘What’s Become of Wystan?’ was the title of a sharp review by Philip Larkin, which began by imagining a pair of readers, one of the early Auden and one of the later, talking entirely at cross-purposes as ‘one spoke of a tremendously exciting English social poet full of energetic unliterary knockabout and unique lucidity of phrase, and the other of an engaging, bookish, American talent, too verbose to be memorable and too intellectual to be moving.’ Something of this harsh caricature lingers on, particularly in Britain. Among the numerous distinctions of Edward Mendelson’s comprehensive and magisterial volume, Early Auden, Later Auden, is that it brings the two Audens together– understanding their continuity while recognising the remarkable fact of their difference.
The book includes extended and revised texts of two earlier books, Early Auden (1981) and Later Auden (1999), each in its own right an extraordinarily learned and enlightening work of commentary; but this new volume is something more than the sum of its parts, since it articulates simultaneously the idea of an Auden who changed almost beyond recognition and one who remained the subject of a single story. The momentous turning point in the career, which separates the one Auden from the other, is usually taken to be the decision to leave England for New York at the end of the 1930s: ‘He was ready to begin his personal and public life anew,’ Mendelson writes on the last page of the first part of his critical biography, ‘and was ready to begin alone.’ There is of course a great deal to be said in support of such an account, not least that this was the way Auden himself often explained things; but one of the things that emerges so clearly from Mendelson’s account is that Auden was always needing to make a fresh start. ‘He generally began each new stage with a vehement renunciation of past errors, overstating his objections in order to rouse himself to find something new,’ Mendelson says, and the American reinvention was only the most obviously epochal of these attempts. In his own eyes, Auden’s was a creative life with a great act of self-redefinition, or self-repudiation, at its centre. After early years spent on the wrong track, he had found the right one, however faltering and self-critical and difficult his progress; yet it was those early writings that, for Larkin and many other readers, remained the poems that mattered most, as they were not slow to say.
With the exception of Byron, it is difficult to think of any other English poet who became so well known so swiftly; and, like Byron, Auden inhabited the myth of himself uncomfortably. His celebrity among contemporaries was already established while he was a student. His opinions were cited in other undergraduates’ essays (‘Well, that’s what Wystan says’), and his photograph passed among his admirers. I have a photograph of the young Auden, nice-looking in a woolly jumper but not exactly a dish, on the back of which is written, ‘Return to T. Driberg’. According to Spender he acquired ‘a rather sinister public reputation for keeping a revolver in his desk and for working at midday in artificial light with all the blinds of his room drawn’, which sounds like someone making a concerted effort to acquire a reputation, but the many memoirs conjure up someone in whom the performative and the ingenuous seem curiously intertwined. Anyway, ‘the undergraduate notability became a world figure almost overnight,’ as F.R. Leavis later recollected, somewhat sourly. Auden was only 22 when his play Paid on Both Sides was published by T.S. Eliot in the Criterion, and he became a Faber poet later that year with a celebrated debut volume austerely entitled Poems. Within eight years, now the recipient of the King’s Medal for Poetry, he had a special double number of New Verse devoted to him, including essays by contemporaries, a first bibliography, and respectful salutations from across the literary scene: Dylan Thomas emerged best from the exercise, warmly praising ‘a wide and deep poet’ before adding, impishly: ‘Congratulations on Auden’s seventieth birthday.’ He did indeed seem senior beyond his years. The issue had a double-page Faber advert, on one side of which were listed titles by Eliot, Pound, Sassoon and others; on the other the various works of Auden, under the heading ‘Vin Audenaire’: he was a name such that a pun might be made of it.
The contribution of Geoffrey Grigson, New Verse’s editor, was promisingly entitled ‘Auden as a Monster’: his prodigiousness does seem to have had something about it that could be rather shattering. The year after the New Verse special a thinly disguised Auden was the star turn in Christopher Isherwood’s novel Lions and Shadows, the first of many mythologising appearances in the reminiscences of his generation: ‘he struck me as being, so to speak, several sizes larger than life,’ Isherwood wrote of the undergraduate genius, whom he had known since prep school and clearly loved, but whose visits could still leave him shaken up for three or four months, feeling ‘all the acute mental discomfort of a patient who has been deserted by his psychoanalyst in the middle of analysis’. Cecil Day-Lewis, an Oxford contemporary, found Auden ‘intensely stimulating’, but ‘perhaps best taken in smallish doses’. In his disarming memoir, Day-Lewis admitted that his mind had been wholly absorbed by Auden’s for a time, and his verse certainly shows the dangers of discipleship: ‘Look west, Wystan, lone flyer, birdman, my bully boy!’ he apostrophised in The Magnetic Mountain (1933), a volume both dedicated to Auden and full of heady feelings about him – ‘No wing-room for Wystan, no joke for kestrel joy’. But Day-Lewis was not the only contemporary to wonder in retrospect at the Auden effect – what the painter William Coldstream called ‘a real magic and glamour in his presence’ – and shrewdly put his finger on part of it: the figure Auden cut was at once impressive and comical, as though acting out some great running joke about authority or seriousness. He strode about, Day-Lewis remembered, ‘carrying a starting pistol and wearing an extraordinary black, lay-reader’s type of frock-coat which came halfway down to his knees’, and generally laying down the law: ‘he had theories about everything.’ He enunciated his sentences as though you could hear the capital letters, said Stephen Spender, who over a long life would spend pages and pages, especially in his autobiography, World within World (1951), puzzling devotedly over his friend and the tangle of his feelings about him. Spender, too, came to recognise that mixed up with Auden’s intellectual superiority and his instinct to dominate was a sort of buffoonery. Young Auden had informed the even younger Spender that he was sure to be a poet because he was ‘so infinitely capable of being humiliated’, a thing both terrible and hilarious to say, and a remark that naturally stuck in Spender’s memory: it is hard not to detect the dynamics of a very complicated relationship in his decision to publish such an anecdote. Perhaps there is the same sharp edge in Spender’s thoughtful description of his late friend, in the memorial service address, as ‘the incarnation of a serious joke’.
Being properly serious for the 1930s poets meant being engaged in a left-wing way, but there was always something elusive about Auden’s politics. Spender’s contribution to the New Verse number was called, aspirationally, ‘Oxford to Communism’, but its main point was that this transition had never quite taken place: ‘The ultimate criticism of Auden and the poets associated with him,’ he wrote, graciously and typically including himself among the culpable, ‘is that we haven’t deliberately and consciously transferred ourselves to the working class.’ Auden’s satirical verses, Spender said elsewhere, did not arise from moral objections, but rather from ‘a most tremendous sense of fun’, which was evidently a provocation for someone intent on moving Forward from Liberalism, the title of Spender’s 1937 earnest tract for the times. William Empson thought Auden one of only two poets of his generation to deserve the label ‘genius’ (the other was Dylan Thomas) and he heard fun in the voice too: ‘There is always this curious curl of the tongue,’ he said in a radio interview, ‘you didn’t know quite what he was laughing at, but you could hear this, this mysterious tone of fun going on.’ Take the closing moments from his early Marxist pantomime The Dance of Death. The death in question is that of the bourgeoisie, which has obediently succumbed to its historical destiny as the play closes, at which point the chorus comes forward and sings to the tune of Mendelssohn’s Wedding March:
O Mr Marx, you’ve gathered
All the material facts
You know the economic
Reasons for our acts.
Then, to pile bizarre on whimsical, Marx himself enters and announces: ‘The instruments of production have been too much for him. He is liquidated.’ Day-Lewis duly expressed concern about Auden’s apparent inability to keep his ‘buffoon-poetry’ in check when he should have been working out some more coherent and committed politics, but the play got an enthusiastic notice in the Daily Worker, which applauded its contribution to the class struggle; though, really, you would be hard put to decide whether the play was a hearty endorsement of communism or a spoof of it. ‘This is nonsense,’ Auden scribbled vigorously on the title page when he was asked to sign a copy in 1963, no doubt to the surprise of the owner of the book; but in a way it had always been nonsense, as well as not nonsense.
The Dance of Death shows Auden’s fun at its most cartoonish, but much greater works of his early years demonstrate a subtler and more brilliantly insidious version of the same phenomenon. The main appeal of Mr Marx was his foretelling of an immense revolutionary upheaval, but Auden was much less interested in what a world run according to communist principle might look like than he was in imagining trouble in the meantime, now that ‘History seems to have struck a bad patch,’ as he says in one poem, and in depicting lives led under the shadow of some imminent doom: ‘The bridges were unbuilt and trouble coming.’ No one writes better about menace, intertwining the humdrum and the apocalyptic, as in ‘Consider This and in Our Time’:
It is later than you think; nearer that day
Far other than that distant afternoon
Amid rustle of frocks and stamping feet
They gave the prizes to the ruined boys.
And yet however full of foreboding, these poems are also full of unmistakable glee: they convey such spirited delight in their own inventiveness. Auden created a wholly new mental space, a vivid psychogeography of industrial ruin and creaking infrastructure, mysterious power blocs and disputed borders, all played out against a desolate, tussocky northern landscape: ‘Smokeless chimneys, damaged bridges, rotting wharves and choked canals,/Tramlines buckled, smashed trucks lying on their sides across the rails’ (‘Get There If You Can’).
Amid this stylish tumult, the people in his verse experience their historical crisis not really in terms of class politics at all, but as neurosis, emotional repression, the inability to love: there is much more D.H. Lawrence and Blake in them than there is Mr Marx. And of course a lot of Freud, mostly not in particulars but in the diffusely Freudian cast of mind – the ‘climate of opinion’, in Auden’s famous phrase – which, contemplating the whole range of human damage, finds nothing to be innocent and everything to be psychologically purposive. Auden’s liberal and kindly father, whom he revered, was a psychiatrist with progressive interests and gave the boy the run of his library; and in this respect Auden proved his father’s son: ‘Symptomatic was his key word,’ Spender remembered years later. The psychological theories that Auden enjoyed and deployed in his verse could tend to the cranky. One of his great enthusiasms was the German psychiatrist Georg Groddeck, who considered disease, bodily appearance, even apparent accidents to be psychosomatic expressions of an ur-self, the ‘It’ that secretly led your life for you: so that, say, a sore throat was a symptom of telling fibs (‘the liar’s quinsy’) and cancer the result of suppressing your imagination or animal spirits, like poor ‘Miss Gee’ in Auden’s ballad, who ends up on an operating table being laughed at by medical students. The enlightened Spender, pushing forward from liberalism, thought such views positively medieval, reasonably enough; and it’s hard to know how serious Auden thought he was being when he said Spender was so tall because he vainly aspired to be an angel. But the symptomatic imagination comes into its own in those many poems like ‘A Misunderstanding’ where, held by the clinical gaze, objects possess a vivid and shimmering significance, as though symbols of something, but you don’t know what:
Just as his dream foretold, he met them all:
The smiling grimy boy at the garage
Ran out before he blew his horn; the tall
Professor in the mountains with his large
Tweed pockets full of plants addressed him hours
Before he would have dared; the deaf girl too
Seemed to expect him at the green chateau;
The meal was laid, the guest room full of flowers.
This lists a succession of quotidian things, at once banal and yet pregnant with meaning. The tone is studiedly neutral, like a case study, but the atmosphere is wholly magical, like a tale of enchantment: it is a reinvention of romanticism. A lot of atmospheric work is being done with the unsuspecting word ‘the’, as though nominating things that should already be known to us; but of course we are entirely in the dark and nothing like an explanation is forthcoming: it is as though the poem has been written before the task of analysis has been completed. Its startling and comical vividness is the hallmark of Audenian experience, which occurs within situations, as John Bayley once charmingly put it, ‘which we can imagine occurring to the poet as he closes his eyes for a liberating instant between two minutes of actual living’.
The poem plays with the idea of knowing things and conveys the feeling of being puzzled by them: what Auden liked to call a ‘game of knowledge’. The things he wrote that he came to dislike most were those that authoritatively claimed to know things for sure and to lay down the law: as part of his clinician’s role, he sometimes took it upon himself to offer a cure. It didn’t consist in the victory of the proletariat. Richard Hoggart, a man of the left later famous for The Uses of Literacy, noted with some scepticism in his early judicious book about Auden (1951) that the poet had ‘a habit of postulating an idealised “Love” as the solvent for our troubles’, and he was certainly right there: ‘love’ makes an appearance in almost every poem Auden wrote for years. ‘O Love, the interest itself in thoughtless Heaven,/Make simpler daily the beating of man’s heart’ (from ‘Prologue’). Like lots of the young Auden’s poems, such lines take the form of a prayer, though to whom the prayer is addressed is mysterious. Sometimes, with a lingering Marxist glamour, it seems to be ‘History’, which, as Mendelson puts it, ‘moved independently of human choice and knew where it was going’, most famously in lines that came to represent in Auden’s eyes everything that was wrong with his brilliant early voice:
We are left alone with our day, and the time is short and
History to the defeated
May say Alas but cannot help or pardon.
These last lines from his great poem about the Spanish Civil War, he later decided, sought ‘to equate goodness with success’, which is not remotely true unless you choose to presuppose some providential tendency to ‘History’; otherwise, they merely tell with brilliant concision a hard truth about the shit that happens to happen. Orwell, who had his doubts about some things in the poem, nevertheless thought it the best bit of writing to emerge from that war; but, convinced of its bad faith, Auden suppressed it. When, with immense good grace, he gave permission for it to appear alongside some other engaged verses in the 1964 Penguin anthology Poetry of the Thirties it was with the condition that the editor printed in the preface a statement: ‘Mr W.H. Auden considers these five poems to be trash which he is ashamed to have written.’ Late in life he gave a copy of the original pamphlet in which ‘Spain’ appeared to his Christ Church friend David Luke, and inscribed it with love, before adding beneath his name: ‘But a nasty poem’.
Although he could be bossy, Auden was tolerant and generous; but towards himself he was quite unforgiving and had a gift for self-disparagement. Sometimes, as in his perverse misreading of the lines from ‘Spain’, there is a wilful self-damage at work – as there was in his mauling of a celebrated line from ‘September 1, 1939’, another poem he disowned. ‘We must love one another or die,’ he had written, a sentiment much admired by E.M. Forster among others, but, as Auden later told the story, he quickly realised ‘That’s a damned lie! We must die anyway’: so he changed it to ‘We must love one another and die,’ which is hardly worth saying; then he decided to cut the stanza; and then he scrapped the whole poem, judging it ‘infected with an incurable dishonesty’. ‘I loathe that poem,’ he once told the critic Laurence Lerner. What he found especially ‘nasty’ about such moments was that he had been led to a ‘lie’ not by self-interest or a desire to deceive but by the capacity of his voice to charm: ‘That I should have stated it simply because it sounded to me rhetorically effective is quite inexcusable.’ Auden once defined poetry as ‘memorable speech’, and the line from ‘September 1, 1939’ has proved memorable all right. But Auden came to think of his own memorability as an ambiguous gift, and when in later years his old friend Naomi Mitchison regretted that he no longer wrote memorable poems, Auden answered: ‘If, by memorability, you mean a poem like “Sept 1, 1939”, I pray to God that I shall never be memorable again.’
He blamed no one but himself for his failings, but he associated these poetic misdemeanours particularly with his adoption of Yeats in the 1930s as a model for memorable public utterance. ‘Through no fault of his, he has become for me a symbol of my own devil of unauthenticity, of everything which I must try and eliminate from my own poetry,’ he wrote to Spender in the mid-1960s, ‘false emotions, inflated rhetoric, empty sonorities’; Yeats’s poems, he went on, warming to the theme, ‘make me whore after lies’. More temperately, when he addressed Yeats in the great elegy of 1939, newly arrived in America and already determined not to return home, Auden was self-consciously composing a poem that announced a turning point in his career. Announcing a turning point is itself quite a Yeatsian thing to do, of course: Yeats was always writing poems saying that he was now finally done with the gaudy days of brocade and it was time to get down to tough realities, but his ‘foul rag and bone shop of the heart’ remains a markedly poetic place for all that, as Auden would have been the first to observe. The highly equivocal defence Auden offers in his elegy does not praise Yeats for his professions of truth-telling, which Auden would have diagnosed as self-aggrandising delusion: on the contrary, his Yeats gets off by not really effecting anything (‘For poetry makes nothing happen’). He is redeemed, by the skin of his teeth, by his voice, which, regardless of the particular things he might have wanted to say about Ireland or faeries or Maud Gonne, floats free of any didactic ambition and instead offers its listeners an outpouring of song that comes like a blessing: ‘Sing of human unsuccess/In a rapture of distress.’
It is difficult to imagine a less political idea of poetry than as something that makes nothing happen: that was certainly not Yeats’s own view of the matter. But Auden grew increasingly vehement as he aged about the complete redundancy of art as an influence on people or society: it became a favourite bit of table talk to assert that ‘the arts can do nothing’ and that ‘the social and political history of Europe would be what it has been if Dante, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Mozart, et al had never lived.’ That is a startling counterfactual to insist on quite so absolutely: you would be hard-pressed even to begin to demonstrate it. He professed to deplore Shelley for saying that poets were the ‘unacknowledged legislators of the world’, a label he thought better described the secret police. That kind of hard-nosed determination not to be taken in seems likely to be the response of someone who feels, in retrospect, that he has been taken well and truly in: he told Spender to drop ‘the Shelley stunt’, with all the firmness of someone counselling himself about his own temptations. The real motivation behind his emphatic claims, you suspect, isn’t a theory about art and historical agency but an obscure yet insistent sense of personal complicity. Mendelson quotes Auden in a late interview (in German) saying, strikingly, that ‘every writer is menaced by his own latent monstrosity,’ and around the same time in an interview with the Sun (those were the days) he confessed: ‘I feel a little guilty about some things I wrote in the 1930s.’ He was heard to say on several occasions in later life that none of his writings in that decade had saved a single Jew from the Nazis – which is probably true, but a pretty punishing criterion of moral efficacy.
It can sometimes feel as though this repeated emphasis on poetry’s special sort of nugatoriness is the defining quality of later Auden, and the hallmark of his American voice; but in truth he had started to disparage the art long before his removal to America. In 1936, on the way to Iceland with Louis MacNeice, he read Don Juan for the first time, and composed a long and brilliant verse letter to Lord Byron, in which he remarked approvingly on Byron’s anti-romantic cast of mind, and invited his new dead friend to agree that ‘novel writing is/A higher art than poetry altogether’: ‘The average poet by comparison/Is unobservant, immature, and lazy.’ Auden’s Byron is an anti-Yeats, and we can imagine he gave a warm posthumous assent. ‘Who would write, who had anything better to do?’ ‘“Actions – actions”, I say, and not writing, – least of all rhyme’, Byron had once written in his journal, anticipating dozens of later Audenian formulations: ‘We may write, we must live.’ ‘The more we love the Arts … the more careful we must be not to overestimate their importance.’ The fun that moves irresponsibly within the early poetry was gradually codified into a doctrine of purposeful frivolity: and what then is the good of poetry?
these halcyon structures are useful
As structures go – though not to be confused
With anything really important
Like feeding strays or looking pleased when caught
By a bore or a hideola
Those lines are from ‘Music Is International’, a poem written for the Columbia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and they exemplify the easy grace with which Auden fulfilled such requests: he was always wonderfully inventive in producing public poems, lyrics and songs, epigrams and clerihews, all those verbal games that evaded the weight of what he called ‘Poetry with a capital P’. In Auden’s Oxford Book of Light Verse (1938), an inspired commission and still unsurpassed as an anthology, Byron is singled out as the first writer of ‘Light Verse in the modern sense’, a writer whose genius was conditional on taking ‘nothing very seriously’, for as soon as he tried his hand at something profound or poetic, the whole thing fell apart. This is an extremely partial view of Byron, needless to say, and even of Don Juan, which is full of all sorts of things beside lightness; but Auden was always disposed to the categorical. The world of aesthetics and the world of ethics are different, and getting them confused, as Auden felt he had in the 1930s, is always going to be perilous: light verse at least proceeds with the tacit acknowledgment that while there is certainly some serious stuff about, it is happening altogether elsewhere.
A belief in the moral fecklessness of the poetic imagination became a recurring theme, but the idea that there was something at heart deeply irresponsible about poetry had always been present in his mind: while still a young man he had disturbed Spender by declaring that in a civil war the poet would enjoy ‘lying on a roof and shooting at his best friend, who was on the other side’. Such cartoonish ethical imbecility comes not from malice but from not really being a grown-up, from a basic frivolity that finds irresistible anything that’s extravagant, impressive, stylish: ‘All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage,’ Auden would later write. ‘The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a chief of state.’ All poets? At such moments you realise that what seem designed to be universal claims are actually instructions to self, emerging out of a very individual history, and that they probably don’t make that much sense applied to anyone else. Auden once described himself as ‘a fanatical formalist’, and enjoyed insisting on the irrelevance of subject matter, so that, for instance, it made no difference to the poet ‘qua poet’ writing a poem about Christ on the Cross whether the Christian account of that episode were true or not; but such a separation of powers doesn’t seem very likely to pertain anywhere in the real world, and elsewhere he was insistent enough on the importance of truth to the poet:
it’s as well at times
To be reminded that nothing is lovely,
Not even in poetry, which is not the case.
The problem, allegedly, with the famous lines from Spain was that they were ‘not the case’, they were not true; and Auden came to think that this exemplified a perennial problem: ‘What makes it difficult for the poet not to tell lies is that, in poetry, all facts and all beliefs cease to be true or false and become interesting possibilities.’ He sounds here a little like his contemporary I.A. Richards, who maintained that poetry contained things that might look like statements about the world (‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’) but aren’t really propositional statements at all. Richards called them ‘pseudo-statements’, not meaning to imply they were falsehoods but just that their falsehood or truth was neither here nor there; they were just the kind of rhythmical ersatz statements you find in poems. It would be pointless to argue whether or not it was right to say the pobble had no toes, or to say that it wasn’t really brillig and the slithy toves weren’t gimbling in the wabe: to do so would be to mistake the sort of language you were reading.
But there is a problem in all this, isn’t there? If poetry has nothing to do with truthfulness then worrying about the veracity or otherwise of the lines from ‘Spain’ about ‘History’ seems to be the wrong issue, an act of misreading. In truth, of course, Auden was innately as much of a moralist as George Eliot, and if he was drawn to the dream of poetry as pure play, then his ambitions were hopelessly compromised, like the Falstaff he described in a dazzling essay in The Dyer’s Hand (1962) – a collection of poet’s prose only rivalled in the 20th century by Eliot’s Selected Essays. The Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor, he writes, is wholly innocent of any implication in serious matters, but then finds himself terribly and brilliantly miscast in Henry IV, where Shakespeare ‘draws him out of his proper world and into the historical world of suffering and death’. Auden, who was nothing if not self-aware, recognised the broader point and elsewhere more scrupulously distinguished between the kind of poetry that delighted in the frivolous play of forms and verbal games, signifying nothing, and the kind ‘which will show us what life is really like and free us from self-enchantment and deception’. Improvising on characters from The Tempest in another great essay, this one about Robert Frost, Auden allocated the first of these kinds of poetry to the spritely Ariel, the second to the worldly Prospero, and suggested that every poet – meaning himself – contained some mixture of the two. But they are evidently two very different sorts of creativity and their cohabitation does not look set to be very straightforward, any more than it was for their Shakespearean prototypes. Ariel is a narcissistic sucker for beauty and loveliness, formal perfection and verbal nicety; while Prospero, as Auden says, ‘cannot bring us any truth without introducing into his poetry the problematic, the painful, the disorderly, the ugly’.
Mendelson is surely on the money when he says that Auden ‘sometimes seems to have pretended to be more single-minded than he was’. It was one of Auden’s lifelong preoccupations that we are somehow not self-coincident: he much admired a passage in Montaigne which described the puzzling way we are ‘double in ourselves, so that what we believe we disbelieve, and cannot rid ourselves of what we condemn’; and a leitmotif of Mendelson’s book is the way propositions about poetry that ring so clearly and absolutely in Auden’s ex cathedra announcements get tangled in the more complicated reality of his verse. To state the obvious, Auden’s own poetry never contented itself with ‘pure play’, however much his critical prose held that up as a characterisation of the work of the poet ‘qua poet’: indeed, there can have been few modern poets who have spent so much mental energy thinking about things other than poetry, things like the nature of freedom, individualism, love, moral responsibility, modern community (or the lack of it) – all subjects that would bore flighty Ariel rigid. Wordsworth, whom Auden identified as a serious Prospero-ish poet, once said he had given ‘twelve hours’ thought to the condition and prospects of society, for one to poetry’, and Auden would doubtless have blushed at the effrontery of such a remark; but, as Bonnie Costello shows in her deft, knowledgable and consistently interesting study, Auden was drawn all his writing life to meditate just such questions, and to write poems with, as she puts it, ‘a clear civil motive’.[*] ‘The Shield of Achilles’, say, is a genuinely great public poem, a massive and pondered reflection on the relations between life and art, self-consciously kindred to Keats’s ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, and has nothing remotely frivolous about it:
A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.
Larkin thought such lines bookish, but they seem to me very far from bookish. They describe, with all the moral severity of a Prospero, a hopeless world in which promises are not kept; but with a flash of Ariel’s grace, they do so in lines that keep their own formal promises, in their rhythms and, above all, in their rhymes: for to complete a rhyme is audibly to fulfil a promise, and here the rhymes momentarily create a world in which promises are indeed kept and the reciprocities lost on the ragged urchin are audible after all. ‘Words are for those with promises to keep,’ as Auden said elsewhere.
Reading through the length of Auden again it struck me with renewed force how much of his poetry is about being ‘aimless and alone’. He reflected with great profundity on ideas of human connectedness, as Costello elegantly demonstrates, but however much ‘love’ comes into view, the starting point for almost every Auden poem is someone on their own: ‘Every eye must weep alone.’ America worked for Isherwood because it meant fraternity, optimism, sunshine; it worked for Auden because it was ‘one of the loneliest places on this planet’, as he told a young friend. His sense of being on his own was wrapped up with his feelings about early celebrity: ‘The terrible thing about success,’ he wrote to a correspondent in 1941, at the end of what had been a spectacular decade, ‘even in the very modest degree to which I know it, is the way it cuts one off from those who have not known it, i.e., the vast majority of mankind.’ He was deeply moved by the thought of being ‘equal with colleagues in a ring’, but across so long and brilliantly diverse a career, it was the reality of human isolation to which he returned most instinctively, and to the varieties of vulnerability that came from knowing yourself to be on your own:
Woken by water
Running away in the dark, he often had
Reproached the night for a companion
Dreamed of already.
Those lines from ‘The Secret Agent’, written in 1928, are absolutely in tune with the melancholy succession of poems in the late volume Epistle to a Godson (1972): ‘Talking to Dogs’, ‘Talking to Mice’, ‘Talking to Myself’. ‘I’m always amazed at how little I know You,’ Auden says to himself in that last poem.
The damage friends imagined etched on his ageing face was his great theme: we have, all of us, what he called our ‘nuance of damage’. There is a humane pessimism that runs throughout the writing, an immense sense of the fragility of the moral life as it is pursued precariously under the sway of powers we cannot comprehend: this disposition was acquired from his first master, Thomas Hardy, and then re-articulated in more sophisticated ways through Marx and Freud and others, and finally consolidated by the rather chilly brand of existentialist Christianity he turned towards from the 1940s. He was that most unusual of Christians, one who sought not a relief from unhappiness but rather a better way of understanding what that unhappiness meant, for it was the unhappiness that was the given. He understood himself to be under a moral obligation to regard the existence of the world as an intrinsic good, something to be celebrated, and he certainly disapproved of gloom: there is an admirable, sometimes camp, stoicism about much of the work. When, at a Faber party, he asked Larkin if he liked living in Hull, and Larkin replied that he supposed himself no unhappier there than anywhere else, Auden wagged his finger and said: ‘Naughty, naughty.’ (Larkin liked that.) Auden’s gloom may have deepened with time: ‘I have no idea what is actually going to happen before I die except that I am not going to like it,’ he said in 1966; but then from the 1930s he had inhabited a world that he believed was about to ‘go smash’. ‘As a very young man he was, I think, extremely good-looking, tall and slim, with a smooth, pale complexion and fair hair,’ Coldstream said, ‘and now in his sixties one could somehow still see all this concealed under the extremely craggy surfaces which overtook his features.’ He was indeed the same Auden, together and a single man, however self-estranged he may have felt. His friend David Luke told a story of him, in his last year, attending an undergraduate production of The Dog beneath the Skin, a play he had written with Isherwood in the 1930s. The part of the Poet, originally a self-absorbed youth, had been taken by an actor made up to look like a badly ageing man, complete with a deeply corrugated face. Amused, Auden asked: ‘Do you think this is supposed to be me?’
[*] The Plural of Us: Poetry and Community in Auden and Others (Princeton, 272 pp., £37.95, October 2017, 978 0 691 17281 1).