Auden: 'unless I write something, anything, good, indifferent, or trashy, every day, I feel ill'
Wednesday night I was at the British Library (Shaw Theatre) for the W H Auden centenary reading on the anniversary of his birth. Among the poets, indeed — a good evening. The running order:
- John Fuller: 'Get There If You Can' (1930); 'The Sphinx' (1938); Miranda's Song (from The Sea and the Mirror) (1942–44).
- Peter Porter: 'At Last the Secret Is Out' (1936); 'Lady, Weeping at the Crossroads' (1940); 'Now the Leaves Are Falling Fast' (1936); 'Under Sirius' (1949).
- James Fenton: 'Night Covers Up the Rigid Land' (1936); 'Death's Echo' (1936); 'September 1, 1939' (1939).
- Sean O'Brien: 'The Composer' (1938); 'The Fall of Rome' (1947); 'The Shield of Achilles' (1952).
- Richard Howard: 'On the Circuit' (1963); 'Auden in Milwaukee' (by Stephen Spender) (1940); 'A Walk After Dark' (1948).
- Grey Gowrie: 'Deftly, Admiral, Cast Your Fly' (1948); 'In Praise of Limestone' (1948).
- Andrew Motion: 'O Love, the Interest Itself in Thoughtless Heaven' (1932); Preface: The Stage Manager to the Critics (from The Sea and the Mirror) (1942–4); 'Lullaby' (1937).
Twenty poems by Auden, then, and of these ten are from the 1930s. Five come from Nones (1951), Auden's first post-war collection of shorter poems ('Under Sirius', 'The Fall of Rome', 'A Walk After Dark', 'Deftly, Admiral, Cast Your Fly' and 'In Praise of Limestone'), and just two, I think ('The Shield of Achilles' and 'On the Circuit'), from the last six collections (omitting Academic Graffiti) — The Shield of Achilles (1955), Homage to Clio (1960), About the House (1965), City Without Walls (1969), Epistle to a Godson (1972) and the posthumous Thank You, Fog (1974). The status of the later poetry is, of course, much discussed, and it is probably the case that we have been too close to it to judge it well. Now, though, a new phase in the interpretation and appreciation of Auden may be beginning. Adam Kirsch wrote a good piece in the NY Sun (via 3quarksdaily), part of which touches on this:
Starting in the early 1940s … Auden developed a very different conception of poetry and its purpose. He began to write about the personal, instead of the public; the spiritual, instead of the political. In style, too, he changed drastically. In place of the elliptical shocks of the early poems, he cultivated a new style, one that combined the hyper-articulate and the campily laid-back. … In place of the private mythos of the early work, Auden now turns to the well-worn figures of Greek and Roman myth. And his tone of voice, even when he is not half-joking as he is here, often comes across as not quite serious, as though all his eloquence were just an ultracivilized game.
So great were these changes that it became necessary to talk about Auden as though he were two poets. … Such striking changes led many of Auden's early admirers to see the evolution of his work as a mere decline. … If the Auden centenary sees any major change in the poet's reputation, it is that such a dismissal of the later, American Auden now looks definitely mistaken. It is still tempting, reading Auden's work chronologically, to regret some of the changes that came in the train of his emigration, and to wonder what poems he might have written if he had stayed in England during World War II. The later Auden will never be as mesmerizing as the early Auden. But it is now clear that he was not, like Wordsworth, a poet who wrote himself out early but still kept on publishing. Rather, Auden's breaking of his own style now looks like one of the key moral gestures of 20th-century English literature. Auden was one of the first great writers to recognize that, after World War II, the modernist vision — with its abstractions and myths, its glamorizing of danger and sacrifice — was no longer sustainable. Poetry, to be credible in a new world, had to be ethical in a new way: scrupulous about its claims, its concepts, even its language.
James Fenton read particularly well (his Guardian tribute to Auden can be read here and there are four paragraphs by him here that are worth reading): 'Death's Echo' is a fine poem and 'September 1, 1939', which might have worked so awkwardly given both all that has been written or said about it and how it has been used, was luminous and, to my mind, unquestionably compelling. Sean O'Brien introduced 'The Fall of Rome' as the most influential poem of the later twentieth century — measured, that is, by the number of attempts poets have made to re-write it.
The last poem of the evening, 'Lullaby' ('Lay your sleeping head, my love, / Human on my faithless arm'), moved me to tears: a popular poem, but I've never heard it read in public before and it is the poem I could not get out of my mind at the end of the week when my father was dying in September, 2004. He looked dreadful and, as I stared at his wasted face (we had never been closer: he had lost all power of speech but we had never communicated so well as in those last few days together), all I could hear in my head was, 'Mortal, guilty, but to me / The entirely beautiful'. To be moved like this, and to be so surprised, was as powerful and personal a reminder as I could imagine of how deeply affecting Auden's poetry can be.
Charles Madge, founder of Mass Observation and a poet, too, wrote in 'Letter to the Intelligentsia' (1933; quoted here):
But there waited for me in the summer morning,
Auden, fiercely. I read, shuddered and knew
And all the world’s stationary things
In silence moved to take up new positions.
Why 'hug a shady wet nun'? (Why? Why?) Here's the answer in the Guardian leader for 21 February, In Praise of … W H Auden:
… as he gleefully pointed out, his name was an anagram of "hug a shady wet nun" …
Free copies of the TLS for 9 February were available in the Shaw Theatre and Nicholas Jenkins' long essay on Auden covers a lot of ground. (He devotes a sizeable chunk of his essay to the background of 'Lay your sleeping head, my love'. Michael Yates was the 13 year-old schoolboy with whom the 26 year-old Auden fell in love in 1933, and the role W B Yeats' poem, 'A Prayer for My Son', plays in Auden's poem is teased out by Jenkins: 'The identity of the sleeper in Auden's poem had to remain veiled; but the love that dared not speak its beloved's name in 1937 could at last whisper it through the language of parallelism and allusion'. Yeats' poem is addressed to his son, Michael.)
Auden's was a colossal talent: his poetry apart, the prose writings continue to command our attention — he is a great critic and a polymath in scope — and then there is his work as a librettist and translator. Wikipedia (this is the archived page the W H Auden Society prefers):
Auden published about four hundred poems, including seven long poems (two of them book-length). His poetry was encyclopedic in scope and method, ranging in style from obscure twentieth-century modernism to the lucid traditional forms such as ballads and limericks, from doggerel through haiku and villanelles to a "Christmas Oratorio" and a baroque eclogue in Anglo-Saxon meters. The tone and content of his poems ranged the pop-song clichés to complex philosophical meditations, from the corns on his toes to atoms and stars, from contemporary crises to the evolution of society.
He also wrote more than four hundred essays and reviews about literature, history, politics, music, religion, and many other subjects. He collaborated on plays with Christopher Isherwood and on opera libretti with Chester Kallman, worked with a group of artists and filmmakers on documentary films in the 1930s and with the New York Pro Musica early music group in the 1950s and 1960s. About collaboration he wrote in 1964: "collaboration has brought me greater erotic joy . . . than any sexual relations I have had".
Nicholas Jenkins' essay is wary of any easy, panoptic view of Auden, but in surveying the range of Auden's work Jenkins stirs up much to go on thinking about. This is a typically careful couple of sentences about Auden's prose writing: 'The prose as a whole is remarkable, full of fresh ideas and commanding yet eccentric speculations and intuitions. When it becomes readily accessible in its full extent, it will surely alter preconceptions about Auden'. I liked this quotation from a letter Auden wrote to his father in 1939 (his father had written to say that he preferred Wystan's old poems to the new): 'The writer's problem is that of everyone: how to go on growing the whole of his life, because to stop growing is to die'; and this, to a New York audience in 1946 (talking about Shakespeare): 'a major poet is always willing to risk failure, to look for a new rhetoric'. Jenkins is also good on Auden 'the poet of a deliberately willed uprootedness; he turned himself into the first great poet of that most symptomatic of all social groups in the modern world: those who will not or cannot go home'. 'He made twenty-nine separate journeys that lasted more than two months; twenty-six of those lasted more than five months, blurring the meaning, especially in his later years, of home and abroad, domestic and foreign, here and there. In addition, Auden's homosexuality helped to enforce the social mobility and unpredictability which he thought essential to his freedom as a writer.'
To end on, 'The Fall of Rome':
The piers are pummelled by the waves;
In a lonely field the rain
Lashes an abandoned train;
Outlaws fill the mountain caves.
Fantastic grow the evening gowns;
Agents of the Fisc pursue
Absconding tax-defaulters through
The sewers of provincial towns.
Private rites of magic send
The temple prostitutes to sleep;
All the literati keep
An imaginary friend.
Cerebrotonic Cato may
Extol the Ancient Disciplines,
But the muscle-bound Marines
Mutiny for food and pay.
Caesar's double-bed is warm
As an unimportant clerk
Writes I DO NOT LIKE MY WORK
On a pink official form.
Unendowed with wealth or pity,
Little birds with scarlet legs,
Sitting on their speckled eggs,
Eye each flu-infected city.
Altogether elsewhere, vast
Herds of reindeer move across
Miles and miles of golden moss,
Silently and very fast.