W.H.AUDEN POEMS 2 VOLS 1927-39, 1940-73

Edited by Edward Mendelson

ISBN 978-0-691-21929-5 & 978-0-691-21930-1

Princeton £48 per volume

reviewed by Alan Dent


Edward Mendelson is rightly praised for his excellent editing of these two volumes. The endnotes come to some five hundred or more pages. There is little any Auden scholar or enthusiast could lack. All poets, even the so-called minor, should receive such diligence because having all the work in one place ( or two to be pedantic) is the best way to get to the heart of a poet, to see him or her in context and to understand both development and unevenness.  

Auden wrote a great deal, probably too much. His most famous poem, now, is probably Funeral Blues; such is popular culture. Itís a well-composed poem whose five-stanza version was written for The Ascent of F6. The subsequent four-stanza iteration is the established one. Auden was approached by a certain Miss Boyd (nothing is known of her) for poems she might include in a childrenís anthology. Auden sent her this one, and Nonsense Song. That doesnít imply itís a poem for children, but suggests he thought it suitable. He was thirty when he wrote it. Its absolutism is somewhat adolescent and would appeal to children. The death of a loved one is an absolute loss, but loss is accepted more readily  by the mature mind. The poem is achieved but has a hint of Audenís characteristic display of virtuosity. He was known for welcoming challenges to write in a particular form, with specified lexis on a given topic.  

Reading the entirety of his work, brings this into focus. Auden had no compelling reason to write, in the sense that, say, Lawrence did (Auden calls Lawrence ďwoozyĒ). He rightly recognised himself as bourgeois: his sensibility was formed in upper-middle-class circumstances, private school and Oxford. There was nothing he could do about it. The fellow-travelling of the thirties was shallow and produced no fundamentally authentic poetry. Embracing an ideology is easy. Changing your sensibility a very different challenge. Not that Auden was insincere: throughout his work there is a dislike of tyranny and injustice and a consistent compassion; but he simply didnít share the sensibility of working people. Nor, of course, did the Communist Party nor the originator of communism. Auden was honest in acknowledging that he was a product of his circumstances and needed to be true to what he was. Yet what he was deprived him of a passionate motivation as a writer.  

Lawrence was always kicking against the pricks. His sensibility was genuinely working-class. He was always the Bert Lawrence of 8a Victoria Street. As a child, his was deeply wounded by his parentsí low social status and the failure of their marriage (much is made of his motherís middle-class origins, but she married into the working-class). Lawrence said he laboured at one task: to show that sexual love wasnít  a dirty secret; but what was also bubbling away in his work was a visceral dislike of industrial capitalism. Auden had nothing of the same kind. Nor did he have Jane Austenís obsession with choice of marital partners, or Tolstoyís need to shake off his origins and find a simpler, truer form of life, nor Wordsworthís will to write in the language of the common people. He was comfortable, academically successful, accepted as a writer easily and early. He had a talent for a certain kind of writing, but nothing urgent to drive him to his desk. Not even the rise of fascism disturbed him as it did Brecht. He opposed it, to his credit, unlike the demented Pound, but nothing seems to have troubled him to the point that he had to write about it. Rather, his work has, almost from beginning to end, the sense of an exercise in poetry.  

This is at its most obvious in pieces like Night Mail, another very famous example which many schoolchildren were once required to learn. Auden was employed by the General Post Office Film Unit from September 1935 and the poem was a commission, or it might even be argued, part of his contract. Itís clever and charming and a good example of construction to put before children. Yet its obviously written to order. Such work always has a duteous feel which is distinct from the aura of inevitability which inheres in what is written from an irresistible inner impulse.  

Much of Audenís early poetry is derivative of Hardy. He was frank about this,  advising young poets to follow his example and imitate a good but not great poet. Hardy wrote some two thousand poems. Irving Howe chose two dozen as the core. Perhaps in selecting Hardy as his mentor, Auden was heading in the same direction: huge output but a small body of really fine pieces. Maybe too by selecting a writer born in 1840 and therefore steeped in Victorian mentality, Auden incorporated a retrospective tone in his writing. Apollinaire was born twenty-seven years earlier, yet his work seems much more attuned to the potential democratic sensibility of the twentieth century. Audenís mother was thirty-eight when he born, his father thirty-five. His upbringing must have had a significantly Victorian feel. Audenís poems often feel at home in this atmosphere of professional, responsible, but staid late nineteenth century middle-class conformism.  

Poem XII of the early poems was written on 20th April 1930, when the world was in a bad way in the wake of the Wall St Crash. It mentions G.G.Newman, the clergyman Auden has his first sexual experience with while at St Edmundís School. He left at thirteen so this was paedophilia. Auden himself was almost certainly a paedophile: on his appointment to a private school teaching post he wrote to a friend it was ďa paradise for buggersĒ. Sexual abuse was taken for granted in English private schools, an inevitable right of passage.  

            Lawrence, Blake and |Homer Lane, once healers in our English land:
These are dead as iron for ever; these can never hold our hand

he writes in the same piece. Lawrence was recently dead (2nd March). Itís interesting Auden sees these three as ďhealersĒ. Elsewhere he described Lawrence as ďdangerousĒ. There is nothing of Blakeís visionary feel in Auden, nor of Lawrenceís faith in blood intelligence. Lane, who believed children flourish if given autonomy and who influenced A.S. Neill, founded the Little Commonwealth School, Dorset which he was forced to leave after allegations of sexual abuse from two sixteen-year-old girls. Auden is an essentially cerebral writer, almost a philosopher in verse. Yet here he champions men who distrust the intellect to some degree, or at least claim to. Perhaps he embraces them because he senses they possess an elemental capacity he lacks. The choice of Lane was unfortunate. He was never prosecuted and the allegations may have been malicious, but doubt remains. 

In Prothalamion Auden writes:

             Let catís mew rise to a scream on the tool-shed roof,
Let son come home tonight to his anxious mother
Let the vicar lead the choirboy into a dark corner..

The last line isnít ironic. Perhaps itís intended as a joke, but if so it betrays insensitivity. Auden appears to see sexual abuse as part of the natural order, sufficiently for him to include this line in a poem celebrating a forthcoming marriage. Isnít it very odd that anyone would want a reference to sexual abuse in poetry wishing them well in marriage?  

In part II of The Orators there is: 

            from the death-will of the Jews
O Ferrers Locke, deliver us

The first version was published in 1932. Hitler was not yet Chancellor but was well on his way and his anti-Semitism had been clearly declared in 1919. Did Auden genuinely believe in a Jewish death-will or is this tongue-in-cheek? Is he poking oblique fun at Nazi doctrine? Itís difficult to arrive at a definitive interpretation, but to favour the latter is the generous response. Yet the ambiguity is present. Auden complained of his early work, Paid On Both Sides for example, that it was just too obscure. The obscurity thins out in the later work but never truly evaporates, probably because of his academic training and an enduring sense that he was writing for professors and critics.  

Part IV of The Orators gives us Audenís view of the British working-class: 

            Fitters and moulders,
Wielders and welders,
Dyers and bakers
And boiler-tube makers,
Poofs and ponces
All of them dunces..
What are they doing
Except just stewing?...
Their minds as pathic as a boxerís face,
A shamed uninteresting and hopeless race.. 

He follows this with an equally derisive view of the upper-class: cautious, hypocritical, lifeless, manipulative. This section is asking how to escape from the mess the world was in and the above passage is in essence a dismissal of the glib idea that the workers can offer a solution. Yet it goes a little further. The voice isnít necessarily Audenís. Heís engaging in a bit of ventriloquy. Yet if there is an underlying request for sympathy for working people, there is also here a ready caricature. The writing lacks sufficient irony to indicate satire. Perhaps this view of the majority came easily to Auden because he was raised in it. Not many people in private schools or Oxbridge in the early decades of the twentieth century thought of the working-class as other than hopeless dunces who deserved their difficulties.  

A Happy New Year is an eight-page poem written in February 1932. It has two parts, the first in eight-line stanzas rhyming AABBCDDC and the second in five-line verses rhyming AABBC and is full of contemporary references: Harry Lauder, Philip Snowden, Mosley, John Reith, hire purchase, Keynes. Auden had a real talent for this, and it comes across as charming and always slightly amused and amusing. Itís a way of anchoring his poems, and its use may have contributed to his best work. The obscurity he regretted is in some measure due to the abstract, philosophical cast of much of his poetry. In the pieces where he weaves recognisable references heís tilting towards William Carlos Williamsís ďno idea but in things.Ē The poem is a slant survey of Britain, or perhaps the world, as fascism was on the rise and no obvious answer to the pervading problems was discernible. Itís subtle and low-key, but interestingly Auden canít resist a reference to public school sexual abuse: You beastly rotters, youíve made me come. Those beastly rotters went on to run the country.  

Thereís a curious tension in Audenís work between the modern (not the modernist) and the retrospective. The first of a series of five poems written in 1933, for example, begins:                       

                        Sleep on beside me though I wake for you
Stretch not your hands towards your harm and me

The inversion of imperative and the negative adverb in the second line is noticeably archaic. Is there anything about these lines which couldnít have come from the early nineteenth century? It may be Auden felt trapped: contemporary reality was obviously flawed, there was little sense of a better future on the way (in 1933 it looked rather as though the future was refusing to be born), leaving only nostalgia as an escape.  

In The Journalistsí Song, however, written for The Dog Beneath the Skin in 1935, Auden displays a healthy cynicism which places him firmly in the present and kicking against its pricks: 

            The General Public has no notion
Of whatís behind the scenes.
They vote at times with some emotion
But donít know what it meansÖ 

This is a long way from Hardy. It sites Auden amongst the disabused of the twentieth century who, by definition are discontents and disturbers (in contradistinction to Larkin who, like Eliot, was defeated). Auden is accomplished at this kind of tone and it might be that it produced some of his best work; but he seems to have been aware that he could get away with it only if it wasnít characteristic. 

Poem XVIII of On This Island, written in 1932, is in this vein: 

            The expert designing the long-range gun
To exterminate everyone under the sun,
Would like to get out but can only mutter:-
ďWhat can I do? Itís my bread and butter.Ē

In the same piece he takes aim at journalists, judges, bankers, even poets. When heís in this mood, Auden is pushing against the limits of his bourgeois sensibility, heís recognising things canít go on as they are and is mocking them in order to suggest change. 

In the appendix to the first volume is one of what Auden called his ďdark balladsĒ. Sue tells the story of a fashionable young woman. Itís typical Auden: sylistically fluent, rhymed with ease, witty but also somewhat untypically subversive, if gently, though the ending is tragedy lightened by wryness. Poems of this kind, in their immediacy and charm, are more memorable than those in which he tries to rise to a high philosophical level. Perhaps it was the combination of a test of his poetic ingenuity and a cynicís view of modernity which brought out the best in him.  

The later work shows Auden loosening up somewhat. Epistle to a Godson, published in 1972, the year before his death, contains Shorts 1 and II, a few pages of aphorisms: 

            Yes, a Society so obsessed with rabid consumption
stinks, I entirely agree: but, student radicals, why,
why protest in its own dehumanised language of Ad-Mass?
If you would civil our land, first you should civil your speech.

Heís right. Others made the point before him, of course, Guy Debord for example; but the language of the old order wonít pass muster for the effort of ushering in the new. Itís worth noting too that here, in his late sixties, Auden is dismissing consumer capitalism. The thirties are well behind him, but freed from political affiliation he is now genuinely radical; that is, his sensibility has embraced a rejection of the characteristic form of his society.  

On the same page, however, he writes: 

            Somebody shouted, I read: We are ALL of us marvelously gifted;
   Sorry, my love, but I am: You, though, have proved that You ainít.

This is humourless and snobbish. Auden puts himself among the gifted and excludes the majority, but he misunderstands the meaning of the slogan: we are all gifted with language, for example, we are creative by biological inheritance. The shout is not intended to say we are all Shakespeare or Bach, but that even the most ordinary human gifts are marvellous. That Auden fails to grasp this is perhaps indicative of the status anxiety of his upbringing.  

            No, Surrealists, no! No, even the wildest of poems
   must, like prose, have a firm basis in staid common sense. 

This has the feel of Audenís high-Anglican forbears, the sermon setting the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Itís slightly redolent of a Daily Mail editorial or a Tory back-bench rant. Auden is dismissing Apollinaire. Zone is a seminal proto-surrealist poem. Is it wild? Isnít it rather what its author intended when he coined the term surrealism: not an escape from reality, but an enhancement of it. A super-reality if you like. Itís disappointing that six decades after the appearance of one of the best and most defining poems of the twentieth century, Auden could slip into such quasi-philistine rejection. What does he mean by ďstaid common senseĒ? Isnít this typical buttoned-up, English emotional repression and fear of imagination? Surrealism, both visual and literary, has made a liberating contribution. Of course, not all of it is great, but neither is all Greek drama.  

City Without Walls (1969) includes a few pages of marginalia, very akin to the earlier shorts.  

            Patriots? Little boys,
obsessed by bigness,
Big Pricks, Big Money, Big Bangs.

Itís ironic that these neat, pertinent forms are very close to the aphorisms produced by some surrealists. They might almost have appeared on Parisian walls in 1968. They arenít remote either from the imagism Auden disdained as being able to get no further than a single comparison: A is like B etc. The incisive radicalism of pieces like this would never have made Auden the reputation he enjoys. To gain that, he had to play the game. Long, elaborate poems displaying a range of poetic skills and often with a decent helping of obscurity were what the establishment would respond to. Nevertheless, in a dozen words Auden succeeds in puncturing the bubble of the phoney patriotism which isnít love of your land and the people you share it with, but a form of demented egotism which makes an absolute of temporary arrangements. Auden had an interest in geology, which makes impermanence obvious. In twenty million years there will be one continent and the Isles of Great Britain will have been shoved into Greenland. A huge span of time in human terms, of course, but in the life of the universe, very brief. Yet itís only when we see our life against this backdrop  that we truly get a proper perspective. Auden had this capacity. It made him curl his lip at strutting power-seekers and vulgar money-grubbers: 

                        A dead man
who never caused others to die
seldom rates a statue

                        Small tyrants, threatened by big,
sincerely believe
they love Liberty

People sincerely believe all kinds of self-serving twaddle.
Like many writers who produced a great deal, Auden is remembered, at least by most whoíve heard of him, for snippets: 

                        If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me

ends the second stanza of The More Loving One. Like Funeral Blues (or part of it) and the famous remark about poetry changing nothing, itís much quoted. The rest of the poem isnít about romantic or erotic love, but the indifference of the universe and the cruelty of human life: 

                        Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

The poem is a call to be courageous enough to be vulnerable. Not the kind of thing the masters and mistresses of mankind are much interested in. 

In An Island Cemetery from Homage to Clio (1960) Auden says:                       

                        Wherever our personalities go
(And to tell the truth we do not know)..

We do, and did in 1960. They are a product of the activity in our neurons, when our brains die, our personalities are finished. Auden, of course, returned to religion, which is fine for personal comfort, but objectively of little use. It was essentially another facet of his inability (one we all share) to divest himself of the influences of his upbringing.  

Thereís a poem from About The House (1965) -Auden wasnít inspired at titles-which is nicely cynical about the poet on tour. He called it his ďlecture tour effusionĒ and ďlight verseĒ. It begins with a reference to ďpelagian travelersĒ. It isnít meant as a compliment and suggests, therefore, Auden didnít experience much sense of autonomy. His fellow passengers are Lost on their lewd conceited way. He recognises the dubious motivation of travel. The clichť is that is broadens the mind, difficult for anyone to believe who has seen hordes crowding on cheap flights for a fortnight in a place where theyíll venture no further than the pool and the bar and canít speak the language. Tourism, the worldís biggest industry, has become so small-minded itís contributing significantly to the ruination of the biosphere. Auden may not be aware of the environmental lunacy of air travel for jollies, but heís very uneasy about his status as a public poet being moved around like a suitcase and expected to perform like a trained dolphin. Why didnít he refuse? Presumably because the money was handy. Yet he is fully cognisant of the meretricious nature of the business: 

                        Since Merit but a dunghill is,
I mount the rostrum unafraid:
Indeed, Ďtwere damnable to ask
If I am overpaid.

The collection appeared in the same year as Ginsbergís famous Albert Hall reading. Michael Rosen has commented that the American saw himself as a shaman who hoped his ecstatic performances could shake his fellow-countrymen free of their adherence to money, power, violence, racism. Itís doubtful Ginsberg ever had any such far-gone ambition. He was writing out of his mental disturbance and against the USís lousy culture, but he was also enjoying himself and relishing the fame and adulation. Itís interesting that at the time readings were being seen as radical, Auden was mocking the sorry business of the literary star on display. He would rather have been where he belonged: among his books.

The disillusion of the opening line is much required. A pity it isnít as well-known and quoted as the snippets which have entered the mass mind. The cynicism at work here, the simple seeing through the tattered excuses of an inexcusable economic and social system, have been driven to the periphery over the past five decades. Auden isnít read by the majority, nor are poems like this likely to be taught in schools. Everything has to be up-beat. Criticism is tantamount to terrorism. The suggestion is seriously advanced that those who take aim at our culture should be investigated.  At the same time, universities are removing literature which might trouble students from their syllabuses. This is just the mindlessness Auden is slashing at in this poem. Itís reminiscent of Einsteinís remark that you become a physicist and end up as a photographerís model.  

All the same, he ends on a conformist note: 

                        God bless the U.S.A., so large
So friendly, and so rich. 

This sits with the Elegy for J.F.K which comes a few pages later and ends: 

                        When a just man dies,
Lamentation and praise,
Sorrow and joy, are one. 

Kennedy ordered the bombings of Vietnam in 1963, a third of which used napalm. Like every other American president since 1945, heís essentially a war criminal. Why does Auden see him as ďjustĒ? Isnít it because, in spite of his sometimes brilliant talent and his wide reading, he fell for the propaganda? Right-wing America saw Kennedy as a communist. Because he was a liberal, we are supposed to ignore his moral wretchedness. The U.S. invaded Vietnam. It always uses violence to get its own way, while lecturing others on peace and the rule of law. Kennedy wasnít ďjustĒ he was a purveyor of American power. Itís measure of the corruption of our language that a poet can be so confused.  

Larkin imagined two readers, one who had read only Audenís work up to the age of forty, and the other only that after. In his view, the latter would have little to get his or her teeth into. He identifies the move to the U.S. as the faultline. This is too neat and it ignores the derivative nature of much of Audenís early work. The conclusion which enforces itself from these two volumes, is that Auden was a talented poet who never found a passionate reason to write. Heís technically very good, sometimes too cerebral or obscure but has moments of memorable brilliance. Literature is a social phenomenon and societies promote and retain the work which serves them. Auden found his way into literature and his rise to its top table fairly easily because he came from the right stable. A public school, Oxbridge chap can usually be counted on to revert to type, even if he does dally with subversion. He canít be blamed for that. There is nothing to blame him for. He did what he could with the talent nature had given him. His work is humanistic and usually on the side of peace, tolerance, reason and compassion; but it belongs to its time. As we face the possibility of making our home uninhabitable we need poets who can write for sanity. Young ones need to be conversant with whatís gone before. These volumes save them the effort of searching for the collections and the scattered pieces. Once again,  well-deserved congratulations to Edward Mendelson.