About the House
by W.H. Auden
Random House, 84 pp., $3.00
If a poet is “sincere,” said Eliot, “he must express with individual differences the general state of mind—not as a duty, but because he cannot help participating in it.” For more than thirty years Auden has stood like some bright battered elm in the intellectual and historical climate of the age. His poetry has registered change after change: alternately a seismograph (the revolutionary upheaval), a temperature chart (spiritual vacuity, physical decay), a weather station (sunlight filtering through the gloom, sojourns in Ischia). In the Thirties he presided over the dissolution of a “low dishonest decade,” the “gradual ruin spreading like a stain,” the abandoned mines, “the necessary murder.” Troops were massing on the horizon, the death wish of the middle class was doing everyone in. A lord of the language, Auden left England, that country where no one was well, and journeyed to demotic America. Here in the Forties, under the pressures of reconversion, he battled with the insoluble metaphors of crisis-theology, the failure of historicism, the futility of progress. By the Popular Front mentality he was written off as a defector from the utopian ideal. By the neo-conservative he was welcomed as an analyst of utopian error. Controversy swelled; then in the Fifties it floated serenely away. Always more or less beyond any one school, ideological considerations of Auden’s career eventually lapsed; they became irrelevant or démodé. It is generally agreed he has produced the most pleasing, certainly the most consistently experimental, and at the same time, the most perplexing body of work of any poet around, so much so that reading Auden from beginning to end is to be continually plunged into delight and despair; for, returning to Eliot’s remark, reading Auden is ultimately to question the “sincerity” of practically everything he has said.
As the poets have mournfully sung,
death takes the innocent young, The rolling-in-money, The screamingly-funny,
And those who are very well hung.
Auden is serious. Auden is seriously unserious. Auden is everyone’s darling. Who but Auden would have chosen to illustrate a Kierkegaardian indictment in the form of a Mother Goose lullaby, in which the punch line is a pun on gay slang, and then tossed the whole thing off in the twinkling of an eye? And who but Auden could have succeeded? His tours de force are fantastic, his eccentricity proverbial, his favorite adjective is “silly,” and his audacity inimitable. Auden is the romanticist who is also the anti-romantic, the domish lecturer now and then parading as a dowager gossip, the indefatigable enfant gâté, and the profound moralist. As a prosodist, everyone could learn from him and just about everyone has. Auden revivified the ballade, the sestina, the villanelle, the rondeau. He gave us the octo-syllabic couplets of New Year Letter, the alliterative honky-tonk splendors of a “Baroque Eclogue.” In the Collected Poetry (the 1945 edition), any one of his titles might offer a characteristic subrosa mockery: “Which Side Am I Supposed To Be On?,” “Venus Will Now Say …