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Doctor Auden

Collected Shorter Poems 1927-1957

by W.H. Auden
Random House, 351 pp., $7.50

It has sometimes been claimed that for several hundred years without interruption there has always been a major poet writing in the English language Perhaps there have been some dull decades, for which the word “major” would need to be stretched a little, when the already established resources of the language were just being steadily mined, without any new discoveries being made. Mr. Auden began to publish in a decade that was very far from being poetically dull. He was almost immediately recognized as likely to prolong the necessary line into the future. We have now arrived at the future, Mr. Auden is still writing, and the continuity holds.

The mature poetry of Eliot and Yeats surrounded Mr. Auden’s beginnings, nearly forty years ago, when the first bright-jacketed Faber volumes began to appear. He was an intruder with a harsh voice, and, in The Orators and elsewhere, dramatized himself as an enemy of established poetical good manners. In his Preface to the Oxford Book of Modern Verse, Yeats showed his distaste for Auden’s new reductive style, like a metaphysician of that time deploring the logical positivists. There was a respectful, veiled hostility between the generations. In the Thirties every English undergraduate who cared at all for contemporary writing kept these early Auden volumes with him, because they were the living, and also lyrical, language of restlessness and dissent. One stands in a peculiarly intimate relation to a poet, and even perhaps to a philosopher, whose work develops in parallel with one’s own experience. A two-way running commentary is established, and one is either grateful to the poet for expressing what needs to be expressed at the right time, or one is censorious because he has failed to rise to some occasion (unknown to him), and because he has perversely taken a path of his own and failed to understand what was expected of him.

Mr. Auden has always left his followers behind. Not least in the Preface to this carefully prepared and revised collection, he looks back to his own public history in a disclaiming spirit, with a mild and elderly gaze and with some surprise. He seems to dislike some of the ungentlemanly opinions and political prophecies in his early verse, and he has repudiated the untidy involvements of the Thirties. But having been, for good reasons, the poet laureate of one disheveled generation, at least in England, and having so far found no successor in full possession of the title, he cannot now easily slip away into an eccentric privacy even if he is no longer representative and is no longer a public voice.

THE ORIGINAL REASONS for his dominance are not too difficult to understand. It seemed that in his poetry he never allowed fine fictions and believable truths to be divided only by a blurred and disputed line. He wanted always to be strictly truthful. For a generation made literal-minded by new political brutalities and by the probability of war, it was no longer possible to give license to half-serious beliefs which seemed poetic playthings and which, taken by themselves, were just incredible. The whole apparatus of spell-binding and critical mystery, of hints and ironies, of allusions to Church and State, in Eliot’s magnificent middle manner suddenly seemed to many heavy-handed and irrelevant. The vulgar, obvious questions had been carefully kept in the background for too long: Can I believe a word—a magnificent word—of what the poet is indirectly saying? Must I care for the integrated society, for poetry’s sake? So much reverence, so much disdain of contemporary thought and experience, and so much fine Bradleyan philosophy, disguised as criticism, had sooner or later to yield to plain speaking.

Mr. Auden was never reverent. Conjuring tricks with thought and language were left in his verse to look just like conjuring tricks. When he cast a sudden spell in his famous opening lines, he at the same time adopted the pose of the magician, undeceived. When he juggled with his beliefs, Marxist or Freudian, the jugglery depended upon metrical exuberance, upon a delight in verbal traps and in figures of speech and in imaginary landscapes. Whatever the play with his lyrical flights, it was open and above-board. So, following in the wake of the grand old pretenders, he seemed immensely modest, direct, and without pretenses.

…It’s as well at times,
To be reminded that nothing is lovely,
Not even in poetry, which is not the case.

Perhaps most new turns in poetry, which capture a strong allegiance, have this aspect of a new literalness, of the restoration of poetry to a common light, and of a kicking away of stilts. A hard intelligence which respects contemporary realities restores the authority of poetry, at least for a time. One is grateful for the speaking voice, for a closing of the gap between reader and writer, and for an easier tolerance of common concerns. After the grand old men, the soothsayers and oracles, Mr. Auden seemed the first of the post-modern writers in England, assimilating journalism, slogans, the slag-heaps and waste-matter of political minds, the boys’ games and imaginary conspiracies of middle-class Englishmen, the jumbled notions of Freudian new thought, the decaying railway lines and semi-urban landscapes of Baldwin’s England. He made poetry out of unmasked lies and mere propaganda, and, in The Orators, began a kind of literary pop art of his own which no one had seen before. He eliminated the Parnassian mode altogether, and borrowed the jerky rhythms and syncopations of musical comedy for the sake of a contrived vulgarity and catchiness, of a kind of anti-poetry. His lyrical gift was never used to justify a claim to a superior imaginative truth which cannot bear the test of prosaic doubt and of mere common-sense. The moral didacticism is just left to show, undisguised, through his play with verse forms.

My problem is how not to will;
They move most quickly who stand still;
I’m only lost until I see,
I’m lost because I want to be.

If this should fail, perhaps I should,
Content myself with this conclusion;
In theory there is no solution.

All statements about what I feel,
Like I-am-lost, are quite unreal:
My knowledge ends where it began;
A hedge is taller than a man.

In his didactic verse, the message is often mocked by the manner, and he will see how thin, flat, and unpretending he can be and still succeed. In other early poems, which still seem as startling in their assurance and air of command as when they were first read, the reminiscence of Yeats is broken into fragments. The myths and esoteric philosophies have disappeared, and the imagery conveys psychological truths, a diagnosis.

I see the guilty world forgiven,”
Dreamer and drunkard sing,
“The ladders let down out of heaven,
The laurel springing from the mar- tyr’s blood,
The children skipping where the weeper stood,
The rivers natural and the beasts all good.”

So dreamer and drunkard sing;
Till day their sobriety bring:
Parrotwise with deaths reply;
From whelping fear and nesting lie;
Woods their echoes ring….

From whelping fear and nesting lie”—this was the characteristic Auden topic. “The Paysage Moralisé” became his original style:

Hearing of harvest rotting in the valleys,
Seeing at end of street the barren mountains,

Round corners coming suddenly on water,
Knowing them shipwrecked who were launched for islands,
We honour founders of these starv- ing cities,
Whose honour is the image of our sorrow.

This was the more or less political poetry of its time.

Look there! The sunken road wind- ing
To the fortified farm.
Listen to the cock’s alarm
in the strange valley.

Are we then the stubborn athletes;
Are we then to begin
The run between the gin
And bloody falcon?

The horns of the dark squadron,
Converging to attack;
The sound behind our back
Of glaciers calving.

As one reads to the end, 1927-1957, neither the mastery of verse forms nor the use of poetry as moral comment in an imaginary landscape seems greatly to change. The fact that many of the surviving early poems counted as politically inspired, and were written in the context of a supposed social revolution, seems to make little difference either to their meaning or their value. The Eden of congruity and justice that he constructs from disordered images of northern landscapes is the same all the way through, and the same kind of obsessional, or sacred, objects stand for sanity, order, and calm. Even when Mr. Auden turns most strongly, in his later verse, against political prophecy, and against political anxiety as a theme, one can still shuffle the poem back into the first third of this book and find no great unfittingness. He dominates his own beliefs so completely that they seem never, or rarely, to take him off his course, or to make him untrue to his own temperament. In this respect he is, and intends to be, more like an Augustan poet than any of his contemporaries. The canons of good sense are already fixed, in the real and obvious world, and he does not grope or flounder in his published work. As far as a modern writer can, he has made the idea of his own development seem critically irrelevant. His development, he implies, is simply his getting older, and must not be turned by his readers into some exemplary spiritual progress, as if he were Goethe. The famous poems of so many years ago—

Look, stranger, on this island now
The leaping light for your light dis- covers,

or:

As I walked out one evening

or:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters…

or “Lullaby” or “A Summer Night”—do not seem to be exploratory, or to be a preparation for anything beyond themselves. Nor do the more controlled and less ambitious later poems, from the age of Empson, seem later poems.

Time will say nothing but I told you so,
Time only knows the price we have to pay;
If I could tell you I would let you know.

If there is a discernible line of development at all, it is simply that the proportion of song to epigram diminishes. But even so one might not be able to guess whether these lines are late or early.

A sentence uttered makes a world appear
Where all things happen as it says they do;
We doubt the speaker, not the tongue we hear:
Words have no word for words that are not true.

MR. AUDEN uses the discoveries of Blake, Lear, and Hardy, as well as of Yeats and Eliot, with a peculiar detachment. He takes the letter and experiments with it, and leaves the philosophical spirit behind. He uses his predecessors, as a musician may, for the forms that they suggest to him for variation and development.

He is the first English poet, and one of the first major writers of any kind, whose way of thought has from the beginning been formed by an early knowledge of clinical psychology, and therefore by an amused understanding of the wild mechanisms of imagination. If Eliot sometimes seems a sidesman in a surplice, suspecting heresies, Mr. Auden’s natural, and perhaps inherited, attitude is that of a clinician in a white coat, expecting epidemics of madness and hypochondria, the slow poisons that affect the whole political body and are natural disturbances of the mind. Anxiety, taken as a pathological symptom, is an unexpected theme for poetry, and he has made it his own. He is particularly the poet of the imaginary threat which becomes real, of a creeping political madness, of an epidemic of distraction and fear. One might crudely have expected that so much self-consciousness would undermine the power, and even the will, to invent. But it is characteristic of him to swerve from the most abstract and pedantic reflection to concrete imagery, and, in a sense, to swerve from prose to poetry within poetry. He likes to represent and to control panic by drawing up lists of its obsessional signs, and he sometimes uses poetry as an incantation that disinfects in a mocking spirit. He ensures that his own words are clean and that they carry no secondary infection of doubtful meanings.

So he has the habit of revising his earlier work, and one finds that familiar passages have disappeared. Any speck of mere rhetoric which he has noticed has been removed. Like a philosopher of the analytical school, he does not want to be taken to mean more than he actually says, even by the narrowest margin; for he does not want to be an oracle, indeterminate in meaning. There cannot be both science and oracles or we shall be either mad or just frivolous, in the way that Yeats sometimes seemed frivolous, or at least half-serious, in assertion. If poetry and philosophy are different from the natural sciences and from religion, in their attitude to truth, the difference cannot be that they do not really mean what they seem to say.

Mr. Auden’s attitude to poetical philosophizing is parallel to G. E. Moore’s attitude to McTaggart, whom Yeats revered. If there is no literal sense in which Time is unreal, there ought to be no poetical or philosophical sense either, except as a pretense. If poetry is an intricate game, which, through an obsessional delight in formal rules, sometimes reveals hidden connections, the hidden connections must be there, visible even to a prosaic eye. If no hidden connections are discovered, or even attempted, poetry is just an intricate and absorbing game with images and signs, “a contraption,” a variant of nursery rhyme, or of song or nonsense verse; and so much the better: anything rather than literary egoism and home-made metaphysics. It is too late for these indulgences, which have in any case proved themselves insanitary and dangerous.

Mr. Auden has in recent years called for gentlemanly restraints upon men of letters who vulgarly claim too much for themselves. Whatever their eccentric skills, they know no more than they can rationally prove, and they have no sense that is superior to common sense and to the traditions of good manners and worldly prudence. They must not look for acknowledgment as legislators of the world; quixotism was finished, finally exposed, in the Thirties. A middle and modest style is appropriate to an age of fanaticism and of public indignities. Poetry may perhaps revive the virtues of the music of the eighteenth century, before the silly confusions (as he believes) between art and religion, or between art and ethics, began. It can illustrate a proper sense of scale and of measure, a respect for moderate moods, and a decent confinement of wild ambitions within clear and difficult forms. In the later pages of this collection, the anxiety and the hint of madness in the air, the sense of panic, that runs through the early verse can only be heard from much farther away. There is a natural aging in the volume and the poet is, as usual, entirely self-conscious about it.

The weight and variety of achievement are dazzling. The combination of lyricism and epigram, the controlled strangeness, the wit, the genius in formal invention, are a perpetual pleasure. He has become and will surely remain one of the most quotable of poets, typically, perhaps more in single verses and even phrases, rather than in whole poems. He seems often to be checking and curbing his own cleverness and his own artifices, in case they should go too far. He expresses, both in verse and in prose, a restrained and careful confidence in literature, kept in its proper place which is on the surface of things. His most vivid writing refers to a natural order, a remembered landscape of suitable rock and soil and water, which are easily lost or spoiled now, as also when he was first published in Baldwin’s England.

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