Collected Longer Poems
Letters From Iceland
Völuspá: The Song of the Sybil
Quest for the Necessary: W. H. Auden and the Dilemma of Divided Consciousness
In October, 1967, W. H. Auden gave the T. S. Eliot Lectures at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Propriety was abundantly fulfilled; Canterbury was the place of Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot College the first building of the new university, the lecturer Eliot’s friend, a disciple, a poet hardly less accomplished than his master. In the first lecture Auden took up one of Eliot’s themes, martyrdom, choosing for his texts Murder in the Cathedral and Charles Williams’s Thomas Cranmer. In the second, he spoke of the Icelandic sagas, especially the Laxdaela saga, which describes the conversion of the hero Kjartan from paganism to Christianity. In the third, he discussed the nature of opera and described certain interesting problems which arose in his own work as librettist for The Rake’s Progress, Elegy for Young Lovers, and The Bassarids. Finally, he returned to the great matter which he shared with Eliot: the relation between poetry and Christian belief, words and the Word.
The lectures are now published as Secondary Worlds, a title suggested to Auden by a charming paragraph in J. R. R. Tolkien’s essay on the fairy story. In “Tree and Leaf” Tolkien distinguished between the primary world, in which we conduct our empirical and practical lives, and the secondary world, in which the imagination frames its own laws. “To Make a Secondary World,” Tolkien says, “inside which the green sun will be credible, commanding Secondary Belief, will probably require labour and thought, and will certainly demand a special skill, a kind of elvish craft.” Auden has always found these terms congenial. Among the affections of his life he numbers music, opera, oratorio, verse, poetry, artifices, green suns. In the poem “Streams” he speaks of “a sort of world, quite other,/altogether different from this one/ with its envies and passports.” In “Words” he begins:
A sentence uttered makes a world appear
Where all things happen as it says they do.
He delights in music as “pure contraption”; music “which can be made anywhere, is invisible,/ And does not smell.” He prefers myths, legends, sagas to novels: so he recited, at Canterbury, long stretches of Icelandic lore in his own translation. Now with Paul B. Taylor he has translated the Völuspá, one of the greatest Eddic poems, a classic letter from Iceland.
The possession of two worlds is bound to be a happy state, unless each longs to kill the other. Mr. Greenberg argues, in his excellent study of Auden, that “divided consciousness” is “the principal subject matter of his poetry,” and that it “provides the conceptual foundation for his way of looking at things.” So he lists the divided parts: ego, self (a division which Auden discusses in The Enchafèd Flood and elsewhere); body, mind; nature, history; city, island; Caliban, Ariel.
The discussion is illuminating, but I am not sure that it would not be possible to interpret the same evidence differently. The two worlds are not, perhaps, bent upon war. It is a question, indeed, whether they are fixed in their independence, resolutely separate. Surely it is only by an engaging fancy that the poet thinks of such divisions: both worlds depend, after all, upon finite things, words, sounds, gestures. Tension between nature and history, for instance, is strong in several works, notably in For the Time Being, but there is no real war. Mr. Greenberg says of this that “as distinct from nature, history is created in the free acts by which we give significance to time, and its ruling imperative, ‘To thine own self, be true’ may be contrasted with the goal of the creatures, whose development is a given: ‘To thyself, be enough.’ ” But the contrast is not complete, unless our history is totally contemptuous of fact.
True, Mr. Greenberg has recited evidence which supports his case. There is further evidence in Secondary Worlds, where Auden sometimes deploys the two worlds as if he thought war inevitable. We are to distinguish, he says, “between our use of words as a code of communication between individuals and our use of them for personal speech.” A few pages later he maintains that “poetry is personal speech in its purest form.” I would hope that such an extreme distinction might be avoided. But Auden sometimes makes it a severe thing. The trouble is that if the primary world and the secondary world are rivals, the first is bound to appear a menace, and the second too fanciful to be believed. In Auden’s early poems, the primary world was indeed a menace, every landscape was sinister, “the lilac bush like a conspirator.” Events in nature were received as if they were engaged in a cosmic melodrama; descriptive occasions spoke in tones of ambush, espionage, conspiracy: “motives like stowaways/ Are found too late”; everyone lives on the frontier, “frontier-conscious.” The Orators is a book of spies.
The same aura of guilt, crime, and dread suffuses Auden’s ideas, when these are invoked in the early poems. Mr. Replogle’s book is helpful at this point because it presents the main figures in Auden’s inner landscape, the sources of main ideas: Blake, D.H. Lawrence, Groddeck, Freud, Marx, Kierkegaard, Niebuhr. (He omits Rudolf Kassner, unfortunately.) But there is a sense in which Auden’s participation in ideas, especially in early poems, was unfortunate: it often appears that Auden’s traffic with psychology, politics, religion, therapy, war, philosophy, and so forth was merely his elected trouble, his congenial way of being unhappy. Men and books gave him ideas, but ideas are two-for-a-penny. Eliot was right, in fact, when he praised Henry James for “his mastery over, his baffling escape from, Ideas; a mastery and an escape which are perhaps the last test of a superior intelligence.” James “had a mind so fine that no idea could violate it.” Auden’s mind, in the early poems, was not so fine that it could not be violated by the first idea it happened to meet. His sensibility was precocious rather than powerful, it was intimidated by the force of its contents.
Gradually, however, the images of menace recede, the two worlds begin to live in peace. Mr. Greenberg, thinking of the poems in Another Time, says that we are to mark a process “by which things are named so as to be given a role in a conceptual order based upon judgment and understanding.” In later books, Auden does most of the work with sentences rather than with images. Texture increasingly depends upon grammar rather than upon a field of images. The poems move toward civilized conversation, relying mostly upon exact discriminations of tone: the poetry does not secrete itself in a word, a phrase, an image; it occupies an area of feeling, moving from one sentence to another, until it reaches a natural end. Stages in the work might be designated: sentence, conversation, comedy. The poet trusts the future to endorse a sequence in which, at any moment, the next sentence will do the trick: it is unnecessary to do the whole thing now, there will be time enough. So one sentence leads to another, fine things are said, rhyme calls to rhyme, and there is no need yet to despair. In “The Quest” Auden speaks of
The fencing wit of an informal style,
To keep the silences at bay and cage
His pacing manias in a worldly smile.
Auden has not disowned the animal, but he has committed himself to an informal style, saying heavy things lightly. He has practiced this style for thirty years, and he is a master.
Along the genial way, Letters from Iceland was important. He wrote it with the late Louis MacNeice, a good companion, a good poet. I think of the book as allowing Auden to escape from the cage of The Orators, that manic diary, toward a gallant style more equable, more resilient. It was necessary to break away, and the sooner the better, from English camp, Boy Scout emotions, infelicities of the Group. The effort is clearer in the first version of Letters from Iceland (1937) than in the revised text now published: the revisions push the book too far in Auden’s later direction, covering early traces. A crucial part of the book, the “Letter to Lord Byron,” must now be studied like a palimpsest.
But the direction is clear, the two worlds are to move together. Nature and history will sink their differences, mainly because Auden now accepts the fact that “nothing is lovely,/ Not even in poetry, which is not the case.” Both worlds have yielded: the secondary world has promised to be reasonable, the primary world to be hospitable. At the end of Secondary Worlds Auden has come round to an old belief, that we live in the empirical world, indeed, but with sensory evidence hard to refute: it is a world “in which the sun moves across the sky from east to west, the stars are hung like lamps in the vault of heaven, the measure of magnitude is the human body, and objects are either in motion or at rest.” Even scientists inhabit such a world.
This is Auden’s idiom in “In Praise of Limestone” and the bucolic poems. Indeed, Secondary Worlds seems a rather slack book, I find, mainly because it is a loose translation of feelings already given, with proper vigor, in the poems of Nones, Homage to Clio, and About the House; while the meditation on words and the Word is really a gloss upon Simeon’s meditation in For the Time Being. Auden has been in those places many times before, the limestone is perhaps too soluble for the good of his language.
To say, for instance, that poetry proposes an archaic world-view is true enough as a general rule. Auden says it again in Secondary Worlds, but he has done better with it in verse:
Any heaven we think it decent to enter
Must be Ptolomaic with ourselves at the centre.
That surfaces need not be superficial is one of Auden’s favorite themes, but it goes better in verse than in prose, especially if the verse is as lithe as, say, “Good-Bye to the Mezzogiorno.” But in verse or prose, the two worlds are reconciled. We praise “the shining earth” because to our Ptolomaic senses it shines and feels good. Auden’s motto for this is Dante in Purgatorio XVII, Lo naturale è sempre senza errore, a line quoted and glossed in The Dyer’s Hand. Without errors so the poet need not despair. He may praise the world and man, “the untransfigured scene,” Earth’s “revolving wheel/ Of appetite and season,” finally “Earth, Sky, a few dear names.” Auden has sometimes been rebuked for these civilities: his parables of commonplace have been received as if they were commonplace parables.
It is a harsh response to a lenient style. Readers often seem to resent the later Auden, as if urbanity were a capital offense and “Pleasure Island” a work of moral turpitude. What right has this man, a professed reader of Kierkegaard, to enjoy himself in the sun? Every right, I would say, he has earned the sun by writing good poems. Besides, we have made too much of Auden’s Kierkegaard: I think the poet owes more to Hardy’s prosody than to Fear and Trembling. Richard Blackmur said of Auden’s poems that “the wild within holds itself together by force of mind”; I would add, also, by the possession of a common English style, individual in its accent and timbre. Auden’s Ischian style was made in Dorset, only the circumflexions are novel. Auden called it, in the “Letter to Lord Byron,” a style “whose meaning does not need a spanner,” but there is more to it than that amenity.
The style is best in the long poems, especially in “New Year Letter,” and “The Sea and the Mirror,” mainly because Auden needs “a form that’s large enough to swim in,/ And talk on any subject that I choose.” He has written some magnificent short poems, of course: my own list includes “Out on the Lawn I lie in Bed,” “Paysage Moralisé,” “Easily you move, easily your head,” “Look, Stranger,” “Fish in the Unruffled Lakes,” “Lay your sleeping head, my love,” “Musée des Beaux Arts,” “Gare du Midi,” “Our Hunting Fathers,” “In Praise of Limestone,” “Ode to Gaea.” But his poetic object is more often a long-term affair, it needs space. He wants to make “our minds a civitas of sound/ where nothing but assent (is) found,” so he needs time, such Canterburies are not built in a day. Water penetrates a limestone landscape, but not in a flash.
So the Collected Longer Poems is crucial, consisting of “Paid on Both Sides,” “Letter to Lord Byron,” “New Year Letter,” “For the Time Being,” “The Sea and the Mirror,” and “The Age of Anxiety.” Any reader who thinks that Auden has become a trickster, a verbal show-off, must be invited to acknowledge the gentleness of “New Year Letter” in its last pages, “Prospero to Ariel,” and “Alonso to Ferdinand” (“Dear Son, when the warm multitudes cry”) in “The Sea and the Mirror.” These are beautiful occasions. There are no obtrusive ideas, no violations of sensibility, but the style is fluid, transparent, a great achievement of civility.
Auden has always sought, what he eventually found in his long poems, a single style, capable of answering any need. Eliot spoke in his Poetry and Drama of “a form of versification and an idiom…capable of unbroken transition between the most intense speech and the most relaxed dialogue.” He had the problems of his own plays in mind, but the aim is present also in Four Quartets. It is my impression that Auden shared the aim and found Eliot’s example, in poems and plays, distinctly helpful. As far back as the “Letter to Lord Byron” (1937) Auden testified to Eliot’s example:
But Eliot spoke the still unspoken word;
For gasworks and dried tubers I forsook
The clock at Grantchester, the English rook.
It is also my impression that Auden watched with some concern Eliot’s difficulties in the deployment of two rival worlds; there is the problem of Eliot’s saints, martyrs, witnesses, from Sweeney in “Fragment of an Agon” to Celia in The Cocktail Party. Somehow, sooner or later, the two worlds must be folded in a single party, else poetry is abused, and Christianity exacerbated. Eliot faced the problem in his own way; Auden reconsidered his own language. I think Auden’s reading in the Anglo-Saxon and Icelandic literatures was important, too, in this connection. In Secondary Worlds he says that “the Icelanders were unique among the societies of their time in that they all spoke, as they still do to this day, a Hochsprache: there was no difference between cultured and vulgar speech, nor between the spoken and the written language.” So in translating the Völuspá, Auden seems to have taken only as much of the Old Norse original as is consistent with a fluid speech. At one point, for instance, where Lee M. Hollander’s literal translation reads
Where Heimdall’s horn is hid, she knows,
under heaven-touching, holy world-tree
the translation by Taylor and Auden gives
Of Heimdal, too, and his horn I know,
Hidden under the holy tree.
(But I leave this to people who know Old Norse.)
Where the two worlds meet in amity, the proof is an equable voice. Mr. Replogle is excellent upon the question of voice in Auden’s later poems: the poetry, he says, “depending as it does on such a variety of voices, contains a multitude of effects that simply cannot be described if it is assumed that words contain only the self-generating properties they seem to have apart from a speaker’s voice.” Among the several voices, I have my favorite; Auden’s voice in the “New Year Letter,” the passage beginning “O Unicorn among the cedars,” from there to the end, the invocation to “dear friend Elizabeth.” Surely in this poem the poet’s consciousness is not divided; the voice is grave, tender, curial (to remind us of Dante and another vernacular language). In this poetry, a poet uses his whole mind, exerting its form and pressure upon a world not entirely beyond the reach of grace.