Man’s Place: An Essay on Auden
W.H. Auden as a Social Poet
“For Valéry,” W. H. Auden has remarked, “a poem ought to be a festival of the intellect, that is, a game, but a solemn, ordered, and significant game, and a poet is someone to whom arbitrary difficulties suggest ideas.” For Valéry, and now for Mr. Auden, especially in About the House, City Without Walls, and Epistle to a Godson, books written according to the principle that, whatever life is, poetry is a carnival. The poet begins with language, delighting in the exercise of its possibilities, and he stops short of Mardi gras only by requiring his language to recognize the existence of the primary world in which we live.
The poem makes a secondary world, according to prescriptions as congenial as they are ingenious. In Epistle to a Godson the primary world contains for the most part certain grand maladies of the quotidian: age, loss, grief, loneliness, violence, nuances of damage, bloody-minded monsters at large. The secondary world is still managed with the most charming intention, and a prosody of good humor, good taste, good luck. The dominant tone implies that the quest is now too perilous to be undertaken directly, better wait till morning and the possibility of “cleansed occasions.” Meanwhile the poet writes short, brisk poems, a few smacks administered to the world’s bottom, for its good. There is a lot of grousing, but no harm is meant, the poet is merely telling young people to mind their manners, speak decent English, and wash occasionally.
Mr. Auden has become a crusty old fellow somewhat before his time; by my reckoning he is only sixty-six but he talks, in this book, like something carved on Mount Rushmore. The familiar ghost of T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” disclosed three gifts reserved for age: first, “the cold friction of expiring sense / Without enchantment”; second, “the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly”; and finally, “the rending pain of re-enactment / Of all that you have done, and been.”
Epistle to a Godson takes a milder view of its gifts. There is still a touch of enchantment, there are good friends, there is music. Human folly is inescapable, but Mr. Auden does whatever poetry can to turn the impotence of rage into irony, keeping his temper as sweet as possible. “Our world rapidly worsens”: well, perhaps it does, but I don’t propose to worry too much if the only evidence produced in the poem is the fact that Mr. Auden at Schwechat Flughafen was frisked by a cop for weapons. Methinks he protests too much. As for Eliot’s last gift to the aged, Mr. Auden does not trouble himself too much or spend his spirit fruitlessly re-enacting what he has done or been. He takes Yeats’s line on that, forgives himself a lot, casts out remorse. And rightly so.
Leaving the blues aside, Mr. Auden tells us something of the world as it would be if God had consulted the poet before making it. It would be a sweet world, ruled by the laws of prosody, a lot of rhymes, “a stunning display of concinnity and elegance,” a lot of freedom, short of anarchy. From an earlier poem: “A sentence uttered makes a world appear / Where all things happen as it says they do.” Such a world would be a gentle place, “nothing obscene or unpleasant,” since “only the unscarred overfed enjoy Calvary / as a verbal event.” Things would be easy on the senses, there would be plenty of time for love and wit. No excess though: against Blake, Mr. Auden says that the road of excess leads, more often than not, to the Slough of Despond.
Sometimes, in such a mood, Mr. Auden is inclined to say to his juniors: listen, kiddos, I’ve had my life, why should you whine about yours? Or words to that effect. In one poem he tells those who may be curious about Circe’s charms that they can take his word for them, they’re overrated. Free love is discouraged, like free verse, and for similar reasons, apparently. In “Moon Landing,” reversing Johnson’s famous remark to Boswell about the Giant’s Causeway, Mr. Auden says of the moon that it was probably worth going to see, but not worth seeing. The gist of the rhetoric is that the primary world should be modeled on the best of the available secondary worlds: our institutions like our symphonies. State occasions would be featured like proper names, which are “an-sich poetic,” as amenable as limestone.
Mr. Auden’s images of value are those now familiar to us from his poems of the last decade. He praises “a watered / lively garden” and remains uncharmed by deserts. He much prefers nature when she’s courteous than when she’s throwing a tantrum: “earthquakes, floods, eruptions, / seem a bit vulgar.” It is my impression that animals get a better press in Epistle to a Godson than in earlier books, mainly because their inability to listen to a story is now felt as a minor defect in view of their instinctual certainties, lucidities apparently superior to those of men, officially “their lonely betters.”
Insects are still separated from our affections by “a prohibitive fracture empathy cannot transgress.” Mice are addressed with a certain fellow-feeling I cannot share. I could not love even a white one. Mr. Auden is tender to dogs, bacteria, and many other instances of life, though he reserves the right to be selective and to play favorites. He thinks well of plants, mainly because their response to a gardener’s handling shows that they “like to be given the chance to get more than a self-education.” Of minerals in this book he has little to say, having said so much and so warmly in earlier poems of great celebrity; but he has a wonderful line about the regime of minerals “where what is not forbidden is compulsory.” Naturally, most of the grousing poems are about man, presented as a nuisance, with rare exceptions. Still, He’s all we have: besides, He’s a miracle, God knows, “for who is not certain that he was meant to be?”
But the trouble is that man, this miraculous fellow, is a bore and, increasingly nowadays, a dangerous clown. He ought to live with joy and laughter, good food, good music. His books ought to be delightful, not “plain cooking made still plainer by plain cooks,” to recite an earlier version of the poet’s plaint. If “the truest poetry is the most feigning,” poets should feign like mad, but take care not to go crazy. So Mr. Auden, it is well known and in part approved, has been making merry with the dictionaries in recent years. I suppose he thinks of them as pure poetry, containing thousands of words virtually untouched by human hands; marvelous words now archaic, obsolete, and for that very reason waiting to be resuscitated by a poet addicted to that pleasure.
In this book he uses “faith” as a verb, its object someone you trust. “Conster” is used instead of its current form, “construe.” “Annoy” is a noun, “odd” a verb, “decent,” “false” are verbs. “In tift” is Anglo-Saxon for “in good order.” “Blithe” is used as a transitive verb; “librate” instead of “oscillate,” so to librate between a glum and a frolic, in the poem “Talking to Myself,” is presumably to give the movement a moony touch, the libration of the moon being the only sense in which the word is still recalled.
Again, Mr. Auden runs to the dialect dictionaries. Instead of asking what the moon landing means or portends, he asks: “What does it osse?” a Cumberland verb recently deceased and therefore desperately in need of Mr. Auden’s attention. In “Talking to Mice” the sight of a dead mouse “obumbated a week.” At first I suspected a misprint for “obumbrated,” a word well represented in the great OED, meaning “overshadowed.” Perhaps it is a misprint, like Yeats’s “soldier” for “solider”; unless Mr. Auden wanted to touch the word with “abate” as an even darker shadow falling upon the first. In any case, the verb stands for the formal acknowledgement of grief, and its archaic air takes some of the harm out of the occasion by observing the decencies with a particular mark of attention, a Latin mark more plangent than the Saxon version which has survived.
The only point I want to make is that Mr. Auden, who likes a lark as well as anybody, is not merely larking with the dictionary: in nearly every novelty he has a sound reason, but also a sense reason. “O Happy Grief! is all sad verse can say”: a motto from an earlier book, practiced in this one so that the grief, redeemed by the poet’s language, becomes good without losing its other attributes. A grudging reader, faced with Mr. Auden’s novelties, might refuse to acknowledge a serious purpose being pursued, might declare in anger that he writes thus not because it is necessary but because it is possible. Such people remind me of a passage in Henry Adams’s Democracy where envy is the topic and Madeleine the occasion: “People who envied her smile said that she cultivated a sense of humor in order to show her teeth.” My own view is that for such a cause any reason is good enough. If Mr. Auden starts with language rather than with big thoughts, good luck to him; one judges by results.
Epistle to a Godson is Mr. Auden’s first collection of new poems since City Without Walls (1969). It begins with a godfather’s advice, not Marlon Brando’s “Make him an offer he can’t refuse” but the Red Knight’s admonition, somewhat modified to take account of the fact that its object is Philip Spender not Alice: “Turn out your toes when you walk—and remember who you are.” The book ends with a soul’s address to its body, pleading for the boon of a quick death when the time comes:
Remember: when Le Bon Dieu
says to You Leave him!,
please, please, for His sake and
mine, pay no attention
to my piteous Dont‘s, but bugger
Between these good counsels there are poems about doctors, illness, “my sad flesh,” the distinction between persons and animals, the superiority of sight to hearing (all sensory things considered), photography, music (notably that of the first cuckoo in spring), the weather, William Empson (in praise), and “eucatastrophe,” “regeneration beyond waters.” Mr. Auden welcomes a theme only when it has given him some sign, however demurely, that if properly appreciated it will respond with affection. Courtship, thereafter, is a matter of style, and if it seems easy the appearance is deceptive: it takes a rich mixture of grace and luck to win, even with a smiling theme. If the theme keeps its distance, refuses to meet the poet’s eye, then Mr. Auden leaves it alone: why should the aging eagle stretch his wings, he is not trying to write Paradise Lost. He has certainly done enough, in Epistle to a Godson, to please me. Our world can’t be worsening intolerably if it is still possible for a poet to write about its manifestations so charmingly.
Forewords and Afterwords is a collection of Mr. Auden’s essays and reviews, chosen from his occasional writings between 1943 and 1972. Not as formally organized as The Dyer’s Hand, it retains many of the same themes, the nature of civilization, the hero, religion, beauty, and so forth. Most of the essays are literary, the rest are musical, mainly operatic. In prose, Mr. Auden is happiest with minor writers, because he can make the most of them: with major writers he seems to feel that only a miraculous leap of imagination would come at all close to them, and it is too late to go in for such athletics. I list his official topics: Shakespeare, Luther, Pope, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Poe, Tennyson, Mayhew, Wagner, Verdi, Trollope, Leontiev, Lewis Carroll, Van Gogh, Wilde, A. E. Housman, Cavafy, Kipling, Valéry, Max Beerbohm, Walter de la Mare, Chesterton, Mann, Virginia Woolf, Stravinsky, Hammarskjöld, J. R. Ackerley; I may have dropped a few. Mr. Auden is splendid on Beerbohm, and on Wilde: he needs a good deal of space if he is to engage with his themes, he is cramped by the short review and can do nothing much with it except offer a few small deliberations and sign off.
Some of the essays are autobiographically revealing. We now know that among the Greek writers Mr. Auden dislikes Lucian, that among Pope’s poems he could live without the Essay on Man, that he dislikes behaviorists, Lord Alfred Douglas, Carlyle, the Action Française people, the theory of random Creation, and dreams, “nocturnal manias.” He particularly likes Irenaeus, Ronald Firbank’s novels, Pope (on the whole), Horace, Bonhoeffer, and nearly every minor writer who has settled gracefully for minority status and therefore lives at peace with himself.
In the longer essays, as in The Dyer’s Hand, Mr. Auden likes to set his mind working upon the distinctions between two rival forces often equally compelling: Eros and Agape, Body and Soul, Catholic and Protestant, Prospero and Ariel, Petrarch and Shakespeare (as sonneteers), humans and animals, France and England. Many of his grandest perceptions come from the practice of looking now upon this picture, now upon that: he is gifted in comparison and contrast, for the energy they release. He mentions playing a parlor game in which each player names two persons “of such different temperaments that on meeting they would dislike each other intensely, and they are condemned to live together in Purgatory until they come to understand and love each other.” T. S. Eliot and Walt Whitman, he offers for a start; then Tolstoy and Wilde. I have never played the game, though I am not too old to learn, I suppose.
Prompted by Forewords and Afterwards, I would prefer the game of Who-Said-It? Here is a set to begin with, culled from Mr. Auden’s book. Name the author of each of the following:
“If the Gospels omitted all mention of Christ’s resurrection, faith would be easier for me, the Cross by itself suffices.”
“There is a great difference between believing something still and believing it again.”
“True love is like seeing ghosts, we all talk about it but few of us have ever seen one.”
“Art exists to be seen, not to be talked about, except perhaps in its presence.”
“Nothing knits man to man like the frequent passage from hand to hand of cash.”
“It is worth living if only to make absolute demands on life.”
“It is impossible to put a distance between oneself and an object without turning round to see if one is succeeding.”
“If Satan were to promise me all the kingdoms of the earth on condition that I bowed down and worshipped him, I should laugh because I should know that, given my limited capacities, he could not fulfill his promise.”
“However hard Tolstoy tried, he could never think of a peasant as an equal; he could only, partly out of a sense of guilt at his own moral shortcomings, admire him as his superior.”
“Under Kipling’s will, the vulgarest words learn to wash behind their ears and to execute complicated movements at the word of command, but they can hardly be said to learn to think for themselves.”
“Poe’s ‘The Raven’ strikes the reader as ‘contrived’ in a bad way, which means that it is not contrived enough.”
Now here are the answers: Simone Weil, Lichtenberg, La Rochefoucauld, Goethe, Walter Sickert, Alexander Blok, Valéry, Auden, Auden, Auden, and Auden. So Forewords and Afterwords is a commonplace book, and a good one. Mr. Auden is not primarily interested in the bricolage of a man’s life but in ideas which become experience when they are interrogated: the interrogation must be conducted with zest but also with a sense of propriety, the mind should not resort to assault and battery. It is easy to understand, when one reads these two books, why Mr. Auden so much admires the writings of Marianne Moore.
Of the two critical studies of Mr. Auden’s verse, Mr. Johnson’s is chiefly concerned with the later Auden, and he begins with New Year Letter (1941) as making a new departure. I am not sure that his chosen idiom has proved itself as instructive as he had hoped: his reliance upon the concept of “humanism” seems to me excessive. But his book is useful as a guide to the later work. Mr. Buell is concerned rather with the early Auden than the later, he places his main stress on the poet of the Thirties, making the air dense with references to Freud, D. H. Lawrence, Georg Groddeck. He gives a lot of background, but the background has a way of obumbrating his foreground, so that the poetry has trouble in declaring itself. Still, each of these books complements the other, and their differing emphases remind us of the range and diversity of Mr. Auden’s work; all those toads, all those gardens.
A Pleasing Discovery October 18, 1973