The fat new volume of Auden’s Collected Poems, superbly edited by Edward Mendelson (and hideously produced by the publisher), gives us extraordinary opportunities to notice the persistence of the poet’s themes and devices. Even in the dark, portentous poems of Auden’s early career, there were clear designs, the language of common speech, and an unpremeditated, dramatic manner. It was, in fact, the balance of these elements against the enigma that drew us in.
If the poems sounded at times like riddles, if the syntax was often knotty, yet the words remained natural and the meaning seemed important. Though we might be unsure of his sense, the author was evidently speaking straight to us, and on timely, even urgent matters. He seemed to assume that we understood, that we belonged to his tribe; and as we groped to trace the way, we felt we were just not sharp enough to follow him.
The latest ferrule now has tapped the curb,
And the night’s tiny noises everywhere
Beat vivid on the owl’s developed ear,
Vague on the watchman’s, and in wards disturb
The nervous counting sheep.
(1933, in the periodical New Verse)
This is the opening of a sonnet about the poet’s missing his beloved. But how much more it seemed to imply!
When the meaning of such poems emerged, it often dealt with the separation or opposition of mysterious persons or groups; with a distinction between two psychic conditions and the yearning for a change from one to the other; with movements between vague regions that seemed oddly cut off and yet neighboring. Slowly, we realized that change of place meant change of condition, that the outer landscape reflected inner moods, and the transformations desired were moral or emotional.
In Auden’s best work the blend of openness with reserve, of well-defined form and riddling tone, of lucid and yet veiled speech, makes in general two subtle impressions: either that valuable truths are being conveyed, or that a distinguished person is showing us, his fellow tribesmen, a self he hides from strangers:
I see it often since you’ve been away:
The island, the veranda, and the fruit;
The tiny steamer breaking from the bay
The literary mornings with its hoots;
Our ugly comic servant; and then you,
Lovely and willing every afternoon.
So begins another poem, of the same vintage, reduced in a later version to a little song (Collected Poems, p. 60). How discreet or perhaps evasive the revelation was may be judged from a poem written more than thirty years later, when the poet’s boundary between private and public territories had been moved pretty far:
Hugerl, for a decade now
An unexpected blessing
In a lucky life,
For how much and how often
You have made me glad.
Glad that I know we enjoy
Women may cog their lovers
With a feigned passion,
But males are so constructed
We cannot deceive.
* * *
And how much I like …