The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s
Marx predicted that when the class war reached its Armageddon, there would be defections to the proletariat from the enemy side. The ruling class would crumble, and “a small part” of it would break away “to make common cause with the revolutionary class, the class which holds the future in its hands.” That small part duly broke away, and could look and feel like the blessed remnant that religion had promised to save from the burning: it was now on the right side of the “justice” which revolution—in the manner of a religion—had undertaken to dispense. Samuel Hynes has written a book about a small part of that small part. It is about the writing that was done in England, during the 1930s, by half a dozen men who could be considered, and who could sometimes consider themselves, defectors of the sort that Marx had in mind.
During these years, a generation of English public-schoolboys, who had been expected to do their duty as the nation’s leaders, gave their hearts to England’s depressed working class, and to the dictatorial working class of Russia, where, in the words of Edward Upward, who promised to be the English Kafka, “history” had gone to live with those who “are not content to suppress misery in their minds but are going to destroy the more obvious material causes of misery in the world.” Some of the schoolboys took to writing, and, for a while, to performing as “left-wing prigs.” These are the rude words of Christopher Isherwood, who made a further defection at the end of the decade, deserting the Comintern for the Homintern. Isherwood was not alone in leaving the left. Cecil Day Lewis retired to the country and to a translation of the Georgics. The God was failing. A war was beginning which lacked the attractions—for writers, if not for Spaniards—of the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, Cyril Connolly complained: “It is a war which awakens neither Pity nor Hope.” And it was not the Armageddon which Marx had predicted.
The themes and images produced by these “defectors” have retained a good deal of their first exciting freshness. Borders, frontiers, mountains, passes, glaciers, climbers, helmeted airmen keep recurring. So do the truly strong man and the truly weak man. In leaders like D.H. and T.E. Lawrence neurosis and true greatness are seen to coincide. Communist and fascist sentiments are preceded and attended by an undifferentiated longing for leaders. The artist trains a camera eye, blinking the fact of his homosexuality. Auden was the generation’s acknowledged leader—a strong man who knew about weakness, wounds, and who was eventually to know about sin. Samuel Hynes’s account of this subject matter, with its careful treatment of Stephen Spender’s work and of Geoffrey Grigson’s editorial role, is enviably lucid and judicious. We should not suspect that it has been praised by survivors of “the Auden generation” because it flatters them, though it does occasionally do this.
The subtitle, “Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s,” is both accurate and misleading. The book is very brief about the politicians and domestic political events that belong to the English Thirties: Baldwin, Churchill, Ramsay MacDonald, Mosley are the faintest of presences. Politics here means the thoughts, fears, and fantasies entertained by young writers as to the approaching crisis and political future of, more often than not, foreign countries. At the same time, the subtitle accurately reflects the author’s decision to say little about the writers who lived in Britain, but not in England, during the years in question. Professor Hynes writes about English writers with lively feelings about foreign countries. He does not look at the foreign writers of the period, or (except for Edwin Muir) at the Scottish writers of the period.
From the point of view of clarity and economy, this decision makes sense. It enables him to stay mostly in London, with trips, by way of Wigan Pier, to Spain, Iceland, and the Hebrides, and to steer a straight course with reference to the group’s successive publications, and to reviews of these publications by peers and opponents. He expresses his own opinion of each new book, and tells the story of the age with close and sustained attention to one of its peculiarities: the high degree of political commitment on the part of its writers, their disposition to practice, and enjoin, an art which served the ends of social justice. Hynes shows that political commitment peaked fairly early in the decade, and that the return to art for its own sake had begun some while before the war in Spain had proved, for the left, unmistakably disastrous.
Perhaps we can say that these defectors from the middle class went on to defect from commitment. And it does not seem far-fetched to claim that this further defection must have a relation to the quality of the art and advice tendered by these writers and leaders in the days when they were left-wing. Professor Hynes does not dwell on that relation, and I can’t help thinking that he might have made discoveries about it if he had been more willing to compare what happened in England with the careers of left-wing writers elsewhere. He tends, in general, to avoid comparisons, except for those internal to his group of writers. A touch of comparison might have prevented him from appearing, at times, to accept the contemporary view that the sufferings of the Thirties were incomparably bad, if not the end of the world.
It would not have been difficult to find useful comparisons and contrasts in Scotland, where an important communist poet, Hugh MacDiarmid, having invented and defected from a literary Scots, was writing in English throughout the decade. MacDiarmid has the interest that attaches to his being a genius, which not every one of the company chosen by Samuel Hynes can be said to be. And he grew up in the working class, which none of that company did: Hynes believes that “virtually no writing of literary importance came out of the working class during the decade.” MacDiarmid is excluded from the book by being on the wrong side of a frontier whose status is far from certain so far as literature is concerned. He is an anomaly by the standards of the Southern lot of left-wing writers, not least by virtue of the fact that he has remained a socialist, and he is an anomaly who could have been discussed. And a second Scottish writer who could have been discussed is the Gaelic poet Sorley MacLean, no more of a public-school-boy than MacDiarmid.
MacLean, admittedly, would have been difficult to include because of the language barrier. Not only does he write in Gaelic, but he has spent much of his time in the remote rural world of the Gaelic hinterland of the British Isles. And yet the literature of the North was thoroughly responsive to the literature of the South, as the career of Muir demonstrates, and in the South that curiosity could be requited. Between the ends of the British Isles ran, at this time, a magnetic attraction, and Louis MacNeice went off to tour the Western ones, “crossing the Minch,” as his travel book puts it, to enter the Gaelic world. Drawn north like needles, he and Auden, Celt and Norseman, had already traveled to Iceland. These bare, cold, archaic islands belonged, as Hynes observes, to the “moral landscape” of the Thirties. It is possible to get quite carried away by the Northern Norseness, as Flann O’Brien might have put it, of the leader of the Auden gang, with his Scandinavian antecedents. “Auden = Odin,” declares A.L. Rowse, writing, in one of his many new books, about homosexuality down the ages. I am reminded of a Thirties story about a chap who hurried off to the Western Isles on hearing of the He-Brides.
Sorley MacLean’s Thirties poetry was socialist, committed; the names of the time—Dimitrov, Lenin—are all there.
Cornford and Julian Bell
And Garcia Lorca
Dead in Spain in the hard cause….
In a handsome and intelligent retrospective volume* now published by a Scottish press, with facing Gaelic and English texts, he translates his poems himself, and in so doing uses the English words of the period, such as Auden’s “disgrace.” A kiss like the well-known one bestowed by Stephen Spender (“he was a better target…”) occurs in a poem in which a woman’s beauty is measured against the sufferings of Europe and the “spite of the bourgeois”:
What would the kiss of your proud mouth be
compared with each drop of the precious blood
that fell on the cold frozen uplands
of Spanish mountains from a column of steel?
Another poem of his is among the most commanding expressions of a socialist view that can be found in the British verse of the time: a Highland woman is evoked, bent and blackened by her laborer’s work, and the opinion of the Church concerning her damnable sins is bitterly cited. It is a poem which one might wish that Auden had been able to read during his distress at the sight of empty Spanish churches in the Civil War: an experience which helps, apparently, to explain why he turned, or returned, to religion.
Those writers who were party or privy to the Auden outlook were not solely responsible for “literature in England in the 1930s,” though Professor Hynes’s titling, and some of his telling, suggest otherwise, and elsewhere in Britain there were poets whose socialism was more convincing and less transient than Auden’s. Further afield, a still more taxing comparison, in this respect, has been provided by the career and commitment of Pablo Neruda, who died when Chile did, and when Auden did, in 1973, and whose verse resembled his, and, I think, excelled it. Auden ceased to be a socialist poet: his aspirations and advice turned Christian, and American. But throughout his life Neruda was always the poet with whom he most needed to be compared.
Auden’s and Isherwood’s move to America was condemned and insulted at the time, on patriotic grounds, in Britain, and ever since, the liberal course, it would seem, has been to pass over it in a kind of tolerant silence. But this is an interesting and problematical subject, which deserves to be talked about. Professor Hynes does not talk about it much: he is rather sparing in his attention to biography, pushing on with his chronological critical accounts. And yet the subject is interesting critically as well as biographically. The move to America and to religion forms part of the desertion of the left by most of this group of writers, and this desertion furnishes a hindsight which may be legitimately used in assessments of the work they did in the heat of their love affair with politics. It is in relation to such hindsight that the main point of trying to institute comparisons with writers in other places, and with different outlooks and compulsions, may be thought to arise. The English public-school writers may have given up politics because they had had enough, and because they were got down by the defeat in Spain, and by an inability to decide about the approaching world war. What else was there, besides that, to encourage the shift?
Berlin = boys, declares Isherwood’s new memoir of the decade, Christopher and His Kind, a book notable for the restricted nature of the threat which Nazism is observed to bring: will Heinz be drafted into the German Army? Recent testimony, both Isherwood’s and John Lehmann’s, has conveyed to some that the authors make light of the concern with social justice evident in the writings of the period, and that in the more or less covert homosexual subject matter of certain of the writings a deeper concern than the concern with social justice can be surmised. It may appear now, and it may have appeared then, that the two subject matters, the two loyalties, were apt to come into conflict, and to the extent that the concern with justice was eventually perceived as forced or ostensible, there were grounds for desertion. There can be no doubt, at any rate, that if there was a commitment to politics, there was a further commitment to homosexual love, and that this could be sacrificially fierce. Soviet Russia was no sweeter for being discovered to be a place where Christopher’s kind risked a heavy prison sentence.
This leaving of the left is at issue in two Auden poems of 1939, in which he finds ways of saying goodbye to the Thirties, and to Britain. Samuel Hynes writes about them skillfully, piously, and with the politeness which he is sometimes inclined to overdo. On January 26, Barcelona fell to Franco, and the Loyalist cause was recognized to be lost. On the same day, New York fell to the disembarking Auden and Isherwood. Yeats died two days later. Auden then set to work on his “great elegy,” as Hynes calls it, “In Memory of W.B. Yeats,” in which grief at the poet’s death and at that of Spanish democracy is joined with a skeptical view of some of the lost causes of the Thirties in England.
The middle of the three sections of the elegy was added a little later, and Hynes explains that its argument is matched by that of an essay written at the same time: in both, Auden advises that “poetry makes nothing happen.” The essay and the elegy are a reconsideration of a governing theme of Thirties literature—the relationship between art and action. Cast in the dialectical form of a mock trial, the essay defends Yeats by stating that “art is a product of history, not a cause. Unlike some other products, technical inventions for example, it does not re-enter history as an effective agent, so that the question whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal.” QED.
Toward the end of the third section a piece of incantatory advice is offered:
Follow, poet, follow right
To the bottom of the night,
With your unconstraining voice
Still persuade us to rejoice.
It is not all that much easier to imagine persuading someone to rejoice than it is to imagine constraining someone to do so. Hynes points out that “rejoice” is a Yeatsian word, and that the theme here “is the theme of much of Yeats’ tragic verse—that by rejoicing man creates something to rejoice about, that by affirming life in the face of the evidence man is testifying to human greatness.” He is satisfied with the elegy and its arguments. To my mind, here and elsewhere, it has that “wooziness,” or grandiloquence, inserted by Auden, according to Isherwood, in the verse plays they wrote together.
Earlier in the section there are stanzas, which Auden was subsequently to delete, to the effect that “time” (which might seem to have replaced the “history” so often referred to in the previous decade) worships language and forgives poets: Hynes says that claims which correspond to this in the essay are somewhat desperate.
Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.
The “him” refers to Yeats: I wonder how many have read these lines as meaning, among other things, that Kipling did not write well compared with Claudel.
The other poem of 1939, with its “affirming flame,” is woozy too: and it has been purged in its entirety from the Collected Poems. “September 1, 1939” opens:
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade.
According to Hynes, these “clever hopes” included pacifism and the Loyalist cause: not everyone would admit such a description. He rightly asks, “How can a decade be dishonest?” but then goes on to explain how the poem seeks to justify its charge of dishonesty: this generation had denied the role of original sin in human affairs. Not everyone would agree that that was what went wrong. A stanza ending “We must love one another or die” was cut by the revising Auden as telling a lie—we die anyway. Cut or uncut, the poem is very arresting, and very unsound.
On the boat to America in that year, Auden and Isherwood talked about “the Popular Front, the party line, the anti-Fascist struggle.” Isherwood, in a very appealing fashion, then defected: “I suppose they’re okay but something’s wrong with me. I simply cannot swallow another mouthful.” As if with relief, Auden answered: “Neither can I.” Isherwood reckoned “they had been playing parts, repeating slogans created for them by others.” Perhaps this statement takes us toward an understanding of why it was that Auden’s former poetry, in so far as it was a poetry of public principle, sometimes broke down, and of why it was given up. It does not help us to know why it is often so shiningly good.
On another occasion, Auden remarked that England had been, for him, like a family: unless he left, he “couldn’t grow up.” After he had left, however, his poetry ceased to grow. A great deal was lost to it when his politics changed. This might suggest that the “views” expressed in the verse which preceded his “Neither can I” were neither ostensible nor expendable, nor excisable in revision, and that the language of his which was worshiped then was worshiped for what it had to say about politics, as well as about love. The views that came later did not inspire a language that could be worshiped, though his fame and fascination stayed intact. It might seem that his altered political opinions scarcely entered his later verse. The man who had taken the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War was to be heard in conversation, so I’m told, approving of the American contribution to the war in Vietnam—perhaps in order to shock or displease his liberal listeners: but there are no poems on the subject.
Samuel Hynes has achieved an excellent book, and none of the objections I have raised is intended to bring this into question. One last objection relates to the use made of Waugh’s Vile Bodies, published in the first year of the decade. The behavior of Mayfair’s Bright Young People is thought to bear witness, rather as The Waste Land does, to “the emptiness of modern existence” sensed between the wars, in the days before art went into action. Father Rothschild’s comic speech about Mayfair’s comic speech habits contains a prediction of words that were to be spoken in the Sixties by the prime minister, Harold Macmillan, when one of his bright old Cabinet colleagues went too far and caused the Profumo scandal: “I know very few young people….” The speech continues: “but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence. I think all these divorces show that. People aren’t content just to muddle along nowadays…. And this word ‘bogus’ they all use….” Professor Hynes sounds like Father Rothschild when he comments: “Bogusness, then, is not a simple expression of cynicism. It is a generation’s judgment of a world emptied of significance.”
Father Rothschild and the Bright Young Things are figures of fun and objects of satire, and they are all hustlers. If Auden and his friends were the leaders or representatives of “a generation,” the historical counterparts of Miles Malpractice and his friends were not. Nor was Waugh a plausible approximation to T.S. Eliot or Tiresias. Hynes is not wrong to look for significance, and for such signs of the times, in Vile Bodies, but it is a treacherous work from that point of view.
Spring tide and Neap tide: Selected Poems 1932-1972 by Sorley MacLean (Canongate, Edinburgh, 1977).↩
Auden and Vietnam August 4, 1977
Spring tide and Neap tide: Selected Poems 1932-1972 by Sorley MacLean (Canongate, Edinburgh, 1977).↩