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Uncle Wiz the Wizard

W.H. Auden: A Biography

by Humphrey Carpenter
Houghton Mifflin, 495 pp., $15.95

This capacious, cautious, splendid biography commences with its author’s caveat: “It is not a book of literary criticism.” It ably shows how certain writings developed from instances of a lifetime. “I hope I have also managed to convey my own huge enthusiasm for his poetry.” Here Carpenter triumphs where others have been so drawn to anecdote or exegesis that poetry (and, importantly, prose) seems diminished. What he has not touched, Edward Mendelson’s Early Auden fully provides, as has been noted here before.1

Carpenter’s is the first biography to enjoy free access to a wide range of personal correspondence, unpublished manuscripts, family and personal memoirs. His accomplishment is awesome in accounting for the breath and breadth of an important contemporary poet. Prior attention has been useful for explication or useless as random gossip. Here we have days and nights spent in their inspiriting diversity and complexity. All that is perhaps lacking is a sense of fun and games which infused the speaking maker. Auden’s irony and sympathy, his magical influence over a band of adoring and admonished subalterns are well shown, but his mortal tone is impossible to recover.

Auden was one of the few influential intellectuals of his day who did not try to elevate his errors into some sort of philosophical system. He is to be read, like most energetic thinkers at their different moments, as inconsistent, with the proviso that every apparent mutation was prefaced by scrupulous self-questioning in which ambiguity in each step was expunged. As his life-time friend Professor E.R. Dodds explained:

The ruthless treatment of his own past work which recent critics have observed and deplored was no new thing in Wystan; it is the price his readers have to pay for the companionship of a receptive mind that perpetually rejudged the past in the changing light of the present.2

Auden’s early repudiation of political flirtation and of a dazzling idiosyncratic rhetoric which he felt had become formularized, and the shifts in his world-view, which abrasion by experience of the world as it is came to seem to him naïve, were not exactly ambiguous. Ultimately, his attitudes became unequivocal and unwavering, as self-discipline and self-awareness led to exile, alienation, and discovery—which few other of our artists had the wit, courage, or extremity to risk. His apologia was not couched in terms of the heroic, self-sorrowful confessional:

I can’t think what my It had on Its mind
To give me flat feet and a big behind.3

And the frowned-on changes, those metamorphoses which led Early to Middle to Late Auden, transforming helmeted airman to comfy Austrian householder, is what Humphrey Carpenter clearly details. This speaks volumes for the personal responsibility of a modern biographer; Auden’s friends and lovers have felt free to confide in Carpenter, most of them without let or hindrance, and he responded with a generosity sparing nothing save grossness. Auden the man, in his appetites, needs, satisfactions, or lack of them, is here, and from such just and vivid documentation of tastes and talents we comprehend the poetry from its wellsprings as never before. This book does not aim to, nor can it “tell everything,” but each and everything related in depth and dignity may go far to convince those who misprize Auden’s homogeneity in its largest sense to extend the accidental limits of their partial information. It has been suggested that, if Auden had been mainly heterosexual, Carpenter would not have made so much of his particular behavior. Auden himself was scrupulous about the avoidance of personal gender in every one of his lyrics.

Auden’s reputation has survived the fever-chart of early renown and posthumous abeyance. Prematurely and imprecisely hailed as paladin of a greedy “left,” he discovered for himself in Spanish and Chinese civil warfare how the epigones of Marx and Trotsky could be culpable like everyone else. Thus, when he left Britain, he would be accused of double infamy, as lapsed comrade of a “working class” and as traitor to his native heath. It is conveniently ignored that as early as Paid On Both Sides (1928), or The Ascent of F6 (1936), with their clinical diagnosis of England in decline, he laid bare to an avid elite of “liberal” readers that his homeland in its accelerating lack of genuine possibility was no home for him. By 1937 he had sensed the situation which Mrs. Thatcher now superintends.

The hero of F6, named Ransom, was drawn from the exploitable theatricality of Lawrence of Arabia and George Mallory, the intrepid climber who vanished on Everest. “Mr. and Mrs. A,” Auden’s tragic chorus, at the end of the first act proclaim a starved nation’s alarmed insistence:

Mrs. A: I have dreamed of a threadbare barnstorming actor, and he was a national symbol.

Mr. A: England’s honour is covered with rust.

Mrs. A: Ransom must beat them! He must! He must!

Mr. A: Or England falls. She has had her hour. And now must decline to a second-class power.

In his gran refuito,4 his relinquishment of Yorkshire and Cumberland, from his de-self-centered exile, he composed a paysage moralisé from Manhattan to the Mezzogiorno to rural Austria. The further the exile, the greater his communion. In an excellent essay on Auden’s and Louis MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland (1937), the poet Tom Paulin analyzes a view of great nature in contrast to Wordsworth’s romantic landscape.

Parnassus must be colonised and tamed deliberately changing it from a grim empty peak above a lake to the public park with fountains, cafés and ice-cream vans. The dominating mountain must be dominated and made social, humanist and democratic.5

It is the various attitudes toward domination, colonization, democratization that two generations of critics, commencing with F.R. Leavis, have found inconsistent or repellent. This was aroused by the lapidary firmness of Auden’s compact judgment, early and late, which had the weight and eloquence to nominate a year, a season, an age, as if by some future unborn historian. What one may question in Carpenter’s superlative biography is a slighting of two prime factors in the poet’s range and practice, discussed in Professor Mendelson’s Early Auden: intellectual energy and curiosity, together with an insistent morality. Auden’s omnivorous, attentive prowling in language, science, philosophy, public affairs, literature, and music surpass any other poet’s‘ of his epoch. To be sure there are academicians everywhere who seize on the suburbs of the imagination to make them their own, and in so doing contribute worthy books. But flipping through catalogues of university presses in their dissertational overkill of Shakespeare, Melville, Henry James, one finds little to compare with Auden’s chilling conclusions on Iago in “The Dyer’s Hand” or Prospero in “The Sea and the Mirror,” or with the capital elegies on Melville, Yeats, Freud, and James.

As for morality, its inference, or practice, Carpenter spends little scrutiny on Auden’s ideas other than on him as aphorist. But everything Auden wrote, taught, or preached was within the frame of a rigorous morality. That is, in every facet of his unlimited working he considered the obligation of the self in action relative to the fair or ugly behavior of others—in society, its history, climate—toward individual artists and as a whole. No stranger to the singular or fanciful, he included in his prayers for romanticizing poets a remission of sins for those whose gift withered from the anemia of obsessive self-preoccupation. And it was the novelists’ craft and power that he praised above the versifier:

Encased in talent like a uniform,
The rank of every poet is well known;
They can amaze us like a thunder- storm,
Or die so young, or live for years alone….

But the deviser of fictions must be otherwise:

For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just

Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can
Dully put up with all the wrongs of Man.
[“The Novelist,” 1938]

Auden’s activated conscience concerning itself and his neighbors’ was as adept and energetic as formal prosody; it is consciousness of self as an other which gravely informs his verse—light, dramatic, trivial, ironic, importunate, or lyrical.

Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses, force us to choose second thoughts, free from the fetters of Self.
[1969]

Who was the last English professional poet with Auden’s scope, verbal control, or luxury in quotable phrases, the mastery in an apostolic succession of popular poetics? Answer is easy: a master of technics—mechanical, material, and metrical; a seer of international apprehension; scholar of Bible and hymnal, one also who used much personal suffering to “in the prison of his days / teach the free man how to praise.” Who he? Rudyard Kipling.

With him, Auden shared a vital historicity which enabled both to endow an immediate present with the enriching reference of the past. In a sense, everything has already happened in time past, but the ever-ready poet spotlights those distinctions whose linkage intensifies surprising difference. Auden said that to the ignorant the past is simultaneous. Disdain of the past as mere repetition or binding irrelevance is one of the worst side effects of “modern” culture.

What is it that makes Kipling so extraordinary? Is it not that while virtually every other European writer since the fall of the Roman Empire has felt that the dangers threatening civilization came from inside that civilization (or from inside the individual consciousness), Kipling is obsessed by a sense of dangers threatening from outside?

Others have been concerned with the corruptions of the big city, the ennui of the cultured mind; some sought a remedy in a return to Nature, to childhood, to Classical Antiquity; others looked forward to a brighter future of liberty, equality, and fraternity: they called on the powers of the subconscious, or prayed for the grace of God to inrupt and save their souls; they called on the oppressed to arise and save the world. In Kipling there is none of this, no nostalgia for a Golden Age, no belief in Progress. For him civilization (and consciousness) is a little citadel of light surrounded by a great darkness full of malignant forces and only maintained through the centuries by everlasting vigilance, will-power and self-sacrifice.6

Auden’s attitude toward the treasure in history invested his accomplishments in metric; there was hardly an antique measure which he did not use, alter, or extend with virtuosity. The more difficult the game of counting syllables or spanning stress, the more amusing the play of words. In our colleges, courses in modern poetry generally disdain sportive verse in favor of trying to extract something lived and hence presumably unique or “creative” from wholly undeveloped or prematurely locked personalities. Individual and accidental sensibility substitutes for experience; what by chance has happened to me is my total gift. Ignorance of prosodic possibility, which for many centuries empowered English verse, over the last fifty years has caused the identical deterioration of music without melody, painting without portraiture, and architecture without ornament.

  1. 1

    Stuart Hampshire, “The Gambler’s Throw,” NYR, Aug. 13, 1981, p. 3.

  2. 2

    E.R. Dodds, Missing Persons: An Autobiography (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 123.

  3. 3

    Letters from Iceland, 1937, p. 202.

  4. 4

    Inferno, III, 61.

  5. 5

    The Nineteen Thirties: A Challenge to Orthodoxy, edited by John Lucas (Barnes & Noble, 1978).

  6. 6

    The Poet of the Encirclement,” Forewords and Afterwords (Random House, 1973), p. 352.

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