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The Crack in the Teacup

W.H. Auden: Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse, Volume I, 1926-1938

edited by Edward Mendelson
Princeton University Press, 836 pp., $59.50

This new volume in the invaluable Complete Works of W.H. Auden edited by Edward Mendelson contains the original version of all the prose essays and reviews the poet wrote during the years he was living in England, as well as the original text of the two travel books in prose and verse in which he collaborated with Louis MacNeice (Letters from Iceland) and Christopher Isherwood (Journey to a War). It also contains a great deal of his verse: the long, witty Letter to Lord Byron in the Iceland book and the two sonnet sequences London to Hong Kong and In Time of War in the Isherwood book. Mendelson supplies a text newly edited from the manuscript where available, otherwise from the printed text “reprinted with a minimum of regularization” from the first edition. Some 150 pages of appendices and textual notes deal with problems in the transmission and supply explanatory notes on allusions in the text. For anyone interested in “early Auden” this book is indispensable.

There is a great deal here that was not written by Auden. The prose narrative of Journey to a War, for example, though based on notes kept by both men, was written by Isherwood, and in Letters from Iceland there are poems by MacNeice, who is also responsible for a series of letters—“Hetty to Nancy”—which give an account of the journey across the island. In their mock Last Will and Testament the poets’ voices sometimes join in unison but more often alternate in the carefully crafted terza rima they chose for this mischievous critique of their contemporaries. (Evelyn Waugh denounced it as a “gossip column.”)

In 1930, nearing the end of the allowance from his parents that had allowed him to live in Berlin after he came down from Oxford in 1928, Auden joined the ranks of young men desperately seeking employment as the long winter of the Depression set in. “Do you by any chance know of a job for me?” he had written to the novelist Naomi Mitchison in 1929. “Anything from nursing to burglary. Is it possible to get into a publishing firm in any capacity?” In April 1930 he replaced his friend Cecil Day Lewis as a teacher at Larchfield Academy near Glasgow, a private school for boys which had seen better days. Auden taught English and French to forty or so young Scots who had just as much trouble with his Oxford accent as he did with their Glaswegian. “I’m up here…,” he wrote in a birthday verse letter to a friend, “Paid to teach English to the sons of Scotsmen—/Poor little buggers.” He seems to have enjoyed teaching, however, and his debut as a teacher in April coincided with the news that T.S. Eliot at Faber and Faber had accepted his first book of poems for publication. In that same year Eliot’s magazine Criterion printed his first review; it was to be followed by others over the years, as well as by reviews in such periodicals as Scrutiny and The Listener, as his poetry won ever-widening notice.

Some of the reviews must have made their readers sit up. A short review of three books on education in Scrutiny, for example, told the readers very little about what was in the books, but offered a sarcastic indictment of the English educational system’s class segregation (before World War II most working-class children left school for the labor market at the age of fourteen). Though he admits that the so-called “public” schools are better than the experimental “progressive” schools, he charges that they are economically parasitic and produce men who will never consent to extend their privileges because “that would mean admitting the others, those who have frizzed hair, or eat peas with a knife.” He ends by answering the reader’s question “But what can one do?” with “Dearie, you can’t do anything for the children till you’ve done something for the grown-ups.”

But Auden not only enjoyed teaching, he took education seriously. Much later, in 1929, he published, in collaboration with T.C. Worsley, a thirty-five-page essay that explored the problems of the system and ended by making recommendations—“A Short Term Programme”—which might be implemented “in the event of a Socialist Government being returned to power without a radical change in the class system and the private ownership of capital.” This is exactly what happened in 1945, and many of the recommendations made in the essay were in fact carried out.

Some of the early essays and reviews have a didactic, almost pontifical tone, that of a prophet explaining the world and interpreting its laws, a tone suggestive of what in his biography of a few years ago Humphrey Carpenter calls “the two dominant aspects of his personality, the dogmatic teacher and the would-be healer.” In an essay titled “Psychology and Art To-day” (1935), for example, he squeezes the whole of European medieval and modern history into a one-page chart that “is only meant to be suggestive, to see if we agree to divide the Christian era into three periods, the first ending with the fifteenth century, the second with the nineteenth, and the third just beginning, what would seem the typical characteristics of such periods.” On the chart the three periods are assigned “typical characteristics” under such headings as “The end of life,” “First Cause,” “Political system,” “The sign of success,” and “World view.” The sign of success for the first period is “The mystical union,” for the second “Wealth and power,” and for the third “Joy.” Other “characteristics” are more complicated. The end of life, for example, is “The City of God” for the first period but for the second consists of “Official: Power over material. Opposition: Personal salvation.” Our own period has a simple objective: “The good life on earth.” Under “Political system” the three periods are assigned “Feudal hierarchy”; “National democracy. Power in the hands of capitalists”; “International Democracy. Government by an Order.”

Auden is not often so solemnly portentous. Sometimes an otherwise unremarkable review is enlivened by an unexpected exclamation: “The old humbug can write”—in a relentlessly negative review of Winston Churchill’s Thoughts and Adventures. And in a serious essay, a contribution to The Old School, edited by Graham Greene, he presents a startling description of himself as a schoolboy: “I was—and in most respects still am—mentally precocious, physically backward, short-sighted, a rabbit at all games, very untidy and grubby, a nail-biter, a physical coward, dishonest, sentimental, with no community sense whatever, in fact a typical little highbrow and difficult child.”

The highlights of this collection of miscellaneous prose, however, are the essays and reviews in which Auden assesses the work of his poetic predecessors: a perceptive appreciation, remarkable for its expert discussion of English metrics, on Skelton; an introduction to Frost’s Selected Poems (1936), which shows a sympathetic understanding of a poet not widely admired in the England of the Thirties; above all, a superb essay on Alexander Pope. Its opening paragraphs sound more like an indictment than an appreciation—a portrait of a young man whose “social advantages were few” and “his physical charms…even less.” This second point is hammered home by a full quotation of Samuel Johnson’s merciless catalog of Pope’s infirmities and deformities; it ends with the words “his weakness made it very difficult for him to be clean. His hair had fallen almost all away.” His character does not fare much better than his “physical charms.” He was not “as sublimely odious as Addison” but he was, among other unenviable things, “a snob and a social climber…sly…mean…greedy …vain, touchy and worldly while posing as being indifferent to the world and to criticism.” Furthermore, “as a poet he was limited to a single verse form, the end-stopped couplet.” His interests were limited, too. “He had no interest in nature as we understand the term, no interest in love, no interest in abstract ideas, and none in Tom, Dick and Harry.”

But Pope’s poetry was an immediate and lasting success, and Auden proceeds to explain this success and offer an appreciation of “the nature of his poetry and its value” in the light of the conditions of the age in which he lived. What follows is an extraordinarily brilliant analysis—social, economic, and political—of the England of the early eighteenth century, a society “which, in spite of very wide variations in income and culture…was at no point fundamentally divided in outlook and feeling.” Its ideas and arts were those “of any rising class which has recently won power and security for itself,” of men “pleased with themselves, and…anxious to preserve the status quo…optimistic, full of vitality, pacific within their circle, and conservative.” Pope summed up their deepest belief in a single line: “One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT.”

Auden’s sensitive presentation of Pope as the spokesman of that society’s preoccupations and ideals, with his defense of his poetry against charges that his language is falsely poetic or that he is “a classic of our prose,” is a literary tour de force, a foretaste of the critical acumen and the stylistic verve of the essays Auden was later to collect in The Enchafèd Flood and The Dyer’s Hand.

As the essay proceeds it becomes clear that Pope is a poet after Auden’s own heart, that (though he does not say so) in spite of the immense gulf between Pope’s attitude to his world and time and Auden’s to his own (which might be summed up as “One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS WRONG”), in spite of the striking contrast between Pope’s unswerving fidelity to the end-stopped couplet and Auden’s command of an immense range of metrical patterns, they are in some ways very like each other. Like Auden, Pope “constantly altered and rewrote…. The introduction of sylphs and gnomes into the Rape of the Lock, and the conclusion of The Dunciad were not first thoughts.” Like Auden, Pope deals with “images of contemporary life.” Auden cites the famous description of Belinda’s awakening—“Now lap-dogs give themselves the rousing shake…”—and comments:

There is no vagueness here…. This poetry, not Wordsworth’s, is the ancestor of “the patient etherized on the table,”1 of Baudelaire’s “On entend ça et là les cuisines siffler,/Les théâtres glapir…”

Auden goes on to dismiss critics who complain of “Pope’s use of periphrasis, his refusal to call a spade a spade” with an apt quotation—“So morning insects that in muck begun/Shine, buzz, and flyblow in the setting sun”—that is, as he says, “as direct as you please.”

Auden too could be direct as you please, as when he denounced

the invasion of the great malignant
Cambridge ulcer
…A host of columbines and pathics
who teach the poor by mathematics
In their defence
That wealth and poverty are merely
Mental pictures, so that clearly
Every tramp’s a landlord really
In mind-events

Auden also points out that when Pope does use a periphrasis—“While China’s earth receives the smoking tide” instead of “as Wordsworth might have written, ‘While boiling water on the tea was poured”’—something important happens: “To the microscopic image of tea-making is added the macroscopic image of a flood, a favourite device of Pope’s….” Auden, too, could endow a mundane domestic detail with cosmic significance: “And the crack in the tea-cup opens/a lane to the land of the dead.”

In addition to the prose, the volume contains two of Auden’s most remarkable poems—the witty Letter to Lord Byron and the sonnet sequence In Time of War. The Letter is a masterpiece of light verse, a medium not greatly admired in England in the Thirties—“Light verse, poor girl, is under a sad weather…she’s treated as démodé altogether..,”—a state of affairs Auden would later attempt to remedy in his Oxford Anthology of Light Verse. (Its masterly introduction is included in this book.) Though the wit of the Letter begins to wear a little thin in Part V (most of which was omitted on Auden’s instructions in the 1976 edition of his Collected Poems), it is a masterpiece of the genre. Among its great treasures is the penetrating evaluation of Jane Austen: “It makes me most uncomfortable to see/An English spinster of the middle-class/… Reveal so frankly and with such sobriety/The economic basis of society.”—a judgment worth recalling in this time of saccharine film versions of her novels. And in Part IV he offers the reader a tongue-in-cheek but revealing autobiography, the answer to the question a child “may ask when our strange epoch passes,/During a history lesson, ‘Please, Sir, what’s/An intellectual of the middle classes?”’

The Letter is followed by the elaborate poetic duet in which Auden and MacNeice, taking their cue from François Villon’s Petit Testament, produce, in skillful Dantesque terza rima, their Last Will and Testament. They begin seriously enough. MacNeice leaves to his Irish ancestors “whose hands were hard with handling cart and boat…the credit for that which may endure/Within myself of peasant vitality…” while Auden bequeathes to his parents “whatever fame my poems may collect about them.” But they then join their voices to wish “Stanley Baldwin, our beloved P.M.,/ The false front of Lincoln Cathedral, and a school/Of Empire poets…” and follow this up by making, often in unison but sometimes separately, a long series of burlesquely jocular gifts to contemporary figures, famous and obscure. Sir Robert Baden-Powell, for example, gets “a piece of string”: one of the things you had to learn during your initiation period in the Boy Scouts was to tie a number of differ-ent knots. The list of beneficiaries is long, and many of their names mean little or nothing to readers now. One of the great pleasures offered by this edition is the wealth of information gathered by the editor (in collaboration with Richard Davenport-Hines) that throws light on allusions in the text.2 If you didn’t already know the identity of “the most mischievous woman now alive” to whom the poets leave “a lorry-load of moral mud” you can find her name (Lady Beazley, MacNeice’s mother-in-law) and the details here, where you will also find out why Maurice Bowra is bequeathed “a dome/Of many-coloured glass.” And if you have often wondered, as I have, who on earth A.M. Ludovici was and why his legacy is the Venus of Willendorf, the notes will tell you (he had published a book called The Choice of a Mate in which he had stressed the importance of “large hips and buttocks.”)

Auden’s only fully independent contributions to Journey to a War are the six poems grouped under the title London to Hong Kong and the sonnet sequence In Time of War followed by its Commentary. They are here reprinted in their original form; in subsequent editions Auden radically revised the sonnet sequence and in the 1973 edition suppressed the Commentary entirely. “When, after an interval of many years,” he wrote, in a second edition of Journey,

I first re-read the sonnets in this book, I was very shocked to discover how carelessly I had written them. At the same time, their substance seemed to me to be worth salvaging, so I set to work. I have never revised earlier work quite so extensively as I have revised these poems….

He was not kidding. He omitted seven of the original sonnets altogether, changed the order in the sequence in three cases, and imposed changes, some minor and some radical, on almost every line of what he kept.

He constantly altered and rewrote,” he said of Pope, “and always for the better.” Whether that judgment can be made of Auden’s revisions is a matter of dispute, though some critics who at first objected have since come to think the revised versions superior. I, for one, cannot agree. It may, of course, be simply nostalgia that binds me to the lines I admired when they first appeared, but time and again in the later versions I sense a flattening of the original impact. In the deservedly famous sonnet about the dead Chinese soldier, for example, “Far from the heart of culture he was used” becomes “Far from a cultural centre he was used.”

It may be objected that “the heart of culture” is a somewhat cloudy concept, but “a cultural centre” is nothing short of banal. And the lines “He will not be introduced/When this campaign is tidied into books” become “He will never be perused…”—a change dictated presumably by Auden’s wish to normalize the rhyme. But “perused” has a pedantic sound, and in any case there is something odd about perusing a dead soldier. Sometimes the corrections make for smoother syntax or more euphonious rhyme but in most cases at too high a cost. Time and again, the lines are smoother; but the virtue has gone out of them. Readers who have come to Auden only in recent editions are in Mendelson’s debt for the chance to read the whole sequence just as it was written.

  1. 1

    Auden, as so often, quotes from memory, incorrectly.

  2. 2

    Davenport-Hines is the author of Auden, a biography published last year.

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