The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927-1939
W.H. Auden: A Commentary
Prose and Travel Books in Prose and Verse, 1926-1938
Auden, when an undergraduate at Oxford, took a look at the literary scene in general and decided that it offered an empty stage. “Evidently they are waiting for Someone,” he said with, Stephen Spender tells us, “the air of anticipating that he would soon take the center of it.” Auden’s fantasy, however, was to be at the center, not to be the sole figure. Christopher Isherwood was to be the novelist. Robert Medley was to be the painter. Cecil Day-Lewis was in there in some poetic capacity, as were Louis MacNeice and Spender. Spender told Auden he wondered whether he, Spender, ought to write prose. But Auden put his foot down. “You must write nothing but poetry, we do not want to lose you for poetry.” “But do you really think I’m any good?” gulped Spender. “Of course,” Auden frigidly replied. “But why?” “Because you are so infinitely capable of being humiliated. Art is born of humiliation.”
In the end, Spender did write some prose, including World Within World, the autobiography from which I am quoting, and a rare book called European Witness, which I strongly recommend.1 He kept an important journal, and also tried his hand at fiction, as did Day-Lewis. The real division of the spoils was between Auden and Isherwood, the preeminent poet and the preeminent novelist. Isherwood kept away from poetry, apart from a few very early verses and some translations. Auden kept away from anything remotely like the novel. The two men collaborated on drama—it was territory which they could divide up amicably. Isherwood wrote film scripts while Auden wrote fine texts for documentaries, two of which (Coal Face and Night Maid) have held their own as poems. Isherwood later worked on a Frankenstein movie, for which Jonathan Keates later suggested the sub-title Mr. Norris Changes Brains. Auden got opera. Isherwood took Hollywood. Neither stepped on the other’s turf.
Prose, though, prose could not be easily divided up, or left, as we have heard, to Spender as his own. Prose is too important, too unsatisfactory a concept, too interesting in its ramifications. How could Auden have been given Poetry, Isherwood the Novel, and Spender—Prose? It doesn’t add up. It doesn’t divide up. And besides—Auden needed prose.
He needed it in various ways, one of which was to make a living, for, as he claimed in the introduction to The Dyer’s Hand, he wrote all his lectures, introductions, and reviews because he needed the money. He hoped some love went into their writing. But when he looked over his criticism again he decided to reduce it to a set of notes. There was something, in his opinion, false about systematic criticism. When Alan Ansen, who compiled a collection of Auden’s “table talk,” said to him in 1946, “I should think you might almost be ready to issue a volume of collected prose,” Auden said, “I don’t think so. Criticism should be casual conversation.”
And indeed his table talk is and was very much like the opening sections of The Dyer’s Hand:
The most painful of all experiences to a poet is to find that a poem of his which he knows to be a forgery has pleased the public and got into the anthologies. For all he knows, the poem may be quite good, but that’s not the point; he should not have written it.
No poet or novelist wishes that he were the only one who ever lived, but most of them wish they were the only one alive, and quite a number fondly believe their wish has been granted.
Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered.
One cannot review a bad book without showing off.
These come from the page, whereas this comes from conversation:
Yeats spent the first half of his life writing minor poetry, and the second half writing major poetry about what it had been like to be a minor poet.
Eliot wrote nothing but late poetry (smiling) after “Gerontion,” anyway.
The word “smiling” is put in by Ansen to mark Auden’s realization that what he had said wasn’t really true.
For a long time Auden’s periodical criticism remained uncollected, until Auden himself had probably forgotten much of what he had written and where it was to be found. The Dyer’s Hand, first published in 1962, was put together under Auden’s direction by an assistant whose job it was to go to the libraries and copy out the pieces in question. Presumably Auden then carried out his paring down of the essays. Forewords and Afterwords (1973), the prose book published ten years later, was selected and overseen by Edward Mendelson, who became Auden’s literary executor and who published in 1977 The English Auden, which collected for the first time the journalism of the Thirties. Until that publication, it would have been only a very attentive reader, and one with a long memory, who could have formed an opinion of Auden’s work overall. And I should add that Mendelson’s recent, definitive collection—Prose 1926-1938—is only the beginning of the gathering of the fugitive pieces. Although we are in a much better position now than we recently were to see Auden whole, we will not truly be able to do so until we can see the prose whole.
The reason for this is not that we expect it to outshine the poetry, or to supplement its perceived deficiencies. The reason is that in Auden’s work, prose and poetry interpenetrate to a far greater extent than in the work of any other English-language poet of this century. There are vectors in Auden’s work—the Blake vector, the late Henry James vector—which can be traced in prose and poetry alike:
The sword sung on the barren heath,
The sickle in the fruitful field:
The sword he sung a song of death,
But could not make the sickle yield.
Amoeba in the running water
Lives afresh in son and daughter.
‘The sword above the valley’
Said the Worm to the Penny.
Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs and flaming hair,
But Desire Gratified
Plants fruits of life and beauty there.
Those who will not reason
Perish in the act:
Those who will not act
Perish for that reason.
Without contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence.
He who undertakes anything, thinking he is doing it out of a sense of duty, is deceiving himself and will ruin everything he touches.
Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained; and the restrainer or reason usurps its place and governs the unwilling.
The Prolific and the Devourer: the Artist and the Politician. Let them realise that they are enemies, i.e., that each has a vision of the world which must remain incomprehensible to the other. But let them also realise that they are both necessary and complementary, and further, that there are good and bad politicians, good and bad artists, and that the good must learn to recognise and to respect the good.
To the Devourer it seems as if the producer was in his chains; but it is not so, he only takes portions of existence and fancies that the whole.
But the Prolific would cease to be Prolific unless the Devourer, as a sea, received the excess of his delights….
These two classes of men are always upon earth, and they should be enemies: whoever tries to reconcile them seeks to destroy existence.
That was Blake, Auden, Blake, Auden, Blake, Auden, Blake, Auden, Blake. I edited out Blake’s ampersands.
Blake sat at Auden’s left when he wrote, urging concision, definite views, plain language. He was not the Blake of the long line, of the interminable prophetic books, but the fiery Blake of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the Blake of the notebooks.
Henry James sat on Auden’s right, suggesting fascinating syntaxes and ways of prolonging a sentence, giving a nuance to a nuance. This is the late Henry James, making his appearance as early as the early 1940s. “A mannered style,” Auden wrote later, “that of Góngora or Henry James, for example, is like eccentric clothing: very few writers can carry it off, but one is enchanted by the rare exception who can.” And again, in his essay on James’s The American Scene, Auden says:
James had been evolving a style of metaphorical description of the emotions which is all his own, a kind of modern Gongorism, and in The American Scene this imagery, no longer inhibited by the restraining hand of character or the impatient tug of plot, came to its fullest and finest bloom.
Indeed, perhaps the best way to approach this book is as a prose poem of the first order…relishing it sentence by sentence, for it is no more a guidebook than the “Ode to a Nightingale” is an ornithological essay.
And he recommends the reader who finds James’s late manner hard to get on with to read the last paragraph of the chapter on Richmond, describing the statue of General Lee—“a purple patch,” he calls it, adding that there are many others which match it. It reads:
The equestrian statue of the Southern hero, made to order in far-away uninterested Paris [and how like Auden that phrase sounds], is the work of a master and has artistic interest—a refinement of style, in fact, under the impression of which we seem to see it, in its situation, as some precious pearl of ocean washed up on a rude bare strand. The very high florid pedestal is of the last French elegance, and the great soldier, sitting his horse with a kind of melancholy nobleness, raises his handsome head as he looks off into desolate space. He does well, we feel, to sit as high as he may, and to appear, in his lone survival, to see as far, and to overlook as many things; for the irony of fate, crowning the picture, is surely stamped in all sharpness on the scene about him. The place is the mere vague centre of two or three crossways, without form and void, with a circle half sketched by three or four groups of small, new, mean houses. It is somehow empty in spite of being ugly, and yet expressive in spite of being empty. “Desolate,” one has called the air; and the effect is, strangely, of some smug “up-to-date” specimen or pattern of desolation. So long as one stands there the high figure, which ends for all the world by suggesting to the admirer a quite conscious, subjective, even a quite sublime, effort to ignore, to sit, as it were, superior and indifferent, enjoys the fact of company and therefore, in a manner, of sympathy—so that the vast association of the futile for the moment drops away from it. But to turn one’s back, one feels, is to leave it alone again, communing, in its altitude, which represents thus some prodigious exemplary perched position, some everlasting high stool of penitence, with the very heaven of futility. So at least I felt brought round again to meeting my first surprise, to solving the riddle of the historic poverty of Richmond. It is the poverty that is, exactly, historic: once take it for that and it puts on vividness. The condition attested is the condition—or, as may be, one of the later, fainter, weaker stages—of having worshipped false gods. As I looked back, before leaving it, at Lee’s stranded, bereft image, which time and fortune have so cheated of half the significance, and so, I think, of half the dignity, of great memorials, I recognized something more than the melancholy of a lost cause. The whole infelicity speaks of a cause that could never have been gained.
The autobiography, written in the late 1940s, takes us up to the Second World War. European Witness (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1946) is an account of a long trip to France and Germany in 1945, with a mission "to inquire into the lives and ideas of German intellectuals."↩
The autobiography, written in the late 1940s, takes us up to the Second World War. European Witness (Reynal and Hitchcock, 1946) is an account of a long trip to France and Germany in 1945, with a mission “to inquire into the lives and ideas of German intellectuals.”↩