Here is a poem written at that time which was first called “The Crisis” and is now called “They”:
Where do they come from? Those whom we so much dread,
as on our dearest location falls the chill
of their crooked wing and endangers
the melting friend, the aqueduct, the flower.
Terrible Presences that the ponds reflect
back at the famous and, when the blond boy
bites eagerly into the shining
apple, emerge in their shocking fury,
and we realize the woods are deaf and the sky
nurses no one, and we are awake and these,
like farmers, have purpose and knowledge,
but towards us their hate is directed.
We are the barren pastures to which they bring
the resentment of outcasts; on us they work
out their despair; they wear our weeping
as the disgraceful badge of their exile.
We have conjured them here like a lying map;
desiring the extravagant joy of life,
we lured with a mirage of orchards,
fat in the lazy climate of refuge.
Our money sang like streams on the aloof peaks
of our thinking that beckoned them on like girls;
our culture like a West of wonder
shone a solemn promise in their faces.
We expected the beautiful or the wise,
ready to see a charm in our childish fibs,
pleased to find nothing but stones, and
able at once to create a garden.
But those who come are not even children with
the big indiscriminate eyes we had lost,
occupying our narrow spaces
with their anarchist vivid abandon.
They arrive, already adroit, having learned
restraint at the table of a father’s rage;
in a mother’s distorting mirror
they discovered the Meaning of Knowing.
For a future of marriage nevertheless
the bed is prepared; though all our whiteness shrinks
from the hairy and clumsy bridegroom,
we conceive in the shuddering instant.
For the barren must wish to bear though the Spring
punish; and the crooked that dreads to be straight
cannot alter its prayer but summons
out of the dark a horrible rector.
The tawny and vigorous tiger can move
with style through the borough of murder; the ape
is really at home in the parish
of grimacing and licking: but we have
failed as their pupils. Our tears well from a love
we have never outgrown; our armies predict
more than we hope; even our armies
have to express our need for forgiveness.
Quite a lot of “trilling wires” here, enough to provoke E.R. Dodds’s wife, Annie Dodds, to ask Auden what crisis he was referring to. He replied: “‘The Crisis’ is just the spiritual crisis of our time, i.e. the division between the reason and the heart, the individual and the collective, the liberal ineffective highbrow and the brutal practical demagogue like Hitler and Huey Long.”
The powers that suddenly and terrifyingly appear are, as Mendelson glosses them,
the chthonic powers that our intellectual pride has banished from ourselves, and they exist, paradoxically, because we banished them. Evolutionary and erotic instincts were inseparable from the whole being of a lower animal; they took on separate existence only when we human beings divided ourselves into proletarian Matter and aristocratic Idea, and excluded from both the instincts that had once informed the whole.
Auden believed that though we are under the illusion that we live and act, we are in fact “lived”—unknown and irrational forces work through us.
We are lived by powers we pretend to understand:
They arrange our loves; it is they who direct at the end
The enemy bullet, the sickness, or even our hand.
It is their to-morrow hangs over the earth of the living
And all that we wish for our friends: but existence is believing
We know for whom we mourn and who is grieving.
That comes from an elegy for the German poet Ernst Toller, who had committed suicide in New York in 1939 (which explains the reference to the powers directing “even our hand”). While Auden was contemplating these powers, and the awful way they seemed to be shaping the destiny of Europe, while he was trying to shake off one way of thinking and explore another—shake off a way of thinking based on the belief in the inevitability of human progress, explore a way of thinking suggested to him by the theologies of the time—while he was doing this, and writing the poems which came out of his contemplation of the war and its meaning—Auden would have thought that he was doing what he was set on earth to do. He had written in 1938:
The primary function of poetry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of ourselves and the world around us. I do not know if such increased awareness makes us more moral or more efficient;I hope not.
I think it makes us more human, and I am quite certain it makes us more difficult to deceive, which is why, perhaps, all totalitarian theories of the State, from Plato’s downwards, have deeply distrusted the arts. They notice and say too much, and the neighbours start talking.
So if Auden was working (as he always was), he felt that he was doing the right thing. He had a gift, and he was at this time particularly conscious of his responsibilities toward it. Mendelson quotes a stanza from one of the poems Auden refused to republish in his 1945 collection, “Pascal”:
Yet like a lucky orphan he had been discovered
And instantly adopted by a Gift;
And she became the sensible protector
Who found a passage through the caves of accusation,
And even in the canyon of distress was able
To use the echo of his weakness as a proof
That joy was probable and took the place
Of the poor lust and hunger he had never known.
The Gift is your protector against your accusers.
When Golo Mann first met Auden in Switzerland in 1935, his manner was, Mann later put it,
appealingly awkward, but at the same time self-confident. If one studied him closer, he had the air of one who was used to being primus inter pares, one might even say a triumphant air, so long as this does not suggest anything exaggerated or theatrical.
Mann goes on to say:
He was the most intelligent man I have known, or rather, because “intelligence” only suggests insight and understanding, the cleverest, with a cleverness which was essentially creative. He thought truths out for himself. Many of them could have been expanded into whole books. But he only presented them, in his own particular way, unsystematically. So there is no Auden “philosophy.”
Golo Mann later shared that famous house in Brooklyn Heights with Auden, along with Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Paul and Jane Bowles, and Gypsy Rose Lee. Mann tells us:
Benjamin Britten soon left Brooklyn and returned to England, presumably because he did not wish to remain far away from his native country in time of war. Auden remained. This did not endear him to his countrymen, soon to be his ex-countrymen. When I showed him a hostile article in an English paper and said it required some reply from him, he cut me short: “There is no point.” It was another example of his independence, self-confidence and pride. He knew that he would survive such a crisis, best of all by taking no notice of it.
Mann means that Auden knew he would survive being attacked in the press, not, as might at first seem, that he knew he would survive the war best by taking no notice of it. Auden’s “There is no point” might be taken to mean, “Whatever I say in my defense will be useless.” And that has certainly proved the case, since the accusation of cowardice pursued him all his life, and afterward too. In the first of these Auden essays I traced an irritating little scholarly tradition, which began by calling Auden a hypocrite and ended up detecting what Katherine Duncan Jones described as “a characteristic instance of [his] cowardice.”
Ursula Niebuhr, the theologian wife of the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, a man who was critical of pacifism, gives an account of Auden’s commencement address at Smith College in 1940, from part of which I have already quoted. Auden called his address a sermon, but he put the text of the sermon at the end. It is from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet:
The only courage that is demanded of us: [is] to have courage for the most extraordinary, the most singular, and the most inexplicable that we may encounter…. Only he or she who is ready for everything…will live the relation to another as something alive…. We must always hold to what is difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most hostile will become what we most trust and find most faithful…. Perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.
And Ursula Niebuhr goes on to recall how Auden
wrote sympathetically about Rilke’s negative reaction to the First World War. “Not to understand: yes, that was my entire occupation in these years”; and commented on these words of Rilke, “To be conscious but to refuse to understand, is a positive act that calls for courage of the highest order.” But he admitted that, “It may at the time be difficult for the outsider…to distinguish it from selfish or cowardly indifference.” For him, Rilke was the writer to whom to turn, “for strength to resist the treacherous temptations that approach us disguised as righteous duties.”
I think of Blake’s question:
Thou hast a lap full of seed
And this is a fine country.
Why dost thou not cast thy seed
And live in it merrily.
To which the answer must be: if only it were as easy as that. If only what the question supposes were true. Auden had the greatest gifts of any of our poets in the twentieth century, the greatest lap full of seed. And it was given him to know this, and to doubt it, to know and to doubt it. The sense of being primus inter pares, the sense of always being the youngest person in the room, the spirit that could say to posterity “You did not live in our time—be sorry”: all this was given him. And then, to be conscious but to refuse to understand, to live not in a fine but in a lean country, to hold to what was most difficult, to face that which was most hostile—this too was given him. To make mistakes, to cling to impossible ideals, to fail, to find himself hated, to know humiliation—this too was given him. To find himself wronged or in the wrong, to find his courage taken for cowardice, to find himself human, in short—all this was given him. “Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us,” and perhaps that forward impulse of renunciation implied a gesture toward the terrible. This was where his Gift had brought him, to this lean country and to these caves of accusation.
—This is the last of three articleson W.H. Auden.