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What Happened to Wystan Auden?

1.

At the age of thirty-one, Wystan Hugh Auden, the major British poet between A.E. Housman and Philip Larkin (with a range of styles, techniques, forms, and themes far greater than either’s), left England to settle in New York until a year before his death. Other poets of the twentieth century had chosen life abroad, notably T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but they quit their native land early in their twenties at the beginning of their careers. When Auden went into a self-imposed exile in 1939, he had already achieved a firmly established and distinguished position as poet and essayist. His literary executor (and editor of the critical edition of his complete works) Edward Mendelson has remarked, “No English poet since Byron achieved fame as quickly as Auden did.” The new volume of the critical edition, Prose, Volume III, contains the prose writings from 1949 to 1955 that followed after Auden’s first ten years in America.

Auden’s transplantation was the subject of much controversy. Some English men of letters meanly resented his safe residence in America that spared him the experience of the German bombardment of Britain. In his memoirs, Kingsley Amis reports a conversation with the novelist Anthony Powell on the occasion of the report of Auden’s death in 1973:

He looked up from his newspaper and said, “No more Auden,” adding when I looked blank, “W.H. Auden is dead.”

Oh,” I said. “Well. Quite a blow,” or some similar banality.

I’m delighted that shit has gone,” said Tony with an emphasis and in a tone of detestation that made me jump slightly. “It should have happened years ago.” Feeling perhaps some elucidation might be called for, he went on not much more mildly, “Scuttling off to America in 1939 with his boyfriend like a…like a…”

I have forgotten what it was that Auden had scuttled off like but I never knew Tony before or since to show the kind or intensity of emotion he showed then.

The resentment against Auden’s departure seems to have lasted for decades.

The change of residence was accompanied in Auden’s work by radical changes in manner and theme (a more sociable and relaxed style and a loss of political fervor), and they also created controversy. That these changes were due principally to his leaving Britain is dubious: poets like everyone else naturally alter with time. W.B. Yeats gained new power and economy in his last years, but there is generally a loss of audacity when poets grow older, as in Wordsworth’s descent from the powerful and imaginative landscape poetry and autobiography of his early years to the dull sonnets in favor of capital punishment. What is curious, however, about the new American Auden is the intensity of the disappointment of his greatest admirers, including as fine a poet as Thom Gunn, who never ceased to admire his mastery and his wit.

The most cogent witness to the general evaluation of later Auden is the posthumously published series of lectures given in 1952 by Randall Jarrell, in many ways the finest critic of contemporary poetry America has ever had. This was a fierce onslaught on the recent work of the poet who may have influenced Jarrell more than any other. (“Jarrell is in love with me” was Auden’s amused—and justified—comment on hearing of the lectures.) What is most interesting about this critical attack is that Jarrell was at once ferocious and generous. His consternation at some of the changes in Auden’s work since he settled in America (the stylistic mannerisms, the ethical posing) did not prevent him from expressing the most eloquent admiration for much of it. About the magnificent poem “Under Sirius,” he writes that on reading it another poet is likely to feel “Well, back to my greeting cards,” and remarks that Auden “has a more extraordinary command of language than almost anyone else alive.”

The third volume of Auden’s collected prose has a somewhat more academic tone than the first two as he was now often invited to lecture at American universities. Brilliant, quirky, fascinating, and original, the long study of sea imagery called The Enchafèd Flood is the finest example of this academic style; it is subtitled The Romantic Iconography of the Sea, but it roams from Dante and Shakespeare to Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ibsen, and much else, and then to Melville’s Moby-Dick (the final pages becoming something of a detailed graduate seminar on that book). There is also a great deal of fashionable journalism for magazines like Vogue and The New Yorker, most of it entertaining and delightful, along with serious lectures on religion and history.

2.

The gathering helps us to understand why many of Auden’s greatest admirers were distressed at the turn his career had taken and its new outlook. As Montaigne remarked, “Everyone says foolish things: the mistake is to say them seriously,” and I have no intention of simply picking out some of the foolishness that occasionally turns up in the midst of Auden’s brilliance. But I have found it a good rule of thumb in understanding the limitations and the character of a fine critic to consider the occasional absurdity defended by an even greater absurdity, as this indicates the concealed presence of an obsessive trait so fundamental that it escapes the writer’s rational control. A simple and very brief example can be found in T.S. Eliot’s Norton Lectures, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, where he wants to assert that a poet ought not to be an original thinker, and the disturbing example of Goethe naturally presents itself. He writes:

Of Goethe perhaps it is truer to say that he dabbled in both philosophy and poetry and made no great success of either.

This is so evidently absurd about the most successful German writer of all time that Eliot attempts to justify it, and finishes the sentence with an even more foolish qualification :

His true role was that of the man of the world and sage—a La Rochefoucauld, a La Bruyère, a Vauvenargues.

La Rochefoucauld? Far from dabbling at different things, he did only one thing better than anyone else: writing the most renowned modern collection of maxims. Eliot’s belief that original thought is irrelevant to the practice of poetry was so profoundly and obscurely important to him that all his critical intelligence deserted him in trying to demonstrate it.

A similar process is at work in two articles by Auden, both of them, however, interesting and sharply observed. The first, “Huck and Oliver” (published in 1953), is a fascinating contrast of two books about a young boy, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn—the passive hero compared to the active. On the latter book, Auden considers at length what is surely its most powerful moment: when Huck Finn, helping the slave, Jim, escape from being sold down the river, reflects that in Sunday school he would have been taught “that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.” He tries to pray, but cannot because God knows that he will not give up his sin. He writes a letter revealing Jim’s whereabouts to his owner, and says that “I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life.” Then he remembers how kind Jim had been to him, that he was Jim’s only friend, and tears up the letter. Here is Auden’s account of this passage:

When I first read Huckleberry Finn as a boy, I took Huck’s decision as being a sudden realisation, although he had grown up in a slave-owning community, that slavery was wrong. Therefore I completely failed to understand one of the most wonderful passages in the book, where Huck wrestled with his conscience. Here are two phrases. He says:

I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was, but deep down inside I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.

He decides that he will save Jim. He says:

I will go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again, and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.

When I first read the book I took this to be abolitionist satire on Mark Twain’s part. It is not that at all. What Huck does is a pure act of moral improvisation. What he decides tells him nothing about what he would do on other occasions, or what other people should do on other occasions; and here we come to a very profound difference between American and European culture. I believe that all Europeans, whatever their political opinions, whatever their religious creed, do believe in a doctrine of natural law of some kind. That is to say there are certain things about human nature, and about man as a historical creature, not only as a natural creature, which are eternally true…. It is very hard for an American to believe that there is nothing in human nature that will not change…. For that very reason you might say that America is a country of amateurs. Here is Huck who makes an essentially amateur moral decision.

Except for the observation that the chapter is not abolitionist satire, it is hard to imagine a greater misunderstanding. This great moment is only incidentally about slavery, but it is above all about religion. Auden does not quote the climactic moment of decision when Huck tears up the letter:

It was a close place. I took [that paper] up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself;

All right, then I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.

It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t.

It is with those words “All right, then I’ll go to hell” that Huck becomes the greatest hero in American literature, rivaled only by Captain Ahab.

For most of Twain’s life, he timidly protested against what he considered the hypocritical ethics of respectability and piety: this chapter was his most courageous act. Auden was right to realize that Huckleberry Finn was not an abolitionist tract, which would not make much sense, since Twain started writing the book in 1876, when the Civil War was long over. Huckleberry Finn, in fact, is a historical novel about the recent past, but for Twain, selling a slave down the river, uprooting him from the society he knew, from his friends and family, to send him to hard labor was an unpardonable act, and it reappears as such in Pudd’nhead Wilson. Twain himself described Huckleberry Finn as the struggle between “natural instincts” and a “corrupt conscience”—a conscience corrupted by a repressive society and its religion—and the natural instincts win at last.

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