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Auden Against Conceit

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Hulton Archive/Getty Images
W. H. Auden, Cecil Day-Lewis, and Stephen Spender during a PEN conference in Venice, 1949

In August 1955, in the middle of his annual summer sojourn on the Italian island of Ischia, W.H. Auden received from Dr. Enid Starkie, the distinguished author of books on Baudelaire and Rimbaud and a lecturer in modern languages at the University of Oxford, a letter inviting him to stand as a candidate for the Oxford Professorship of Poetry. This five-year post was about to be vacated by Cecil Day-Lewis, the back legs of that mythical beast McSpaunday (Louis MacNeice, Stephen Spender, Auden, Day-Lewis), which had rampaged through the British poetical and political circles of the 1930s, warning the old gang that their time was up, threatening mayhem, revolution, bloodshed: “Don’t bluster, Bimbo,” Day Lewis had, not entirely convincingly, threatened, “it won’t do you any good;/We can be much ruder and we’re learning to shoot.”

It was Auden’s evasion of the task of shooting at, or at least playing a part in the fight against, Nazi Germany that initially gave him pause for thought. His and Christopher Isherwood’s decision to settle in America in 1939 had been widely denounced in Britain. Their detractors included Harold Nicolson—who, by a neat twist of fate, would prove to be Auden’s principal opponent in the battle for the Oxford professorship—and Evelyn Waugh, in whose Put Out More Flags two lily-livered left-wing writers, Parsnip and Pimpernell, abscond to America the moment war breaks out. Indeed Auden and Isherwood’s dereliction of national duty was even discussed in Parliament, where Sir Jocelyn Lucas asked, in June 1940, if they might be summoned back and enlisted.

In his reply to Starkie, Auden cautiously pointed out that he was now an American citizen, which was likely to prove a “fatal handicap” in the election; and further, that as the post paid only £300 a year and required long periods of residence in England, it would severely straiten his circumstances. His main source of income during this period was literary journalism for publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times, temporary academic appointments, and poetry tours like that commemorated in “On the Circuit” of 1963:

Another morning comes: I see,
Dwindling below me on the plane,
The roofs of one more audience
I shall not see again.

God bless the lot of them, although
I don’t remember which was which:
God bless the U.S.A., so large,
So friendly, and so rich.

Starkie, however, was undeterred. Unlike many in the Oxford humanities faculties, she fervently believed that the Oxford Professor of Poetry should be a practicing poet rather than a literary critic. In Auden she felt she’d found a fitting successor to Day-Lewis. She wrote again, and then again to Ischia, and Auden eventually capitulated. She at once undertook to organize his campaign, since it was deemed—and still is—unmannerly for the candidates to promote their own cause with any vigor (as Ruth Padel recently found to her cost).

The results were declared on February 9, 1956: Auden polled 216 votes, Nicolson 192, and the Shakespeare scholar G. Wilson Knight 91. (Since only those with an Oxford MA were allowed to vote, and votes had to be cast in person, turnout in this era was always pretty low. Waugh, unimpressed by the two “homosexual socialists,” commented caustically in his diary: “I wish I had taken my degree so that I might vote for Knight.”)

Accordingly, in June 1956 Auden returned to Oxford University, where he’d achieved only a third-class degree, but where his first book of poems had been published twenty-eight years earlier in an edition of “about 45 copies,” printed up on a hand press purchased by Stephen Spender for £7. The composition of his inaugural lecture, which was entitled “Making, Knowing and Judging,” seems to have caused him acute anxiety; while working on it, he confessed to Spender in a letter of May 8, he was periodically overcome by “fits of real blind sweating panic.” “Why,” he asked his old friend, “are the English so terrifying?”

The question revealingly signals the ambivalent nature of his relationship at this point with his country of birth. It’s worth remembering how very much the poetry of the early Auden, starting with those poems printed by Spender back in 1928, derived their energies and imagery from a desire to figure “the condition of England”:

Go home, now, stranger, proud of your young stock,
Stranger, turn back again, frustrate and vexed:
This land, cut off, will not communicate….

These lines from “The Watershed,” written while he was still an undergraduate, perfectly capture the tensions that would beset this “stranger” at last returning to his “stock” in 1956, seventeen years after leaving them, and how nervous and unsure he felt about what lines of communication would now be open between them. In a canny move he decided to end this first lecture by reading a poem by the most English of English writers, and the one, as he often said, who’d had the most influence on his own early development: without the poetry of Thomas Hardy, he noted, before reciting Hardy’s wonderful self-elegy “Afterwards,” “I should not now be here.” As Edward Mendelson points out in his introduction to this newest volume of Auden’s collected prose, if the audience had refused to applaud when their new Professor of Poetry then sat down, they would seem to be snubbing Hardy as well as Auden.

If Hardy was the most inventive and varied prosodist in the history of English poetry, Auden runs him a close second. On the other hand, Hardy’s poetry can’t really be said to illustrate the ringing affirmation with which Auden concludes the main text of this first lecture:

Whatever its actual content and overt interest, every poem is rooted in imaginative awe…. There is only one thing that all poetry must do; it must praise all it can for being and for happening.

Should hymns to the creation be what you’re after, then Hardy is surely not your man. And I think the term “imaginative awe” only makes sense in relation to the poetry of Hardy, and that of the early or English Auden too, if we strip the term of any notion of rapture and think of it as describing a position of radical detachment, allowing all to be surveyed as if from the summit of Wessex Heights, or, in Auden’s phrase, “as the hawk sees it or the helmeted airman.”

It was the clinical authority with which Auden diagnosed the ills besetting his country in what might be called Britain’s first post-imperial decade, the 1930s, that led so many to figure him as a kind of national prophet of doom. The effect on his contemporaries can perhaps best be summed up by a couple of lines by the poet Charles Madge (who would later cofound the social research organization Mass Observation): “There waited for me in the summer morning/Auden, fiercely, I read, shuddered and knew.” The impish William Empson, however, couldn’t help poking a little fun at the spectacle of all these ex–public schoolboys collectively reveling in forthcoming apocalypse:

Waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.
What is there to be or do?
What’s become of me or you?
Are we kind or are we true?
Sitting two and two, boys, waiting for the end.
(“Just a Smack at Auden”)

It was at least partly to escape from the role of court poet to the British left, a role actively assumed in poems such as “Spain, 1937” but also one to an extent thrust upon him, that Auden moved to America, though the principal reason he always gave for his emigration was that he fell in love with Chester Kallman in the course of a trip to New York in 1939.

He also, though, justified his decision to settle there permanently in relation to his poetic ideals and development. In a letter of January 16, 1940, Auden explained to the classical scholar E.R. Dodds that America would allow him to attempt to live “deliberately without roots”; “America may break one completely,” he added, “but the best of which one is capable is more likely to be drawn out of one here than anywhere else.” His aim, in other words, was to become, if such a thing is possible, a post-national poet. The atavistic conflicts at that moment destroying Europe led him to espouse the belief that responsible poetry must free itself from all tribal affiliations; the poet’s task, therefore, was to map possible ways of living in an existential void, in the “age of anxiety,” to borrow the title of his long poem of 1947.

The Age of Anxiety* is set in a bar in New York, and its four characters, Malin, Rosetta, Quant, and Emble, are allegorical representations of the four Jungian categories of Thinking, Feeling, Intuition, and Sensation. A bar, Auden explains in the poem’s prologue, is “an unprejudiced space in which nothing particular ever happens,” which is what makes it the perfect setting for a dispassionate study of the search for meaning that deracinated, alienated modern man must undertake.

And yet, despite his conviction that by leaving England he had freed himself from parochial concerns, from the dangers of nationalist fervor, and from his own family romance, and thereby made himself into a truly international and contemporary poet, a bit of Auden seems still to have hankered after the approval of the old gang. What else could explain his willingness to heed Dr. Starkie’s call in the summer of 1955? The dread inspired by the thought of returning to Oxford, Mendelson notes in his introduction, “unsettled his whole sense of himself and his career.”

This dread found its fullest poetic expression in a poem entitled “There Will Be No Peace,” which “was an attempt,” Auden later revealed to the American critic Monroe K. Spears, “to describe a very unpleasant dark-night-of-the-soul sort of experience which for several months in 1956 attacked me.” Auden pictures himself confronting serried ranks of nameless enemies, “Beings of unknown number and gender”; all he knows is that they do not like him:

What have you done to them?
Nothing? Nothing is not an answer:
You will come to believe—how can you help it?—
That you did, you did do something;
You will find yourself wishing you could make them laugh,
You will long for their friendship.
There will be no peace.
Fight back, then, with such courage as you have
And every unchivalrous dodge you know of,
Clear in your conscience on this:
Their cause, if they had one, is nothing to them now;
They hate for hate’s sake.

As far as the response to his inaugural lecture went, he needn’t have worried. The day after, he victoriously declared in a letter to Kallman: “Never in my life have I been so terrified, but thanks to Santa Restituta, I had a triumph and won over my enemies.”

  1. *

    A new edition of this poem, edited and with an introduction by Alan Jacobs, was recently published by Princeton University Press. 

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