W. H. Auden
W. H. Auden; drawing by David Levine

If a poet is “sincere,” said Eliot, “he must express with individual differences the general state of mind—not as a duty, but because he cannot help participating in it.” For more than thirty years Auden has stood like some bright battered elm in the intellectual and historical climate of the age. His poetry has registered change after change: alternately a seismograph (the revolutionary upheaval), a temperature chart (spiritual vacuity, physical decay), a weather station (sunlight filtering through the gloom, sojourns in Ischia). In the Thirties he presided over the dissolution of a “low dishonest decade,” the “gradual ruin spreading like a stain,” the abandoned mines, “the necessary murder.” Troops were massing on the horizon, the death wish of the middle class was doing everyone in. A lord of the language, Auden left England, that country where no one was well, and journeyed to demotic America. Here in the Forties, under the pressures of reconversion, he battled with the insoluble metaphors of crisis-theology, the failure of historicism, the futility of progress. By the Popular Front mentality he was written off as a defector from the utopian ideal. By the neo-conservative he was welcomed as an analyst of utopian error. Controversy swelled; then in the Fifties it floated serenely away. Always more or less beyond any one school, ideological considerations of Auden’s career eventually lapsed; they became irrelevant or démodé. It is generally agreed he has produced the most pleasing, certainly the most consistently experimental, and at the same time, the most perplexing body of work of any poet around, so much so that reading Auden from beginning to end is to be continually plunged into delight and despair; for, returning to Eliot’s remark, reading Auden is ultimately to question the “sincerity” of practically everything he has said.

As the poets have mournfully sung,
death takes the innocent young, The rolling-in-money, The screamingly-funny,
And those who are very well hung.

Auden is serious. Auden is seriously unserious. Auden is everyone’s darling. Who but Auden would have chosen to illustrate a Kierkegaardian indictment in the form of a Mother Goose lullaby, in which the punch line is a pun on gay slang, and then tossed the whole thing off in the twinkling of an eye? And who but Auden could have succeeded? His tours de force are fantastic, his eccentricity proverbial, his favorite adjective is “silly,” and his audacity inimitable. Auden is the romanticist who is also the anti-romantic, the domish lecturer now and then parading as a dowager gossip, the indefatigable enfant gâté, and the profound moralist. As a prosodist, everyone could learn from him and just about everyone has. Auden revivified the ballade, the sestina, the villanelle, the rondeau. He gave us the octo-syllabic couplets of New Year Letter, the alliterative honky-tonk splendors of a “Baroque Eclogue.” In the Collected Poetry (the 1945 edition), any one of his titles might offer a characteristic subrosa mockery: “Which Side Am I Supposed To Be On?,” “Venus Will Now Say A Few Words.” Auden’s strategy has made use of allegorical indirection leading to unexpected encounters, disturbing reversals: Aesopian aphorisms and Christian didacticism, topical allusions under sub specie aeternitatis, and amidst the epigrammatical glitter, the menacing smile. Auden’s vantage point is almost always the mirror-image, humanity’s double nature, the stylist’s double-entendre. He developed an unmistakable mise-en-scène, studded with sexual guilt as in Freud, social alienation as in Marx, anxiety as in Kierkegaard. On the Audenesque landscape we all “lie apart like epochs from each other,” we are full of greed and hug our “sorrow like a plot of land”; we have “faces safe like houses,” and the flesh is wretched: “After the kiss comes the impulse to throttle.” There are everlasting contradictions, recurring words: left and right, distress and bless, dumb and foretell, love and hate. The representative of daisy-time in a doomsday world, Auden is that most peculiar of modern figures, the culture hero of the intelligentsia, the self-critical “I,” the narcissist of self-awareness.

One must, of course, never take a narcissist at face value, especially if his perennial theme is the Fall of Man, and, moreover, if all his variations on it are, in one form or another, programmatic condemnations of narcissism. Nevertheless, between Auden’s sense and his sensibility, between what he says and how he says it, lies a great gulf. To some, no doubt, Auden is the playboy of the mysterium tremendum, who knows only too well we are unable

To conceive a god whose temper-tantrums are moral
And not to be pacified by a clever line
Or a good lay.

He is the solipsist at Mass: “…now each of us/Prays to an image of his image of himself.” His very belief in God might seem a foreign investment, Pascal’s wager in a Swiss bank, while his belief in the self is equally tantalizing:


…although there’s a person we know all about
Still bearing our name and loving himself as before
That person has become a fiction.

Essentially for Auden, life is a sort of “fiction,” a holy absurdity, redeemed at varying stages through the Imagination, the Intellect, and in deep but thoroughly idiosyncratic fashion, through Faith. Forever assuming opposing attitudes simultaneously, bemusedly drifting with the sacred and profane, Auden’s “faith” remains a constant puzzle. Perhaps it is best understood in a structural sense, as a love of order and control. “O Thou who lovest, set its love in order.”

Certainly it is not without interest that we find him calling poetry a contraption, civilization a pastiche, and cataloguing la condition humaine as a of hypochondriacal symptoms, neurotic disguises. Myths, folktales, parables, dreams—the forms are many, the content pointedly paradoxical, and the referential apparatus immense: theology, philology, psychology, philosophy. However, if Auden’s mind is locked in the library, the temperament, even the “message,” is more than a little operatic.

So I wish you first a Sense of theatre; only
Those who love illusion And know it will go far:
Otherwise we spend our Lives in a confusion
Of what we say and do with Who we really are.

Epistemological merry-go-rounds like that are common. Auden indeed insists that the play’s the thing, but through it we catch the existentential conscience, and on both sides of the footlights. For the actor must never forget that he is acting, and the audience must always remember where it is sitting. Role-playing works both ways. Art is the “luck of verbal playing.” And Truth is the “knowing that we know we lie.”

In Auden’s brilliant oratorio, For the Time Being [1944] Simeon mediates on the Incarnation, discovering the inexplicable I AM henceforth becoming the comprehensible THOU ART. Freedom is the recognition of necessity, and through Christ we are “conscious of our Necessity as our freedom to be tempted, and of Freedom as our necessity to have faith.” From Spinoza we go to Kafka, St. Joseph as Joseph K., the bugged baffled little man, the “cuckold” (“Mary may be pure/But Joseph, are you sure?“). His lesson:

The Exceptional is always usual And the Usual exceptional.
To choose what is difficult all one’s days
As if it were easy, that is faith.

Finally Herod, the bureaucratic boob, the epicurean rationalist. He “wants everyone to be happy,” but History is breathing down his neck. He arranges the slaughter of the Innocents.

In “The Sea and the Mirror,” one of Auden’s most striking achievements, we have another triad. Here the personifications are Ariel as Muse, Prospero as Author, Caliban, master of ceremonies. Prospero connects childhood with magic, and magic is “the power to enchant/That comes from disillusion.” He frees Ariel, and sets free his former self; he leaves the aesthetic plane for the ethical one. He wonders: “Can I learn to suffer/Without saying something ironic or funny/On suffering?” As is usual with Auden the question is left somewhere in the stratosphere, except that there is the possibility Prospero in his dotage may be able to distinguish between “moon-shine and daylight,” which may or may not be another “playful hypothesis.” Then in an extraordinary prose sequence—Shakespearian asides, Jamesian accents—Caliban addresses the audience, juggling the pleasure principle and the reality principle, amusingly itemizing alternatives which cancel each other out, and summing up with full bravura mystification the triple dilemma: man, creation, God.

…our shame, our fear, our incorrigible staginess, all wish and no resolve, are still, and more intensely than ever, all we have: only now it is not in spite of them but with them that we are blessed by that Wholly Other Life…it is just here, among the ruins and the bones, that we may rejoice in the perfected Work which is not ours.

In the Auden canon, Caliban’s address looks backwards and forwards, it is at once both a valedictory speech and a rite of passage.

I think it can be said, schematizing quickly, that the principal Audenesque polarities, whether as described in his prose works. The Enchafèd Flood and The Dyer’s Hand, or as they occur in the poetry generally, revolve around the Just City and the False City, Eros and Agape, Kairos and Logos. The just City is an analogue to the heavenly one, the resolution of opposites; the False City is the mess before us. On earth, dewy-eyed humanists and nagging demonics boringly come to blows, while man sinks in the mass. Industrial idolatry results in statistics, and we have crowds, not communities. Eros is false consciousness, so to speak, a throwback to the pagan age. “The cannibalism it practices is a symbol of self-love, of treating one’s neighbor as existing solely for one’s own advantage.” Christian consciousness, conversely, is post-Edenic wisdom:


For the error bred in the bone …Craves what it cannot have Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

Salvation lies in Agape, the mutual forgiveness of sins, a gathering together, a learning to “love your crooked neighbor/With your crooked heart.” Kairos and Logos, (the most nebulous of Auden’s terms) I believe, are forms of, respectively, inessential and essential knowledge, the temporal and the eternal. Mediating between everything is the poet and his art, not to intoxicate but to disintoxicate, to show mankind its essential human element; to enumerate each individual’s particular limitations, wherein each must live and “bless what there is for being—which, as the case may be, can seem very much or little.”

Auden’s Weltanschauung, then is a mixture of the traditional and the improvvisatore, the Biblical and the Arcadian; The Arcadian posture may appear irreverent when it is most reverential. As in As You Like It, Auden acknowledges that the truest poetry is the most feigning. He believes we have two faces, that given us at birth, and that which we seek or should seek to become. The dualism has ecclesiastical extensions, for the vanitas vanitatum of the Old Testament always makes it difficult for the glad tidings to be heard, or if heard to be understood, or if understood to be obeyed. The past is always with us, but man never learns. The best definition of man, Auden once said, was that of “the ungrateful biped.” Auden’s early associational logic, the dramatic images and clipped syntax, gave way to the later speculative mode, the essayistic mosaics, those discursive poems so prevalent in the late Forties and thereafter. Artifice and ambiguity have been constant throughout, though transmuted from the purely musical or symbolic levels to the more recent neo-classic “ornamentation of questions and answers” cast in the form of riddles, along with the advocation of Bardic courses in “mathematics, natural history, geology, meteorology, mythology, liturgics, cooking.” Fortunately, such ripples of flippancy can lead to oceanic resonance. In The Shield of Achilles, for instance, Thetis looking over the shoulder of Hephaestos sees not pastoral antiquity but an urban sprawl, and soon one of Auden’s most persistent juxtapositions beautifully unfolds:

A crowd of ordinary decent folk
Watched from without and neither moved nor spoke
As three pale figures were led forth and bound
To three posts driven upright in the ground.

The mass and majesty of this world, all
That carries weight and always weighs the same
Lay in the hands of others; they were small
And could not hope for help and no help came…

That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept.
Or one could weep because another wept.

About the House, Auden’s latest collection, divides two ways: a heterogeneous group of poems in one section, in the other a sequence. The latter, called “Thanksgiving for a Habitat” and centered on Auden’s Austrian farm, is the third in a remarkable series of cycle-poems, begun a decade ago with “Horae Canonicae,” seven Good Friday meditations, and followed by “Bucolics,” a celebration of the natural world. Technically, Auden’s skill is as incredible as ever: the metrics occasionally syllabic, sometimes oddly rambling à la Williams, sometimes formal (quatrains etc.); the rhyme schemes fluent: regular, internal, dispersed. There are quaint “touches” of Graves and Goethe, even of Hammarskjold (Auden co-translated Markings). The tone moves from the rickety benevolent to the whimsically ironic; the primary intent is one of paying “homage by naming,” affirming the everyday event, the common weal:

I, a transplant
from overseas, at last am dominant
over three acres and a blooming
conurbation of country lives… a toft-and-croft
where I needn’t, ever, be at home to
those I am not at home with…

The language generously reflects Auden’s current mode: “the drab, sober truthfulness of prose” combined with a “uniqueness of expression.” Thus in Auden’s psalm to the john

…to start the morning With a satisfactory
Dump is a good omen All our adult days

there follows a novel elaboration of the excremental theme re Luther, Rodin, Freud, Swift, Augustine. The downstairs cellar, the upstairs attic, the living room and the kitchen, the bath and the overnight guest—each of these tart, elder statesman pieces is prodigiously composed, by turns opulent, stoical, warm, the comments spoofingly sophisticated (Gluttony is one of the Seven Deadly but “surely those in whose creed/God is edible may call a fine/omelette a Christian deed“) or shrewdly sympathetic (“Should you have troubles/ (pets will die,/Lovers are always behaving badly)…We shall not be nosey“). “Nemorivagrant,” “dowly,” “banausics,” “baldachined”—Auden’s penchant for the unabridged O.E.D. suggests every now and then the babblings of a bibliophilistic brook; and there are one or two moments of water treading around Cape Hatteras (“Is this a milieu where I must/How grahamgreeneish! How infra dig!/Snatch from the bottle in my bag/An analeptic swig?“).

Friendships are nostalgically evoked, most poignantly in “The Cave of Making,” a fine work dedicated to the memory of Louis MacNeice. Religious observances have light, latitudinarian interludes (“The Holy Ghost/does not abhor a golfer’s jargon…the cadences even/of my own little Anglo-American/musico-literary set“), as well as off-the-cuff gravity (“The God of Love/Will never withdraw our right/ To grief and infamy.”) While Auden’s concerns with the human character—the Protestant “I” and the Catholic “We,” or the master/servant, ego/self relation—embody a ruminative, faintly melancholic cynicism:

Their daydreams were the same:
A blood brother, a comrade-in-arms,
Plus sex.

So were their natures
Both wish to play Officer,
Neither Other Ranks.

Though always fascinating in phrase or insight, the lasting impression is a bit of a blur—a bookish sagacity, a comfy, civilized catechism, an idyllic withdrawal within a charmed circle. It is not a volume to excite the young.

Auden’s nature, It seems to me, is fundamentally androgynous: the disciplined intellect, authoritative, austere; and the fluctuating will, that almost feminine frivolity, or dying swan lyricism. Auden is less at home with “Our lost dad, Our colossal Father,” than with Dame Kind, “our Mum.” For Auden, only the saint is totally there, but Heaven is probably “full of people you don’t like,” and

a god…would be too odd
to talk to…a bore, for the funniest
mortals and the kindest are those who are most aware
of the baffle of being…believe a laugh is less
heartless than tears, that a hostess
prefers it.

Like all major figures Auden has survived his generation: Spender, Day Lewis, MacNeice, Isherwood and Prokosch, Odets and Saroyan, Steinbeck and Farrell—all dead or virtually defunct, frozen assets of a forgotten era. And like all major poets Auden has created his tone, his mark. Who could not recognize anything of his even if submitted anonymously? The Yeatsian, the Eliotic, the Audenesque. Yet he has never been the equal of Eliot or Yeats, though his innate talent was always potentially larger. He has given us poems unexcelled in our time for ingenuity, gusto, delight. But he has steadfastly avoided greatness, or what one would consider the conditions of greatness: some rock-bottom penitential honesty, some inner apocalypse. Donne and Hopkins, he has notably said, make him uneasy.

…about catastrophe or how to behave in one
I know nothing, except what every- one knows—if there when Grace dances, I should dance.

The modesty, the humility is undeniable, but is it the Grace of God Auden truly speaks of, or merely the grace of the solitary performer? Certainly Auden would agree with Pascal: Il faut parier. Cela n’est pas volontaire: vous êtes embarqué. You must bet. You have no choice: you are in the game. And certainly time after time Auden has spoken of just such personal responsibility; he has inveighed against Promethean pride and narcissistic regression. Yet he always wears a mask, and when he lets one fall, it is only to put on another. He enchants to disenchant, “to break the spell of our self-enchantment,” yet in his very deliberate impersonality, he can be the most perverse, self-conscious, even the most self-regarding of poets. Man, he says, is “the only creature ever made who fakes”; therefore one must trick his lying nature into saying “That love, or truth in any serious sense/Like Orthodoxy, is a reticence.” All these generalizing concepts, oracular utterances: they offer change amidst permanence, multiple possibilities and clock-work regularity. But what “truth-telling,” what revelations? Auden continually re-evaluates, rearranges the past and the present, himself and others; while so much of his extraordinary complexity rests (can it be denied?) on the commonplace. He has scorned the “testamentary,” “the poet’s insufferable little self” is a snare and a self-deception; yet his own persona has often been full of romantic elusiveness, private quirks, winks. Immensely prolific, Auden has built a magnificent mountain range, but no Everest; he has preferred “to picnic on the lower slopes,” and that picnicking he has implied, in more than one way, is all that the poet can hope for in our unheroic age. Surely some dreadfully wrong-headed diffidence is here, some waste, some evasion. It has always haunted me reading Auden’s poems, and now, apparently, it haunts the poet himself:

You hope, yes, your books will excuse you,
save you from hell: nevertheless,
without looking sad, without in any way
seeming to blame (He doesn’t need to,
knowing well what a lover of art
like yourself pays heed to), God may reduce you
on Judgment Day to tears of shame,
reciting by heart the poems you would
have written, had your life been good.

This Issue

August 5, 1965