Man's Place: An Essay on Auden
W.H. Auden as a Social Poet
“For Valéry,” W. H. Auden has remarked, “a poem ought to be a festival of the intellect, that is, a game, but a solemn, ordered, and significant game, and a poet is someone to whom arbitrary difficulties suggest ideas.” For Valéry, and now for Mr. Auden, especially in About the House, City Without Walls, and Epistle to a Godson, books written according to the principle that, whatever life is, poetry is a carnival. The poet begins with language, delighting in the exercise of its possibilities, and he stops short of Mardi gras only by requiring his language to recognize the existence of the primary world in which we live.
The poem makes a secondary world, according to prescriptions as congenial as they are ingenious. In Epistle to a Godson the primary world contains for the most part certain grand maladies of the quotidian: age, loss, grief, loneliness, violence, nuances of damage, bloody-minded monsters at large. The secondary world is still managed with the most charming intention, and a prosody of good humor, good taste, good luck. The dominant tone implies that the quest is now too perilous to be undertaken directly, better wait till morning and the possibility of “cleansed occasions.” Meanwhile the poet writes short, brisk poems, a few smacks administered to the world’s bottom, for its good. There is a lot of grousing, but no harm is meant, the poet is merely telling young people to mind their manners, speak decent English, and wash occasionally.
Mr. Auden has become a crusty old fellow somewhat before his time; by my reckoning he is only sixty-six but he talks, in this book, like something carved on Mount Rushmore. The familiar ghost of T. S. Eliot’s “Little Gidding” disclosed three gifts reserved for age: first, “the cold friction of expiring sense / Without enchantment”; second, “the conscious impotence of rage / At human folly”; and finally, “the rending pain of re-enactment / Of all that you have done, and been.”
Epistle to a Godson takes a milder view of its gifts. There is still a touch of enchantment, there are good friends, there is music. Human folly is inescapable, but Mr. Auden does whatever poetry can to turn the impotence of rage into irony, keeping his temper as sweet as possible. “Our world rapidly worsens”: well, perhaps it does, but I don’t propose to worry too much if the only evidence produced in the poem is the fact that Mr. Auden at Schwechat Flughafen was frisked by a cop for weapons. Methinks he protests too much. As for Eliot’s last gift to the aged, Mr. Auden does not trouble himself too much or spend his spirit fruitlessly re-enacting what he has done or been. He takes Yeats’s line on that, forgives himself a lot, casts out remorse. And rightly so.
Leaving the blues aside, Mr. Auden tells us something of…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.