Goodbye to Britain

The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s

by Samuel Hynes
Viking, 430 pp., $12.50

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

Marx predicted that when the class war reached its Armageddon, there would be defections to the proletariat from the enemy side. The ruling class would crumble, and “a small part” of it would break away “to make common cause with the revolutionary class, the class which holds the future in its hands.” That small part duly broke away, and could look and feel like the blessed remnant that religion had promised to save from the burning: it was now on the right side of the “justice” which revolution—in the manner of a religion—had undertaken to dispense. Samuel Hynes has written a book about a small part of that small part. It is about the writing that was done in England, during the 1930s, by half a dozen men who could be considered, and who could sometimes consider themselves, defectors of the sort that Marx had in mind.

During these years, a generation of English public-schoolboys, who had been expected to do their duty as the nation’s leaders, gave their hearts to England’s depressed working class, and to the dictatorial working class of Russia, where, in the words of Edward Upward, who promised to be the English Kafka, “history” had gone to live with those who “are not content to suppress misery in their minds but are going to destroy the more obvious material causes of misery in the world.” Some of the schoolboys took to writing, and, for a while, to performing as “left-wing prigs.” These are the rude words of Christopher Isherwood, who made a further defection at the end of the decade, deserting the Comintern for the Homintern. Isherwood was not alone in leaving the left. Cecil Day Lewis retired to the country and to a translation of the Georgics. The God was failing. A war was beginning which lacked the attractions—for writers, if not for Spaniards—of the Spanish Civil War. In 1940, Cyril Connolly complained: “It is a war which awakens neither Pity nor Hope.” And it was not the Armageddon which Marx had predicted.

The themes and images produced by these “defectors” have retained a good deal of their first exciting freshness. Borders, frontiers, mountains, passes, glaciers, climbers, helmeted airmen keep recurring. So do the truly strong man and the truly weak man. In leaders like D.H. and T.E. Lawrence neurosis and true greatness are seen to coincide. Communist and fascist sentiments are preceded and attended by an undifferentiated longing for leaders. The artist trains a camera eye, blinking the fact of his homosexuality. Auden was the generation’s acknowledged leader—a strong man who knew about weakness, wounds, and who was eventually to know about sin. Samuel Hynes’s account of this subject matter, with its careful treatment of Stephen Spender’s work and of Geoffrey Grigson’s editorial role, is enviably lucid and judicious. We should not suspect that it has been praised by survivors of “the Auden…

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