This capacious, cautious, splendid biography commences with its author’s caveat: “It is not a book of literary criticism.” It ably shows how certain writings developed from instances of a lifetime. “I hope I have also managed to convey my own huge enthusiasm for his poetry.” Here Carpenter triumphs where others have been so drawn to anecdote or exegesis that poetry (and, importantly, prose) seems diminished. What he has not touched, Edward Mendelson’s Early Auden fully provides, as has been noted here before.1
Carpenter’s is the first biography to enjoy free access to a wide range of personal correspondence, unpublished manuscripts, family and personal memoirs. His accomplishment is awesome in accounting for the breath and breadth of an important contemporary poet. Prior attention has been useful for explication or useless as random gossip. Here we have days and nights spent in their inspiriting diversity and complexity. All that is perhaps lacking is a sense of fun and games which infused the speaking maker. Auden’s irony and sympathy, his magical influence over a band of adoring and admonished subalterns are well shown, but his mortal tone is impossible to recover.
Auden was one of the few influential intellectuals of his day who did not try to elevate his errors into some sort of philosophical system. He is to be read, like most energetic thinkers at their different moments, as inconsistent, with the proviso that every apparent mutation was prefaced by scrupulous self-questioning in which ambiguity in each step was expunged. As his life-time friend Professor E.R. Dodds explained:
The ruthless treatment of his own past work which recent critics have observed and deplored was no new thing in Wystan; it is the price his readers have to pay for the companionship of a receptive mind that perpetually rejudged the past in the changing light of the present.2
Auden’s early repudiation of political flirtation and of a dazzling idiosyncratic rhetoric which he felt had become formularized, and the shifts in his world-view, which abrasion by experience of the world as it is came to seem to him naïve, were not exactly ambiguous. Ultimately, his attitudes became unequivocal and unwavering, as self-discipline and self-awareness led to exile, alienation, and discovery—which few other of our artists had the wit, courage, or extremity to risk. His apologia was not couched in terms of the heroic, self-sorrowful confessional:
I can’t think what my It had on Its mind
To give me flat feet and a big behind.3
And the frowned-on changes, those metamorphoses which led Early to Middle to Late Auden, transforming helmeted airman to comfy Austrian householder, is what Humphrey Carpenter clearly details. This speaks volumes for the personal responsibility of a modern biographer; Auden’s friends and lovers have felt free to confide in Carpenter, most of them without let or hindrance, and he responded with a generosity sparing nothing save grossness. Auden the man, in his appetites, needs, satisfactions, or lack of them, is here, and from such just and vivid documentation of tastes and talents we comprehend the poetry from its wellsprings as never before. This book does not aim to, nor can it “tell everything,” but each and everything related in depth and dignity may go far to convince those who misprize Auden’s homogeneity in its largest sense to extend the accidental limits of their partial information. It has been suggested that, if Auden had been mainly heterosexual, Carpenter would not have made so much of his particular behavior. Auden himself was scrupulous about the avoidance of personal gender in every one of his lyrics.
Auden’s reputation has survived the fever-chart of early renown and posthumous abeyance. Prematurely and imprecisely hailed as paladin of a greedy “left,” he discovered for himself in Spanish and Chinese civil warfare how the epigones of Marx and Trotsky could be culpable like everyone else. Thus, when he left Britain, he would be accused of double infamy, as lapsed comrade of a “working class” and as traitor to his native heath. It is conveniently ignored that as early as Paid On Both Sides (1928), or The Ascent of F6 (1936), with their clinical diagnosis of England in decline, he laid bare to an avid elite of “liberal” readers that his homeland in its accelerating lack of genuine possibility was no home for him. By 1937 he had sensed the situation which Mrs. Thatcher now superintends.
The hero of F6, named Ransom, was drawn from the exploitable theatricality of Lawrence of Arabia and George Mallory, the intrepid climber who vanished on Everest. “Mr. and Mrs. A,” Auden’s tragic chorus, at the end of the first act proclaim a starved nation’s alarmed insistence:
Mrs. A: I have dreamed of a threadbare barnstorming actor, and he was a national symbol.
Mr. A: England’s honour is covered with rust.
Mrs. A: Ransom must beat them! He must! He must!
Mr. A: Or England falls. She has had her hour. And now must decline to a second-class power.
In his gran refuito,4 his relinquishment of Yorkshire and Cumberland, from his de-self-centered exile, he composed a paysage moralisé from Manhattan to the Mezzogiorno to rural Austria. The further the exile, the greater his communion. In an excellent essay on Auden’s and Louis MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland (1937), the poet Tom Paulin analyzes a view of great nature in contrast to Wordsworth’s romantic landscape.
Parnassus must be colonised and tamed deliberately changing it from a grim empty peak above a lake to the public park with fountains, cafés and ice-cream vans. The dominating mountain must be dominated and made social, humanist and democratic.5
It is the various attitudes toward domination, colonization, democratization that two generations of critics, commencing with F.R. Leavis, have found inconsistent or repellent. This was aroused by the lapidary firmness of Auden’s compact judgment, early and late, which had the weight and eloquence to nominate a year, a season, an age, as if by some future unborn historian. What one may question in Carpenter’s superlative biography is a slighting of two prime factors in the poet’s range and practice, discussed in Professor Mendelson’s Early Auden: intellectual energy and curiosity, together with an insistent morality. Auden’s omnivorous, attentive prowling in language, science, philosophy, public affairs, literature, and music surpass any other poet’s’ of his epoch. To be sure there are academicians everywhere who seize on the suburbs of the imagination to make them their own, and in so doing contribute worthy books. But flipping through catalogues of university presses in their dissertational overkill of Shakespeare, Melville, Henry James, one finds little to compare with Auden’s chilling conclusions on Iago in “The Dyer’s Hand” or Prospero in “The Sea and the Mirror,” or with the capital elegies on Melville, Yeats, Freud, and James.
As for morality, its inference, or practice, Carpenter spends little scrutiny on Auden’s ideas other than on him as aphorist. But everything Auden wrote, taught, or preached was within the frame of a rigorous morality. That is, in every facet of his unlimited working he considered the obligation of the self in action relative to the fair or ugly behavior of others—in society, its history, climate—toward individual artists and as a whole. No stranger to the singular or fanciful, he included in his prayers for romanticizing poets a remission of sins for those whose gift withered from the anemia of obsessive self-preoccupation. And it was the novelists’ craft and power that he praised above the versifier:
Encased in talent like a uniform,
The rank of every poet is well known;
They can amaze us like a thunder- storm,
Or die so young, or live for years alone….
But the deviser of fictions must be otherwise:
For, to achieve his lightest wish, he must
Become the whole of boredom, subject to
Vulgar complaints like love, among the Just
Be just, among the Filthy filthy too,
And in his own weak person, if he can
Dully put up with all the wrongs of Man.
[“The Novelist,” 1938]
Auden’s activated conscience concerning itself and his neighbors’ was as adept and energetic as formal prosody; it is consciousness of self as an other which gravely informs his verse—light, dramatic, trivial, ironic, importunate, or lyrical.
Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses, force us to choose second thoughts, free from the fetters of Self.
Who was the last English professional poet with Auden’s scope, verbal control, or luxury in quotable phrases, the mastery in an apostolic succession of popular poetics? Answer is easy: a master of technics—mechanical, material, and metrical; a seer of international apprehension; scholar of Bible and hymnal, one also who used much personal suffering to “in the prison of his days / teach the free man how to praise.” Who he? Rudyard Kipling.
With him, Auden shared a vital historicity which enabled both to endow an immediate present with the enriching reference of the past. In a sense, everything has already happened in time past, but the ever-ready poet spotlights those distinctions whose linkage intensifies surprising difference. Auden said that to the ignorant the past is simultaneous. Disdain of the past as mere repetition or binding irrelevance is one of the worst side effects of “modern” culture.
What is it that makes Kipling so extraordinary? Is it not that while virtually every other European writer since the fall of the Roman Empire has felt that the dangers threatening civilization came from inside that civilization (or from inside the individual consciousness), Kipling is obsessed by a sense of dangers threatening from outside?
Others have been concerned with the corruptions of the big city, the ennui of the cultured mind; some sought a remedy in a return to Nature, to childhood, to Classical Antiquity; others looked forward to a brighter future of liberty, equality, and fraternity: they called on the powers of the subconscious, or prayed for the grace of God to inrupt and save their souls; they called on the oppressed to arise and save the world. In Kipling there is none of this, no nostalgia for a Golden Age, no belief in Progress. For him civilization (and consciousness) is a little citadel of light surrounded by a great darkness full of malignant forces and only maintained through the centuries by everlasting vigilance, will-power and self-sacrifice.6
Auden’s attitude toward the treasure in history invested his accomplishments in metric; there was hardly an antique measure which he did not use, alter, or extend with virtuosity. The more difficult the game of counting syllables or spanning stress, the more amusing the play of words. In our colleges, courses in modern poetry generally disdain sportive verse in favor of trying to extract something lived and hence presumably unique or “creative” from wholly undeveloped or prematurely locked personalities. Individual and accidental sensibility substitutes for experience; what by chance has happened to me is my total gift. Ignorance of prosodic possibility, which for many centuries empowered English verse, over the last fifty years has caused the identical deterioration of music without melody, painting without portraiture, and architecture without ornament.
When verse is “free,” when a line is terminated by the typewriter’s signal, a criterion of spontaneity proliferates into the helplessly prolix. With meter, as with rhyme, when handled by genial masters like Milton, Hopkins, Hardy, Kipling, and Auden, currents of sonorous energy swell the conduits of echoing utterance. Then words avoid a blur, and even when read rather than spoken, there is a residue of incandescent speech. Here are examples of antisolipsist verse in which personal accents are fired by dramatic objectivity:
Lord, Thou has made this world below the shadow of a dream
An’ taught by time, I tak’ it so—exceptin’ always Steam.
From coupler-flange to spindle- guide I see Thy Hand, O God—
Predestination in the stride o’ yon connectin’-rod.
John Calvin might ha’ forged the same—enorrmous, certain, slow—
Ay, wrought it in the furnace- flame—my “Institutio.”
[“McAndrew’s Hymn,” Kipling 1893]
Yes, these are the dog-days, For- tunatus: The heather lies limp and dead On the mountain, the baltering7
torrent Shrunk to a soodling thread;
Rusty the spears of the legion, un- shaven its captain, Vacant the scholar’s brain Under his great hat, Drug though She may, the Sybil utters
A gush of table-chat.
And you yourself with a head-cold and upset stomach, Lying in bed till noon, Your bills unpaid, your much ad- vertised Epic not yet begun,
Are a sufferer too. All day, you tell us, you wish Some earthquake would aston- ish, Or the wind of the Com- forter’s wing Unlock the prisons and translate The slipshod gathering….
[“Under Sirius,” Auden 1949]
If, or when, such models may be recommended to tutees in modern poetry, professor must explain that John Calvin (1509-1564) was a Swiss reforming priest whose “Institutes of the Christian Religion” (1535) are a keystone of Protestant hermeneutics, rock of the Church of Scotland, on whose craggy faith Kipling’s ship’s-engineer was anchored, justifying divinity and dynamo. Venantius Fortunatus (ca. AD 530-600) was Roman Gaul’s last Latin poet, “a charming bon viveur and writer of occasional verse, who took holy orders in later life,” as John Fuller’s invaluable Reader’s Guide to W.H. Auden (1970) tells us. A tone of cheerful self-questioning holds forth, under Sirius the dog-star, at once on a slackening of poetry, the decline of Rome, and our own postwar Western world. Ransacking word-books, Auden manufactured no Jabberwocky. He did not intend to preside over the dissolution of the English vocabulary, but his odd findings were appropriate in sonority and sense.
In 1949, Professor Dodds was teaching in California, and on his way back to the Regius chair at Oxford he paid
a happy visit to Wystan Auden in his ramshackle down-town flat in New York where I met his American friends and began to understand better the complex influences which seemed so sharply to separate the new Wystan from the old, yet without obliterating their unique and endearing identity.
Auden’s affirmation by settling in Manhattan was neither abdication nor flight; he refused to become the bard a nation needed. Kipling evaded knighthood and the laureate’s post; he accepted the Order of Merit, as had Henry James in his rejection of American citizenship when he condemned Woodrow Wilson for being “too proud to fight.” Kipling in his obscured maturity exiled himself to Tudor Sussex and in ballads glorified the whole myth of England. Auden accepted the King’s Medal for Poetry and left for the United States, free of cliques that claimed him for the forced feeding of a personality cult. Benjamin Britten, returning from Long Island to Aldeburgh, fulfilled the role circumstance demanded, achieving a national reputation along with Gustav Holst, Frederick Delius, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Auden, liberated from parochial applause, made what questions in Parliament proposed was a coward’s choice. With William Hogarth as his monitory daemon, he flew above early borders and, for an unlimited international standard repertory, followed The Rake’s Progress with Igor Stravinsky.8
Auden was one of the few English poets since the Elizabethans who enjoyed collaboration. He worked brilliantly and continually with Chester Kallman; this partnership was real, by no means as one-sided as many assumed. He worked closely with Isherwood, Bertolt Brecht, Louis MacNeice, James Stern, and with the musicians Stravinsky, Britten, Hans Werner Henze, Nicolas Nabokov, and Noah Greenberg. He thought that dual authorship produced a third partner. Like Stravinsky, he loved to be handed tight conditions of tone and format for paid jobs. In the broadest terms, he professed letters, and it was characteristic of him that, of all his writing, he was proudest of the Jacobean prose in Caliban’s extended address to the audience in “The Sea and the Mirror” (For the Time Being, 1944). And as a professional, he had great respect for the expertise of others. His obiter dicta may be read as litigation against guardians of Eng. Lit.:
When I find myself in the company of scientists, I feel like a shabby curate who has strayed by mistake into a drawing room full of dukes….
[“The Poet and the City” (The Dyer’s Hand, 1962)]
How happy the lot of the mathematician! He is judged solely by his peers, and the standard is so high that no colleague or rival can ever win a reputation he does not deserve.
[“Writing” (The Dyer’s Hand)]
In 1947 Auden lectured on Cervantes, causing raised eyebrows at Harvard when he confessed he couldn’t claim to have read every page of Don Quixote. However, he emphasized a single incident seldom noted by commentators. In its final chapters, the man from La Mancha recaptures sanity, but none of his neighbors wants him sane. He should stay crazy, to provide them with more amusement. They beg him to become once again the mad simpleton—for their sake. But, as a Christian knight, he knows that he diminishes the rabble by serving their sport. Truths he tells, having passed from delusion to reality, are more beneficial than his extravagances. A poet knew exactly how the don felt. English (and some Americans) complain that an early rocket fizzled in something approaching senility. They are loath to realize that latterly he was offering, if they troubled to read, speech deeper, wiser, finally even more memorable, than much from his winning and unreckoning youth. Under the deliberately disquieting mask of comfyness and coziness, there is the unfashionable repudiation of rhetorical hedonism, an affirmation of solitary consolation with no self-pity, the conscience of self-sufficiency.
The Cervantes lecture was by way of a test toward nomination to an eminent series endowed as the Charles Eliot Norton Chair of Poetry, filled by T.S. Eliot, Stravinsky, e.e. cummings, Ben Shahn, and others. In 1946 Auden had been commissioned by Harvard’s chapter of Phi Beta Kappa to indite “Under Which Lyre” (A Reactionary Tract for the Times). Herein he proffered “an Hermetic decalogue,” admonishing ex-GIs of their paramilitary moral futures. His First Commandment:
Thou shalt not do as the dean pleases,
Thou shalt not write thy doctor’s thesis On education,
Thou shalt not worship projects nor
Shalt thou or thine bow down before Administration.
Harvard rarely fails to save itself from hazard and is expert in posthumous amends. Fifteen years later, Auden was invited to perform the Norton lectures; he was otherwise occupied. The academic establishment was ever chary of Auden’s capacity to arouse students over the heads of tenured masters. Wrath is still vouchsafed at his position or popularity. This is often launched against his “ideas,” his lack of logic, change of mind, political ineptitude, his status as a cult figure. He is blamed as thinker, a man of faulty opinions; the poet is minor. Yet these envious and disgruntled sages, stewards of passive youth, extol or forgive the years Yeats spent on astrology or psychic research, Pound’s manic obscenities, and Stevens’s mandarin self-satisfaction. University occupants in their eunuch rivalries are economical in their attention to tutelage. But Auden’s employment was not for the undertakings of proprietary professors, but for those inquisitive pupils who were worried or wearied by the somnolent formulae of their expensive mentors.
Auden was, and is, a wizard teacher for those whose curiosity and energy open themselves to quaint method. Carpenter deftly describes his practice in suggestive dislocation of received ideas which teased students into thinking instead of allowing them to doze through an even flow of comestible opinion. Nervousness about cash and growing prestige lodged him in a dozen schools; apprehensive faculties audited his whimsical collocations and mandatory cocktails. He was not one to subside in tenure but grabbed short jobs as much to observe new places and people as to harangue complacent post-adolescents. Yet recipes for the apprenticeship of aspirant poets, compact in The Dyer’s Hand, and embedded in the totality of his several didactic anthologies and critical prose, can serve as among the fullest, most empirical guides to a younger generation. Some among it may find themselves the heirs of luck, alive and kicking at a moment of historical release. The more than half a century hiatus in the reversal of traditional practice in music, architecture, and dance begins to be terminated. Solipsism in the arts fades in its minimality, and if so far we have been startled by few flaming demonstrations, the decks, at least, are being cleared. In this puzzling and disturbing process two colleagues, Auden and Stravinsky, showed how a present usage of the past, quite apart from idiosyncracy, added to standard repertories wherein most recent pioneers have conspicuously failed.
Often we seem too much in a hurry to adopt pervading eschatology as an evasion from the resolution of a workable optimism. If there seemed next to no real possibility for the expansion of the imaginative potential in Europe, Auden embraced the “ragbag” of American democracy as an only available choice. It was neither easily faced nor accepted, but with sobering admonition:
…the greater the equality of opportunity in a society becomes, the more obvious becomes the inequality of the talent and character among individuals, and the more bitter and personal it must be to fail, particularly for those who have some talent but not enough to win them second or third place.9
Auden’s impatience with self-indulgence, either lyric or behavioral, which in his personal idiom was “naughtiness,” was a crushing put-down, mildly but heavily cruel, unkindly to be kind. His irritation at suicide, salvation by failure, was not compassionately accepted as the solipsist’s triumphant blackmail. Humphrey Carpenter was perhaps overly polite in omitting Auden’s epitaph on the impetuous exit of one of his most exacerbated critics. Randall Jarrell, he said, “might, at least, have thought of the truck driver.”
Auden’s self-confidence, his constant calibration of the quality of his own gift, was certainly, as he believed, God-given. He might have become a mining engineer or an Anglican bishop. At the age of fifteen he voluntarily joined his school’s Officer Training Corps. At the time, a young friend, by chance, suggested a true vocation:
Kicking a little stone, he turned to me And said, “Tell me, do you write poetry?”
I never had, and said so, but I knew
That very moment what I wished to do.10
Hopkins, the secret Jesuit innovator of sprung rhythm, wrote his confidant, Robert Bridges, the laureate:
What are works of art for? to educate, to be standards…. We must try then to be known, aim at it, take means to it. And this without puffing in the process or pride in the success…. Besides, we are Englishmen. A great work by an Englishman is like a great battle won by England.11
In the winter of 1964, Auden summarized his reply to a symposium devoted to various interpretations of his poem, “A Change of Air,” which was conducted by the Kenyon Review:
Whatever else it may or may not be, I want every poem I write to be a hymn in praise of the English language: hence my fascination with certain speech rhythms which can only occur in an uninflected language rich in monosyllables, my fondness for peculiar words with no equivalents in other tongues, and my deliberate avoidance of that kind of visual imagery which has no basis in verbal experience and can therefore be translated without loss.
Wondrous and beautiful it is that now, hardly a decade after death, the audience he hoped for has found him; that careful young critics like Carpenter and Mendelson have mapped what he was and meant. Carpenter quotes an early unpublished poem, written before Auden left Gresham’s School, which can be read as alternative to the black and gold marble script in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey:
That as thou goest through life
Tired men may hear thy words and find strength in them.
December 17, 1981
Stuart Hampshire, “The Gambler’s Throw,” NYR, Aug. 13, 1981, p. 3. ↩
E.R. Dodds, Missing Persons: An Autobiography (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 123. ↩
Letters from Iceland, 1937, p. 202. ↩
Inferno, III, 61. ↩
The Nineteen Thirties: A Challenge to Orthodoxy, edited by John Lucas (Barnes & Noble, 1978). ↩
“The Poet of the Encirclement,” Forewords and Afterwords (Random House, 1973), p. 352. ↩
Auden never “invented” words. From the OED: Baltering: to wallow, welter, tumble. Soodling: to walk slow in a leisurely manner; to stroll; saunter. ↩
In 1978-1979, The Rake’s Progress was in repertory in England, France, Germany, Sweden, South Africa, and the United States. ↩
“Interlude: [Nathanael] West’s Disease,” The Dyer’s Hand, p. 245. ↩
Letter to Lord Byron, Part IV, September 1936. ↩
Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J., Letters to Robert Bridges, Cxxxvi (1888). ↩