A good argument could be advanced for allowing this little book to pass unreviewed. It’s trifling in a number of ways, and casts no light of any consequence on its ostensible subject. There is nothing here that will be useful to scholars or biographers of Auden, or to interest readers of the poet’s work. Yet it is a book so quirky in its mean-spiritedness, so touchy in its vanity, so dazzling in its carelessness and irresponsibility, that it commands some interest as a curiosity.
Strictly speaking, the book is not about Auden—or, at the very least, Auden is made to share the stage with two other persons, both of them named Rowse. The first Rowse struts around with huge self-satisfaction, doing his best to eclipse Auden from view of the audience. The second Rowse, apparently invisible to, or unnoticed by, the first, seems to be his own burlesque or parody, inept and clumsy in such obvious ways as to seem like a Shakespearean clown exposing the pretensions of his superiors, as well as revealing all their worst and most unpardonable faults.
It’s rare for an author to present himself in so unfavorable a light, and it must be acknowledged that there was once a time when Rowse did not write this way about himself. His lovely A Cornish Childhood, in which, with a grace and humor that are altogether lacking here, he covers eloquently and at leisure some of the same events, puts them in a humane perspective. But the years appear to have embittered him. His latest book, Friends and Contemporaries (Methuen), exhibits the same biliousness and repeats some of the same slanders to be found in the volume under review. This is puzzling in a man of his accomplishments. He can boast one of the largest and most varied of bibliographies, which would include works on the Churchills, the Elizabethan world in many aspects, Simon Forman (the seventeenth-century physician, astrologer, and lecher, his impressive discovery), Marlowe, Tennyson, Swift, Byron, European history, and, voluminously, on Shakespeare.
On the basis of his Shakespearean studies, to which I shall return, Rowse clearly regards himself as a kind of literary detective, a Sherlock Holmes figure of rare cunning; and when, as now, he directs his attention to Auden, he adopts the same meerschaum and opium hauteurs. After acknowledging that Charles Osborne and Humphrey Carpenter have written what he calls “properly sympathetic” biographies, and commending as “valuable” the collection of essays and homages edited by Stephen Spender under the title of W.H. Auden: A Tribute, he says that by contrast to these works,
What I wish to do is, I hope, more original: to sleuth him in his work. For all Wystan’s failure to catch up with it, I have managed to sleuth William Shakespeare in his, and to reduce the so-called problems or, rather, the confusions that have been made of his life and work, to common sense.
What seems striking and painfully characteristic in these sentences is their breezy self-congratulation, neatly laden with a smack at Auden for not keeping up with Rowse’s important scholarship. And they further reveal that the title of this book is actually a misnomer; Rowse did not know Auden personally very well, and except for the poet’s undergraduate years, and the years before his death when he was in retirement at Oxford, scarcely saw him. So the portrait we are offered is almost wholly extrapolated from Auden’s works.
What emerges is a bag of profoundly mixed feelings, of which the central ones are envy, malice, snobbery, competitiveness, and self-pity, along with a rich blend of arrogance and effrontery. Rowse seems to have to force himself to be generous, and after he has done so seems to repent of it to such a marked extent that he manages to shift directions within the limits of a single sentence. Take, for example, this claim about Auden:
He aroused affection among a great many people, he had a wide cosmopolitan circle of friends, perhaps too many—rather undiscriminating of him.
This graceless practice of bestowing with one hand what is withdrawn by the other, surfaces a number of times in this book and his snobbery, which takes many and unusual forms, is everywhere to be encountered.
Here I am bound to make an unworthy confession: I always held [Auden’s] Third in the Schools against him. That was a naturally donnish attitude, but it was more than that. As a grammar school boy I had worked hard to get about the best First of my year in the History School, which I did not find altogether congenial. I disapproved of all these bright sparks of my (literary) acquaintance who did no work, got Thirds in the Schools, like Connolly, Waugh, Wystan—or got sent down, like Peter Quennell (my opposite number as Eng. Lit. Scholar at Balliol) and John Betjeman….
Auden was a genius, though not a scholar—so the don does not hold his Third in the Schools against him, though he does the Second Class in Eng. Lit. of such Shakespearean “experts” as Wilson Knight and Kenneth Muir….
Quiller Couch [earlier referred to as “my dear old friend”] got his Second in Greats at Oxford, simply through neglecting the History side of the School. His colleague in editing the Cambridge Shakespeare, Dover Wilson, got a Second in the Historical Tripos—and got the Sonnets completely wrong….
Such scattershot fusillades punctuate the text, and sometimes their malice is linked to the habit mentioned above of offering what seems to be praise, only to snatch it back with niggardly second thoughts:
The really remarkable thing about Wystan was that he should have accepted the fact [of homosexuality] about his own nature when he was a schoolboy—quite naturally and rationally, without any fuss. This was very precocious of him, and courageous; of course, he was precocious intellectually and had plenty of courage, though—oddly—the acceptance of what his nature was does not seem to have required much courage in his case.
Such equivocation vitiates the confidence, the dogmatism and assertiveness, that are elsewhere exhibited; and it brings us to a consideration of Rowse’s comments on the subject of sex. On this topic, and more specifically on homosexuality, Rowse’s attitude is strangely mixed, like much else in this book. While nominally tolerant, he also cannot resist the sniggering innuendo, the maiden-aunt top-loftiness, the crude, elbowing hints that belong to the most unapologetic bigot. This is the more peculiar coming as it does from a man whose many books include one called A Study of Homosexuals in History.
I have no patience with the over-inflation of [Thomas Mann’s] sentimental little story, “Death in Venice,” nor with Britten’s wasting his genius on it, we all know why….
In my view private life should be kept private, not brandished in public—too vulgar and undignified. I have never had any sympathy with Wilde’s vulgar Irish exhibitionism, asking for trouble and bringing down untold (and unnecessary) suffering, even death, upon hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Unforgivable….
Isherwood hated Cambridge—fancy anybody hating so beautiful a place, young ass! I met him only once, at Oxford, when he spent an afternoon with me at All Souls; he looked like a spinster governess, immensely neat—unlike the shambling, grubby Wystan—hair parted genteelly down the middle, prissy lips. (He later got a mouth infection; I don’t wonder.)…
Matthew Arnold incurred some disapproval for his condemnation of the Shelley-Byron circle, and their goings-on: “What a lot!” I do not condemn the Auden circle, but I preferred the sedate way of life, the lifestyle, of Eliot, sad as that was (and so was mine)….
They all went whoring (if that is the word for it) after beastly Berlin and Rügen Island, the theatre of the evil-minded Brecht, the ego-mania of Rilke and Thomas Mann, who thought himself not only Goethe but God.
There is a certain careless flair to these obiter dicta about Mann and Wilde and Rilke, meant, we may suppose, to convey a jaunty confidence, but exhibiting the crudest prejudice; and there we behold both Rowses, lime-lit and center-stage. Anyone who can reduce Mann’s “Death in Venice” to a “sentimental little story,” anyone who fails to see that Mann is writing about what he affirms as the sacrifice of personal life that the dedicated artist must make, and fails to see that Tadzio is in fact the youth and life that Aschenbach gave up to art, that death is the first and final figure in the story, that Tadzio and Aschenbach are mere vaporetto stops on the way to it—anyone so blinkered does not inspire confidence that he is equipped to “sleuth” Auden in his works.
And indeed when Rowse confronts a text he gets in his own way and becomes grossly unscholarly. On Auden’s lines “Tramlines and slagheaps, pieces of machinery, / That was, and still is, my ideal scenery,” Rowse comments: “I call that perverse, a middle-class fantasy, like his middle-class idealisation of the ‘workers.’ I had had too much of a strain to get away from the china-clay industry my father worked in: with great price obtained I that freedom.” One needs to examine this response with some care. Rowse’s ability to have pulled himself up by his bootstraps, to have escaped from a grim and underprivileged background, and become a well-published and well-known Oxford don, is no inconsiderable achievement, and he has written of it well elsewhere. But here he is mocking Auden’s upper-middle-class ignorance of the “worker,” and takes this occasion to introduce himself, his own struggles and anguish. In doing so he betrays evidence that he has not carefully read the biographies of Auden he so warmly commended to the reader, for if he had, he would have known that one of Auden’s earliest interests, even as a child, was in geology, that one of his brothers became a geologist, and that one of the first books he owned was the technical manual Lead and Zinc Ores of Northumberland and Alston Moor. There would be nothing wrong in declaring that such reading matter is not to Rowse’s taste; it is another thing to call Auden’s interest in industrial and mining equipment “perverse.” This carelessness, compounded as here with resentment and peevishness, appears throughout, so that Rowse has but to look at a line of Auden’s to feel aggrieved.
Early in the brief course of this book Rowse tells a revealing and amusing anecdote, which is not to be found in any other account, and in which, with a good-humored manliness, he presents himself as the butt of an attempt on Auden’s part to embarrass him. This takes place when Auden is a student and Rowse, three years his senior, already a young don:
After a poetry reading in the hot glare of summer sun in the inner quad at All Souls, Wystan suggested that we should adjourn to his rooms in Peck and continue. Arrived there, he proceeded to “sport the oak” (shut the outer door), pull down the blinds and close the shutters, turn on the green-shaded light on his desk—and read to me, not poems, but letters from a friend of his in Mexico, employed in the Eagle Oil Company, about his goings-on with the boys.
This was a quite unexpected development. After all, I had not been at a public school, but an innocent, small grammar school—coeducational too—and was years behind these contemporaries in experience of the facts of life, let alone sophistication, everything. (It took me an age to catch up with them; I’ve been competing with them and against the advantages they had all my life.)
Ingenuous rather than priggish, all the same no fool, I recognised the situation and was not giving myself away. The reader must recognise the immense difference that belonging to another generation makes at the university. Wystan was my junior, and I was already a don, very conscious of my status as such, perhaps all the more so because youthfully attained against such odds. Anyhow, as I sank defensively back deep into my armchair I wondered how I could get out of the situation with dignity, reflecting (ludicrously enough) to myself, “Fellows at All Souls don’t do that sort of thing.”
At that Tom came to my rescue: the great bell of Yeats’s poem boomed through the quad. “Four o’clock,” I said, “I’m always in the Common Room at All Souls for tea at four,” and got away.
But Rowse stifles any further temptation to modesty or good will, and proceeds quickly to his thesis, which is that Auden’s best book was Look, Stranger, titled On This Island in its American edition. Since that book was published in 1936, when Auden was twenty-nine years old, the apparent corollary is that the poet began his decline at a comparatively early age. Rowse acknowledges that Auden did write a few good poems during this long declension, though he fails to mention many of the best; but never, in his view, a good book, since all of them were either obscure (meaning incomprehensible to Rowse) or simply bad.
It does not take much for something to be incomprehensible to Rowse. Of one of Auden’s books he comments: “Too many tricks appear and are marked in my margins…inversions of sense and natural order, ‘We are lived by powers we pretend to understand’ (are we?)” The parenthetical query exhibits a marked lack of thoughtfulness, especially from an eminent Elizabethan scholar who certainly knows that at one time it was widely believed that our lives were governed by the stars and the humors, and controllable by herbs and charms; and that these days it is commonly supposed that “we are lived” by powers called the id, ego, and superego, by neuroses and compulsions, as well as by viruses and other microorganisms “we pretend to understand,” or, for that matter, by history itself. So the answer to the querulous, “Are we?” is, “Yes, we are.”
Quoting, from “The Sea and the Mirror,” the lines: “Farewell, dear island of our wreck: / All have been restored to health, / All have seen the Commonwealth, / There is nothing to forgive,” Rowse objects, “But in fact there was: Prospero’s extrusion from his dukedom by his brother and his setting adrift on the open sea with his daughter. The subject of Shakespeare’s play is the retribution for this, and Prospero’s eventual return.” It could be strongly argued that The Tempest is not about retribution, but the point here is Rowse’s incomprehension that Auden’s long poem begins after the action of Shakespeare’s play has ended. “The Sea and the Mirror” begins after Prospero has said to Ariel, “The rarer action is / In virtue than in vengeance; they being penitent, / The sole drift of my purpose doth extend: / Not a frown further. Go, release them, Ariel: / My charms I’ll break, their senses I’ll restore, / And they shall be themselves.” There is no longer anything to forgive. In addition, the lines Rowse fails to understand are spoken by Gonzalo, the most benign and godly figure in the play. So we are not to be surprised when Rowse goes on to declare, “I find the second piece, For The Time Being, equally opaque.”
Objecting to Auden’s observation in The Enchaféd Flood: A Romantic Iconography of the Sea that “In Moby-Dick Ahab’s losing a leg is a ‘castration symbol,’ ” Rowse remarks, “To the factual-minded historian losing a leg is just losing a leg.” Rowse is proud of being a factual-minded historian, but he has momentarily forgotten that Moby-Dick is not history: it is a work of imagination, in which things mean more than they appear to.
There is a great deal in this book about politics. Rowse is proud of the fact that he has been a loyal Labour party man from the first, and that life as an Oxford don has not corrupted him into Toryism. At the same time, he regards with unconcealed contempt the proletariat from which he rose and to whom he regularly preached at election time, because they are too stupid to vote in their own best interests. He faults Auden for “slumming” in Berlin in search of proletarian sexual partners, and resents the holiday freedom Auden and Isherwood enjoy (he likes to refer to them as “the couple”) while he is slaving away at boring grass-roots duties for his party. His political views rigidly determine his assessment of some of Auden’s major political poems, and in the most facile and obvious ways: he likes a poem if he thinks Auden’s view coincides with his own, so that when Auden writes “Of a low dishonest decade” Rowse comments, “Well, exactly.” Indeed, his notion of poetry is an unusually simple one, derived in part from Housman, in part from his own poetic practice, and in part from the sentimental commonplaces of his upbringing.
He writes of Auden, with a dazed mismanagement of pronouns, “He did not believe, with Housman, in la poésie pure—a reason why his poems will survive most of Auden’s.” (The first pronoun refers to Auden, the second to Housman.) Again, “He [Auden] was always reticent about his personal feelings—a deep defect of his poetry: Poetry exists to express them.” And after quoting, with approval, a small fragment of a long poem by Auden: “It is only in such places, such flashes, that one gets a glimpse of the heart—which is what makes for poetry; all the rest is mind, and his indomitable will to write verse, whether poetry or not.” These simplicities seem to derive from Housman’s quirky and celebrated lecture “The Name and Nature of Poetry,” in which appears the flat-footed passage, “Meaning is of the intellect, poetry is not. If it were, the eighteenth century would have been able to write it better.” This view gives Rowse a handy bludgeon for having at Auden. “Nor do I think highly of sententious poetry, i.e., poetry that argues. Shakespeare’s gnomic verse is but verse, for argument is fundamentally a prose function.” It must have been in answer to views of this sort that Auden wrote, “For many a don while looking down his nose / Calls Pope and Dryden classics of our prose.” And Auden has also written,
Verse is…certainly equal and perhaps superior to prose as a medium for the lucid exposition of ideas, because in skillful hands the form of the verse can parallel and reinforce the steps of the logic. Indeed, contrary to what most people who have inherited the romantic conception of poetry believe, the danger of argument in verse is that it will make the ideas too clear and distinct, more Cartesian than they really are. Pope’s Essay on Man is a case in point.
And what, with his bias toward Housman, would Rowse make of the sententious poetry, the exposition of ideas, in Donne? Milton? Dante? Marvell? Virgil’s Georgics? Lucretius?
But we must not seek too much in the way of critical responsibility or scholarly soundness in this book. Consider the following:
I have noted all the way along this exorbitant, almost childish, need to be loved, and have put it down to [Auden’s] having been spoiled as a child. This is corrobrated in a poem of just this time: “For I, after all, am the Fortunate One, / The Happy-Go-Lucky, the Spoilt Third Son.” Just so.
But Rowse, faltering in his role as sleuth, comes up with this “corroboration” (a word that bears watching when he employs it) only by suppressing the next two lines of the poem: “For me it is given the Devil to chase / And to rid the earth of the human race.” If Auden was a “third son,” he never exhibited any megalomaniac desire to exterminate mankind. So the voice in this poem is not his.
Rowse’s misreading is what scholars call fudging. It is frowned on. But it consorts with Rowse’s capacity to quote a poem composed in rhymed couplets and to omit the rhyme by misquotation, thus: “Nor are these Ph.Ds my kin / Who dig the symbol and the myth.” It requires a poor ear as well as a bad memory to come up with that. But we should not expect more from a man who elsewhere recalls the refrain from “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” as “Nobody in the house but Dinah, / Nobody in the house I know; / Nobody in the house but Dinah, / Playing on the old banjo.”
Discussing the Auden-Kallman libretti he writes, “Their final effort in this genre was a version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, which was produced in Brussels. The music was composed by the too diversely talented Nabokov. I am no authority on opera, and cannot speak of any of these works; still, I cannot believe that Nabokov’s music would be much good.” Rowse admits to knowing nothing about opera, and exhibits an equal ignorance of Nabokov. But what is especially revealing is that once more he gives evidence of not having read the very books he donnishly commends to his readers, for one of them, W.H. Auden: A Tribute, edited by Spender, contains an informative essay by Nicolas Nabokov, composer of the opera, cousin of the novelist.
After such howlers, what forgiveness? We need certainly to ask who this is who so rashly dismisses not only most of Auden’s poetry, but much of his personal character; and to wonder furthermore on what authority he can do so. There is scant authority presented in this book; the best of Rowse is elsewhere. But he is himself a poet, after all, so it is worth a brief inspection of his work. I have read through a great deal of it, and offer here what seem to be some fairly representative stanzas; in other words, by no means his worst. They are the first and second, fifth and sixth stanzas of a poem called “Call-Up”:
The window open to the grove: The leafless trees are very still,
The sky is clear with February light, The stream runs swiftly from the mill;
Along the path the people walk, Fresh from the church they sniff the air,
Considering the crocuses, Frilled aconites and snowdrops there.
Your room another occupant Will have—some one whom you knew not
Will sit in your chair, work at your desk, Read by your kindly fire at night.
Time like an ever-rolling stream Bears all its sons away;
The water passes under the bridge, The silver light has left the day.
The ineptitude of these verses requires no glossing. If sometimes Rowse reveals himself as envious of others, he is also capable of seeing himself as the subject and victim of envy, as in the following lines from a poem called “No Regrets”:
Perhaps they did not like The look on my face:
In an envious world of Supposed ‘equality’
The recognisable look Of superiority.
Rowse’s claim to “superiority” finally rests on his accomplishments as a “scholar,” a matter that recurs as leitmotif in this book. Auden is constantly belittled for being “no scholar.” “Auden was largely wrong about the Sonnets…was not a scholar, and it made me wickedly recall his Third in the Schools.” And on nothing in the range of Shakespearean scholarship does he appear to pride himself more than “solving the mysteries” of the Sonnets. He has to his considerable satisfaction identified the Fair Youth to whom many of the sonnets are addressed as Shakespeare’s sometime patron, the Earl of Southampton; the rival poet as Christopher Marlowe; Mr. W.H. as Sir William Harvey, Southampton’s stepfather, who procured the Sonnets for the publisher, Thorpe; and, finally, with much self-congratulation, the Dark Lady as Emilia Lanier, nee Bassano. He writes that his identification of Emilia “has triumphantly vindicated the answers I have put forward all along, and the method by which they were found…. The discovery of the Dark Lady completely corroborates, and puts the coping stone, on my previous findings.”
Alerted as we have been to Rowse’s careless use of “corroborates,” we may wish to seek further, and the work of Professor Samuel Schoenbaum will prove highly instructive. In his Compact Documentary Life of Shakespeare he tells us,
Rowse interestingly reports that Emilia’s husband was named Will, a fact that would greatly clarify the Sonnets that pun on the word (“Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy will, / And Will to boot, and Will in overplus”). He also quotes from a manuscript diary describing Emilia as “very brown in youth.” However, Emilia’s husband was, alas, not Will but Alfonso, and the critical word in the manuscript is not “brown” but “brave.”
In a later book, Shakespeare and Others, Schoenbaum writes of Rowse’s vaunted discovery of the identity of the Dark Lady,
Again he tells the Emilia story. She is now brave, not brown, and her husband’s name is correctly given, and about his thesis he remains impenitent. “I am the more convinced,” he asserts, “…that here in this Italianate woman we have the Dark Lady.” As one item of evidence he cites “her brief affair with the player poet of the Company.” Thus what one sets out to prove becomes, almost magically, the proof itself.
To convey something further of the full bouquet of Rowse’s book I will close with a little nosegay, a paradise of dainty devices from his pages. Of Auden and his friends:
They were middle-class rebels, in revolt against their class and upbringing…. I was not one of them, though friendly to them and helped to promote them—after all, we were all on the Left, with common targets and objectives. I observed them from the sidelines. Actually, they were on the sidelines; I was in the thick of the Labour Movement, an active Party candidate all through that hopeless decade….
Next Eliot contemplated a play on the subject of Thomas Becket and asked me what he should read: I suggested Dean Stanley’s Historical Memorials of Canterbury Cathedral, and the play comes out of that. [Eliot’s play was published with a preface containing notes of indebtedness to several people, but does not mention Rowse.]…
I always make a first distinction between poetry that is inspired, and poetry that is not….
Americans are without irony.
December 21, 1989