Wystan Auden’s obiter dicta, as heard and transcribed by Alan Ansen, are funny, brilliant, outrageous. Anyone who knew the poet—in this reviewer’s case very slightly compared to Ansen—must agree that the voice rings as true as the often preposterous pronouncements, whose authenticity is verified not only by the exclusion principle that no one else could have made them up but also by the word-of-mouth survival of some of them in Auden lore.
Alan Ansen met WHA in 1946, while the poet was lecturing at the New School for Social Research, and subsequently became his secretary. At age twenty-four, Ansen seems to have had a prodigious knowledge of ancient and modern languages and literatures, as well as near-verbatim recall. Though about half of the entries are printed in dialogue form, the others as monologues, the young philologist is intrusive only on questions of scansion (“In ‘heavy like us’ you could save the alliteration by syncopating the ‘ke’ and positing the ‘k’ as the fourth alliterating letter…”), and he credits his own most recondite contributions only indirectly, through Auden’s responses: “Oh, did Hobbes do a translation?” (of Thucydides); “You’re right, Landor’s epigrams do represent a further use of Greek models.”
The stream-of-consciousness sequence of subjects appears to have been preserved. But Auden’s “baltering torrent” better describes both the jumble of ideas later to be processed into essays and poems, and the reader’s sense of a lonely man’s exuberance in finding a receptive listener: Auden sounds “high” most of the time, hyperventilated by his own wit and intelligence. A typical entry (May 17, 1947; the other thirty are dated between November 1946 and April 1948) jumps from Rimbaud to Churchill; the rutting season of tom cats (“they have a rugged time of it trying to service so many ladies”); a projected guide to England; book reviewing; and the artist Paul Cadmus. But the startling juxtapositions and droll non sequiturs help to establish the reader’s sense of being in the poet’s company. In addition to bits of background—occasion and location, the contents and condition of Auden’s apartment, the kinds and quantities of drinks consumed—Ansen provides a sprinkling of parenthetical stage directions (“smiling mysteriously,” “to the cat,” “to me,” “looking it up in the OED and finding he was right”) and clues to enigmatic references: “If you want special knowledge, there’s just one place to get it from. (Presumably himself.)”
The discussions alight most frequently on literary, sexual, political (antidisestablishmentarian), and religious matters (“I’m coming to doubt whether [Dante] really was a Christian”), leavened with gossip (“Did you see that Mary McCarthy has joined the anti-Homintern?”), snippets of autobiography (“My mother used to get ill every time I came home, which gives you some idea of the relations between us”), and observations on American and European differences of decorum (“For an Englishman coming over here to teach, the rudeness of the students is quite shocking”; “Chester [Kallman] thinks that when I expect him to get a cab for us it’s because I’m me, when it isn’t at all. It’s simply what an older person expects from a younger one”). A high proportion of Auden’s conceits takes the form of fiats and caveats beginning “All,” “Everyone,” “No one,” “The only”: “The only way to spend New Year’s Eve is either quietly with friends or in a brothel”; “Americans ought to live in Europe.”
As might have been anticipated, the Auden of 1947 seems not to have been a pioneering feminist—“Women should be quiet. When people [!] are talking, they ought to retire to the kitchen”—or indeed a man of “progressive” views in other respects. “I am a convinced monarchist,” the newly sworn US citizen announces. “Why doesn’t the United States take over the monarchy and unite with England?… At least, you could use it as a summer resort instead of Maine.” Contradictions of a sort arise, as when he attacks “the American practice of allowing one partner to a homosexual act to remain passive—it’s so undemocratic,” and at the same time defends the supposedly European view that “the lower classes simply ought to go to bed when asked.”
The American presidents, Lincoln excepted—and Taft, because “he was so fat”—do not make a favorable impression. “Jefferson, I think, must have been a great bore,” and “One wonders whether Roosevelt developed paralysis in order to become President…. No one really good can get to occupy the position he did.” To be taken more seriously are the comments on American social distinctions: Americans who like Samuel Johnson tend to be “nasty types of Anglophiles who think they have to be rude and are usually Republicans”; “the important thing in America is not to have money but to have had it.”
Table Talk suggests that Auden’s Francophobia became more rabid with World War II: at the beginning the French “lie down like a doormat, and afterwards, they’re meanly vindictive,…using German prisoners of war as slave labor.” But Kallman, the Italo-and Germanophile, operatically speaking, seems to have fueled the prejudice. Even so, Auden’s real trouble with the French is “their terrible Cartesianism. To them, you agree or you don’t agree. And that’s perfectly logical. But it doesn’t find any place for the irrational element which is always present.” Baudelaire “was absolutely right when he talked about ‘l’esprit de Voltaire.’ ” (What Baudelaire actually said was “Je m’ennui en France, surtout parce que tout le monde ressemble à Voltaire.”) But Auden’s shocker on the subject, clearly intended as such, occurs in his introduction to the Viking Portable Greek Reader: “The Crucifixion was actually performed by the Romans, or, to make it contemporary, by the French.” One pictures him trying this out on Kallman, for whose amusement he probably concocted it in the first place.
French literature, despite Pascal’s “wonderfully malicious Provincial Letters,” Balzac, “a great writer about money,” the “extraordinarily clever” Cocteau, and the “very intelligent” Valéry, also leaves much to be desired. “I don’t like Montaigne at all.” (But the New Year Letter dedication borrows an epigraph from him.) La Rochefoucauld “simply says what one has always known.” (Yes, but without him some of us would not have known that we knew.) Flaubert’s pre-Bouvard et Pécuchet novels “are so dull.” Verlaine “wasn’t so good.” Gide is “really commonplace”; imagine “getting off with this Arab boy [and] stopping to say, ‘Que le sable était beau!“‘ Even Racine “isn’t quite so fine as people say,” while Mark Twain [!], bad as he was (“I’ve read two books…and I don’t want to read any more”), is “at least better than Corneille.”
Auden’s best bon mot about music must have been unintentional: the Kyrie in the B-minor Mass is “marvelous for the first two sides [78 RPM], and then you realize he’s going on with the thing to the bitter end.” But then, Bach is a mere “Alpha” composer, in comparison to Mozart, the “Alpha plus.” In any case, Auden’s musical interests, as indicated here, are largely confined to opera, even though “the characters always manage to fall in love with unsuitable people.” Tristan and Isolde should not be “done” by “hetties” but by “lizzies” (a female tenor?). “They eat each other up, try to replace the world. Isolde is the English Mistress, Tristan the Hockey Mistress…. Neither extreme, Tristan or Don Giovanni”—the Don being “a certain type of male homosexual”—is “compatible with heterosexual love.” Auden abominates Brahms—“Whenever I hear a peculiarly obnoxious combination of sounds, I spot it as Brahms and I’m right every time”—but likes Liszt: “The opening of the Totentanz is so good. (Sang it.) But why does MGM hire people to write music for them? Liszt has done it so well already.”
Auden’s provocative thoughts about Greek literature, dating from shortly before he began to compile his anthology, should be read more closely than anything else in the book, together with the passages on English prosody, too specialized for discussion here. The most remarkable feature of Greek civilization is not, as we expect, the inquiring, skeptical intelligence and the unities of abstract and concrete, of thought and feeling, but “the use of hypothesis in every subject.” What puzzles most is “their failure to see the importance of freedom of choice,” and their apparent indifference to the question of existence. But what did the Greeks believe? “I’m not talking about the Roman period when it was generally held that the gods were allegorical personifications, but when people were serious about following the ritual. And yet they didn’t seem to care whether their deities existed or not….” The anthology essay bypasses the difficulty: “The kind of god who is both self-sufficient and content to remain so could not interest us enough to raise the question of his existence.” But another crucial question remains unanswered: “I don’t see how Plato reconciled the Demiurge of the Timaeus with the vision of Er at the end of The Republic with its system of rewards and punishments. How far did he believe in either of them?”
The published Greek anthology lacks the variety and scope of the outline as exposed in Table Talk, which includes the thirteenth Corinthians and the Romans. Thucydides, not Aristotle, is Plato’s “real rival.” Auden may have downgraded Aristotle because “I don’t think [he] really liked poetry. I think he had a wife who liked to go to the theater and came home raving about the latest play.”) Unlike Aristotle and Plato—“a man of genius who’s always wrong”—Thucydides “did not deify the state but regarded it as a convenience.” Part of Auden’s exalted opinion of the Atomists (“the people I really like”) seems to derive, a rovescio, from their influence on Thucydides.
Some of Auden’s Petrine judgments on poetry are familiar—“Blake’s longer poems won’t do”; Browning’s lyrics are “atrocious”—but not all of them: “Twelfth Night is a really very nasty play…. Oh yes, it’s well written all right”; “I’d leave Coriolanus to the French”; Antony and Cleopatra is “much better poetry” than The Tempest: “It has to be; they’ve nothing else to live on” (A & C, that is). Pope is “the real test of liking English poetry…. The Rape of the Lock is the most perfect poem in English…. Some of the lines are wonderful—’Bare the mean Heart that lurks beneath a Star.”‘ And The Prelude is “a marvelous work…. My landscapes aren’t really the same as Wordsworth’s. Mine…come from books first.”
Auden mentions Eliot more frequently than any other poet, but largely to distance himself: the difference between us is that “he thinks…society can be made into something good.” But other differences surface as well: “I certainly disagree with Milton’s beliefs as much as Eliot does, but that doesn’t put me off the poetry…his unfavorable estimate prompted me to read Milton and find out how good he was.” (Elsewhere Auden illustrates the four stresses of the basic English poetic line with “In hideous ruin and combustion down.”) Still, “Eliot does realize his danger of falling into a Manichaean condemnation of the flesh per se. But our poetry is the product of our feelings. There’s an awfully revealing anecdote about Eliot. A woman who was seated next to him at table said, ‘Isn’t the party wonderful?’ He said, ‘Yes, if you see the essential horror of it all.’ ”
Auden’s sex talk is largely directed toward Kallman, the absent philanderer: “Sexual fidelity is more important in a homosexual relationship than in any other [where] there are a variety of ties. But here, fidelity is the only bond.” And with a papal gesture he divides the world into oral and anal. “Americans are violently oral,” he says. “Even the American passion for laxatives can be explained as an oral manifestation. They want to get rid of any unpleasantness taken in through the mouth…. America is a very queer country.” Ultimately he decides that “it’s wrong to be queer,” mainly because “all homosexual acts are acts of envy.” (Not elucidated.) Perhaps with this in mind he resolves to “lead the life of a monk this summer, an absolute monk. Oh, one may drop in on a party for half an hour and eye it coldly with one’s lorgnette.”
Auden is the focal figure in the first part of Harold Norse’s autobiography. Though introduced to him by Kallman, Norse can still say that without Auden’s “stupendous gift” in sharing honors as librettist of The Rake’s Progress, Kallman would have remained “an obscure minor poet writing impenetrable verse in metrical feet of clay.” (But would Auden have undertaken a full-length libretto without the help of his opera-mad companion, and can we doubt Auden’s published statements on the auctorial division? Ansen, who typed the first manuscript version, does not say.)
As Auden’s secretary at an earlier period than Ansen, Norse must also have had opportunities to record talk, but chose instead to dramatize his quarry, most extensively in an icky tale of attempted seduction (Auden hovered “over me…stark naked…behaving like a klutz”), and in a second-hand version of an argument in a subway between Auden and Kallman over which one, in his psychological role-enacting, was the other’s father or mother; perhaps the acclaimed portrayal of the young Auden in Once in a While the Odd Thing Happens, the London stage version of the beginnings of the Benjamin Britten–Peter Pears love affair, could mean that Wystan and Chester might soon follow Tom and Viv, Harold and Vita.
Norse makes a semblance of balancing his anecdotes about Auden’s irascible moods and displays of spleen with instances of generosity and loyalty. Yet Norse’s portrait of the poet seems intended to make him unlovable, and nowhere does it convey a sense of Auden’s fundamental goodness and honesty, of the purity of heart reflected in verses such as
Gently, little boat.
Across the ocean float.
The crystal waves dividing:
The sun in the west
Is going to rest.
Glide, glide, glide—
Toward the Islands of the Blest.
—though of course Auden would deny that his personal qualities could have any connection with the poem.
Volume One of Auden Studies publishes six early love lyrics in student German; eleven letters to Stephen Spender; six letters (from the forthcoming complete correspondence) to Professor (The Greeks and the Irrational) and Mrs. E.R. Dodds, friends of Auden from about 1928; the “Writing” essay of 1932, for the first time as originally written, complete and unedited; and a number of critical pieces. The letters to Spender show that Auden’s critical faculties were highly developed at twenty-three, along with his didactic and dogmatic tendencies: “All poetry in our time is comic. There are two modes….”
A few years later Auden defines himself to Spender as “a parabolic writer,” as distinguished from “a realist like Christopher” Isherwood, and identifies his “dominant faculties” as “intellect and intuition,” his subordinate ones as “feeling and sensation.” In the last letter included here, self-analysis sometimes sounds like self-accusation, as when, through the discovery of weaknesses in “X’s” (Kallman’s) character, Auden, now forty-four, realizes that “what I had imagined was affection and good-will on my part was really a devouring passion for possession.” But Auden’s toughness on himself was always one of his most admirable qualities.
The critical essays explore terra incognita, enough of it to indicate that much more remains. John Bridgen writes on the influence of Frank McEachran, one of the early-teen-ager’s teachers. John Fuller reflects on Flaubert as Auden’s model of the artist in relation to society—except when Auden was dismissing “le mot juste” as exhibitionistic. Katherine Bucknell’s notes on the “Writing” essay examine the considerable influence of Gerald Heard, the BBC sage and, later, in California and Arizona, the prophet, drug culturalist, mystery writer (H.F. Heard), and guru to, among others, Frank Lloyd Wright and the Time-Life Luces.
Dissenting from both Freud and Malinowski, Heard maintained that hunger is the strongest instinct in the primal group, and that group life, based on food and companionship, was more stable than, and did not evolve from, family life, which in fact was the root of social revolution. However this may be, Heard’s mythology was a liberating one for the budding poet, who had accepted the dispute between father and son as the origin of culture, and attributed his sexual and psychological ills to relationships in his own family. (This reviewer can testify that as late as the 1950s and 1960s meals in Heard’s Pacific Palisades house preserved something of his idea of the liturgical character of primal group life, from hand-holding to the share-alike distribution of food—seeds, grains, nuts, raw vegetables, fruit.)
“I think that poetry is fundamentally frivolity,” Auden says in Table Talk. “I do it because I like it. The only serious thing is loving God and”—what a true philadelphian he was—“your neighbor.” This deordination of the poet is the subject of Lucy McDiarmid’s Auden’s Apologies for Poetry. The poetics of the later Auden, she writes, is “a poetics of apology and self-deprecation, a radical undermining of poetry itself. Every major poem and every major essay became a retractio, a statement of art’s frivolity, vanity, and guilt.” The later, “baggy-pants” Auden, as she calls him, reduces poetry to the status of a game played with words, a game that has little to do with “the real feelings of WHA.” These real feelings, she continues, “get into the poem only when Auden insists on poetry’s inability to talk about them….” The poem ending with the lines “love, or truth in any serious sense, / Like orthodoxy, is a reticence” must end where it does, since to say more would be unreticent.
Whereas the young Auden had “attributed great powers to art,” going so far as to hope that it could “teach man to unlearn hatred and learn love,” and that poetry could and should “move our emotions or excite our intellect,” the older Auden became obsessed with delimiting these powers, establishing the ontological boundaries that poetry cannot cross. Whereas the Tempest is “full of dissolving borders, the actors that melt into thin air, the morning that ‘steals upon the night / Melting the darkness,’ ” Auden’s later poems, Mc-Diarmid notes, are “full of absolute borders.”
What, besides the emigration to New York, the affair with Kallman, the war, the death of Auden’s mother (1941), and the return to religion (reading theology, attending church), led up to the manifesto that “Poetry makes nothing happen”? McDiarmid’s answer is the shift from space to time, from the travels of the 1930s to the realization that writing begins with the sense of separateness in time (Another Time, For the Time Being), and to the literate mode from the oral, which Auden had seemed to believe could actually effect spiritual change in the listener. We write because we “feel alone,” he said, “cut off from each other.” Books “are like people, and make the same demands on us to understand and like them.”
Above all, poetry cannot induce the requital of love, Auden’s real-life longing “to be loved alone,” as he wrote in “September 1939.” In Table Talk, the remark that Shakespeare left The Tempest “in a mess” means not in a lustrum of love and forgiveness, but in disingenuousness and theatrical trumpery—“what a lot a little music can do,” he says in The Sea and the Mirror. Mc-Diarmid convincingly argues that love in Auden’s “later poetics [is] a literary subject but never an emotion….”
In a well-known homiletic on the nature of human egoism, Auden remarks that humility is easier for a poet or novelist to acquire than for a critic, since the creative writer’s subject matter is “life in general,” the critic’s mere authors, human individuals. To say that ” ‘Life is more important than anything I can say about it” is easier than to say, ” ‘Mr. A’s work is more imortant than anything I can say about it.”‘ But in an age of the usurpation of creation by criticism, is the critic’s subject matter really limited to authors, and does the critic think of his or her work in relation to degrees of “importance”?
Auden continued to publish his performances in poetry—claiming no more for his poems than that—out of pride in his art, whether or not this was more than pride in his mastery of means: “Every poet thinks of himself as a craftsman, a maker of verbal objects: what he hopes for is that critics will notice the technical means by which he secures his effects.” But this small sin against humility is acknowledged in his great poem “At the Grave of Henry James”:
Pray for me, and for all writers, living or dead… …because there is no end
To the vanity of our calling….
January 17, 1991