At the age of thirty-one, Wystan Hugh Auden, the major British poet between A.E. Housman and Philip Larkin (with a range of styles, techniques, forms, and themes far greater than either’s), left England to settle in New York until a year before his death. Other poets of the twentieth century had chosen life abroad, notably T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, but they quit their native land early in their twenties at the beginning of their careers. When Auden went into a self-imposed exile in 1939, he had already achieved a firmly established and distinguished position as poet and essayist. His literary executor (and editor of the critical edition of his complete works) Edward Mendelson has remarked, “No English poet since Byron achieved fame as quickly as Auden did.” The new volume of the critical edition, Prose, Volume III, contains the prose writings from 1949 to 1955 that followed after Auden’s first ten years in America.
Auden’s transplantation was the subject of much controversy. Some English men of letters meanly resented his safe residence in America that spared him the experience of the German bombardment of Britain. In his memoirs, Kingsley Amis reports a conversation with the novelist Anthony Powell on the occasion of the report of Auden’s death in 1973:
He looked up from his newspaper and said, “No more Auden,” adding when I looked blank, “W.H. Auden is dead.”
“Oh,” I said. “Well. Quite a blow,” or some similar banality.
“I’m delighted that shit has gone,” said Tony with an emphasis and in a tone of detestation that made me jump slightly. “It should have happened years ago.” Feeling perhaps some elucidation might be called for, he went on not much more mildly, “Scuttling off to America in 1939 with his boyfriend like a…like a…”
I have forgotten what it was that Auden had scuttled off like but I never knew Tony before or since to show the kind or intensity of emotion he showed then.
The resentment against Auden’s departure seems to have lasted for decades.
The change of residence was accompanied in Auden’s work by radical changes in manner and theme (a more sociable and relaxed style and a loss of political fervor), and they also created controversy. That these changes were due principally to his leaving Britain is dubious: poets like everyone else naturally alter with time. W.B. Yeats gained new power and economy in his last years, but there is generally a loss of audacity when poets grow older, as in Wordsworth’s descent from the powerful and imaginative landscape poetry and autobiography of his early years to the dull sonnets in favor of capital punishment. What is curious, however, about the new American Auden is the intensity of the disappointment of his greatest admirers, including as fine a poet as Thom Gunn, who never ceased to admire his mastery and his wit.
The most cogent witness to the general evaluation of later Auden is the posthumously published series of lectures given in 1952 by Randall Jarrell, in many ways the finest critic of contemporary poetry America has ever had. This was a fierce onslaught on the recent work of the poet who may have influenced Jarrell more than any other. (“Jarrell is in love with me” was Auden’s amused—and justified—comment on hearing of the lectures.) What is most interesting about this critical attack is that Jarrell was at once ferocious and generous. His consternation at some of the changes in Auden’s work since he settled in America (the stylistic mannerisms, the ethical posing) did not prevent him from expressing the most eloquent admiration for much of it. About the magnificent poem “Under Sirius,” he writes that on reading it another poet is likely to feel “Well, back to my greeting cards,” and remarks that Auden “has a more extraordinary command of language than almost anyone else alive.”
The third volume of Auden’s collected prose has a somewhat more academic tone than the first two as he was now often invited to lecture at American universities. Brilliant, quirky, fascinating, and original, the long study of sea imagery called The Enchafèd Flood is the finest example of this academic style; it is subtitled The Romantic Iconography of the Sea, but it roams from Dante and Shakespeare to Wordsworth, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ibsen, and much else, and then to Melville’s Moby-Dick (the final pages becoming something of a detailed graduate seminar on that book). There is also a great deal of fashionable journalism for magazines like Vogue and The New Yorker, most of it entertaining and delightful, along with serious lectures on religion and history.
The gathering helps us to understand why many of Auden’s greatest admirers were distressed at the turn his career had taken and its new outlook. As Montaigne remarked, “Everyone says foolish things: the mistake is to say them seriously,” and I have no intention of simply picking out some of the foolishness that occasionally turns up in the midst of Auden’s brilliance. But I have found it a good rule of thumb in understanding the limitations and the character of a fine critic to consider the occasional absurdity defended by an even greater absurdity, as this indicates the concealed presence of an obsessive trait so fundamental that it escapes the writer’s rational control. A simple and very brief example can be found in T.S. Eliot’s Norton Lectures, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, where he wants to assert that a poet ought not to be an original thinker, and the disturbing example of Goethe naturally presents itself. He writes:
Of Goethe perhaps it is truer to say that he dabbled in both philosophy and poetry and made no great success of either.
This is so evidently absurd about the most successful German writer of all time that Eliot attempts to justify it, and finishes the sentence with an even more foolish qualification :
His true role was that of the man of the world and sage—a La Rochefoucauld, a La Bruyère, a Vauvenargues.
La Rochefoucauld? Far from dabbling at different things, he did only one thing better than anyone else: writing the most renowned modern collection of maxims. Eliot’s belief that original thought is irrelevant to the practice of poetry was so profoundly and obscurely important to him that all his critical intelligence deserted him in trying to demonstrate it.
A similar process is at work in two articles by Auden, both of them, however, interesting and sharply observed. The first, “Huck and Oliver” (published in 1953), is a fascinating contrast of two books about a young boy, Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn—the passive hero compared to the active. On the latter book, Auden considers at length what is surely its most powerful moment: when Huck Finn, helping the slave, Jim, escape from being sold down the river, reflects that in Sunday school he would have been taught “that people that acts as I’d been acting about that nigger goes to everlasting fire.” He tries to pray, but cannot because God knows that he will not give up his sin. He writes a letter revealing Jim’s whereabouts to his owner, and says that “I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life.” Then he remembers how kind Jim had been to him, that he was Jim’s only friend, and tears up the letter. Here is Auden’s account of this passage:
When I first read Huckleberry Finn as a boy, I took Huck’s decision as being a sudden realisation, although he had grown up in a slave-owning community, that slavery was wrong. Therefore I completely failed to understand one of the most wonderful passages in the book, where Huck wrestled with his conscience. Here are two phrases. He says:
I was trying to make my mouth say I would do the right thing and the clean thing, and go and write to that nigger’s owner and tell where he was, but deep down inside I knowed it was a lie, and He knowed it. You can’t pray a lie—I found that out.
He decides that he will save Jim. He says:
I will go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again, and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog.
When I first read the book I took this to be abolitionist satire on Mark Twain’s part. It is not that at all. What Huck does is a pure act of moral improvisation. What he decides tells him nothing about what he would do on other occasions, or what other people should do on other occasions; and here we come to a very profound difference between American and European culture. I believe that all Europeans, whatever their political opinions, whatever their religious creed, do believe in a doctrine of natural law of some kind. That is to say there are certain things about human nature, and about man as a historical creature, not only as a natural creature, which are eternally true…. It is very hard for an American to believe that there is nothing in human nature that will not change…. For that very reason you might say that America is a country of amateurs. Here is Huck who makes an essentially amateur moral decision.
Except for the observation that the chapter is not abolitionist satire, it is hard to imagine a greater misunderstanding. This great moment is only incidentally about slavery, but it is above all about religion. Auden does not quote the climactic moment of decision when Huck tears up the letter:
It was a close place. I took [that paper] up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I’d got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself;
“All right, then I’ll go to hell”—and tore it up.
It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn’t.
It is with those words “All right, then I’ll go to hell” that Huck becomes the greatest hero in American literature, rivaled only by Captain Ahab.
For most of Twain’s life, he timidly protested against what he considered the hypocritical ethics of respectability and piety: this chapter was his most courageous act. Auden was right to realize that Huckleberry Finn was not an abolitionist tract, which would not make much sense, since Twain started writing the book in 1876, when the Civil War was long over. Huckleberry Finn, in fact, is a historical novel about the recent past, but for Twain, selling a slave down the river, uprooting him from the society he knew, from his friends and family, to send him to hard labor was an unpardonable act, and it reappears as such in Pudd’nhead Wilson. Twain himself described Huckleberry Finn as the struggle between “natural instincts” and a “corrupt conscience”—a conscience corrupted by a repressive society and its religion—and the natural instincts win at last.
Having returned to the Anglican communion in 1940, which he had left at the age of fifteen, Auden preferred not to notice that this moment of Huckleberry Finn represents Mark Twain’s indictment of the official religion of that part of American society he knew best. The early Auden who challenged authority readily has been replaced by one who does not recognize a challenge. His contrast of European and American attitudes on moral decisions is unconvincing because it is partly a smoke screen to hide his ambiguous take on Twain’s aggressive stand, and he even claims that what Huck “decides tells him nothing about what he should do on other occasions,” overlooking Huck’s clear affirmation that this decision will change his life forever. In fact, a few paragraphs later, Auden even quotes the last lines of Huckleberry Finn that confirm how completely Huck was affected by his decision: “I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilise me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”
Auden’s religious sense was profound, and an account in a letter of a mystical experience he had just before going to America is eloquent. His joining the Anglican communion was, however, as much a public as a private act; I think he chose it over the Roman Catholic Church, which he found aesthetically more attractive, because becoming an Anglican again was less flashy, and, above all, it established a nostalgic connection with his earlier years in Britain while he lived as an alien in America. The Anglican faith was also a way of ordering his life without panache, like his absolutely strict rules for drinking alcohol even in America: never before 5 o’clock on weekdays, 12 o’clock on Sundays—the popular pub hours of respectable Englishmen. However, when the Anglican Church modernized its liturgy, removing the sense of tradition Auden needed, he helped the rector at his local church to revise it but he switched to the Russian Orthodox Church. I asked him if he understood the liturgy, and he cheerfully replied, “Not a word!”
Another article, published in 1950 in Partisan Review, on a new biography of Oscar Wilde, is even more personally revealing about the changes in Auden’s outlook during the 1940s and 1950s. The title of the review is openly hostile: “A Playboy of the Western World, St Oscar, the Homintern Martyr.” Clearly, the more flamboyant homosexual life in the East Village, where he lived, got on his nerves. He himself never concealed his homosexuality, but never asserted it—which would, in any case, have been unwise at that time for him as an immigrant living in America. Above all, he was always discreet about his private life, although never flaunting his discretion. Homosexuality is glanced at obliquely in his published work, although there is one long, salaciously detailed pornographic poem, “The Platonic Blow,” which he never published and only acknowledged privately in conversation.
The review of Wilde’s biography is brilliantly written and deliberately provocative. For Auden, Wilde was not by nature an artist:
Wilde is the classic case of a man who is completely dominated by the desire to be loved for himself alone. The artist does not want to be accepted by others, he wants to accept his experience of life which he cannot do until he has translated his welter of impressions into an order; the public approval he desires is not for himself but for his works, to reassure him that the sense he believes he has made of experience is indeed sense and not a self-delusion.
There are perhaps a few grains of truth in this, but not much more, and something has gone seriously wrong when, a few lines later, Auden adds: “Further, a person with a need to be loved universally is frequently homosexual” (of course, no effort is made to justify or qualify any of these generalizations).
Auden considers few of Wilde’s books to be worth reading, and finds The Importance of Being Earnest “the one work of Wilde’s upon the excellence of which we can all agree.” This does, indeed, represent a critical consensus, but the significance of much of Wilde’s writing depends on more than the flawlessness of any given work. Unsatisfactory plays like An Ideal Husband and A Woman of No Importance contain splendid pages. De Profundis (the letter from Wilde in prison to “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas) and Salome, for example, make painfully embarrassing reading, the one drenched in self-pity and the other in absurdly bad taste, and yet they remain important with all their imperfection precisely because they embarrass and disturb while commanding our attention.
In his introduction, Edward Mendelson quotes a remarkable passage from Auden’s review concerning the libel suit against Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, and the ensuing trials that put Wilde in prison at hard labor and permanently ruined his career:
Nothing is clearer in the history of the three trials than his unconscious desire that the truth should come out. This desire was not caused by guilt in the conventional sense but by the wish to be loved as he really was. One suspects that his secret day-dream was of a verdict of guilty being brought in whereupon Judge, Jury and public would rise to their feet, crown him with flowers and say: “We ought, of course, to send you to gaol, Mr. Wilde, but we all love you so much that in this case we are delighted to make an exception.”
The sharp insight into Wilde’s character that opens this paragraph is set in a false light by the facetious tone, which suggests that Wilde got what was coming to him (true enough legally, but irrelevant to any estimate we would make today of either his character or literary stature).
Just after reading Auden’s jaunty account of Wilde, I came upon Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s extraordinary article “Sebastan Melmoth” (Wilde’s pseudonym on leaving prison), written in 1905, five years after Wilde’s death in a shabby Parisian hotel. It begins as a protest against the banal journalistic contrast between the brilliant early career of Wilde and the scandalous trials followed by the sordid prison years and death, and maintains that the terrible fate was there from the beginning. Hofmannsthal took Wilde seriously (no doubt easier to do for the taste of 1905 than 1950). Wilde was no aesthete like Walter Pater, Hofmannsthal wrote, and continued:
An aesthete is, by nature, steeped in propriety. Oscar Wilde, however, was a figure of impropriety, tragic impropriety. His aestheticism was like a cramp…. He kept challenging life unceasingly. He insulted reality. And he sensed life lying in wait in order to spring upon him out of the darkness….
That is why it must have been deeply moving to have seen Oscar Wilde at one moment of his life. I mean the moment when he (over whom no one but his fate had any power)—against the pleading of his friends and almost to the horror of his enemies—turned and denounced Queensberry. For then the mask of Bacchus with its full, beautifully curved lips must have been transformed in an unforgettable manner into the mask of the seeing-blind Oedipus or the raging Ajax….
We must not make life more banal than it is, nor turn our eyes away so as not to behold this banality when for once it can be seen on a brow….
Painting this image of Wilde as a tragic figure immediately after his death, Hofmannsthal was as aware as Auden of the frivolity and superficiality of much of Wilde’s work, and it inspired a concluding meditation on Wilde and the unity of experience:
There are tragic elements in superficial things and silliness in the tragic. There is something suffocatingly sinister in what we call pleasure. There is lyricism in the dress of a prostitute and something commonplace about the emotions of a lyric poet…. No one thing can be excluded, none considered too insignificant to become a very great power…. Everything is part of the dance….
In the words of the [medieval Persian] poet Jalal-ud-din Rumi, he who knows the power of the dance does not fear death. For he knows that love kills.*
Hofmannsthal knew that Wilde destroyed his career and his life because he wanted to be loved, not by everyone, but only by “Bosie.” Hofmannsthal was not homosexual, but he was not made uneasy by homosexuality (in spite of having been propositioned when he was sixteen by the great German poet Stefan George, who embarrassed him by sending bouquets of flowers to him at his high school). His more generous estimate of Wilde’s tragic life and his belief that the origins of the final self-destruction lay early in Wilde’s career find confirmation in a sentence from a letter of Wilde’s written many years before the Queensberry trial: “Sometimes I think that the artistic life is a long and lovely suicide, and am not sorry that it is so.”
Auden, however, under-estimated the power of Wilde’s cynicism (called by Hofmannsthal “a cynicism near to torture”), and must have felt the idolization of Wilde’s ostentatious camp as a menace. His view of Wilde as a playboy has some justification, but even Wilde’s frequently nonsensical playfulness often conceals an attack on established moral and social values. To take the least provocative example, after the two young women in The Importance of Being Earnest quarrel with the men, they spy on them from a distance, and one says, “They’re eating muffins. That looks like repentance.” This is delicate, but it is a send-up of the serious moral attitudes of the time, and in the end such details accumulate and are corrosive. Hofmannsthal was right to say: “he insulted reality.”
At the end of his article, Auden sums up his approach, and one phrase betrays a crucial misunderstanding of Wilde:
The tough and pessimistic Greek who identified pleasure and happiness knew that pleasure depends upon power…. But Wilde, like anyone who has been exposed to the culture of Christendom, knew, however unconsciously, that pleasure and happiness are distinct, and that happiness does not depend upon power but upon love.
The last sentence makes a profound point, essential to Auden’s thinking after 1940. Unfortunately for Auden, Wilde was not a bit unconscious of the distinction between pleasure and happiness, and was opposed to what Auden is saying here. In Wilde’s “Phrases and Philosophies for the Use of the Young,” written the year before the Queensberry trial, the most insolent and shocking phrase is:
Pleasure is the only thing one should live for. Nothing ages like happiness.
The dependence of sexual pleasure on power, violence, and domination preoccupied Auden throughout his later years. He once maintained at a small dinner party that the only sexual act that did not entail domination was a blow job, and he appeared to be very astonished when the other guests assured him that in many cultures, including the American, the one who gave the blow job was often considered not only inferior, but degraded and humiliated.
Soon after he arrived in America, Auden fell in love with a young American poet, Chester Kallman. The relationship became permanent and lasted until Auden’s death in 1973. As Edward Mendelson observes, it was treated by Auden as a marriage. Nevertheless, I understand that Kallman refused to have sexual relations with Auden after a very short time, and did not live with him in New York, staying in Athens for half of each year, and they were together only in vacation months in Austria and Italy. Mendelson describes “the chastened personal intensity of Auden’s poems in his first years in America” as “a sign of two newly discovered commitments”: to the Anglican communion and to Kallman. It is true that from then on in Auden’s writing, with few exceptions, love as Eros is repressed, and appears mainly as Agape, or what the King James Version chastely calls “charity.” The “chastened” and, indeed, chaste poems like “In Praise of Limestone” written in 1948 are moving, but the lyrics of 1934 to 1938 were breathtaking. There was a loss of energy.
He held Eros at arm’s length, and even the passion of his religious writing is distanced. Mendelson is justified to claim that the sequence of the church hours, “Horae Canonicae,” written between 1949 and 1954, “may be the one twentieth-century poetic work whose greatness exceeds its fame.” Perhaps the most striking of these is “Nones”: the ninth church hour, which is three o’clock in the afternoon, the time of the crucifixion. It is, indeed, about the crucifixion, and a great poem, but, as Jarrell remarked in praising it, “this is a crucifixion with no Christ, no cross, no Jerusalem.” The physical immediacy of Auden’s earlier poetry is absent now, as it is from the prose as well, but “Nones” is deeply moving in part for what it leaves out, and marks a return in many ways to the poet’s earlier style.
I do not want to be guilty of the cardinal sin of biographical criticism, and appear to claim that the changes in Auden’s work were specifically caused by the changes in his life. To an author as intensely immersed in his writing as Auden was, the work is not secondary and the life primary. Changes in philosophical and aesthetic outlook must have had power over his life, and radically influenced even his daily routine and all his personal and social activity. Work and life were parallel.
Prose, Volume III is wonderfully edited, like all the many editions of Auden supervised by Edward Mendelson (a sole regret is the absence of a proper index—there is only an inadequate one of titles). Most of the articles will delight any reader with their wit, charm, and elegance. I was fascinated in particular by an article called “Words and Music,” which is a brilliant discussion about the rhythm of music and the rhythm of verse. I have given so much space to only two pieces, because in their singularity they illuminate the new aspects of Auden’s career that disconcerted so many of his admirers, and they suggest the presence of forces in his artistic and personal psyche that were beyond the reach of his extraordinary intelligence. In place of the further detailed praise that the book merits, I offer a brilliant short paragraph of almost unwilling tribute by Jarrell, Auden’s sharpest critic and his greatest fan, a paragraph with a virtuoso’s magnificently absurd mixed metaphor at the end that must have been intended as a submissive homage to the inspiration that Auden offered:
Another of Auden’s virtues is his great capacity for growth or change—he is as incapable as a chameleon of keeping the same surface for any great length of time. It is rather queer and pathetic to mention as a virtue this capacity for change, in the case of a man who changed away from his best poetry, got steadily worse, for many years, but he has begun to get better again, and is not laid away in that real graveyard of poets, My Own Style, going on like a repeating decimal until the day someone drives a stake through his heart.