Forewords and afterwords
Blessed be all metrical rules that forbid automatic responses, force us to have second thoughts, free us from the fetters of Self.
SOMEONE has said that once you have had a youthful love affair you both long to see your first love and dread to see her again. Which of the two feelings predominates depends of course on your mood when memories catch up with you. This proposition is inspired by W.H. Auden's poems, particularly the stretches of juvenilia one knew by heart in school: they were wholly compelling, original, inevitably passed down by word of mouth from one generation to another and the ones you still go back to, if only for the heck of it: Tommy did as his mother told him/ Till his soul was split/ One half thought of angels/ The other half of shit.
It is the later poems that make you pause: they are sober and sadly witty, in a Chekhovian kind of way, and of course in dead earnest than the earlier stuff. In fact they have already become part of the language and literature, constantly quoted in debates about literature usually by people who do not reflect that it is poetry that is making them quote it, so proving the lines' eternal verities. As in "In Memory of W.B.Yeats": For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives/ In the valley of its saying where executives/ Would never want to tamper; it flows south/ From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs/, Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,/ A way of happening, a mouth. Or "In Memory of Sigmund Freud": For one who lived among enemies so long;/ If often he was wrong and at times absurd/, To us he is no more a person/ Now but a whole climate of opinion.
People tend to think of Auden as a Marxist of the 1930s. That he was (who wouldn't be in those conditions of the Great Depression?) but he was much bigger than that. To get a hang on him, there is a moral fable which goes something like this. Once upon a time there was a petty bourgeois intellectual born into the dying culture of a declining empire. The after-shock of a world war caused by inter-imperialist rivalries, the rise of fascism and the growing threat of a second world war, brought about by social and economic collapse drove many from his background briefly to identify with the international working class struggle. Having discovered that you can't make an omelette without cracking eggs, the sensitive young man soon defected, returning to the Christian pietism of his origins, emigrating to America that was now the ascendant imperialist power. As the Cold War brought a shift in the global confrontation between capitalism and socialism, he became increasingly strident in his denunciations of the creed he had once espoused.
It is this circularity of Auden's life that is closely reflected in his poems, which can be read as a chronicle of ignorance overcome or truth denied, as warning or example, poetry or pity. But what is clear was that he was clearly disturbed by the politics of his times and out of this constant quarrel with himself, was born his poetry. Auden's poetic ambition was to map the world not the geographical surface but the man within, the inner terrain of fears and desires that we journey every day of our lives. The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews, Not to be born is the best for man. The landscapes he created to symbolise the regions changed over time. The magnitude of what he set out to do was huge but what sustained it was simply the way the language moved where his pronouncements sounded like edicts, providing watchwords to live by. "As a poet there is only one political duty, and that is to defend language against corruption. When it is corrupted, people lose faith in what they hear and this leads to violence," he said. "Evil is unspectacular and always human," and "the banality of evil" (Hannah Arendt) is a judgement that shapes his whole moral universe.
In fact, Auden seems capable of saying the last word on any subject: love, sex, authority, God, the paradoxical nature of truth, honesty, strength, goodness and evil. Late in life, Auden wrote, "His guardian-angel/ has always told / What and whom to read next." So, his sonnet about biography, "A shilling life will give you all the facts", reads like the essence of all biographies. His epitaph on a tyrant, though written specifically with Hitler in mind, holds true of all tyrannies: Perfection of a kind was what he was after.
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand; He knew human folly like the back of his hand, And was greatly interested in armies and fleets; When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
Perhaps the factor that gives his poems power and makes Auden the greatest English poet of the last century was the range of his consciousness. They seemed aware of what was happening not just in their vicinity but everywhere. The elegy for Yeats, written on the eve of the Second World War, tells you about the state of the continent better any textbook: In the nightmare of the dark/ All the dogs of Europe bark,/ And the living nations wait,/ Each sequestered in its hate;/ Intellectual disgrace/ Stares from every human face/ And the seas of pity lie/ Locked and frozen in each eye. It is this awareness of elsewhere that inspires his greatest poems.
"Musee Des Beaux Arts" tells us that the individual doesn't count for anything now; individual tragedy is, however heart-rending, insignificant to most people: About suffering they were never wrong,/ The Old Masters: how well they understood/ Its human position: how it takes place/ When someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; People are indifferent to personal catastrophes, which probably provoked Auden to say in "The Poet and the City": A man has his distinctive personal scent which his wife, his children and his dog can recognize. A crowd has a generalized stink. The public is odourless. So the dogs, go on with their doggy life and the torturer's horse/ Scratches its innocent behind on a tree. Auden's "Lullaby" and "One Evening" will last as long as people fall in love, fall out of it and then realise, as the Persian poet Hafiz said, love overcomes all problems/ but only in the beginning. "Lullaby" opens with: Lay your sleeping head, my love,/ Human on my faithless arm;/ Time and fevers burn away/ Individual beauty from/ Thoughtful children, and the grave/ Proves the child ephemeral; In the second and subsequent lines, the perspective has shifted from tenderness to doubt. Love fades and dwindles in the hurly-burly of life.
But it is in "One Evening" that Auden tells us of the frailty of love after all passion is spent:
The years shall run like rabbits,/ For in my arms I hold/ The Flower of the Ages,/ And the first love of the world.
But all the clocks in the city/ Began to whirr and chime: `O let not/ Time deceive you,/ You cannot conquer Time.
`In the burrows of the Nightmare/ Where Justice naked is,/ Time watches from the shadow/ And coughs when you would kiss.
In headaches and in worry/ Vaguely life leaks away,/ And Time will have his fancy/ Tomorrow or today... ..
The glacier knocks in the cupboard,/ The desert sighs in the bed,/ And the crack in the tea-cup opens/ A lane to the land of the dead... ..
One could go on and on. But there is a word of warning. When Auden switched from Marxism to Anglo-Catholicism, he altered, pruned and discarded poems because he thought they were "trash". For instance, "Spain 1937" and "September 1, 1939" (the Nobel laureate, Joseph Brodsky, an ardent admirer of Auden, gave a lecture on just this one poem) two of his finest poems when Auden was free of "the fetters of the Self" will be missing in most anthologies/collections. Here is just a whiff of these two: From "Spain 1937": What's your proposal? To build the Just City? I will. I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic Death? Very well, I accept, for I am your choice, your decision: yes, I am Spain. From "September 1, 1939": I sit in one of the dives/ On Fifty-second Street/ Uncertain and afraid/ As the clever hopes expire/ Of a low dishonest decade:/ Waves of anger and fear/ Circulate over the bright/ And darkened lands of the earth,/ Obsessing our private lives;/ The unmentionable odour of death/ Offends the September night.
Though Auden was one of the most didactic of writers, he also belongs to the great line of supreme givers of pleasure, the creators alongside Shakespeare, Donne and Pope. Is it any wonder, then, that very few top poets have enjoyed such superb after-life as W.H.Auden?
W.H. Auden, The Penguin Poets, in association with Faber and Faber, 1962 edition; later Auden, By Edward Mendelson, Faber, £25.
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