Wystan Hugh Auden was born in York, England, on February 21, 1907. He died in Vienna on September 29, 1973. To commemorate the centenary of his birth, The Modern Library has issued a handsome reprint of the Collected Poems (1976, revised 1991), letting Professor Mendelson’s textual preface to the 1976 edition stand, to somewhat misleading effect since the changes and additions he alerts us to were made thirty years ago. Mendelson is Auden’s literary executor and editor. In those capacities he has printed all the poems that Auden wished to preserve, in texts that honor his final intentions. The poems that Auden came to dislike, including “Spain,” “Sir, no man’s enemy,” and “September 1, 1939,” are not to be found here. If you want to test Frank Kermode’s judgments that the “Prologue” to Auden’s On This Island (“O Love, the interest itself in thoughtless Heaven”) is “a great poem” and that “Spain” is “our best political poem except for Marvell’s ‘Horatian Ode,’” you must consult the original volumes or Mendelson’s The English Auden (1977).

In a brief “Note on Auden” Mendelson claims that “among poets who wrote in English in the past three centuries, Auden’s poems respond to the widest range of emotional and moral experience, and the widest range of diction and style.” The first part of the claim is difficult to sustain-does he seriously mean that Auden was a greater, more comprehensive poet than Wordsworth, Blake, Whitman, Dickinson, Hardy, Yeats, Eliot, Frost, or Stevens? The second part is easier to credit, if it merely means that Auden more than these and other poets writing in English used a wide range of vocabulary, noble and demotic, and that he ransacked dialect dictionaries, dictionaries of slang, and the Oxford English Dictionary to find exotic words. It is probably true that Auden was the only poet who used the verb “to osse,” meaning to portend.

I would have preferred to find the Collected Poems reprinted without any claims. Normally, such a book is published without evaluative comment: readers are invited to make up their own minds. Mendelson has had several opportunities-and taken them, eloquently-to expound his critical assessment of Auden’s poems, notably in his Early Auden (1981) and Later Auden (1999). A Collected Poems is not a proper occasion for further nudging. Besides, Auden’s reputation is still unsettled. Mendelson, Joseph Brodsky, Anthony Hecht, Clive James, John Fuller, and many other readers consider him a great poet. Hugh Kenner and perhaps readers holding similar values to Kenner’s think Auden was no good. “He lived without embarrassment,” according to Kenner, “in the space where undergraduate callowness merges with unschooled self-esteem, and whoever lived there he could dazzle with syntactic agility while violating no trust in shared attitudes.”

There is also the question of Early Auden and Later Auden. Auden put into currency the notion of the 1930s as a “low dishonest decade,” and came to think that some of his own early poems were “dishonest, or bad-mannered, or boring.” So he removed them from his canon. But many of his English readers admire the early or the transitional work and think the later poems show a dismal falling-off. W. W. Robson speaks for those readers:

When Auden made his home in the United States in 1939, it was generally agreed that his poetry lost its lively feeling for the contemporary English scene and the nuances of English social life which had been a source of his poetic strength. His later poetry was clever and erudite, but his inspiration seemed to have gone. The poems of Auden which are most liked now, at any rate in Britain, belong mostly to the transitional period when Auden was giving up Marx and Freud as his medicine-men and moving towards Christianity. Poems like “1 September 1939” and “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” are among his most quoted.

Randall Jarrell, Seamus Heaney, and Philip Larkin have written in similar terms, much preferring Early to Late Auden. Reviewing Home to Clio (1960), Larkin asked: “What’s Become of Wystan?” The early, true Auden, according to Larkin, found his inspiration all around him: the Crash, the Depression, strikes, hunger marchers, Spain, China, the age’s obsessions, “feeling inferior to the working class, a sense that things needed a new impetus from somewhere, seeing out of the corner of an eye the rise of Fascism, the persecution of the Jews, the gathering dread of the next war that was half-projected guilt about the last.” Auden’s authentic theme, Larkin said, was “Europe and the fear of war.” I might add as a variant theme, from Auden’s The Orators (1932): “What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?” Larkin maintained that when Auden left for New York in January 1939-with the war obviously coming-he “abandoned his audience together with their common dialect and concerns.” Literature replaced experience as material for his poems. The result, Larkin alleged, was “loss of vividness, a tendency to rehearse themes already existing as literature, a certain abstract windiness.” Auden settled on producing “a kind of long reflective poem in a stabilized tone in which every facet of his subject is exhibited at leisure, ‘The Bucolics’ in The Shield of Achilles, ‘Ode to Gaea,’ ‘In Praise of Limestone,’ and now ‘Homage to Clio’ and ‘Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno.’” Low voltage: he had become an unserious poet, “he no longer touches our imaginations.”

The disappointment felt about Auden, especially by English readers of his generation, is often hard to distinguish from resentment: as if, just for a handful of dollars and an apartment in Manhattan, he left them. It is only recently that English critics, notably Frank Kermode and Barbara Everett, have been referring to his leaving England as a minor offense if one at all. There is, too, the common vulgar resentment (not always among the same readers) provoked by his conversion in 1940 to the Anglican Communion of his family and childhood-or rather to a “‘neo-Calvinist i.e. Barthian” version of it, as he once described his faith. In April 1963, William Empson, a notorious hater of the God he took to be Christian, complained that Auden’s mind was “increasingly hampered”-no doubt by his Christianity-and that “the resulting thoughts are often wrong.” Responding to Auden’s comments on Kafka’s The Castle in The Dyer’s Hand, Empson says that he is “very understanding about Kafka, except that he offers some weak evidence to disprove that the officials of The Castle were meant as agents of Divine Grace.” Empson continues:

This is what everyone has felt to ring so deep about the story, even if Kafka would have said that he was satirizing other people’s religious opinions-Kierkegaard’s, one would think, and surely Kafka did not feel a positive opponent. However much Auden admires the book, he also needs here to coax you into ignoring the point of it: because it has become his duty to save God’s face. Hell itself he turns to favor and to prettiness; and a Christian can do much worse. But this process, preventing Auden from understanding much of what he reads, has gone on long enough; and I hope and expect that, before he dies, he will recover the use of his power.

Empson and Auden were friends, such that on Empson’s retirement from the chair of English at Sheffield in 1971, Auden wrote a toast to him, taking issue only with his Milton’s God:

All I could fault was your conceit that Milton’s

God, obtrusive prolix baroque Olympian,

is our Christian one.

No matter; friendship allows for disagreement and error. Empson and Auden were, as the toast says, twinned by Time: “both learned to person Life in / an open-hearthed, nannied, un-T-V’d world, where / cars looked peculiar.” I assume he meant “open-hearthed” to have an echo of open-hearted.

I’ve quoted these English critics because their views of Auden seem to have been quietly erased from the record of commentary in the interests of the American Auden. The issues are still alive. I think he left England to distance himself from the ideology of the English ’30s he had largely invented. He wanted to stop feeling guilty about the proletariat, and knew that that would be easier in New York than in London or Manchester. He was a bourgeois writer, he saw, after all. His father was a well-established doctor, professional upper middle class, with enough money to fund his son in 1929 for an idle year-he spent it mostly cruising in Berlin-before going up to Oxford. In New York, Auden relaxed into the normal bourgeois amenities, even though an apartment on St. Mark’s Place wouldn’t be everyone’s notion of a suitable address. He taught in various colleges and universities, wrote poems, gave readings, reviewed many books, listened to music, published essays in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books: solid, middle-class activities. Later, he carried such congenial interests with him to Italy and Austria before returning to live in an Oxford college.

Larkin is right about literature taking the place of experience in the American Auden. Not just because he got into the habit of reviewing books. He was not a grand thinker. Most of his thinking was done for him by Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, Charles Williams’s The Descent of the Dove, Anders Nygren’s Agape and Eros, Simone Weil’s Waiting for God, Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Nature and Destiny of Man, and Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World. His method of reading such books was to set up large polarities: Soul and Body, Ethics and Aesthetics, the Prolific and the Devourer, Agape and Eros, the Primary and the Secondary Worlds, Prospero and Ariel, the Virgin and the Dynamo, Christianity and Art. What he really wanted books to do for him, I think, was to enable him to regard his relation to Chester Kallman not as merely and wholly sinful but as a path to redemption. He had to convince himself that one of the qualities of a sin is that it can be forgiven; the crooked road can be made straight. But then there was the question-which Auden tended not to ask-of repentance and of what my penny Catechism called “a firm purpose of amendment.”

I don’t dispute the common understanding that the American Auden became, in a limiting sense, a civic poet, practicing in his poems the social amenities-often called Horatian-subject always to the decorum of conversation. He wrote short poems to maintain the decencies of a colloquial occasion, long ones to keep the talk going into the night. The qualities he sought in verse were those of conversation among friends: grace of tone, reticence, good manners, good humor, peace on earth. Whatever lives is holy, he liked to tell himself. In prose, his later thoughts are unobjectionable, except that they deal with every question by begging it. As in Secondary Worlds:

We seem to have reached a point where, if the word real can be used at all, then the only world which is “real” for us, as the world in which all of us, including scientists, are born, work, love, hate, and die, is the primary phenomenal world as it is, and always has been, presented to us through our senses, a world in which the sun moves across the sky from east to west, the stars are hung like lamps in the vault of heaven, the measure of magnitude is the human body, and objects are either in motion or at rest.

If this be accepted, it is possible that artists may become both more modest and more self-assured, that they may develop both a sense of humor about their vocation and a respect for that most admirable of Roman deities, the god Terminus. No poet will then produce the kind of work which demands that a reader spend his whole life reading it and nothing else. The claim to be a “genius” will become as strange as it would have seemed to the Middle Ages. There might even be a return, in a more sophisticated form, to a belief in the phenomenal world as a realm of sacred analogies.

William F. Lynch’s Christ and Apollo engages that motif in far more exact and exacting terms.

In poetry, other qualities matter: style, rhythm, the music of what happens. I, too, prefer Early Auden to Later. The sense of dread suffusing Mondays, the malice of things at large, “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone”: these impinge, they tell more dreadfully than the domesticated neo-Frostian mode of “As I listened from a beach-chair in the shade / To all the noises that my garden made...” It is not enough that the later poems are agreeable: a poem should change one’s life.

Denis Donoghue holds the Henry James Chair in English and American Letters at New York University. His most recent book is Irish Essays (2011).
Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the 2007-10-26 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.