Journey to a War

by W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood
[Random House, $3.00]
FOR all those who, in critical detachment or moral interest, have missed in modern verse the note of nobility, here is poetry that is sincerely and simply concerned with reverence for life ‘in the clutch of crisis and the bloody hour.'
Auden was one of the first of the ‘new’ poets to recognize that although experimentalism was fun, and perhaps necessary if poets were to find fresh ways of speaking, form and understandability were also necessary and even more satisfying. His plays and especially his last book of verse evidenced this recognition, and now, without self-consciousness or ‘difficulty,’ he has written a group of poems which speak directly, movingly, and beautifully to all who would listen. They seem to me the best poems he has written, both in technique and in ideas: the fluidity, delicacy, and strength of their speech rhythms, the freshness yet natural rightness of their images, match in beauty and excellence the irony and grave indignation, the sympathy and nobility, of their ideas and emotions.
His poems serve as prologue and epilogue of the ‘Travel Diary’ written in prose by Christopher Isherwood. They are unquestionably the best and most substantial part of the book, though they take only fifty of its three hundred pages. Indeed, they justify not only the book but the journey itself.
Auden and Isherwood were commissioned by their publishers to write a travel book about the East. By adventurous choice they went to China for six months; with the good fortune of famous and attractive young men they were helped and shown about by everybody from coolies to ambassadors, journalists to generals. They behaved, as they observed and wrote (to judge from the diary), with the engaging frankness and immaturity of English schoolboys, with the ingenious confidence and casual incompleteness of amateurs. But these qualities are inadequate for reporting war, for evaluating life and death in so desperate and disastrously complicated a country as China. The authors were not only amateurs as foreign correspondents, they were also dilettantes: they played at getting to the front, at taking notes on slums, at dashing from formal garden parties to meetings with intellectuals and busy military and diplomatic leaders. They suffered almost as much, certainly as consciously, from blisters, constipation, boredom, sleeplessness, and hangovers as from the shape of poverty, the taste of fear, the sight and smell of death. They were always safe, always outside.
What in a measure mitigates their playing with tragic events is the frankness of their play, the candor with which they admit their own limitations and the fact that ‘We return, always, to Number One house for lunch,’their sincere admiration for the true servants of China, their passionate young anger at the destroyers, their direct pleas for help for that country, which they voice in the final section of the diary — and the poetry of Auden.
The book is a readable and in spots exceedingly interesting one. The accounts of the people Auden and Isherwood met are sharp and precocious, and some of their stories are fascinating. Air raids they describe dramatically, but never melodramatically. Their analyses of China’s problems (especially that of reëstablishing industries) are unpretentious and neat but not original or profound summaries of what they were told and observed in so short a visit, and their protests, as against war and the treatment of coolies, rise with simple validity out of the horror their good hearts feel. Observations and style mutually reveal their intelligence and likableness.
But it is the poetry that makes the book, and it is the poetry that increases Auden’s stature. It is more than curiosity that urges him to try to observe at first hand different worlds of conflict, more than talent that makes him write. In these poems, what that something is shines out strongly but undogmatically. It rises and takes shape from the raw material of travel and diary with skill, power, and beauty. It is search for reaffirmation, and gives witness, that in our poetry and our times, though we, like our poets, may be confused, self-centred, and too often indifferent to and impotent against ignorance and evil.
Yet all the same we have our faithful sworn supporters
Who never lost their faith in knowledge or in man,
But worked so eagerly that they forgot their food
And never noticed death or old age coming on. . . .
Evil is always personal and spectacular,
But goodness needs the evidence of all our lives,
And, even to exist, it must be shared as truth,
As freedom or as happiness. (For what, is happiness
If not to witness joy upon the features of another?)