W. H. Auden and His Poetry

STEPHEN SPENDER, who came to prominence in the early thirties as one of the most gifted writers of what was called, at the time, the new English poetry, was a contemporary of W. H. Auden at Oxford and has remained his close friend. Haring shared in many of Auden"s interests and experiences, Mr. Spender can discuss the evolution of Auden’s poetic ideas with the sympathy of a friend as well as the insight of a distinguished critic.

by STEPHEN SPENDER

1

THE odd impersonality of W. H. Auden always gives his poetry, even when he shows the deepest insight into the human heart, an air of strangeness. It was this too which made him seem strange to his contemporaries when we were at Oxford. As an undergraduate Auden was outstanding not only for the excellent poems which he had already written, but for his habit of analyzing the lives of all his friends and fitting them into a psychoanalytic pattern around him. He was didactic, dogmatic, and extremely amusing, though in a buffoonlike way, with a gift of parodying himself rather than with Latin wit. As a very young man, dogmatic by temperament and yet holding no metaphysical or moral beliefs whatever, he seemed sometimes divided between using his undoubted powers over his fellow undergraduates in a Mephistophelean or in a benevolent way. As an undergraduate he was clever enough to be bad and wise enough to be good — wisdom, indeed, was his outstanding quality, although going hand in hand with a good deal of silliness — so he decided to play a benevolent role in other lives.

Already, at the university, Auden’s relationships with his fellow beings had fallen into a pattern. They were really of two kinds — teaeher-to-pupil and The Colleagues. Those of us who automatically fell into the role of pupil went to him for instruction about poetry, our psychological ailments, the art of living, and so on. The Colleagues — consisting pre-eminently of Christopher Isherwood (at Cambridge), Day Lewis, and Rex Warner — were a little group (sometimes called “The Gang”) who were rather like a shadow cabinet, the successors to the literary heritage of tomorrow. There was quite a feeling of there being literary governments at this time: we were governed — it seemed — by J. C. Squire and a group of Georgian poets — more like a cricket team than literary figures. The honorable opposition was Bloomsbury, amongst whom could be loosely counted Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and T. S. Eliot.

Auden had a grasp of the literary politics of the contemporary scene which astonished me: for I was still at the stage of indiscriminate gaping admiration for whoever had published a book or poem. I think that Auden at a later stage has definitely renounced literary politics, and his interest in them was part of his curious playing around with sophisticated things when he was young.

Auden held certain views very strongly at Oxford. These have impressed themselves on me the more because he reversed most of them shortly after he left. Here are a few of his characteristic pronouncements:—

A poet must have no opinions, no decided views which he seeks to put across in his poetry.

Above all, poetry must in no way be concerned with politics.

Politics are just lackeys and public servants whom we should ignore.

The subject of a poem is only a peg on which to hang the poetry.

A poet must be clinical, dispassionate about life. The poet feels much less strongly about things than do other people.

Poems should not have titles.

Never use exclamation marks, and avoid abstractions.

At this time Auden was convinced that modern poetry should not be written in conventional verse patterns.

Almost the most frequent word in his vocabulary was “symptomatic.” This could be used as a term of praise or as diagnosis. For example, the poetry of Eliot was excellent because it was “symptomatic,” but a hesitancy of speech was also “symptomatic” of some psychological repression.

The external appearances of Auden’s life have changed less than those of any other of my friends in the twenty-odd years which separate his rooms at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1930 from those in Greenwich Village today. At Oxford his rooms were kept tidy by a college scout and scout’s boy (who whistled on the stairway a Mozartian tune composed by Auden which he had heard him playing on the piano). Auden’s furniture was suited to rooms in an expensive college; his books were neatly set up on their shelves. He had days of dandyishness when he was well brushed and dressed. Today his rooms are untidy and the books lie upright, longways, or diagonally on the shelves. However, the rooms are those of the same person leading the same kind of life — the life of an undergraduate who remains a student even when he becomes poet and professor.

Yet Auden’s ideas have changed as strikingly as his way of life has remained the same. There is a dualistic idea running through all his work which encloses it like the sides of a box. This idea is Symptom and Cure. Sometimes Auden’s poems are more symptomatic than curative; sometimes they concentrate with an almost Salvationist zeal on the idea of a cure. But from the early “look shining at /New styles of architecture, a change of heart,” to the concluding lines of The Age of Anxiety:

In our anguish we struggle
To elude Him, to lie to Him, yet His love observes
His appalling promise . . .

the preoccupation is the same. The symptoms have to be diagnosed, named, brought into the open, made to weep and confess, that they may be related to the central need of love, leading them to the discipline which is their cure. The symptoms which prove that man needs to love and that “the grossest of his dreams is /No worse than our worship which for the most part /Is so much galimatias to get out of /Knowing our neighbour” have changed very little. The diagnostician Auden is much the same as he was at Oxford.

It is his conception of the Cure which has changed. At one time Love, in t he sense of Freudian release from inhibition; at another time a vaguer and more exalted idea of loving; al still another the Social Revolution; and at a yet later stage, Christianity. Essentially the direction of Auden’s poetry has been towards the defining of the concept of Love.

2

AUDEN starts out on this poetic journey from the negative, amoral, neutral position of the Oxford, clinical Auden. This early poetry, which expresses a complete detachment and attains a kind of frigid, clipped beauty, is not so much “art for art’s sake” as “art for science’s sake.” The poet creates poems out of his observations, emotions, and literary influcnces, as though he were working in a laboratory. His skill conceals a defect which he has never entirely overcome — a lack of the sense of the inner form of a poem. By this I mean that with Auden form hardly ever seems to grow out of the experience which is the center of the poem, out of what Henry James would call its “felt life.” The form is imposed from the outside by the force of a didactic idea or by those stanza patterns in which the later poet shows such virtuosity. But the earlier poems are often made up largely of scraps of still earlier ones of which he has preserved the best lines. It always seemed strange to me that he was not shocked at the idea of tacking lines from a rejected poem onto a new one — as though a poem were not a single experience but a mosaic held together by the consistency of an atmosphere, a rhythm, or an idea common to all its parts.

The Orators, published in 1932, contains the most

uninhibited, high-spirited, and self-revealing work of the young Auden. There are two elements more developed than in the previous poems: savage humor and a more purposively directed use of psychoanalysis.

The Orators is also Auden’s most English book.

The theme is, as usual, the diagnosis of symptoms and the prescription of a cure, in answer to the question stated in the opening prose poem, “Address for a Prize Day”: “What do you think of England, this country of ours where no one is well?” There follows a destructive analysis of the golf-playing, church-going, tea-drinking, Boy Scoutish, eccentric English middle class, in which Auden scoffs at the self-love, frustration, inhibitedness, and so on, of schoolmasters, parsons, spinsters, and gentry. The force of the poem is as a kind of agnostic prayer — staled in a buffoonish manner but nonetheless powerfully sincere — against self-deception, the denial of life-forces by frustrating conventions, and on behalf of an open conspiracy of living in which love, whether social, personal, or sexual, is the stated aim of living. Auden here puts himself on the side of Blake, D. H. Lawrence, and other English mystics, with their highly individualistic philosophies, who spent their creative energy in protesting against the smugness of England. Their protest comes from a bitter love of their country and a deep faith that a Now Jerusalem could be built on this island if only the English would stop being so English.

The young Auden explored very thoroughly the negative and positive aspects of his agnosticism. On the negative side, he was ruthlessly and maliciously destructive. Judging everything by his standard of uninhibited truth as the aim towards which human relationships should be directed, he is equally merciless to society and individuals when they do not achieve this. Some early poems read like gloating over the destruction of the society into which the poet was born. Even when he is a good deal older he can write with a certain callousness in portraying the suffering of the inhibited. “Miss Gee” is a ballad in which the poet really appears to take pleasure in contemplating the death of a spinster from cancer: she has not loved or been loved, so she gets what’s coming to her, seems to be his attitude in a poem which can hardly seem amusing to readers who have known or loved someone suffering from this disease. Auden has sympathy for those who wish to be cured, but little or none for the incurable.

There is in fact a flaw of feeling in his early work. He is intellectually overand emotionally underdeveloped. Hence the schoolboyish ruthlessness of certain passages in The Orators, and hence also a disconcerting facility in allowing his intellect to lead him where it will, which has never left him. When, early in 1950, Auden together with other intellectuals answered a questionnaire about his religious beliefs, he alone of all those who answered seemed to experience no difficulty in accepting the strictest dogmas of the Christian faith. Reading his answers, I had the impression that he could so easily believe things that are almost incredible to many people because the Christian faith was to him the premise of a hypothesis explaining human behavior — just as, at another time, Freud’s theories had been.

But if Auden is overintellectual, his intellect is critical of its own processes, and it is directed by a benevolent will. The danger of the intellectual is to establish himself, slightly disguised, as God, in the center of his own work. The early poem, Since you are going to begin today, where the poet suddenly switches from the contemplation of a lover to an evolutionary view of human existence, reveals this danger; and it is enormously to Auden’s credit that it was a danger of which he was aware. His problem always has been to discover an authority for the dazzling marginal commentary on existence which is his poems, which is not just himself or himself interpreting the views of Freud, Marx, and others. In the poems he wrote during the middle 1930s we can see him seeking such an objective authority in the idea of Love, invoked in poem after poem as the solution of all human problems, and yet not identifiable with God. The opening prologue to the collection On This Island is an invocation of just this force in the universe in the lines beginning: —

O love, the interest itself in thoughtless heaven,
Make simpler the beating of man’s heart.

Love is, then, a luminous center within which relationships are simplified. It is the “cure" for the individual and for society. Yet the inadequacy of such an abstract ideal must have dissatisfied Auden, making him seek the workings out of the tasks of love within the social movements of his time.

3

THE central religious problem of his work was to some extent shelved (as happened with nearly all the serious writers of the 1930s) by political activities which pressed on intellectually in that decade.

Shortly after he had left Oxford in 1929, Auden traveled in Germany. The impression made by the Weimar Republic is already to be felt in the early poems. It is on the one hand of a society disintegrating “in the explosion of mania”; but on the other the Weimar Republic also meant youth, nakedness, lack of inhibitions, pleasure — everything which England banned.

Funds ran low, and Auden was forced to leave Germany and look for a schoolmastering job in England. This was not just a measure taken for financial reasons: it was also a recall to what he had always considered part of his vocation — teaching.

Schoolmastering proved a great success, and perhaps the years in the early 1930s when he was first, at Helensburgh in Scotland, and later near Malvern in England, teaching at preparatory schools were the happiest of his life. At all events they produced his most harmonious poems. The beautiful poem beginning “Out on the lawn I lie in bed” (called “A Summer Night 1933" in Collected Poems), has a Midsummer Night’s Dream quality which he never achieved before or since. The symptom-cure theme becomes woven here into the healing calm of a summer night: —

Now North and South and East and West
Those I love lie down to rest;
The moon looks on them all:
The healers and the brilliant talkers,
The eccentrics and the silent walkers.
The dumpy and the tall.

One of Auden’s characteristics is to make a cult of whatever he happens to be doing, which becomes to him what the poet must do. This self-culture or self-cultifying can be annoying, but we must accept it, to use Montherlant’s phrase, as “the nobel selfabsorption” of a poet of genius. It is one aspect of a kind of concentration whereby the poet sanctifies whatever he does with his own presence, so that his environment becomes mythical just because he happens to be there. Thus Auden’s poems when he is in Helensburgh acquire a certain Scottishness (owing something, incidentally, to Burns) and in Malvern they have a lush West of England quality. Auden never becomes a regional poet: rather he haunts the locality where he may be living at a given time, with a kind of local blessing derived from his presence.

A mixture of literary success, the anti-Fascist movement, and wanderlust took Auden away from schoolmastering. Early in 1937 he was in Spain as an ambulance driver or stretcher-bearer on the Republican side. Before this, he went on a summer holiday (which resulted in a book called Letters from Iceland) with Louis MacNeice. Later he went with lsherwood to China, with whom he wrote another book, Journey to a War. On their return from China, Auden and lsherwood first went to America, and it was at this time that they decided that this was the country where they wished to stay.

Another activity of these years was experimentation with the theater. Auden and Isherwood collaborated in writing The Dog Beneath the Skin, The Ascent of F.6, and On the Frontier, all of which were performed by an energetically directed group called The Group Theatre. Of these plays, The Dog Beneath the Skin, adolescent as its satire is, is perhaps the liveliest. It contains beautiful choruses thrown off by Auden, and some good lyrics. The Ascent of F.6, which describes a Himalaya expedition, comes nearest of these experiments to being a play. It is still successfully revived. On the Frontier is a hash of the revolutionary and pacifist thought of the 1930s, reduced to their least convincing terms. On the whole, the plays of Auden and Isherwood show little except the astonishing virtuosity of both writers, and a rather distressing overconfidence in what they can get away with. They seem to have liked the idea of collaborating, yet each seemed secretly resolved not to put his best efforts into a collaboration. The Auden-Isherwood plays provide considerable evidence that one aspect of the 1930s was a rackety exploitation of literary fashions.

4

THE effect of the turmoil of the 1930s on Auden’s poetry was a tremendous inflow of new impressions, influences, and ideas, which he met with an everincreasing virtuosity. Auden belonged more with his conscience than either with head or heart to the anti-Fascist movement of this time. He felt, as others did, that Fascism was wicked, political persecution a crime, the Spanish Republic the best cause of the first half of the twentieth century, and that unless the public could be awakened, war was inevitable. The 1930s were a perpetual state of emergency for those aware that there was an emergency. Thus Auden felt the pressure of the necessity of doing what he could to avert the war.

On the other hand, he disliked politics; he was bored by meetings, and still more by the spiritual condition which meetings signify, and he must have regarded the lives and attitudes of most of the people who were also anti-Fascists as shallow and tiresome. In his magnificent “Spain” he raised the level of the argument about Spain to a vision of past, present, and future, enclosed within the moment of struggle, which is the highest achievement of that epoch.

One reason why Auden could never rest content as a political Marxist lay in his complete rejection of the propagandist or class-interested view of truth. I remember meeting him shortly after I had attended the Writers’ Congress in Madrid in the summer of 1937. I was disturbed at the time because so much of the energies of the conférenciers had been directed not against Fascism but against M. André Gide, on account of his recently published Return from the U.S.S.R. The argument most frequently used against Gide was not that his book was untrue, but that it gave comfort to the enemies of the Soviet Union. That sophistry of Marxist thought which justifies lies by arguing that all points of view are only the results of class interest, and that there is no such thing as “objective” truth, was brought to bear against Gide’s book. At a time when many were uncertain what line to take, Auden comforted me enormously by his straightforward common sense. “Political exigency can never justify lies” was his comment on those who attacked Gide for revealing unpleasant truths.

The abruptness with which Auden dismissed any discussion justifying propaganda as a function of the “relativity” of truth confirms my impression that even his most arbitrary ideological positions are based on a recognition of salient facts. When I asked him in 1949 why he had ceased to be concerned with politics, he replied: “In the 1930s I thought that war could be stopped by opposing Fascism. We failed to do this, so I realized that subsequently nothing that I could do would be effective.” In 1945, immediately after the war, he went for some weeks to Germany. When, on his return to America, he passed through London, I asked him whether he thought that the Occupation of Germany could achieve any good purpose. “Something might have been done, but it’s too late,” he answered.

Such statements may annoy intellectuals who are determined to think that they can play a role in politics even today, but are they not a recognition of the facts? It is facts ’which Auden arranges into the pattern of hypotheses which may strike the reader as fantastic. Facts are the original scraps of material which he puts into his transcendental kaleidoscope. Every line of his poetry — which has been called obscure — means something in the sense that it has an immediate relation to some real event, which he interprets as a psychological or spiritual or sociological symptom. His poetry is, as I say, a brilliant commentary on our contemporary history, and to understand it one has to see what it is about, as well as enjoying the poetry. Although it has often a lyrical movement, it does not create the self-sufficient dream world, separated from living, of the romantic lyric.

If this poetry is difficult the difficulty arises from its being so packed with meanings that we do not recognize our impenetrable and largely insignificant environment in it. Auden’s poetry is more intellectualized than the world as it really is. Every image he invokes signifies a symptomatic condition of society or individual psychology. There is a lack in his work of things which are just things — trees and stars and mountains and sun impenetrable in their own dazzling is-ness.

The great achievement of Auden is to use analyzable material creatively as a language of dream symbols and psychological fantasies directly related to the facts of our lives, in which he can depict our own history to us. Auden has developed the dream in poetry beyond the stage where the poet is passive dreamer. He does not go into a surrealist trance in which he makes his conscious mind an automatic machine for pouring out incomprehensible unconscious material: he consciously invents dreams and depicts actuality in t he language of unconscious fantasies. In this way he has transformed the poetic role from that of the poet withdrawn into a world of wishful fantasies into that of the poet interpreting and creating dreams, writing a commentary on his epoch in a language of dream-fantasies and symbols. In lines like the following, one sees the fusion of the world of headlines, history, and power politics with that of dreams: —

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height, to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man.
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare.
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Throughout the 1930s he provided a comment aryon events which magically transformed public violence into the bogeys of personal fantasy. In this way he asserted what is perhaps the most difficult and important truth for people today to understand: that the public wrong can only be atoned and cured within the personal lives of individuals: —

Hitler and Mussolini in their wooing poses,
Churchill acknowledging the voters’ greeting,
Roosevelt at the microphone. Van der Lubbe laughing,
And our first meeting
But love except at our proposal
Will do no trick at his disposal. . . .

5

AUDEN’S journey to America in 1938 was not, as it seemed to many people at the time, an escape from the consequences of the anti-Fascism which he had supported, but an attempt to rediscover his own isolation. Perhaps if he had remained in England, the different circumstances of the war would have been as great a change as the American scene for him, and he might have found that in the Blitz and at the time of the threatened invasion of Britain, the English did indeed experience the kind of simplification of all their purposes which he had prayed for ironically in The Orators. The Double Man, The Sea and the Mirror, and The Age of Anxiety — Auden’s outstanding American works — are sustained attempts to reintegrate his thought after the disintegrating social thinking of the 1930s.

On the level of theory, Auden’s latest poetry has an air of finality about it. His problem has always been to shift the center of his dogmatic ways of regarding experience from himself to some objective authority, so that he himself becomes a part of what is judged, and not just the center of his own system. The Church provides him with this new center. From now on his poetry becomes an exercise in humility and an interpretation of an authority not his own, instead of being self-assertive.

However, there is still a question about Auden, as a poet, to which the Church’s authority alone does not provide the answer. Is he a brilliant marginal poetic commentator on the contemporary scene? What strikes me more and more in reading Auden is that his poetry is like a commentary, footnotes, appendixes — observations surrounding the history of his time, more brilliant, dazzling, and amusing perhaps (like Gibbon’s footnotes) than the book itself. For all these wonderful observations, epithets, illuminations, the poet seems to stand aside, outside experience, observing the performance of his own and other lives from the wings. Or if he appears, it is in a too humble role, identifying himself with the faults and weaknesses of those around him, but with a cunning humility which enables him to escape into anonymity: —

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out.
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home:
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood.
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

“We,” the poet writes, but is this “we” any more convincing than the “we" which a preacher uses when he seeks to identify his own knowledge with the blindness and ignorance of his flock, in order to lead them along the way of his own knowledge/ With a preacher this is traditionally justified, but in poetry it becomes a kind of sleight-of-hand in which the poet is using the idea of “I" to express something really nonexistent in his poetry.

The “I” who frequently occurs in Auden’s poetry is, except in a few rare poems of happiness (for example the Helensburgh poems), either an anonymous commentator or (as in the lines I have quoted) an abstraction — the person assumed to be the common multiple of the we sitting in the baron Fifty-second Street.

It might be argued that in his love poems Auden enters into a more sensuous awareness of his own existence and that of others than his usual diagnosis of the human heart and human behavior as an array of symptoms fitting into an abstraction. But it is here precisely that the peculiar absence of his own personality in his poems and his unawareness of other existences simply as what they are acquires pathos and is even tragic. His most justly famous love poem has such beauty of lyric movement that readers do not perhaps look at it closely. Perhaps also modern readers are so used to love poetry being a negation rather than an affirmation of a relationship, that they scarcely pause to consider what Auden is saying. The poem opens: —

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:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

The visible situation, the actuality which strikes the senses here, is conveyed in the first two lines.

The beloved is sleeping, and therefore unconscious. This is important because the rest of the poem shows that the nature of this love is an operation of the imagination — or rather of the intellectual will — of the poet upon the passive, characterless form of the beloved. ’What is evoked is the force of an illusion which can be built up out of a momentary situation, not the conscious love of two people for one another. The second line half invites and half forewarns us of the fragility of love, with the ambiguousness of the word “human.” The word “faithless” reinforces what is sinister about the idea of “human.”

Other poets have expressed the idea of the ephemeral nature of love compared with eternity. But in doing so they have appealed to their faith in a mystery: that something permanent can be snatched by lovers out of the enormous spaces of time. The mystery lies in this being at the same time an illusion and not an illusion. It is an illusion in that time does indeed destroy all individuality.

It is not an illusion in that, within time, two adult people fully aware of their need for one another and of their love are able to enter into the realest situation possible in human relationships: an act of naked and final recognition of one another’s lives.

This is for them perhaps the most valuable experience in life, because it is an escape from loneliness into their awareness of one another.

This is the opposite of the view in Auden’s poem that love is the evocation of an illusion, a moment snatched from eternity, in the mind of one person, holding in his arms the passive form of his beloved. The kind of love in Auden’s poems is really an expression of the wish for death — the wish to die into a moment of happiness, which Keats expresses so often in his poetry—“And so live ever or else swoon to death.”

I do not wish, however, to criticize Auden for writing adolescent love poetry. A poet must write the poetry he can write, and I do not believe that psychological immaturity prevents a poet writing great poetry. Still less do I wish to criticize him because he is not an egotist in his poems. That, he is not egotistic, and that he does not attempt, to express an autobiographic personality, I consider among his virtues. The point, though, which I wish to make is that his poetry is often depersonalized in the same way that a philosophic argument or an article in the newspapers exists simply as an argument or as information, so that the reader cannot identify himself with the situation out of which the writer is writing, even if he feels that his own situation is stated in it, and even if the writer writes in the first, person singular. It is not a matter of pronouns or autobiography. It is something which one feels in many of Auden’s best lines: —

Tomorrow, perhaps, the future: the research on fatigue
And the movements of packers; the exploring of all the
Octaves of radiation;
Tomorrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and
breathing.

The poet is outside these lines in a way in which Eliot or Yeats is never outside his own poetry. It is this, I think, which gives Auden his extraordinary air of authority. We feel that a person with flesh and blood like our own is not really involved in what he is saying. It is also what makes him often seem unconvincing. We feel that the poet has arrived at. these conclusions by a process of reasoning which is outside the reasoning of his blood.

It is for this reason that some of the best younger English writers — Dylan Thomas and W. S. Graham — write a poetry whose every line is infused with their sensuous presence. It is the reason why a much more intellectual poet than Auden — Empson — seems much more concrete in his poems.

It explains why Auden’s long poems are singularly weak in construction: because only a unified personality can hold a long poem together. But it suggests also that Auden may be the poet who is most adapted to the abrupt changes, the lack of any center, in our age. He has often the hypnotic power, within his changeability and his elusiveness, which in a different though perhaps parallel way has enabled the chameleonlike Picasso to dominate all other contemporary painting.