Auden at Sixty

by John Hollander

SINCE February, W. H. Auden has been sixty years old. It is hard to think of another writer in English the progress of whose lustra — those fiveyear periods by which the Romans marked out life’s phases or stages — would seem to matter so much. It is not only that he is our foremost poet, but that his career has been full of the ambivalences and paradoxes that have marked the moral history of the past forty years. Certainly the most articulate and cosmopolitan of all English poets to be born in this century, he left his native England at the height of his promise and influence in 1939 and has lived here ever since.

A critic of pre-war Europe who composed witty dirges for its immanent sickness and imminent collapse, he regularly spends part of each year abroad. Once he breathed an intellectual element full of Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche; now he moves in an Anglican faith as orthodox, in the main, as its keeper is undogmatic. A pioneer, with Christopher Isherwood, in experimental English poetic drama (The Dog Beneath the Skin and The Ascent of F.6 are still unequaled and remain a kind of natural link to certain elements of Brechtian theater), he has become, in collaboration with Chester Kallman, the most distinguished librettist for grand opera since Hofmannsthal.

And yet all these transformations have occurred in the course of a consistent evolutionary growth: Auden’s artistic career is only superficially one of those, like Picasso’s or Stravinsky’s, marked out by the dramatic shifts of phases, “periods,” or stylistic moments. Some of his critics were bound to feel that Auden’s work of the past quarter century had softened rather than ripened — in England, particularly, the transplanting in American soil was held to blame by audiences who still feel that the essential Auden was the young poet of crisis and commitment, neatly parodied by his comtemporary William Empson as “waiting for the end, boys, waiting for the end.” But for most of his readers, who and where that poet is today, and what he has been writing, seem as natural and inevitable as their own intellectual and moral histories. And a part of them as well.

Perhaps it is this quality of Auden’s work that made his sixtieth birthday the sort of anniversary that creeps up on one to take him by a not wholly unpleasant surprise. Auden has given voice in the past to the intellectual conscience of the entire generation that was growing out of childhood between the two world wars. For that generation he seemed not only an English poet but a European one. Verse has always been a mode of public eloquence for him — as it was for a poet like Ben Jonson, for example — rather than a meditative instrument assisting the articulation of the Self. He has always written magnificent occasional poetry; an uncrowned laureate, he has spoken not for national affairs or victories, but on events and crises in the world of the moral imagination. What he said of Yeats once, that he transformed the occasional poem “from being either an official performance of impersonal virtuosity or a trivial vers de société into a serious reflective poem of at once personal and public interest,” is even more true of himself.

For, whether writing memorial poems to Yeats, Freud, or the German socialist leader and writer Ernst Toller; whether meditating on Voltaire, Pascal, Melville, Rimbaud, Edward Lear, Montaigne, or at the grave of Henry James; whether catching up a historical moment of the life of the mind in a Phi Beta Kappa poem for the first postwar graduating class at Harvard in 1946, or celebrating (in “Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno”) his own purchase of a house in Austria in 1957, when he stopped summering in Ischia; whether celebrating a Gaudy night at Christ Church, his old Oxford College, or less ceremonially chronicling his and his generation’s continuing encounter with the cultivations of the mind and the savageries of the heart, he has led his best poems beyond the enclosures of the occasions for which they were offered, out into generality and truth.

IT IS a peculiarity of Auden’s own kind of poetic modernity that he has never felt the concept to be the enemy of the image, or discourse to be destructive of poetry. Some of his poems have the structure and power of essays, just as his critical and speculative prose writings reflect concerns that appear in his poems. But he is even more unusual in feeling so close to the concerns of natural science. His poems abound in scientific allusions and technical terms. One cannot imagine any other poet of his age, save Empson perhaps, observing the workings of the goddess Mutabilitie in the fact that “Two of the Six/Noble Gases have, I hear,/Already been seduced” (indeed, how many laymen know that only within the last few years was argon, which chemistry textbooks maintained to be aloof from all other elements, first compounded?). He still likes to remark that the only magazine he takes “is not literary, but the Scientific American.”

This attitude toward science stems from his childhood, when, as he says, “there was no nonsense about two cultures — it never occurred to one that science was not humane.” His father was medical officer and professor of public health at the university in Birmingham, where Auden grew up. At preparatory school he first met Christopher Isherwood; at Gresham’s School, Holt, he concentrated in biology, and in 1924 published his first poem. He went up to Christ Church in 1925; at Oxford he and Stephen Spender, Isherwood, C. Day Lewis, and Louis MacNeice began to be known as a literary circle. A first collection of poems was printed in a tiny edition at Oxford in 1928; in August of that same year, he went with Isherwood to Berlin, arriving in time to catch the premiere of the Brecht-Weill Dreigroschenoper. If Isherwood has permanently preserved the Geist of the period in his Berlin Stories, that bleak, ironic moment of wit and harshness and cabaret, hovering at the brink of the Nazi thirties, must have become a time of self-discovery for Auden.

Not only his long and deep attachment to German literature dates from then, but a sense of civilization as a beleaguered cosmopolitan City (and he has since noted many times the resemblances between New York and pre-Hitler Berlin) may have matured there as well. When he returned home and in 1930 began five years of schoolmastering, he was ready to strike a note for which his earlier poetry would be famous. His morally bogus headmaster at the beginning of The Orators remarks, scarcely understanding his own irony, “What do you think about England, this country of ours where nobody is well?” The brilliant mixture of the wildly colloquial and the obscurely learned, the interest in puzzles, riddles, games, and mock strategies, the devoted craftsman’s attitude toward meter and verse form, the acute sense of stylistic openness and of the need for a whole array of formal and rhetorical modes for different themes and occasions that have become so familiar in his work all got their start in these early years. And if by now his guise has become that of a wise but unwearied schoolmaster or vicar instead of the conspiratorial public school boy, he has constantly devoted his vision to the task of not breaking faith with one’s whole set of nesting childhoods. Here again, what he said of another (in “In Memory of Sigmund Freud”) is true in good part of his own work: he would unite

The unequal moieties fractured
By our own well-meaning sense of justice.
Would restore to the larger the wit and will
The smaller possesses but can only use
For arid disputes, would give back to
The son the mother’s richness of feeling.

(One might notice how in this brief passage a disarmingly prosaic tone is deepened by a suddenly concrete verb like “fractured,” how the seemingly careless use of “wit and will” unleashes the force of the Renaissance English meanings parallel to “instinct and reason,” and most typical of all, the verse form: a strophe of cryptically syllabic lines of eleven, eleven, nine, and ten syllables, arranged without regard to stress, respectively, at the same time arrayed on the page to look like the sort of adaptations of classical alcaic stanzas made by German romantic poets like HÖlderlin.)

Through his many volumes of verse, constantly revised for collected editions, his long poems like The Sea and the Mirror, .New Year Letter, and For the Time Being, his essays, reviews, introductions, and his songs and opera libretti, Auden has striven constantly to put his virtuoso talents to the service of a seriousness which transcends mere solemnity, seeking to avoid that commonest of failings which leads us to “ruin a fine tenor voice/For effects that bring down the house.” His concerns with science and with society on the one hand, and with the intensely personal on the other have bred a sense of the meaning of life in the conceptual metropolis in whose complex and polluted air modern human awareness lives and moves and has its being. The task of his poetry has been that which he has ascribed to fallen human existence: to redeem “the time being . . . from insignificance.” He has, too, always spoken to the urban condition in as well as of man, and the image of the City — whether of the Augustinian contrast between the Heavenly and the fallen Earthly one, or the Utopian model of the Just one, or the historical city-states, or an actual London, Berlin, or New York.

It is no accident that this list should end with the American metropolis in which he has now been domiciled for almost half his life. In 1922, T. S. Eliot could tick off, toward the end of The Wasteland, the falling towers of the failed cities of the European past and present, perishing in a historical and visionary twilight: “Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/Vienna London/Unreal.” New York was not part of the world of Western civilization for Eliot (consider its mythical importance in Whitman and Hart Crane, for example). Yet if New York is only one instance of Auden’s mythological city, it has clearly become his hometown. “It’s the only city in the world that isn’t provincial,” he said recently. “I don’t feet like an American, but I am a New Yorker.”

And so he is. Almost from the moment of his arrival in early 1939 (he became a U.S. citizen in 1946), a vision of New York began to unroll in many of his poems, as the American language began to enter his diction (he now rhymes “clerk” with “work,” rather than with “dark”—surely an empirical test for American English). Thus, for so many Americans, the opening lines of “September 1, 1939” came to stand for the declarations of a civilized voice calling out from the explosion of Europe, and rebuking not just a nation, or, indeed, a self, but a whole state of being (“mature,” shall we say, but not really grown-up) for its self-absorption:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade. . . .

College texts today must needs annotate this poem, which moves from the unstated news bulletins from Europe, meditating on Germany and Hitler, to a darkening of the “neutral air” and “blind skyscrapers” of New York, and ending not entirely hopelessly as “dotted everywhere,/ Ironic points of light/ Flash out wherever the Just/ Exchange their messages” — ever since, a canonical vision of those same skyscrapers, now in another role, that wink and glitter in the seediest of thirties movies. But any New Yorker would know that, alas, those famous opening lines need additional annotation, as much as if they referred to eighteenth-century London. Gone are not only the pre-war “dives,” but the famous clubs of the forties where Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were giving the concept of “Fifty-second Street” a new meaning.

To SEE Auden at home these days, in the light of some gray afternoon in his second-floor apartment, is to be struck by the way his face confounds one’s memories of early photographs of him: the long, angular oval surmounted by a straight shock of hair has become squarer, wrinkled, and somehow more present. One might remember a friend’s remark that “Wystan has been years building up that face,” but there also comes to mind the dedicatory epigraph to The Orators, that glittering and perplexing book of prose, verse, schoolboy games, and private jokes written when he was twenty-five: “Private faces in public places/ Are wiser and nicer/ Than public faces in private places.” For here is the undersong to all the variations of his career, whether earlier, as a political and spiritual radical, or now, as a Christian, returned through encounters with Kierkegaard and Charles Williams in the early forties. The hostilities of Authority, the possibilities for love in broken and demoralized communities, and the temptations that beset the most responsible intelligences in a fallen City that has not only undergone a failure of nerve but has compounded the felony by understanding what that failure means — these have always been his subjects.

But Auden’s actual presence today — that famous face surrounded by books and recordings, that reassuring dry voice ranging from the rhetoric of the international literary man to the minute enthusiasms of some eccentric clergyman—reminds one of the way in which he has sought to avoid in his art the masks, the mythical externalizations of parts of the psyche that Yeats called personae, which so many twentieth-century poets have felt forced to wear for a world in which the bare visage of a poet has seemed more grotesque than any false face (try telling your neighbor on a transcontinental plane that you’re a poet, when he asks what you do. Then watch how uncomfortable he gets).

His life in the city might, from certain points of view, be a rural one. For years he has been known in New York for going to bed early and getting up before most of the municipal day has begun — perhaps because the Imagination, like the morning star, fades in the major daylight. He is, as always, singularly loath to gossip about literary sociology and politics. If he has long outgrown the notion that a poet must move through the world like a kind of spy (vide Isherwood’s early novel All the Conspirators, whose title must have been resonant for the whole circle of friends), his riper views about the relation of Art to Life have a similar effect in discouraging revelation: “Either the relation between them is so simple that nothing need be said, or so complicated that nothing can be said” is the way he usually puts an end on it.

He continues to feel, he says, “like an implacable Northern hater of the Roman Empire — a barbarian from outside the lines.” His Northern ancestry has always meant a lot to Auden, both imaginatively and in a kind of literary-historical way. Some of his earliest formal poetic concerns were with alliterative poetry; J. R. R. Tolkien’s reading of Old English poetry affected him strongly while at Oxford, and it is not surprising now to find him at work on translations, most recently, of “The Song of the Sybil,” from the Icelandic Edda. (He is still drawn to Iceland, which he admires as “the only absolutely classless society.”)

His more recent poetry has become, like his discourse, more personal, even to the point of homeliness, as exemplified by a suite of poems, each one devoted to establishing the myth of a different room in the modern dwelling, that gives its title to his last book, About the House. In this case, the house in question is in Austria, but there is something almost American in the appreciation of the concept of comfort that keeps appearing throughout the poems. Perhaps without being committed to thinking of him as either an English or an American poet, one might mark off Auden’s past thirty years as a kind of swap for T. S. Eliot’s rather Jamesian sort of expatriation. While the American from St. Louis had been able, in The Wasteland, to catch up the spirit of a war-torn London, emerging morally stillborn into the twentieth century, Eliot’s later poetry led to an avowal of a quietistic insularity. After the horror of the London blitz, his spiritual voyage inward and backward led him, in Little Gidding, to “a quiet church at smokefall,” where he could conclude that “history is now and England.”

But with Auden there have always been the journeys that led outward: to Iceland, China, Spain, America, annual transatlantic ferryings. His voice continues to be directed out and across the space that separates a poet from his readers. And he remains a kind of familiar radio voice of our Western City, the city that has both blossomed and poisoned in its time and will continue to do so. And yet his debt to the older American poet, showing from time to time in the accents of his verse, was avowed in a short poem written in 1948, on Eliot’s sixtieth birthday:

When things begin to happen to our favourite spot,
A key missing, a library bust defaced,
Then, on the tennis-court one morning,
Outrageous, the bloody corpse and always,
Blank day after day, the unheard-of drought, it was you
Who, not speechless from shock but finding the right
Language for thirst and fear, did much to
Prevent a panic. . . .

We are at a moment in history now when secular humanism and the kind of eloquence to which it has always been committed are under fire from their own progeny. A critic like George Steiner will claim that there are thirsts and fears for which there is no language, and has begun to question the very authenticity of discourse as a model of developing human culture; and the logos has been marked for erasure by certain sorts of new American poetry and left politics alike. But that secular humanism for which Auden’s voice has always spoken will probably remain the spirit of the age, despite the shocks of inhumanity in war and what has always passed for peace. To have seized words like “decency” and “love” from out of the mouths of their bawds has been the rhetorical triumph of his poetic career; to have mirrored some of the room still left on a sadly crowded planet in which human freedom might grow has been its imaginative task. And amid all the uncertainties about what our own age and our knowledge will, finally, have meant, Auden’s work will always be seen to have sharpened the outlines of what Shelley called “the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present.” To have achieved one’s literacy in his time is to be dated as much as by slang or hemlines. But it is a condition which one need never regard with the condescensions of nostalgia.