The Poet in Praise of Limestone

Auden is the twentieth-century poet in something like the way Tennyson was the nineteenth-century poet. He was born ninetyeight years after Tennyson, his first book appeared one hundred and one years after Tennyson’s, and anybody of about fifty or over who reads poetry must feel, as a Victorian in the same case felt a century ago, that his whole reading life coincides with one important career. It is difficult to explain how much this colors one’s mind, but it certainly has an effect on the sentiments. It is a relation like a very old friendship, which may not be as active and exciting as newer ones, and which one may on occasion casually traduce, but always in the knowledge that it can never end. Just so might a man have been irritated by The Princess and bored by Maud, only to acquiesce, perhaps with a sigh, in The Idylls of the King.

Differences must, however, be declared, and they are many. Auden will write no Idylls and bore us with no Doubt; he has made himself ineligible for the Laureateship and the House of Lords, and he is unlikely to give private readings to the Queen of England. Tennyson claimed to be the greatest master of the English language since Shakespeare, but added that he had nothing to say. Auden is a great master, and there is virtually no limit to what he has to say. The parallel remains: this for some who are aging is the voice, the demeanor, of our aging century. Once taut and cold, that voice could speak to the accompaniment of a blue stare learnt from a school bully, shout in-jokes aloud, express like a surgeon in one breath our sickness and his assured, jargon-protected knowledge. Now the voice is more benign, the look more tolerant, and we can share the knowledge if we want to. But there is no question that it is the same voice, or that it is a twentieth-century institution.

This gives him no Tennysonian centrality; Auden is the poet of our pluralism, a very singular person indeed. He has formed no school, is seriously eclectic (“His guardian angel/has always told him/What and Whom to read next”), and has precisely defined for himself and us—to whom he is therefore important—the unimportance of what he is doing. He agrees with Nietzsche that “we have Art in order that we may not perish from the Truth.” He is very private, himself polices his limits and his lacks, rejoices in his immense technical resource, and takes what he wants when he wants it: from Groddeck long ago, or Lorenz now; from Graves long ago, and now, in City Without Walls (Random House, $4.50/$ 1.95) , from John Hollander (because he knows a good comic verse form when he sees it). Forty years ago, in “Paid on Both Sides,” he inserted a whole chunk from a mummer’s play and left us to explain to ourselves how it fitted the plot, which was about a feud. More fluent and amenable today, he still expects his “handful of readers” to to be able to “rune.”

by Frank Kermode

Readers of his criticism—notably that collected in The Dyer’s Hand—are likely to feel that Auden’s prose is more solemn than his verse, which for a long time has tended to be without much afflatus, light and conceited in tone. Though poems frequently end with a kind of bow to the Supreme Being, anything that could possibly be described as Magic is, for doctrinal reasons, excluded, and the invocations, incantations, and world-changing spells which charmed our youth are gone. Their impropriety was detected by the poet long ago, in the forties, when he worked out, with the aid of Kierkegaard and others, his religious position. One implication was that Auden could never, in the manner of some elders, confuse poetry with ethics or religion; to speak of the poet as a third order of priesthood would seem to him very wrong, and he would not, like Yeats, tell the Magical Lie, even if this were, as Yeats thought, the right way to hold justice and reality in a single thought. The Prospero of Auden’s Tempest commentary, The Sea and the Mirror, is one such magician.

Renouncing magic, Auden finds in maturity good reasons to support a conviction of his _youth, that there is much to be said for “light” verse, for verse that uses the intelligence, for verse that remembers the gaiety possible to the natural man. This emphasis displeases some readers, especially some who were among his earliest admirers; for thirty years or more they have been complaining that he did not know how seriously to take himself, though in fact the course of his career is one long demonstration that he takes himself seriously enough to know exactly that. The wit and craft of his later poetry, rightly taken, continue this demonstration.

He at first wrote as if charged with creating mystery or uttering prophecy, and since he began in the twenties, there is nothing surprising about that: but it became clear that he was more a Dryden than a Yeats. The parallel with Dryden is indeed obvious, and is suggested in a general way by Auden’s intensely professional approach to his craft and the vastness of his linguistic and conceptual resources. More specifically, he is, like Dryden, occasional poet, translator, playwright, librettist (perhaps the best of our time) , songwriter, master of the styles of argument, a more important critic than his idiosyncratic prose discourse allows some people to see, and a wit. In this last capacity he has preserved longer than Dryden did the fantastic strain of his youth, and occasionally this takes one back behind Dryden to the Donne of the funeral elegies, or his imitators. The new book contains an epithalamium quite as conceited as seventeenth-century examples of the genre, and in its day quite as modern.

To enjoy it you need all your wits and at least one first-rate dictionary (Auden’s own, he tells us, are “the very best that money can buy”). Consider, for example, these stanzas, addressed to a kinswoman on her marriage.

May Venus, to whose caprice
all blood must buxom,
take such a shine to you both
that, by her gifting,
your palpable substances
may re-ify those delights
they are purveyed for:

cool Hymen from Jealousy’s
teratoid phantasms,
sulks, competitive headaches,
and Pride’s monologue
that won’t listen but demands
tautological echoes,
ever refrain you.

Only the deities are commonplace, and the good wishes; all are forced to share the poem with some strange words and themes. The verb “to buxom” is obsolete, and means “to obey.” It sits snugly beside “take a shine to,” for each is its own kind of slang, one proper to goddesses and one to ordinary lovers. The rest of the stanza means that he hopes this will enable their bodies to make actual the pleasures for which they are provided. “Teratoid” means monstrous, pathological, used here for its original as well as its medical sense, and instantly cut down to size by “sulks.” As all echoes are tautological, that word here rather nicely applies to itself as well as to the echoes. In the remainder of the poem we are counseled to thank Mrs. Nature— sometimes called Dame Kind and a member of Auden’s makeshift pantheon, with Dame Philology, Dame Algebra, and occasional less substantial allegorical figures—for bringing humanity to the point where the Auden clan get together for the marriage; a huge evolutionary effort, an epic of survival, must be celebrated by human beings so assembled, but as persons they also owe thanks to

the One for Whom all
are super-posable, yet
Who numbers each particle
by its Proper Name.

“Enantiomorph,” I see, is a term used mostly by crystallographers, but in general meaning, according to the O.E.D. Supplement, “a form which is related to another as an object is related to its image in a mirror: a mirror image.” Webster, under “enantiomorphous,” seems closer to our mark: “similar to but not superposable; related to each other as a right-handed to a left-handed glove.” The point is that for God enantiomorphs are superposable, though he does not fail to distinguish the individuality of each created thing. The Proper Name, thus capitalized, is an indication of one respect in which poets, insofar as they resemble Adam, are made in God’s image: for “whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof, which is to say, its Proper Name. Here Adam plays the role of the Proto-poet. . .”(The Dyer’s Hand, p. 34).

The argument of the epithalamium is at once flip and serious, and yet it is an argument, not just a bunch of witty, avuncular good wishes. Two “nonesuches,” two Proper Names, have decided to “common” their lives, always a “diffy” undertaking, and one with a long strange history; a marriage is a symbol of the superposability of enantiomorphs (if it works) , and the ceremony provides a good moment to joke about the physical and also the spiritual adventures of homo sapiens.

The reading of such poetry is an experience about as different as possible from that of reading, say, Wallace Stevens, even though he looks more “philosophical" and also has a very personal lexicon; the difference is that Auden’s meanings are exactly defined by the unusual words: nauntle, dindle, ramstam, noodling are from the dialect dictionary; depatical, olamic are more learned. When Auden speaks of

the baltering torrent
sunk to a soodling thread,

or of the Three Maries sossing over the seamless waves, he is not, as you might suppose, inventing the words. If he remarks that “the insurrected eagre hangs/over the sleeping town we may have to look up eagre, but once we’ve done that we know what he’s talking about. In the poem beginning

On and on and on
The forthright catadoup
Shouts at the stone-deaf stone—

I had lazily assumed that a catadoup was some sort of bird, but actually it is a Nile cataract, and this naturally makes a difference to the poem. Hence the importance of those dictionaries.

It may well occur to some old-fashioned reader that there is a price to be paid for choosing this method of celebrating “the eachness of everything,” and the price is that “music”—Tennyson’s thing—has been sacrificed. Auden’s reply to this kind of criticism is that the people most likely to use it “are the tone-deaf. The more one loves another art, the less likely it is that one will wish to trespass upon its domain.” The truth is that the “musical” kind of poet is likely to be more concerned than Auden with the world as seen by symbolists: a blur of correspondences. If you are more interested in identity as perceived among and sorted out from creation’s infinite variety, you are likely to avoid these chords and speak idiosyncratically of what you peculiarly see from where you alone stand. If you argue that humanity is given a diversity equal to that of the language-less creation precisely in language, you will want to illustrate this diversity and this language by speaking precisely. Because they cannot speak, birds (and cataracts) are unoriginal, repetitive, incapable of lying, unaware of death and time. “Let them leave language to their lonely betters,” who need it to map their worlds in time and space, and also—in the Age of Anxiety—to understand man’s anxieties. This calls for a large and modern lexicon.

Once, in serious mood, Auden catalogued our Anxieties. “The basic human problem,” he said, “is man’s anxiety in time; e.g., his present anxiety over himself in relation to his past and his parents (Freud), his present anxiety over himself in relation to his future and his neighbors (Marx), his present anxiety over himself in relation to eternity and God (Kierkegaard) .” This characteristically triadic formulation belongs, however, to 1941, to the period of New Year Letter and the other poetry of that time. Since then the task of the poetry has been modified; broadly speaking, it is to celebrate what is present rather than what makes anxious; to see (with knowledge) and name (with language) whatever in the multitudinous world presents itself before you, wherever you stand. Auden always admired Hardy for “his hawk’s vision, his way of looking at life from a very great height.” This enabled him “to see the individual life related not only to the local social life of its time, but to the whole of human history.” There are bold modern attempts to do likewise; for example, Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts. Auden’s is different, more exact and knowing, less comprehensive and “musical.”The most he does is to sketch the grand gestures, as in the paleobotanical splendor of the lines on

that preglacial Actium when the huge
Archaic shrubs went down before the scented flowers
And earth was won for color—

(About the House)

which neatly superimpose a historic upon a prehistoric battle, one time scale on another, so that even readers who wonder whether poets need to bewilder us with “scientific” information may have, for a second, a sharper sense of where they stand in the longer perspectives of time. Thus a lifelong love of technical language for its own sake pays off. The material isn’t, as it were, orchestrated in a Woolfian way, nor is there anything like the immemorial moaning that Tennyson combines with geology. There is not even any anxiety; without music, without magic, he professes accuracy iu respect of what it is to stand in the Arctic Circle, in a Manhattan kitchen, or in an Austrian house.

Primarily he is a city poet. He thinks of the city in relation to geology, human evolution, and history; he remembers too that a City is emblematic of a community bound by need and love, so that the actual lower-case city is far from being the same thing. He further reflects that there are great differences between poems and cities and societies:

A society which was really like a good poem, embodying the aesthetic virtues of beauty, order, economy and subordination of detail to the whole, would be a nightmare of horror for, given the historical reality of actual men, such a society could only come into being through selective breeding, extermination of the physically and mentally unfit, absolute obedience to its Director, and a large slave class kept out of sight in cellars.

(He saw in his youth that totalitarian aesthetics, like those of Hulme, Pound, Eliot, and Yeats, had a tendency to be reflected in totalitarian politics.) Such preoccupations not surprisingly promote a special interest in the celebrant of the city and its antecedents, in the work of seeing and making which he does under his particular roof. And so Auden, without ceasing to be reticent, writes more and more (wryly, ironically, yet charitably) about himself.

This does not shorten the historical perspective, or diminish the sense of standing on a world of rock and soil. The myth of the limestone Eden, which is recurrent but which we now associate principally with the beautiful “In Praise of Limestone,” published in 1962, has not lost its force. But in that poem the preference for limestone led to generalizations about human types with other preferences. Now tfie tone grows more personal, the poems more directly concerned with the curiosity that upon a particular middle-aged man, shaped thus, dressed thus, should devolve the professional task of praise. It is long enough, I admit, since he required that “the shabby structure of indolent Flesh/Give a resonant echo to the Word”; but there is a new element of amused wonder that the spirit, no longer orgulous or bold, and established in still shabbier flesh, should “conform to its temporal focus of praise.” In About the House, published in 1966, the poet meditated on the quality of the space each room represented. The study is cut off from “life-out-there,” however “goodly, miraculous, lovable” it may be: in it poems are written, and the poet serves “this unpopular art which cannot be turned into/background noises for study/or hung as a status trophy by rising executives.” And a poem may be, at best, “a shadow echoing/ the silent light,” no more than that; but it is a great deal. And to be doing something so relatively impressive and so privileged can seem odd, especially if one happens to be doing it in the middle of an incorrigible, indifferent metropolis.

So the new book opens with a poem in alliterative five-line stanzas about the fantastic forms of Manhattan, and the inhabitants of this cliff full of folk, mechanically working nobodies whose reaction to Nothing is expressed in meters almost as old as the language:

Small marvel, then, if many adopt
cancer as the only offered career. . . .

The meditation is building up a sardonic picture of a postwar world when it is interrupted by a voice “at three A.M./in mid-Manhattan”—which censures his Schadenfreude; a little psychomachy ensues, and the poet is advised to go to bed.

Teasing, moral, the meanings float down metrical streams; we should, we are told, “look at/this world with a happy eye/but from a sober perspective.” There is an occasional regression to old moods and styles, as in the joke-menace of “Song of the Ogres”—

Little fellow, you’re amusing.
Stop before you end by losing Your shirt . . .

but by and large the new book is about the Poet at Sixty. The concluding poem is called “Prologue at Sixty.” Characteristically it contemplates its author, first as a member of the human race:

Name-Giver, Ghost-Fearer,
maker of wars and wisecracks,
a rum creature, in a crisis always,
the anxious species to which I belong

and then as random particle and Proper Name, the descendant of Nordic pirates, inhabitant of Austria within the limits of the Roman Empire; member of a culture which has grasped the relation between flesh and spirit, and which in principle accepts the duties of acknowledging happy eachness and of bearing witness “to what is the case.” To the meaningful landscapes of Ins life he now adds bits of New York; a New Yorker, sixty, turning first to the obituary columns of the Times, he still has some hope of being able to share the city with the alien young.

The little seventeen-syllable obiter dicta which have for a few years past scattered themselves across his work are sometimes directly about the Poet: “He thanks God daily/that he was born and bred/a British Pharisee"; “The way he dresses/reveals an angry baby,/howling to be dressed.” And so selected crotchets are revealed: the Poet is not vain, except about his knowledge of meter and his friends; he wishes he were Konrad Lorenz, and that he had written the novels of Firbank: he expects lights to turn green for him when he reaches a crossing. He has little to complain of, living as he does, “with obesity and a little fame,” among Americans, of whom it may be said that they resemble omelets: “there is no such thing as a pretty good one.”

These little sketches contribute selectively to an image of the Poet as benign, as saying Yea but not loudly, tamed by age, domestic in his own kitchen, given to amusingly rueful speculations about verse, sex, God. Do we see in him any of the lineaments, however modified, of the Poet of our youth, of Lions and Shadows— the chill genius working all day behind darkened windows, a gun in his desk: the technical virtuoso who could write a double ballade on the names of toothpastes; Stephen Spender’s guru; C. Day Lewis’ accompanist on the harmonium, or Louis MacNeice’s saidonic traveling companion in Iceland, the brilliant joker of the Letter to l ord Byron? Where is the public school mythopoet, the boy who cut up his poems and stuck together only the best, terse lines, so that sometimes they sounded like an urgent telegram received in a nightmare—

Coming out of me living is always thinking,
Thinking changing and changing living,
Am feeling as it was seeing?

Is there any trace of the louche “Letter to a Wound,” or the tone, borrowed from cruel bullying prefects out of the world of If . . . , that conveyed to us so valued a frisson in “The Witnesses"? Where is our deliciously minatory prophet, studding with epithets he made his own a clever child’s vision of disaster—

The sinister tall-hatted botanist stoops at the spring
With his insignificant phial, and looses
The plague on the ignorant town.
Under their shadows the pitiful subalterns are sleeping,
The moon is usual; the necessary lovers touch?

Where is the voice, so certain of its priorities and its audience, that advised us of our duty in Spain, that battered sixpenny pamphlet, its red now fading on our shelves, that is never reprinted? We say nothing of the shouting, brawling Odes, the poems spoken from behind a clinician’s mask, or the gemütlich apocalypse of “Out on the lawn I lie in bed. ...” I do not know how we can hear them in the present voice, or see them in the present face of Auden, except by the same imaginative effort we should need to restore our own uncrumpled faces and uncracked voices. But something endures, too deep for time to eradicate; it is a rhythm of thought, convolute, indirect, persistent. One hears it in the Prologue to Look, Stranger!, “O love, the interest itself in thoughtless heaven . . .” with its long-drawn sentences, the beautiful conceit of Newton,

who in his garden watching
The apple falling towards England, became aware
Between himself and her of an eternal tie;

in the last seventeen lines, of which I cannot say whether my admiration is actual or remembered from my eighteenth year. Certainly they represent a sort of controlled aspiration at the end of a magniloquent poem; and now, quietened by religious certainties, lacking the long breath of youth, he ends with that still. The Love of the early poetry now speaks its Name; there is less threatening, less exaltation, but these are among the qualities that would show up in a voice print and establish the identity of the boy and the man chatting quietly in Manhattan or Kirchstetten.

Looking on that portrait and on this, we see what lies between them: a life. Living it, the Poet decided that poetry was a game, a shadow. This has, somewhat absurdly, been held against him; he suffers as much as Dryden from irrelevant censures. It is the mark of a bore, or, to use an Auden word, a juggins, to suppose that something is supremely important because you can do it well. Gardeners, scholars, athletes often hear this mark. But, as the Poet’s friend Marianne Moore decisively remarked, there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle. St. Thomas Aquinas and Pascal were aware that there were things more important than their things, and Wittgenstein did not think that what cannot he said is less important than what can. All these people took their business very seriously. Games are not trivial in Wittgenstein, and Auden is not trivializing poetry when he calls it a game. Nor is he less serious because the manic threats of The Orators became the controlled dismissive gestures of Antonio in The Sea and the Mirror, the decayed city of The Dog Beneath the Skin merged into a benign survey of modern Manhattan. His visions of the Unjust City were made actual in the forties; we do not need those fantasies now. They belonged to their time, and it is not blindness or weakness that abandons them in favor of a wary calm. Also there is no need, when you really know, to seem knowing. The Poet will not be betrayed into a vulgar sadness: and he coexists, in the same skin, with an average sensual man. What we hear in the voice is a life: in the face we may even see an analogue of that limestone landscape, cut by intelligible streams, containing features that in themselves suggest poems, as, within the outcrops of the Poet’s favorite rock, goddesses lie in wait for the chisel. That is, for many of us, a landscape we grew up with. And if some slip away to sterner slopes, productive plains, or to experiences more oceanic, many others will remain, and will certainly praise limestone. □