What's Become of Wystan?
BY PHILIP LARKIN
IHAVE been trying to imagine a discussion of .Auden between one. man who had read nothing of his after 1940 and another who had read noth- ing before. After an initial agreement by adjective —`Versatile,' Fluent,"Too smart sometimes'— a mystifying gap would open between them, as one spoke of a tremendously exciting English social poet full of energetic unliterary knock- about and unique lucidity of phrase, and the other of an engaging, bookish, American talent, too verbose to be memorable and too intellectual to be moving. And not only would they differ about his poetic character: there would be a sharp division of opinior about his poetic stature.
Only an experiment of this kind could bring home how little the last twenty years have added to Auden's reputation. Why should this be so? 1-ie has remained energetic and productive; his later work shows the same readiness to experi- ment coupled with new and (in theory) maturer themes; he has not lost his sense of humour. And yet no one is going to justify his place in literary history by The Shield of Achilles any more than Swinburne's is justified by Poems and Ballads: Third Series.
The appearance of his latest collection, Homage to Clio,* marks the end of the third decade of Auden's poetic life and does not alter the fact that almost all we value is still confined to its first ten years. We need not remind our- selves of his virtues—the wide-angled rhetoric, the seamless lyricism, the sudden gripping drama- tisations—but to understand what succeeded it we must understand to what extent his poetry was of its time. He was, of course, the first 'modern' poet, in that he could employ modern properties unselfconsciously CA solitary truck, the last Of shunting in the Autumn'), but he was modern also by embracing a kind of neo-Wordsworthian- ism which, in an effort to put poetry at the service of the working-class movement, called it 'mem- orable speech' and made no theoretical distinc- tion between Paradise Lost and The Young Fellow Called Dave. This view held that ifi the poet were not concerned with the historic neces- sities of the age and akin to the healer and the explorer (typical figures!) his work would be deservedly disregarded.
Few poets since Pope have been so committed to their period. It is not only that to be at home in Auden's poetry we must recognise Bishop Barnes, Coghlan's coffin, Van der Lubbe and all the personalia of 'Last Will and Testament' (Letters from Iceland, with Louis MacNeice); we shall also find the depression, strikes, the hunger marchers; we shall find Spain and China; and above all we shall encounter not only the age's properties but its 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 persecu- tion of the Jews, the gathering dread of the next ■ var that was half projected guilt about the last: I he chairs are being brought in from the garden, flosinc,is TO Cuo. By W. H. Auden. (Faber, 2s, 6(1.)
The summer talk stopped on that savage coast Before the storms, after the guests and birds: In sanatoriums they laugh less and less, Less certain of cure; and the loud madman Sinks now into a more terrible calm.
It is precisely this dominant and ubiquitous unease that lay at the centre of Auden's verse and which he was so apt to express. How quickly, for example, he seized on the symbol of 'the Struggle,' the game . . . that tends to become like a war'; in other writers as well as Auden this concept of the 'Two Sides' was used time and again to represent the young against the old, the poor against the rich, the healthy against the diseased, the class struggle, Spain, the coming war. And whereas the conflict was originally seen as victorious (The Orators), as the Thirties wore on disaster became more and more likely. It was in this atmosphere that Auden's sensitivity was quickened and his perceptions heightened, per- ceptions not only of
Ten thousand of the desperate marching by
Five feet, six feet, seven feet high, but also how in the houses
The little pianos are closed, and a clock strikes.
I have stressed this identification not for its own sake but to make clear why Auden's outlook was completely dislocated when it ceased. As everyone knows, this came about in two ways— by the outbreak of war in 1939, and by Auden's departure for America a few months earlier. At one stroke he lost his key subject and emotion ---:-Europe and the fear of war—and abandoned his audience together with their common dialect and concerns. For a different sort of poet this might have been less important. For Auden it seems to have been irreparable.
His immediate reaction was to take a header into literature. Previously few writers had been named in his pages—Lawrence, Owen, Katherine Mansfield—which was eloquent of his 'deep abhorrence' If I caught anyone preferring Art
To Life and Love and being Pure-in-Heart. Now there came a whole flood. One cannot but notice the shift in tone from the disrespectful reference in 1937 to `Daunty, Gouty, Shop- keeper, the three Supreme Old Masters' to the eulogistic invocation in the New Year Letter of 1941:
Great masters who have shown mankind An order it has yet to find . . .
Now large, magnificent, and calm Your changeless presences disarm The sullen generations. still The fright and fidget of the will, And to the growing and the weak Your final transformations speak, &c., &c.
Auden no longer parries the question 'Who are the great?' with the poet's qualification you must ask me who Have written just as I'd have liked to do.
He has become a reader rather than a writer. and the Notes'—eighty-one pages of James, Kierke- gaard, Chekhov, Rilke, Nietzsche, Goethe, Mil- ton, Spinoza and so on against fifty-eight pages of text—gave warning how far literature was replacing experience as material for his verse.
Some critics might think this legitimate. The likely consequences, however—loss of vividness, a tendency to rehearse themes already existing as literature, a certain abstract windiness—were very much the criticisms Auden now invited. His first three American books were long, ambitious, and stylistically variegated, yet held the reader's attention only sporadically if at all. The rambling intellectual stew of Nen Year Letter was hardly more than a vamp-till-ready; The Sea and the Mirror, which appeared in 1945, was an unsuc- cessful piece of literary inbreeding; while although in For The Time Being, also 1945, Auden works hard to reinvigorate the Christian myth as a poetic subject, he is too often chilly ('weave in us the freedom of The actually deficient on The justly actual') or silly ('It was visiting day at the vinegar works'). As for The Age of Anxiety in 1941 , I never finished it, and have never met anyone who has.
Now, contrary to what has sometimes been suggested, it is no crime to write dull or even bad poetry. Even if it were, Auden has earned a reprieve many times over. Despite the bitter disappointment of the Forties for his admirers, it was really no more than they could have expected of a poet who had elected to remake his entire poetic equipment. The question was how soon he would get reorganised. His continued produc- tivity, intermittent successes such as the speeches of Caliban and Herod (Auden has always been brilliant at prose parody—did he write Hefty to Nancy?) and the sonnets in The Quest gave grounds for hope. If his poetry could once take root again in the life surrounding him rather than in his reading (perhaps The Age of Anxiety was a first struggling attempt to do this), then a new Auden might result, a New Yorker Walt Whit- man viewing the American scene through lenses coated with a European irony.
Ten years and three books later, one has to admit that this hope was over-optimistic. True, with Nones (1952), The Shield of Achilles (1955) and now Homage to Clio Auden has returned to the shorter poem as his medium : the Supreme Old Masters have retreated (though they have been replaced to some extent by the stale person- ages of classical mythology), and his themes have become more personal and have a greater chance of interesting. He has begun to produce a kind of long reflective poem in a stabilised 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 'Hom- age to Clio' and 'Goodbye to the Mezzogiorno':
Out of a gothic North, the pallid children
Of a potato, beer-or-whiskey
Guilt culture, we behave like our fathers and come Southward into a sunburnt otherwhere Of vineyards, baroque. la hella figura,
To these feminine townships where men
Are males. and siblings untrained in a ruthless Verbal in-fighting as it is taught In Protestant rectories upon drizzling Sunday afternoons . . .
These poems are agreeable and ingenious essays, more closely directed than his earlier excursions such as 'August for the people' or `Here on the cropped grass,' but their poetic pres- sure is not high—nor, indeed, is it intended to be. They read like the reflections of a practised and celebrated writer with no particular worries who is free to indulge his tastes in reading and travel, and as such we can accept them. Auden has not, in fact, gone in the direction one hoped : he has not adopted America or taken root, but has pur-
sucu an individual ant cosmopolitan path which has precluded the kind of identification that seemed so much a part of his previous successes.
There would he no point in mentioning this if it did not seem to have har regrettable poetic consequences. Firstly, althou0 he has b3 now recovered a 'dialect.. it is all .uo often an extra- ordinarily jarring one, r. with!! jumble of Age-of- Plastic nursery rhyme, ballet It lk-lore, and Holly- wood Lempriere. serve;; up svtth a lisping arch- ness that sets the teeth on edge:
Romance? Not in this weather. Ovid's charmer Who leads the quadrilles in Arcady. bay-lord 01 hearts who can call their Yes and No their awn, Would. madcap that he is soon die of cold or . sunstroke: Their lives are in firmer hands: that old grim She Who makes the blind dates for the hatless genera Creates their country matti_rs
Such is, explicitly, tht. kind of thing he likes: Be subtle. various. ornamental, clever.
And do not liSten to those critics ever Whose crude provincial gullets crave in books Plain cooking made still plainer by plain cooks, This view must be what permits lines like 'Just
reeling off their names is ever so comfy.,or She mayn't be all She might be but She is our Mum.
Are there people who talk this dialect, or is it how Auden talks to himself?
Secondly, one cannot escape the conclusion that in some way Auden; never a pompous poet, has now become an unserious one. For some time he has insisted that poetry is a game, with the elements of a crossword puzzle: it is 'the luck ot verbal playing.' One need not be a romantic to suspect that this attitude will produce poetry exactly answering to that description. Here again it seems that Auden was happier when his work had an extraneous social function, and if he feels that poetry is fundamentally unserious otherwise, it is a pity he parted from it, for lack of serious intention too often means lack of serious effect.
In the end that is what our discontent comes down to: Auden no longer touches our imagina- tions. My guess is that the peculiar insecurity of pre-war England sharpened his talent in a way that nothing else has, or that once 'the next War' really arrived everything since has seemed to him an anti-climax. But these are only guesses. Some- thing, after all, led him to write 'A poet's prayer' in New Year Letter: 'Lord, teach me to write so well that I shall no longer want to.' In any case it is our loss.