27 AUGUST 1983, Page 21

The voice that breathed o'er Auden

Humphrey Carpenter

Auden: A Carnival of Intellect Edward Callan (OUP £12.50)

professor Callan has called his book 'A Carnival of Intellect' because he regards Auden as a thinker. 'Auden was an intellectual,' he writes. 'He particularly respected books by "thinkers" — R. G. Collingwood and A. N. Whitehead as well as Freud, Jung, and Groddeck . . and Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Simone Weil, and Hannah Arendt, as well as Kierkegaard and other existentialists . . . Actually I myself, and I would imagine most people, 'particularly respect books by thinkers', but I'm not sure that this makes me an intellectual. And I'm far from sure it made Auden one either. Certainly there can never have been a Poet with more inclination to snap up ideas from psychologists, philosophers, and historians. One could extend Callan's list by a dozen or more names, and find fragments of their ideas scattered all through Auden's verse. An extensively annotated edition of the Collected Poems (something which I hope Edward Medelson will do one day) would be a kind of Who's Who of western thought, particularly 20th-century western thought. Auden liked to discover Great Minds a little while before they became real- ly fashionable, and to cull the most colour- ful bits of their writings for his own use. In undergraduate days he did this largely to impress Isherwood and others; later, it was all a Perfectly sensible part of the poetic process. The idea went into the poems often only partly digested, a bit like the grains and nutty bits you find in the more severe kinds of wholemeal bread. From the point of view of the poetry one can only be im- pressed; it was a marvellous (if sometimes slightly crude) way of keeping his poetic fire stoked year after year — all the more because he was rarely keen about a par- ticular 'thinker's' writings for more than a couple of years or so, and there was a con- stant parade of fresh faces on his intellectual map. But this is to say what he was like as a poet, not as an intellectual. I doubt if he was really an intellectual at all in the sense that say Freud, Tillich, or Whitehead were. He never worked out a complete system of ideas (though he occasionally attempted to sYnthesise and map his own melee of no-

dons into some coherent pattern); what one is observing, when looking at Auden at work, is a huge imagination requiring a cer- tain kind of fuel to make it flame up. He himself offered nothing purely intellectual — except quite simply some of the very best poetry that could be written, and I don't know that this is really an intellectual achievement.

The other key word in Callan's title, 'Carnival', is a bit more appropriate, for certainly towards the end of his life Auden became frightfully keen on the idea of Car- nival, particularly in religious and other serious contexts. But this notion didn't real- ly loom large in his poetic career as a whole, so I wonder why Callan has given it quite so much prominence. I think he may be trying to say that, though he was an 'intellectual', Auden was also tremendously exciting as a poet. I hope he thinks that, but I'm afraid his book doesn't convey it. It exudes a curious sense of boredom with Auden and most of his works, and one wonders at times why Callan has bothered to write it. He's done his stuff very thoroughly, as far as research is concerned, not merely using the secondary sources, but actually trudg- ing much Auden Country — the lead- mining district of the Pennines — with a one-inch map so as to elucidate just a few more details in Paid on Both Sides, the 'charade' which really opened Auden's public career at the end of the 1920s. Yet he has very little positive to say about Paid; almost his only personal comment is that Louis MacNeice rated it far too highly in comparing it favourably with The Waste Land. Auden's next extended work, The Orators, gets the same sort of treatment. Callan duly does his stuff at expounding that very craggy text — though he doesn't really have anything to add to interpreta- tions already in print — but as for judg- ment, his inclination is to dismiss it as 'flashes of brilliance [mixed] with much that is slipshod, silly, and even perverse'. True enough, I suppose, but then many of Auden's readers in the 1930s, who got wild- ly excited about him, were themselves slip-

shod, silly, and perverse — they were rather naughty ex-public schoolboys who thought the world was in a poor way and didn't know what to do about it, and they were elated by Auden's sly, private-jokey, hilariously childish portrayal of middle- class England in The Orators. Of course The Orators is a mess, but it's a wonderful, subversive, wildly funny mess, and it had the same sort of message to its readers that Lindsay Anderson's film if did to public schoolboys in the late 1960s. Callan seems to be quite blind to this. In fact that's the kind of nuance he seems to miss all through his book, which one\ surmises is the work of someone who has taught Auden conscien- tiously to undergraduates for years and years, and who has written the book rather too late, after he's got just a bit bored with the man and his poetry.

I wish,' among other things, that he wouldn't keep quoting from such works as `CP' and 'EA'. It's true that Auden wrote an awful lot of poems, and that the two handiest collections nowadays are Com- plete Poems and The English Auden, generally referred to by those initials. But hang it, Professor Callan, we want to be reminded which particular poem some of the marvellous lines you print come from. Page references are unimportant beside context. And there seems to be a kind of in- sensitivity in this sprinkling of gobbets almost at random around the book. I know that critics have to dismember the poetry, but for some reason in Callan there seems to be more than the usual scattering of limbs.

I suppose the best thing that can be said about the book is that old chestnut, 'It sends you back to the poetry.' Well, it does just to remind yourself that, however bor- ing Callan may have made him seem, Auden is really a wildly exciting, lovable poet, just about the best person there's been this century for hitting one's private nails on the head, and creating lines and im- ages which, often inexplicably, seem to em- body one's own inexpressible emotions and reactions to the world. I suppose that if you want to get a general introduction to all of Auden's work, Callan's book might fit the bill admirably; it's a sober, uneccentric ac- count of all the major poems and a gbod many of the shorter pieces, and its judgments are usually sensible. But I don't think that being sober, uneccentric and sen- sible are very good qualifications for tackl- ing Auden.