Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1906
Wystan Hugh Auden must be ranked with T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Frost as one of the major voices of twentieth century poetry. Some of his poems, like the justly celebrated “Musee des Beaux Arts,” have become mainstays in poetry anthologies and textbooks. Important poets such as James Merrill and John Ashbery-to name only two—are deeply indebted to Auden for both his style and subject matter. Auden acknowledged his own debt to Yeats, Frost, and Eliot in the many essays and articles he composed, especially after moving to the United States in the fateful year of 1939, just a few months before World War II began. Through his close association with Yale University Press, and through teaching positions at Swarthmore College and Bryn Mawr College, he became one of the undisputed arbiters of literary taste, both in his adopted country of America and in his native England, where poets such as Philip Larkin fell under his spell.
Born in York in 1907, Auden grew up in Birmingham and ultimately attended the University of Oxford, where he quickly established himself as a promising young writer. During the late 1920’s and the entire decade of the 1930’s, he wrote and published at a frenetic pace, often collaborating with playwright Christopher Isherwood. Auden became an American citizen in 1946, but in the late 1960’s he moved back to Oxford. He spent his latter years there and in his summer home outside Vienna, where he died in 1973.
Anthony Hecht, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and a personal friend of Auden for some thirty years, is in an unusually strong position to write a book on Auden’s poetry. Readers will be struck at once by the author’s erudition and familiarity with the works of Auden. He almost adopts the role of an old friend, leading the uninitiated reader into the complicated and fascinating landscape of Auden’s poetry, beginning with the privately printed Poems (1928). Hecht then proceeds to do line-by-line analysis of the key poems in Auden’s seven major books of poetry, including On This Island (1937), Letters from Iceland (1937), a book of poetry and prose which includes the important poem “Letter to Lord Byron,” Another Time (1940), The Double Man (1941), For the Time Being (1944), Nones (1951), and The Shield of Achilles (1955).
Auden’s books were often issued in British and American editions with different titles. The British title of The Double Man, for example, is New Year Letter (1940). A further complication is that Auden made constant revisions, emendations, and even cancellations of his texts. The Collected Poetry (1945) contains many such altered texts, and Auden deliberately arranged those poems alphabetically rather than chronologically to forestall any attempt to find an overall theme or direction in his work. For the most part, Hecht wisely defers to Auden’s wishes; Hecht’s distinction between public and private poems is one that Auden himself made implicitly and explicitly throughout his career. Hecht claims that Auden’s greatest poems, such as For the Time Being, manage to combine the two realms into one memorable artistic synthesis. Private feelings (grief, loneliness, love) are often juxtaposed to larger facts of history, society, and theology. For the Time Being was written as an elegy for Auden’s mother:
the poem deals as much with his feelings of personal loss as it does with the mystery of Christ’s nativity and the cruel stupidity of human governments, dramatically represented by Herod.
Hecht uses few biographical references, even though Auden’s literary and personal life is documented in reams of personal letters, notes, and anecdotes. Hecht uses such material sparingly and appropriately, always in support of explication and never as an end in itself. Typically, he will point the reader to the excellent biography by Humphrey Carpenter, W H. Auden: A Biography (1981); occasionally he quotes from Auden’s close friends and collaborators. Only twice does Hecht introduce his own reminiscences. His focus, always, is on the poetry.
To read The Hidden Law: The Poetry of W H. Auden is to appreciate Auden on a deeper level and in a complete cultural context because Hecht is a kind of Renaissance man, offering intelligent and literate observations on the sources and references in all the poems under discussion. Auden, like Eliot and Yeats, was brilliantly educated, equally at home in the worlds of literature, art, opera, psychology, history, and politics. He was fluent in most European languages and quite comfortable with classical Latin and Greek. Perhaps the single most useful aspect of the book is Hecht’s uncanny ability to pinpoint the precise sources for lines, titles, and imagery in Auden’s work, whether Homer; William Shakespeare, Charles Baudelaire, or Theodore Roethke. To read Hecht is to feel intimately connected with that great body of art and writing that constitutes Western civilization. Hecht also refers frequently to the operas of Richard Wagner, the psychological writings of Sigmund Freud (for whom Auden wrote an elegy), and the theological tracts of Martin Buber.
In discussing “Streams,” from The Shield of Achilles, Hecht makes references to literary figures such as T. S. Eliot, Thomas Campion, and Elizabeth Drew, then proceeds to explain the meaning and context of the words Homo ludens and “crankle,” which figure prominently in the poem: “To ’crankle’ is to zigzag, and the reference to Homo ludens(playful man) is both to a Latinate nomenclature descriptive of general human behavior; and to the book of that title by Johan Huizinga.” Hecht then quotes a passage from Huizinga’s book that applies directly to “Streams.” Such learned and appropriate commentary is typical of Hecht’s approach throughout The Hidden Law.
Hecht regularly points out Auden’s unorthodox and occasionally confusing style of punctuation, especially the habit of substituting the colon for the semicolon. He frequently mentions Auden’s myopia as a reason for the generalized landscapes that figure 50 prominently in his work. Auden could not see individual flowers, but he did appreciate the whole panorama of nature, often treating landscapes as symbols of psychological or moral states. These emblematic landscapes are what Hecht calls paysages moralisees (moralized landscapes), and they constitute a critical part of his reading of Auden, whom he regards as both a supremely moral poet and a gifted craftsman with an unusually well-tuned ear. Hecht relishes Auden’s metrical richness, his use of traditional forms such as the sonnet and rhyme royal as well as his playful limericks and inventive free verse.
Although Auden’s homosexuality was an open secret during his lifetime, neither hidden nor advertised, Hecht does not dwell on the sexual identity of his subject except when it bears on the interpretation of particular texts, such as “Uncle Henry,” “The Capital,” Auden’s untitled poem to his companion Chester Kallam (dated Christmas Day, 1941), the privately circulated poem entitled “The Platonic Blow,” “Minnelied,” and “Pleasure Island,” a sardonic description of Fire Island. Hecht prefers to focus on the far greater influences in Auden’s literary career, his lifelong preoccupations with European high art and music (particularly opera), his passionate involvement with radical or socialist politics, his abiding curiosity about psychology (especially the work of Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Georg Groddeck, and John Layard), and his love-hate relationship with Christianity. Reared in the Anglican church, Auden became an atheist in early life, and then a devout Christian in the later years, as suggested by the profoundly religious books For the Time Being and Nones (which is based on the traditional canonical hours observed in monasteries).
The dustjacket of The Hidden Law features a color reproduction of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder that inspired Auden’s best known poem, “Musee des Beaux Arts” (1939), a work which most critics interpret as a wry commentary on the deep chasm between the important events of history or mythology (here represented by Icarus) and the dull, predictable nature of day-to-day life (as suggested by the farmer at his plow). As with all of his interpretations, Hecht adds an original slant to this generic reading by noting that Auden firmly believed in the essential frivolity of all art. Auden contended that art should never be taken too seriously, no matter how grand or meaningful it may seem-a rather self-effacing stance for a man who was devoted to poetry all of his adult life, and another clue to his sincere commitment to Christian values, especially the monastic virtues of humility and self-denial.
Hecht touches on all the pivotal works of Auden, but a few of his observations deserve special mention. “September 1, 1939” in Another Time is one of Auden’s most celebrated poems, not merely because it assesses the horror of World War II and the global spread of Fascism but also because it is a perfect example of Auden’s ability to blend the private and public worlds. Hecht places it in the context of two other great poems that Auden wrote in the same period, his elegies on the deaths of his two heroes, Freud and Yeats (“In Memory of Sigmund Freud” and “In Memory of W. B. Yeats”). So Auden’s war poem is an elegy, too, a mournful statement on the death of all that was good in Western Europe. As Hecht observes,
He began by feeling the mixed recognition of fellowship with others and the apprehension of having his privacy and individuality invaded by the overpowering forces of history. Throughout the poem there is a dramatic, though unreconciled, oscillation between the corporate, or social, and the individual, or private, life.
For the Time Being, Auden’s beautiful book- length poem on the nativity of Christ, represents the height of his Christian artistry; as Hecht points out, however; the poem also relies on numerology, the theories of Carl Jung, and (most important) anachronisms. Auden combines details from the New Testament narrative with artifacts and language of the twentieth century, as in these choral voices from the ninth and final section of the poem, “The Flight into Egypt”:
Come to our jolly desert
Where even the dolls go whoring;
Become intimate friends,
And it’s always three in the morning.
Hecht closes his analysis with a discussion of “The Shield of Achilles,” Auden’s great statement on the making of art and on the passing of heroes from the modern world. Auden, like Hephaestus (the artisan-god who fashioned Achilles’ shield) has made a magnificent shield to protect him from the world, but nothing could make up for the loss of heroes such as Freud and Yeats. In the closing pages of the book, Hecht borrows Auden’s “The Hidden Law” to suggest that a hidden law operates in all the great poems, a kind of poetic justice or classical Greek notion of fate, a balancing force that keeps an imperfect world from destroying itself. For this original insight, and for the abundance of others contained in The Hidden Law, readers will be grateful to Anthony Hecht. Like all great critics, he inspires his reader to return to the splendid poems that enchanted him in the first place.
Sources for Further Study
The Atlantic. CCLXXI, April, 1993, p.128.
Boston Globe. April 4, 1993, p.38.
Choice. XXX, July, 1993, p.1767.
Commonweal. CXX, December 17, 1993, p.18.
Library Journal. CXVIII, February 1, 1993, p.82.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, August 15, 1993, p.18.
The Times Literary SupplemenL April 9, 1993, p.10.
The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXIX, Summer, 1993, p. SS1O2.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, April 25, 1993, p.4.
Washington Times. May 2, 1993, p. B8.