W. H. Auden

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W. H. Auden 1907–1973

(Full name Wystan Hugh Auden) English-born American poet, dramatist, librettist, critic, essayist, editor, and translator.

The following entry presents an overview of Auden's career through 1997. See also W. H. Auden Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 4.

W. H. Auden is considered one of the preeminent English-language poets of the twentieth century. In many ways a contradictory personality, at once prudent, revolutionary, pious, and intemperate, Auden is distinguished for his enormous intelligence, technical virtuosity, complex philosophical and moral vision, and keen wit. His prodigious output, spanning nearly a half century, includes inventive experiments with lyric and prose poetry, verse drama, librettos, and notable contributions to literary criticism. His best known poetry, most of which appears in The Orators (1932), Another Time (1940), Journey to a War (1939), New Year Letter (1941), For the Time Being (1944), The Age of Anxiety (1947), and Nones (1951), reflects his life-long preoccupation with political, psychological, and spiritual conflicts. As an innovative dramatist and librettist working in operatic forms, Auden also displayed an intuitive musical ear and theatrical genius ahead of his time. A highly original poet and celebrated man of letters, Auden's large and varied oeuvre attests to the impressive range and profundity of his literary and intellectual endeavors.

Biographical Information

Born Wystan Hugh Auden in York, England, and named after a Saxon saint, Auden was raised in the industrial city of Birmingham by devout, well-educated Anglo-Catholic parents of clerical descent. His father was School Medical Officer and Professor of Public Health in Birmingham. The family library, reflecting his wide ranging interests in archaeology, psychology, the classics, and Norse saga, acquainted the young Auden with scientific subjects and literature. His mother, with whom Auden maintained a powerful attachment, held a degree in French and worked as a nurse. Auden attended preparatory school at Saint Edmund's between 1915 and 1920, where he befriended Christopher Isherwood. He then went to Gresham's School, Holt, where he wrote his first poems and began to come to terms with his homosexuality. His first published poem appeared in Public School Verse in 1924. A brilliant student whose wealth of diverse knowledge dazzled his instructors and peers, in 1925 Auden began study at Christ Church College, Oxford, on a scholarship in natural science, though he later switched to English. At Oxford, Auden published poetry in Oxford Poetry, for which he served as an editor, and his first volume of poetry, Poems (1928), which was handprinted and privately distributed by classmate Stephen Spender. During this time, Auden was at the center of a group of emerging young writers including Spender, Isherwood, and Cecil Day-Lewis, alternately known as the "Oxford Group" or the "Auden Generation." While still at Oxford, Auden also wrote his first dramatic work, Paid on Both Sides (1930), which T. S. Eliot eventually published in the Criterion. After graduating in 1928. Auden spent a year in Berlin, then took up work as a schoolmaster in England and Scotland for several years while composing his first commercially distributed volumes, Poems (1930), The Orators, and a verse drama The Dance of Death (1933). Auden also collaborated with Isherwood on the verse dramas The Dog Beneath the Skin (1935), The Ascent of F6 (1936), and On the Frontier (1938). Established as a major poet during the 1930s, Auden became increasingly interested in left-wing political movements and social causes. He travelled to Iceland with Louis MacNeice in 1936, documented in Letters from Iceland (1937); to Spain in 1937 to support anti-fascist Loyalists in the Spanish Revolution, inspiring the poem "Spain"; and to China with...

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Isherwood in 1938, recounted in the travel bookJourney to a War. He also worked with composer Benjamin Britten on several documentary films and librettos, including On Hunting Fathers (1936) and Paul Bunyan (1941). Auden married Erika Mann, daughter of Thomas Mann, in 1935 to provide her with British nationality enabling her to leave Nazi Germany, after which they divorced. In 1939, Auden moved to the United States with Isherwood, where he became an official citizen in 1946, remaining in New York City until 1972. Once in America, Auden underwent a religious conversion that restored him to the Christianity of his youth. His first American publication, Another Time, contains some of his most memorable poetry. During the next decade, Auden was the recipient of two Guggenheim fellowships, taught at several prestigious liberal arts colleges, and continued to produce important volumes of poetry, including The Double Man (1941), reprinted the same year under the title New Year Letter; For the Time Being; and The Age of Anxiety, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Auden also published the first of several collections of his work with The Collected Poetry (1945), for which he received the Award of Merit Medal from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Auden suffered a fatal heart attack at his summer home in Kirchstetten, Austria, in 1973.

Major Works

Auden is best known as a poet of great erudition, wisdom, and remarkable lyrical gifts. His early verse in Poems (1930) is characterized by terse exposition, alluring abstraction, and inventive use of language, bearing the influence of Eliot and Thomas Hardy, Auden's initial master, as well as Laura Riding, Wilfred Owen, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Auden's early poems also adumbrate his penchant for Anglo-Saxon phrasing, syncopated rhythms, traditional forms, the allegorical imagery of science and geology, and his deep-felt humanitarian concerns. Drawing on eclectic sources for the verse drama Paid on Both Sides, inspired by the lively dramatic action of the parlor charade and the plays of Bertolt Brecht and William Butler Yeats, Auden merges the archaic style and blood-feud theme of Anglo-Saxon poetry with structural elements of Greek tragedy and the fragmentary modernist presentation of Eliot's The Waste Land. Auden built upon these early experiments in the prose and verse of The Orators, drawing on Freudian psychoanalysis, Marxist doctrine, and the avant-garde techniques of Eliot, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein to present a surreal vision of the revolutionary hero and a warning against the danger of fascism. Peppered with private jokes and allusions to his friends, The Orators laments and satirizes the stagnation of English society and the dubious promise of untamed modernism. Similar political and psychological concerns are echoed in Auden's collaborative verse dramas with Isherwood from this period, including The Dog Beneath the Skin, The Ascent of F6 and On the Frontier. Look, Stranger! (1936), reprinted as On This Island (1937), marks Auden's entrance into leftist politics and his shift toward an increasingly formal aesthetic. Turning away from the obtuseness of modernism and the subjective idealism of the Romantics, Auden invokes the directness and clarity of light verse to give serious expression to his strong ethical stance and to impose order upon the chaos preceding the Second World War. His poem "Spain," composed immediately after witnessing the brutal internecine combat in that country, reflects Auden's disillusionment with political causes and the indiscriminate violence of war. "In Time of War." a sequence of sonnets which appeared in Journey to a War, reveals the maturation of Auden's civic voice and liberal humanist creed. Published shortly thereafter, Another Time displays the full emergence of Auden's unique synthesis of technical mastery, moral probity, and spirited lyricism. This volume, his first American publication, contains many of his greatest poems, including "As I Walked Out One Evening," "Musée des Beaux Arts," "Lay Your Sleeping Head, My Love," "September 1, 1939," "The Unknown Citizen," "Letter to Lord Byron," and elegies to poets Matthew Arnold, A. E. Housman, and Yeats. The full impact of Auden's self-imposed exile and acute spiritual crisis, which led to his reversion to Christianity, is evident in The Double Man. This volume contains "New Year Letter," an extended epistolary poem on the evils of modern civilization rendered in Augustan form, and the sonnet sequence "The Quest." Influenced by the existentialist thought of Soren Kierkegaard and American theologian Rheinhold Neibuhr, Auden moved still further toward a cerebral style that sought universal harmony in a system of religious ideals. For the Time Being contains "For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio," an overt Christian allegory based on the Nativity in which he employs the terminology of science and psychology to rationalize religious faith, and "The Sea and the Mirror: A Commentary on Shakespeare's The Tempest," an ambitious allegorical work that examines the complex relationship between life and art and the creative potential of literary interpretation. His next major work, The Age of Anxiety, subtitled "a baroque eclogue," relates the inner consciousness of four disparate characters as they converse among themselves in a New York City bar during the Second World War. Returning to the alliterative Anglo-Saxon versification of his early poetry, Auden explores the spiritual dimensions of their ordinary lives and individual failings within a religious context. The height of Auden's mature, intellectual style is evident in Nones, which contains "In Praise of Limestone," The Shield of Achilles (1955), featuring "Horae Canonicae" and "Bucolics," and Homage to Clio (1960), which includes "The Cave of Making" and "Tonight at Seven-Thirty." Devoid of the frivolity of his earlier poetry, the serene meditations of these late volumes, frequently in neo-classical or pastoral modes, displays Auden's unsurpassed technical control and deep insights into the nature of human existence and experience, particularly as informed by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, medieval Christianity, history, and nature. Auden's highly perceptive critical essays, reviews, and lectures in The Enchafèd Flood (1950). The Dyer's Hand (1962), and Forewords and Afterwords (1973) document his intellectual concerns and artistic principles during his American period.

Critical Reception

Auden is widely regarded as one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century. Though a decidedly modern poet in terms of his radical politics and bold experimentation with accepted literary forms, Auden's idiosyncratic virtuosity and protean ethical perspective distinguishes him from his contemporaries. As many critics note, Auden's striking originality stems from his counterrevolutionary appropriation of traditional poetic forms, unabashed Christian faith, and mistrust of irrationalism, all seemingly at odds with the tenets of both modernism and romanticism from which his poetry derives. While most critics view Auden's poetry from the 1930s and early 1940s as his best, especially as found in The Orators, Another Time, and the poems "Spain," "In Time of War," and "New Year Letter," controversy surrounds evaluation of the middle and later periods of his career. "New Year Letter" continues to receive much critical attention, as does the relevance of Auden's self-imposed exile in America. Some critics believe that Auden's poetry lost much of its imaginative power and vitality after his emigration to the United States. However, others contend that the contemplative Christianity and Horatian intellectualism of Auden's American period represents the apogee of his disciplined style and sensibility, particularly as evident in The Age of Anxiety, "The Sea and the Mirror" from For the Time Being, and "In Praise of Limestone" from Nones. Many critics note a tendency toward obscurity in much of Auden's poetry throughout his career, variously attributed to his liberating genius, private satire, and cloaked references to his homosexuality. Despite Auden's significant contributions to contemporary musical theater, he remains largely unstudied as a dramatist and librettist, mainly due to the fact that the forms in which he worked have either fallen out of favor or never fully developed popular appreciation. A prolific poet of extraordinary technical dexterity, intellectual domain, engaging perspicacity, and epigrammatic wit, Auden forged a rare poetic voice that reconciled the opposing forces of tradition and modernism, for which he is hailed as a towering figure of twentieth-century literature.

Samuel Hynes (essay date Winter 1982)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7730

SOURCE: "The Voice of Exile: Auden in 1940," in Sewanee Review, Vol. 90, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 31-52.

[In the following essay, Hynes discusses Auden's emigration to the United States, his preoccupation with history and art, and "New Year Letter" as a reflection of Auden's historical sensibility.]

What I am going to say here concerns the relations between poetry and history. I intend to deal with Auden as an historical poet—in the sense not of a poet reconstructing the past in the manner of Browning and Pound, but of one who saw human actions as conditioned by history, and history as the necessity that men must recognize if they are to be free; and who wrote his historical understanding into his poems. The focus of my attention will be on the years 1939 and 1940—a point in Auden's career at which his ideas (and his style) changed radically—and on what the poetic consequences of that change were. Underlying my remarks is the literary historian's assumption that all works of art exist in Time, and are therefore both historical and biographical, and that historical and biographical knowledge are therefore a necessary part of our understanding of a work of art.

My principal example will be "New Year Letter," a long didactic poem that bears the date January 1, 1940. That date is obviously important, both in human history and in Auden's biography. On that day the thirties ended, and a new decade began: "Tonight a scrambling decade ends," Auden says in the poem. A few months earlier he had called it "a low dishonest decade," and we all know what he meant: we have learned the Myth of the Thirties—how Evil grew powerful and insolent then, while Good dithered and did nothing; how young writers tried to make writing a mode of action, and failed; and how a war that everyone foresaw and only the wicked wanted came at last. On January 1, 1940, England and France were at war with Germany; but it was the time of the "phoney war"—the fighting had not really begun. It was an odd, anxious time, between an ending and a beginning.

In Auden's life it was also an anxious, interim time. He had left England with his friend Christopher Isherwood in January 1939 and had emigrated to America, interrupting a promising career and alienating his English friends to go into exile among strangers. It was a move unlike those of any of the other famous modern literary exiles: if you compare the others—James, Conrad, Joyce, Mann, Pound, Eliot, Nabokov, Brecht—there is no other case of an established writer who left his country voluntarily. If literary biogeography ever becomes a field of scholarship—and perhaps it should—Auden will provide a unique case for study.

To many of his countrymen Auden's motive for this extraordinary move seemed clear enough. It was clear, for example, to Major Sir Jocelyn Lucas, M.P., who asked in the House of Commons "whether British citizens of military age, such as Mr. W. H. Auden and Mr. Christopher Isherwood, who have gone to the United States and expressed their determination not to return to this country until the war is over, will be summoned back for registration and calling up, in view of the fact that they are seeking refuge abroad?" And when the parliamentary secretary of the ministry parried the question, Sir Jocelyn asked angrily: "Is my hon. Friend aware of the indignation caused by young men leaving the country and saying they will not fight?"

A careful historian will want to make two points about this incident. One is that though Sir Jocelyn was surely wrong in assuming that Auden's motive was simple cowardice, he cannot be dismissed as just another Blimp-in-office. He asked his question on June 13, 1940—ten days after Dunkirk and a week before the surrender of France. At that moment England was alone in the war, and had just been driven back onto her island. And Auden was an Englishman who had chosen not to be present. Historically speaking, one can understand Sir Jocelyn's anger. The other point is that Auden knew all this, that the anger and contempt of his countrymen—including many former friends—was a part of his consciousness, and we can therefore look to find it reflected in the work that he was doing. And in June 1940 that work was "New Year Letter."

Auden's actual motives for choosing exile are more difficult to determine. One could argue that his move was the expression of a fundamental change of belief: that he was sailing away from politics, and toward religion. And if you favor left-wing politics and deplore religion you will naturally take this change as a betrayal—not of country, but of ideology. Some critics—notably Randall Jarrell—did respond this way. And certainly Auden's beliefs did change at this time. Isherwood recalls a conversation that he had with Auden aboard their New York-bound ship:

Isherwood: You know, it just doesn't mean anything to me any more—the Popular Front, the party line, the anti-Fascist struggle. I suppose they're okay but something's wrong with me. I simply cannot swallow another mouthful.

Auden: Neither can I.

And we know that during 1940 Auden began to attend Episcopal church services in New York, and that before the end of the year he had returned to the church in which he had been raised.

But having taken note of these facts, we haven't explained a self-imposed exile. Many of Auden's friends had lost their left-wing faith by 1939, and had found it possible to go on living in England. And as for religion—it seems an odd, indeed a perverse move to leave England in order to return to Anglicanism.

Consider also the mysterious passage in his essay in Modern Canterbury Pilgrims (1956) that recounts Auden's state of mind at about this time:

So, presently, I started to read some theological works, Kierkegaard in particular, and began going, in a tentative and experimental way, to church. And then, providentially—for the occupational disease of poets is frivolity—I was forced to know in person what it is like to feel oneself the prey of demonic powers, in both the Greek and the Christian sense, stripped of self-control and self-respect, behaving like a ham actor in a Strindberg play.

I quote this mysterious passage only to say that I don't know what Auden is referring to in his private life. The context suggests that it happened before he left England; and it may have been a part of his motivation for leaving.

I think Auden's emigration is better explained in more general terms, as a negative response to the historical situation as he saw it. By 1939 it seemed clear to him, as it did to many other Europeans, that the crisis they were facing was not simply another war but the failure of an ideology. If fascism existed, and dominated Europe, if another world war was coming, then the liberal western conception of man must be wrong in fundamental ways—more than wrong, dead. By leaving England when he did, Auden was freeing himself from that dead liberal ideology. Man's condition would have to be understood differently from now on: as existentially alone, cut off from the old roots, the old comforts and securities. And if that was true, then England was the wrong place for an English poet. When an old friend opposed Auden's move, on the grounds that it was dangerous for a writer to sever his native roots, Auden replied that the concept of roots was obsolete: "What I am trying to do," he explained to E. R. Dodds, "is to live deliberately without roots."

It was an extraordinary decision to make—to go in quest of a life that would be a parable of the condition of Modern Man, as though one could become a Kafka character, or the Wandering Jew, by an act of will. Even the word quest itself seems a bit literary and elevated for what was, after all, just another Atlantic crossing. I use it nonetheless, because it was a word—and a concept—that Auden was using a lot then, most notably in his other major poem of these years, the sonnet sequence called "The Quest." Questing was on his mind, because that's what he saw himself as doing: journeying to meet the future.

For a European writer who aspired to rootlessness, America was the obvious place to go. "The attractiveness of America to a writer," Auden told an interviewer for the Saturday Review in 1940, "is its openness and lack of tradition. In a way it's frightening. You are forced to live here as everyone will be forced to live. There is no past. No tradition. No roots—that is in the European sense." In this rootless society a European could escape the past, and become what Auden desired to be: the entirely Modern Man. And then, presumably, he could write Modern Poems.

What such poems would be like we may infer from the poems that Auden wrote during his first year in America—for example "September 1, 1939," a poem that commemorates the day on which the Germans invaded Poland, and liberalism and the thirties died. In the poem a rootless man sits in a rootless place—what could be better for that than a New York bar?—and meditates on what has ended—and why. Around him are rootless, undifferentiated human beings—the faces at the bar, the dense commuters—none having any relation to the speaker, or to each other, none an agent in its own life. The forces that operate in the world of the poem are blank abstractions: Collective Man, Important Persons, Authority, the State. Even the skyscrapers are blind.

Nothing happens in the poem; nothing changes; nothing connects. Yet it ends with two stanzas of affirmation:

     All I have is a voice      To undo the folded lie….      Yet, dotted everywhere,      Ironic points of light      Flash out wherever the Just      Exchange their messages….

The manuscript (in the Berg collection) shows that this floating affirmation was originally even stronger. Auden must have been thinking of two canceled stanzas when he said that the poem was "infected with an incurable dishonesty," and excluded it from later collections of his poems. For sentimentality is a form of dishonesty, and "September 1, 1939" is certainly sentimental: it sentimentalizes loneliness, it sentimentalizes the role of the artist (what good will his voice do in a world war?), and it sentimentalizes the idea of affirmation itself in that final image of the points of light that flash messages without content. (It is worth noting that Auden got that image from E. M. Forster, who had written, just the year before in I Believe: "It's a humiliating outlook—though the greater the darkness, the brighter shine the little lights, reassuring one another, signalling, 'Well, at all events I'm still here. I don't like it very much, but how are you?'" In the manuscript Auden first used Forster's word little, before he hit on ironic. Perhaps part of Auden's dissatisfaction with the poem was his recognition that he had not yet cast off Forsterian liberalism: he had brought some of his roots with him.)

"September 1, 1939" is an unsuccessful poem, but it is a useful one to begin with, because in it Auden made a first attempt to deal with the major problems that concerned him in these crucial years: how to think historically about present disaster; how to be an artist in a bad time; and how, and what, to affirm. The poem is therefore a sort of first draft of "New Year Letter." Thinking historically may be the most difficult task that a modern writer can assume, especially in a time of war. In the twentieth century it has been impossible to think about any war in historical terms while it was going on; war-writing, and war-thinking, is always apocalyptic. Auden tried in "September 1, 1939" to see the war, as it began, as an historical consequence; he mentions Protestantism and imperialism, and invokes Thucydides; but there is really no argument offered, only sketchy materials for one. One way to look at the work that followed is to regard it as a series of expansions and revisions of this first wartime view of Modern Man, in the mess of history that he had made.

The years 1939–1940 were productive ones for Auden. In those two years he published two books and wrote another, published more than fifty poems and many reviews, all this while lecturing and teaching, and even for a time running a Brooklyn boardinghouse. And he read: "I have never written nor read so much," he wrote to a friend in late 1939. What he was reading was not primarily literature but science, philosophy, and religion: the sorts of books that a man might turn to who was trying to construct for himself a new understanding of man-in-history, You can get some sense of what this reading was, if you look through Auden's notes to "New Year Letter": Hans Spemann's Embryonic Development and Induction, Margaret Meade's Growing up in New Guinea, the journals of Kierkegaard, Werner Jaeger's Paideia, Nietzsche's Postscript to the Case of Wagner, Charles Williams's Descent of the Dove, Collingwood's Metaphysics, Köhler's The Place of Value in a World of Facts.

If you read through the whole body of Auden's prose for these years, you will find that quotations from these writers keep turning up, often in quite unlikely places, sometimes more than once. And you will find other repetitions—certain definitions and analyses and formulations. You could argue from this evidence that he had simply overextended himself, and was meeting his journalistic deadlines by cannibalizing his own writings. But that doesn't seem an adequate explanation, given the extraordinary fertility of his mind; I think it would be more accurate to say that at this time Auden had certain preoccupations, and that his repetitions express the power of those preoccupations to force their way into everything he wrote. This is true of even his most casual book reviews, in which he would habitually swerve from his ostensible subject—a life of Voltaire or an anthology by de la Mare—to write about his real concerns.

You can group those concerns under three general headings: History, Art, and Necessity; everything that he wrote during these years had to do with one or more of these subjects. And you might go on to say that in fact these are all aspects of one master question. Auden put that question in a review he wrote of Harold Laski's Where Do We Go from Here? Laski's title, he said, posed an unreal question: "The only real question, and this itself becomes unreal unless it is asked all the time, is where are we now?" Everything that Auden wrote—every review, every lecture, every poem—was a draft of an answer to that question. Somewhere Auden quotes approvingly Forster's story of the old lady who exclaimed: "How can I tell what I think till I hear what I say?" And that's what he was doing during these years: listening to what he thought, working it out, until finally he put it all together in "New Year Letter."

Of the thirty or so prose pieces of these years there are five that I'll be referring to and that seem to me to be Auden's most substantial prose statements: "The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats," published in the Partisan Review in the spring of 1939; "The Prolific and the Devourer," written during the spring and summer of 1939, but unpublished until Edward Mendelson included the first of its four parts in The English Auden; "Romantic or Free?", a commencement address given at Smith College on June 17, 1940; "Mimesis and Allegory," an English Institute lecture given on September 13, 1940; and "Criticism in a Mass Society," a lecture delivered at Princeton on November 7, 1940.

Beside this calendar of Auden's writings we might set a calendar of public history: while he was writing "The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats," the Spanish Civil War ended; while he was finishing "The Prolific and the Devourer," the Russo-German pact was signed, and the war began; while he was giving his commencement address, the French were negotiating their surrender to Hitler; while he was reading "Mimesis and Allegory" to his New York audience of professors, the Battle of Britain was approaching its end. The point of this second calendar is not to lend a spurious drama to the literary record, but to remind you of Auden's exact location in history: that as he wrote, a peace ended and a war began, of which neither the scale nor the outcome could be predicted; that the Apocalypse that thirties writers had feared and expected was taking place. If we are to read Auden historically, we must imagine our way back to his state of mind, and his condition of ignorance, at that point in history now forty years in the past. This is the justification for reading a poet's forgotten lectures and reviews—that they contain the mind and the knowledge that made the poems, and reveal the poet's preoccupations more fully than the poems do, simply because they are not poems.

I have said that Auden's preoccupations during these critical years could be grouped under the headings of History, Necessity, and Art. Let me now try to give you, under these headings, a sense of where Auden thought the world was in 1939–1940.

History: Auden's recurrent theme is that man has come to the end of an epoch. The period that has ended he calls by various names: it is the end of the Renaissance, the end of the Protestant epoch, the end of liberal capitalist democracy. What these have in common is that they all acted to separate men from each other: the Renaissance "broke the subordination of all other intellectual fields to that of theology, and assumed the autonomy of each"; Protestantism made men's relations to God individual and autonomous; capitalism made men autonomous in their economic relations. The results were the atomization of society, the disintegration of tradition, the loss of community. The war, coming at the end of this process, is not therefore a struggle for the survival of western democracy, or of any other traditional system, but the final term in the disintegrating process, like the last scene of Götterdämmerung. The very fact that it was taking place seemed to confirm Auden's analysis: a war involving the whole world was the final disintegration of order. All through the thirties concerned men had said: "If a war comes, it will be the end of civilization." And here it was.

A subheading of History is Romanticism, Auden had called his address at Smith "Romantic or Free?", and early in the speech he explained what he meant:

The term romantic I have chosen rather arbitrarily to describe all those who in one way or another reject the paradoxical, dialectic nature of freedom. Perhaps heretic would have been a more accurate term, but I chose romantic partly to avoid purely clerical associations, and partly because the particular forms in which these eternal heresies appear today took shape in the period that is historically called the Romantic Revival.

To be romantic, in Auden's view, was to simplify one's sense of man's dialectical existence: to believe that human beings are essentially good, or that they have absolutely free will, or that they are absolutely determined; or that they can live entirely by reason, or entirely by instinct; or that they will be happy and good if the structure of society is changed. Auden saw these "eternal heresies" manifested throughout history, but becoming political with the rise of industrialism, in Rousseau's theory of the General Will. As long as capitalism was expanding, Auden wrote in "Jacob and the Angel," "the inadequacy of rationalist Liberalism to guarantee material happiness was unperceived by the majority, and it was not until after the Great War that political Romanticism became a great force and a great enemy." To Auden's mind the connection between romanticism and politics was crucial: when he taught a course on romanticism at Swarthmore he called it "Romanticism from Rousseau to Hitler." But romanticism was, to him, more than a political term: it was the generic term for all the errors in men's thought—political, philosophical, and religious—that converged at last in Nazism, and in the war. The war was therefore a climactic, terminal event: the ultimate expression of the eternal romantic heresies.

Necessity: Though by 1939 Auden had ceased to be a Marxist (if he can be said ever to have been one), he continued to quote Engels's definition of freedom: that freedom is the consciousness of necessity. The difference lay in what he meant by necessity. In essay after essay of these years he makes one central distinction: between causal necessity ("the external necessity of matter") and logical necessity, which he sometimes calls moral necessity (the internal necessity of moral decision).

In earlier phases of social development [he said in his Princeton lecture, "Criticism in a Mass Society"] a man could be a member of a group (i.e. not, in our sense, an individual), and yet be a person; he could be accessory to his position because the latter was a real necessity, and by virtue of being a necessity, could make him free. Today a man has only two choices: he can be consciously passive or consciously active. He can accept deliberately or reject deliberately, but he must decide because his position in life is no longer a real necessity; he could be different if he chose. The necessity that can make him free is no longer his position as such, but the necessity of choosing to accept it or reject it. To be unconscious is to be neither an individual nor a person, but a mathematical integer in something called the Public which has no real existence.

You can see that this account of logical necessity is related to Auden's ideas of history: human society has evolved to a state of total separateness, in which every man has an absolute responsibility to make his own moral choices: that's the necessity. If he does not, if he creates or joins a society that denies that necessity, he ceases to be an individual, as in fascist states. (Again and again in the essays Auden defines fascism as a society in which everything that is not required is forbidden: that is, a society which denies the necessity of moral choice.)

Another name for human separateness is loneliness, a term which is recurrent and crucial in Auden's writings of this time. Loneliness was, for Auden, a kind of modern categorical imperative: an ethical term, primarily—to be lonely was to be conscious of the real human condition—but with political implications. "There can be no democracy," he told the women at Smith, "unless each of us accepts the fact that in the last analysis we live our lives alone." Auden's own political position was based on loneliness: "I welcome the atomization of society," he wrote in "Tradition and Value," "and I look forward to a socialism based on it, to the day when the disintegration of tradition will be as final and universal for the masses as it is already for the artist, because it will be only when they fully realize their 'aloneness' and accept it, that men will be able to achieve a real unity through a common recognition of their diversity." This isn't everybody's idea of socialism, and it is certainly a long way from the cozy collectivism of the young English Left in the thirties, but it is a possible socialism, in which political equality acts to equalize men's opportunities for moral choice. (In unequal societies, Auden said, the haves usually believe in absolute free will, while the haves-nots are determinists. These are both, for him, romantic heresies, for which his kind of socialism would be a cure.)

Art: Auden made his most famous statement about aesthetics in the spring of 1939, in his elegy on Yeats: "Poetry makes nothing happen." He said the same thing, more elaborately, in his essay "The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats," written at about the same time:

Art is a product of history, not a cause. Unlike some other products, technical inventions for example, it does not re-enter history as an effective agent, so that the question whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal. The case for the prosecution rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, not a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.

This is, of course, a repudiation of conventional engagee thinking of the thirties. Its importance to Auden is suggested by the number of times that he repeated it: first in the poem, then in the essay, then twice in "The Prolific and the Devourer": "Artists and politicians would get along better in a time of crisis like the present, if the latter would only realise that the political history of the world would have been the same if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted nor a bar of music composed." And, a little further down the page: "art makes nothing happen."

Notice how far Auden goes here: he doesn't simply say that art doesn't affect politics: it makes nothing happen, it is not an agent in reality in any sense. Not only that. In "Mimesis and Allegory" he draws back from another conventional defense of art: "One of the romantic symptoms has been an enormous exaggeration of the importance of art as a guide to life."

Most of what Auden had to say about Art at this time is couched in negative terms: he was more certain of what it didn't do than of what it did. One can see why this should be so: a theory of Art would have to wait upon the answers to the larger philosophic questions. Still we can see the direction in which his thought about art was moving in two lectures that Auden gave in the autumn of 1940. First these sentences from the final page of "Mimesis and Allegory":

I. A. Richards is right, I think, in his account of how art organizes attitudes, but the criterion by which we judge the value of such an organization lies outside art…. Art is not metaphysics any more than it is conduct, and the artist is usually unwise to insist too directly in his art upon his beliefs; but without an adequate and conscious metaphysics in the background, art's imitation of life inevitably becomes, either a photostatic copy of the accidental details of life without pattern or significance, or a personal allegory of the artist's individual dementia, of interest primarily to the psychologist and the historian.

So art has its value: it orders. But that order is not self-generated: art needs belief, needs absolutes, needs metaphysics. As Society does; in the same lecture, and in other writings of the time, Auden makes this point very strongly: societies come to grief when they have an inadequate metaphysics, or none.

Auden developed this idea further in "Criticism in a Mass Society": "We cannot live without believing certain values to be absolute. These values exist, though our knowledge of them is always imperfect, distorted by the limitations of our historical position and our personal character. However, if but only we realize this, our knowledge can improve." And he went on to ask himself what the consequences of this assumption would be for the judgment of art: "The critic who assumes that absolute values exist but that our knowledge of them is always imperfect will judge a work of art by the degree to which it transcends the artist's personal and historical limitations, but he will not expect such transcendence ever to be complete, either in the artist or himself."

The key word here is imperfect; it introduces a concept that becomes crucially important in Auden's aesthetic from this point on—what we might call the Aesthetics of Imperfection. Absolute values exist, but man can only know them imperfectly; and his art will mirror his imperfect knowledge. Indeed the very imperfection of a work of art may be a value, since it will enact and so remind us of our own imperfection. The idea of perfection is a romantic heresy.

One can see, in what Auden says about History, Necessity, and Art, a common factor: in every case he is repudiating the convictions and clichés of the thirties. History is not economically determined, man is not perfectible, freedom is not the knowledge of causal necessity, and art is not an agent. But he was also working toward his own alternative ideology, based on the need for absolutes. We sense the form that it will take in the vocabulary that he began to use at this time: words like sin and damnation, heresy and orthodoxy. But it is important to recognize that what we are observing in Auden's writings through 1939 and 1940 is not the record of a conversion experience and its consequences, but the evidences of a strenuous and open-minded effort to reconsider his ideas of man and history. His Christianity was not a cause of this effort but was a logical conclusion of it. "As to my return to the church," he wrote to Kenneth Lewars in September 1947, "it was a gradual business without any abrupt leaps. The Double Man, written Jan.-Oct. 1940 covers a period when I was beginning to think seriously about such things without committing myself. I started going to church again just about October." This is not the language of conversion (it's nothing like the tone of Eliot's announcement of his Anglicanism); Auden simply chose to renew an interrupted religious commitment.

What he found in Christianity was a system of beliefs that could contain his new conclusions: the ethic of loneliness; the aesthetic of imperfection; the paradox of necessary freedom. He found, you might say, that Modern Man and Christian Man were the same.


Auden's principal poem of this period, the poem in which he set down most fully his answers to that hard question Where are we now?, is "New Year Letter." It is the poem that stands most exactly at the point between the decades, between an ending and a beginning: in form and substance it repudiates the poetry that he had written during the thirties, and it points forward to all of the later work.

Readers coming to it in 1941 from the earlier work must have been shocked at how different, and how much less "modern," it was: neither elliptical, nor parabolical, not melodramatic, not imperative, but a long, relaxed, discursive poem in that most facile of meters, the tetrameter couplet. Furthermore it is written in the form of a familiar letter, with all that that implies: that though the poem may discuss public issues, the discourse will be private; and that the goal of the poem will be not action, but communion. Most striking of all, its tone is calm: at this dark time in human history Auden's verse is, for the first time, free of anxiety.

The occasion of the poem carries us a good way toward its meaning. In the dark hours after midnight, between the last day of the 30s and the first day of the 40s, the poet sits in his room in Brooklyn Heights, looking across the dark East River toward Manhattan. This is obviously an ironic version of a romantic convention that runs from Shelley to Yeats: the poet in his dark tower, elevated, isolated from the world, making the philosophic poem. But it is also an emblem of Auden's own situation—the self-exiled poet, alone in a foreign country. And, since Auden had come to see loneliness as man's real condition, it is also an emblem of universal human existence.

But if there is loneliness, there is also connection: he is writing a letter, and a letter, after all, implies an addressee. Auden's letter is addressed to Elizabeth Mayer—a German refugee who had made her Long Island home a haven for other exiles, and particularly for artists (including Auden and his friend Benjamin Britten). She and her home play an important symbolic role in the poem, as we shall see.

But though the addressee is important, the poem is less an actual letter than it is a series of meditations on those preoccupations that I've been talking about: History, Art, and Necessity; where we are now and how we got here. These themes interweave in the poem, as Auden saw that they interwove in life, one countering and qualifying another in the dialectic that was the model of Auden's reality. The whole discourse therefore moves disjunctively, from art to history and back, from art's value to its limitations, from necessity to choice, from personal recollection to historical example. The form is necessarily an open one: its very openness is its particular model of order—an inclusive shape that can be true to all of its terms, the poem of its time that is not closed to any aspect of its historical context.

A good place to begin looking at the poem is an early example of this kind of dialectic, in which Auden recalls the day the war began.

      … the same sun whose neutral eye       All florid August from the sky       Had watched the earth behave and seen       Strange traffic on her brown and green,       Obedient to some hidden force       A ship abruptly change her course,       A train make an unwanted stop,       A little crowd smash up a shop,       Suspended hatreds crystallize       In visible hostilities,       Vague concentrations shrink to take       The sharp crude patterns generals make,       The very morning that the war       Took action on the Polish floor,       Lit up America and on       A cottage in Long Island shone       Where Buxtehude as we played       One of his passacaglias made       Our minds a civitas of sound       Where nothing but assent was found,       For art had set in order sense       And feeling and intelligence,       And from its ideal order grew       Our local understanding too.

In the immediate world of history a universal disorder grows; in the world of art, a local understanding. Neither term cancels the other; reality is the dialectic that contains both. It remains true that art makes nothing happen; and in a time of war that limitation seems very great. Yet it has its value: it offers us models of order, and so sustains our efforts to give order to our lives.

"New Year Letter" is a poem about history. But it is also a poem that contains history. It has, for instance, a vast cast of historical figures, from Aristotle to Hitler: some artists, some philosophers, some scientists, some theologians, a few simply English eccentrics. None gets more than a few lines' attention, and all function illustratively (and so would seem to be dispensable). What they are doing in the poem is simply being historical: exemplifying man-in-time—acting, choosing, being free and responsible and guilty. Their presence in the poem is another departure from Auden's practice in the 30s; then he had worked within a mythological world populated by fictional characters like the Airman and the Uncle and the Spy, and by Christopher and Stephen and Gerhart Meyer, the truly strong man. But Auden had separated himself from that myth; his emigration had cut him off from his generation, and now, on January 1, 1940, he was making a new myth out of historical persons. (There is a similar point in Yeats's career, at which his poems begin to be invaded by persons from his own and Ireland's history; and also in Eliot's; a point at which art and history interpenetrate, because each poet has found an ideology that can contain both.)

"New Year Letter" begins in darkness and aloneness—the two fundamental realities—the universal disorders of the time, the disorders of history, the very principal of disorder itself. But it also touches on points of order. I have quoted one—the day when war was declared, and Auden, in the house of Elizabeth Mayer, shared in the order of art. A second, occurring at the beginning of the third part, is a recollection of a similar occasion, but only a week past (so that would be Christmas Day).

       Warm in your house, Elizabeth,        A week ago at the same hour        I felt the unexpected power        That drove our ragged egos in        From the dead-ends of greed and sin        To sit down at the wedding feast,        Put shining garments on the least,        Arranged us so that each and all,        The erotic and the logical,        Each felt the placement to be such        That he was honoured overmuch,        And SCHUBERT sang and MOZART played        And GLUCK and food and friendship made        Our privileged community        That real republic which must be        The State all politicians claim,        Even the worst, to be their aim.

This passage records an experience similar to the first, but with a deeper significance; here art participates in the occasion, but the felt community is based on love, not on art alone. The lines that follow make it clear that Auden ascribes a value to such moments much like that which Eliot found in the rose garden in Burnt Norton: a moment out of time, a glimpse of the Eden we cannot inhabit, an evidence and a promise that the ideal exists. Such moments cannot be sustained: they must be lost, Auden says, to be regained; but because they occur, man can endure ordinary reality.

The common element in these two positive passages in "New Year Letter" is the figure of Elizabeth Mayer, in whose presence the two orders of love and art flourish. So it is not surprising that in the final lines of the poem, as dawn breaks on the first day of the 40s, another day of war and suffering and necessary loneliness, Auden addresses her.

      Dear friend Elizabeth, dear friend       These days have brought me, may the end       I bring to the grave's dead-line be       More worthy of your sympathy       Than the beginning; may the truth       That no one marries lead my youth       Where you already are and bless       Me with your learned peacefulness       Who on the lives about you throw       A calm solificatio.       A warmth throughout the universe       That each for better or for worse       Must carry round with him through life,       A judge, a landscape, and a wife.       We fall down in the dance, we make       The old ridiculous mistake,       But always there are such as you       Forgiving, helping what we do.       O every day in sleep and labour       Our life and death are with our neighbour,       And love illuminates again       The city and the lion's den,       The world's great rage, the travel of young men.

"We fall down in the dance …" This, of course, is from Mann's "Tonio Kröger," but Auden uses it to make a very different point. This is once more the aesthetic of imperfection, but here accepted, as a necessary imperfection of existence, unavoidable, but made forgivable by that love, that agape, of which Elizabeth Mayer is the human symbol, and art the ideal model. In the end the world goes on existing as it is: suffering continues, war continues, men continue in their imperfections. But love also exists, and art exists: order is possible, the world is redeemable—though not now, not here. This "moment" is the positive value that makes "living deliberately without roots" possible; it is another kind of community—momentary, imperfect, but real—that must replace the lost traditional community of place and class and nation.

"New Year Letter" is a very odd poem—at once historical and private, a war poem about not being in a war, a religious poem without a religion, a disordered meditation on the order of art. One way to describe it might be to call it a witness, as in Christian usage. A witness is not a confession, and Auden has not abandoned his customary reticence, but it is the revelation of a Self; and it is with this poem, I think, that Auden began to establish that self that so substantially and comfortably occupies the later poetry. The earlier poems, on the whole, don't have that kind of substantial presence: they are dramatic, mysterious, imperative; they create a world, but not a personal identity. But a letter implies a letter-writer, and in "New Year Letter" there is a knowable "I," who is doing the thinking and feeling, and whose expanding and coalescing understanding of the meaning of his personal situation is the content of the poem.

Contemporary reviewers were troubled by the poem's evident inconclusiveness. Edwin Muir, for instance, wrote in Horizon in August 1941 that "it seems to be making, with a great deal of excellent argument, towards something which is never reached …," and he concluded that Auden was "convincing when he expresses doubt, but unconvincing when he tries to find an answer to doubt, for the doubt comes from a deeper source than the answer." This is very acute; but I think Muir is wrong to take this quality as a flaw. Historically speaking, doubt and uncertainty seem inevitable in a poem written in 1940 to answer the question Where are we now? But doubt and uncertainty are more than historical conditions: they are, for Auden, inherent in the human condition (in his notes he quotes Pascal's Pensées: "Nier, croire, et douter bien, sont à I'homme ce que le courir est au cheval"—denying, believing, and doubting are to man what running is to a horse). The goal is not to resolve doubt, but to live in doubt without anxiety.

Like many modern poems "New Year Letter" is also a poem about poetry, and doubt and uncertainty have their poetic equivalent in the aesthetics of imperfection. Art is an ideal order that man strives for, but fails to achieve; imperfection is the human condition: all art is failure—including this poem, in which Auden writes:

       For I relapse into my crimes:        Time and again have slubbered through        With slip and slapdash what I do,        Adopted what I would disown,        The preacher's loose immodest tone;        Though warned by a great sonneteer        Not to sell cheap what is most dear,        Though horrible old KIPLING cried        'One instant's toil to Thee denied        Stands all eternity's offence,'        I would not give them audience.        Yet still the weak offender must        Beg still for leniency and trust        His power to avoid the sin        Peculiar to his discipline.

But since the will to achieve order is a universal moral impulse, the artist is no different from any other man who falls down in the dance. There is no such thing as The Artist: the poet is everyman.

The later poetry of Auden, and the role that he assumed in his later years, begins here, in "New Year Letter," with this perception. The poem is not exactly a crisis poem: the Hound of Heaven never barks, there is no wrestling with the Angel, and no Hopkins-ish agony. The process is more like what he wrote at the time about Melville: "Towards the end he sailed into an extraordinary mildness." This voyage into mildness has not been completed by the end of the poem, but the course has been set.

The price of this commitment for Auden as a poet has been considerable. The later poetry has never gotten the attention and admiration that the earlier got; it has never been taken as the true expression of a generation or a decade, and many a reader has looked back nostalgically to the poetry of the 30s, when anxiety was really anxiety. But there is no point in regretting the change: For Auden it was simply an example of that necessary moral choice by which man affirms his freedom.

In one of the notes to "New Year Letter" Auden raises the question of Wagner, who was for him the greatest of the romantic artists, and the greatest romantic heretic. Why, Auden asks himself, do Wagner's characters behave so absurdly? Why do their actions deny their knowledge? And he answers: "To allow Wagner to go on writing music and, moreover, the kind of music that he was good at writing." This is no doubt one kind of genius; the genius of the romantic heretic who bends reality to his gifts. Auden's genius was of the opposite kind: he rejected the beliefs by which he had written his early brilliant poetry, because he found them to be untrue; and when he had thought his way to a new, true belief, he was content to write such poems as that belief would allow him to write.

"New Year Letter" stands at the crux of this transforming process, and it is therefore important to our understanding of Auden. But it is more than that: it is a poem about the meaning of history, and that too is important. When Auden spoke at Smith College, he justified his existence as a poet and an intellectual in these words: "To try to understand what has come upon us and why may not be the most heroic of the tasks required to save civilization, but it is indispensable." He spoke just four days after Sir Jocelyn Lucas had asked his question in the Commons. Auden couldn't possibly have known about that question, yet he was answering it. He would not fight, but he would perform a different and indispensable task: he would try to understand what had come upon the human race, and why—that is what this poem does. Writing as he did, not after the fact, but while the historical events were still in process, he wrote, not surprisingly, an imperfect and uncertain poem; but that would not have troubled Auden, and should not trouble us. For it is also a unique poem: a record of a great poet's effort to understand the meaning of history as it occurred, and to find the values by which he could live in history—as a poet and as a man. It is a part of his history; and it is a part of ours.

Ron McFarland (essay date Spring 1983)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3471

SOURCE: "Auden's Cena: 'Tonight at Seven-Thirty,'" in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 139-47.

[In the following essay, McFarland examines the significance of Roman satiric verse and the conventions of the cena, a Roman banquet, in "Tonight at Seven-Thirty."]

Among W. H. Auden's many neo-classical poems, the dozen collected under the rubric, "Thanksgiving for a Habitat" (written between 1958 and July 1964), each poem dedicated to some personal friend or friends, constitutes perhaps the most outrageously (some might say self-indulgently) Augustan of his opus. "Every home should be a fortress," he writes in "The Common Life," "equipped with all the very latest engines / for keeping Nature at bay." The recognizably Roman sentiments vary in conceptual significance from such comments on the relationship between man and nature to that which opens the title poem of the series: "Nobody I know would like to be buried / with a silver cocktail shaker." The poems range from the companionable yet serious colloquy on poetry in "The Cave of Making" (In Memoriam Louis MacNeice) to the Swiftian excrementalism of "The Geography of the House" (For Christopher Isherwood).

Readers who admire Auden's most anthologized poems, from "Musée de Beaux Arts" to "In Praise of Limestone" or "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," must find most of the poems in "Thanksgiving for a Habitat" difficult of access for several reasons, not the least of which is Auden's voice, which, while sometimes intimate enough with regard to the person or persons named, is aloof with respect to the reader. "Tonight at Seven-Thirty" is a useful poem for analysis with respect to the relationship between poet and reader for several reasons. First, and most important, the poem has its basis in a sub-genre of Roman satiric poetry which has never been much pursued by English or American poets. Second, the poem is intriguing and rather difficult both in form and content. Third, it is representative in voice (including tone and diction) of other poems in the series and of Auden's later writing in general.

The conventions of the cena (banquet, dinner), as established in Roman satire—like Horace's 2.8, the dinner of Nasidienus, the rich man—include identification and behavior of the host; description of food served, along with its method of preparation and presentation; list of guests, invited or otherwise (i.e., "shadows"); account of events (e.g., arguments, insults, brawls, accidents) other than dining. Since the cena is satirical, there must always be some point of censure or reprimand: "satire feeds on the tension between what is ideal and what is real, and its purpose is to portray reality as a situation causing aversion or disgust." In the Cena Nasidieni the host is the object of satiric attack. "He stands for a type common enough in Horace's day," according to Niall Rudd, "a type which always appears when wealth is acquired without either education or social conscience."

For the modern reader, the boorish behavior of the guests, as recounted to Horace by Fundianus, far outweighs the gaucherie of the well-meaning host. As Rudd demonstrates, Nasidienus has bent over backwards to do everything right, but in the process he has overdone it; he has lost perspective, and as a result everything turns out wrong. There is not only fine Caecuban and "brine-free Chian" wine, but also the less worthy Alban and Falernian. In this regard, Rudd defends Nasidienus against any meanness of intent, but perhaps the error is not in offering the two lesser wines, but in offering them specifically to the wealthy connoisseur, Maecenas. At any rate, it is the "shadows" (uninvited guests, in this case cronies of Maecenas), Servilius Balatro and Vibidius, who cause most of the trouble. Nasidienus becomes overfastidious in explaining the origins and value of each item on the menu. As he loses sight of the proper role of the host, so Balatro and Vibidius, determining to get drunk and wreck the feast, lose sight of their place as guests. When the dusty wall hangings collapse on the lamprey, Nomentanus, the philosopher, hyperbolizes in defense of the distraught Nasidienus: "'Ah Fortune! What god more cruel than you?/ You always like to play around with mankind's hopes!'" Balatro, however, restores some perspective: "'Such is the nature of life, thus it happens / that our reputations don't correspond to hard work.'" Though presumably soothing the host, who has worked hard to stage a reputable banquet, the innuendo suggests that Nasidienus has not worked hard for his status in life. Balatro concludes that "'a party-giver's talent, like a general's, comes out / in case of trouble.'" Failing to find the perspective from which to deal with the disaster, however, Nasidienus thanks Balatro and proceeds to multiply the delicacies (a crane, "the liver of a fig-fed, albino gander," "boiled blackbird breasts served with de-assed doves") and then lectures "about their causes and essential natures." Given no other recourse, the guests flee. These somewhat riotous aspects of the cena tradition in Roman satire culminate in the Cena Trimalchionis episode of Petronius' Satyricon.

Juvenal's cena satires (the fifth and the eleventh) are more moderate than those of Horace or Petronius. He uses the comparative mode (essentially for contrast), which becomes something of a motif in the cena tradition, not only in satire, but also in epigrams, odes, and epistles, for the cena is not limited to the satire as a genre. In Satire V, which is double-edged, the guest, Trebius, is willing to endure Virro's outrageous insults for a free meal. The contrast here is between the fine food devoured by the host and the wretched fare offered to Trebius. The discrepancy in quality extends even to the water and to the servants who bring in the dishes. The serving of the lamprey, "the finest that the Straits of Sicily can purvey," to the master is countered by the following to grovelling Trebius:

For you is reserved an eel, first cousin to a water-snake, or perchance a pike mottled with ice-spots; he too was bred on Tiber's banks and was wont to find his way into the inmost recesses of the Subura, battening himself amid its flowing sewers.

As Juvenal notes, should Trebius come into money, Virro's response would be altogether different. Nevertheless, the main thrust of Satire V is that if a man will put up with such shabby treatment, he deserves it. Martial uses a similar contrast as the subject of Epigrams III, lx.

In Juvenal's Satire XI, the contrast is between the sumptuous feasts of the present and the simple food (including a corresponding moderation in servants and types of entertainment) of earlier times. The modest repast also becomes a sort of motif within the cena tradition. Horace's Epistles 1.5, although really an invitation to a symposium (drinking and conversation, as opposed to dinner and, usually, entertainment), stresses the simplicity of the "unstylish couch," "plain vegetables," and "cheap plates." Martial's Epigrams V, lxxviii invites a friend to "fare modestly" on "cheap Cappadocian lettuces and strong-smelling leeks," among other things. Though the dinner may be small and poor, however, he can promise that "you will say no word insincere nor hear one, and, wearing your natural face, will recline at ease." In his Odes 3.29, inviting Maecenas to leave Rome for a visit to the country, Horace offers "a simple meal beneath the poor man's humble roof."

It is this particular development of the cena convention—the modest dinner combined with honest and straightforward conversation—that has most influenced English poetry. That small degree of interest in the cena that has surfaced in English poetry is limited, for the most part, to the work of Ben Johnson and his followers in the seventeenth century, Jonson's "Inviting a Friend to Supper" is probably the best known of the poems dealing with conventions of the cena, and it draws heavily on Martial's epigrams. Like Horace, Jonson catalogs the food to be served, then he suggests the evening's entertainment (readings not from his own work, but from Vergil, Tacitus, and Livy). Like Martial, Jonson concludes with a promise to part "innocently":

                … No simple word,       That shall be utter'd at our mirthfull boord.     Shall make us sad next morning: or affright       The libertie, that we'll enjoy to night.

Several of Robert Herrick's poems from Hesperides (1648) owe something to the cena: "A Country Life: To His Brother," "The Hock Cart, or Harvest Home." "A Panegerick to Sir Lewis Pemberton," "To His Peculiar Friend Master John Wicks," and especially "Oberons Feast" and "The Invitation." Part of a three-poem sequence, including "The Faerie Temple: or, Oberons Chappell" and "Oberons Palace," "Oberons Feast" is a banquet cast in miniature and set on a mushroom table. Against the background music provided by grasshoppers, crickets, flies, and gnats, the fairy king, served by elves, dines on such miniscule fare as "The hornes of paperie Butterflies," "Emits eggs," "a Newt's stew'd thigh," and "The broke-heart of a Nightingale / Ore-come in musicke." "The Invitation" is a more conventional poem in the cena tradition, in which the guest, expecting "such lautitious meat, / The like not Heliogabalus did eat" and "no less than Aromatick Wine / Of Maydens-blush, commixt with Jessimine," finds instead a cold hearth:

     At last, i'th'noone of winter, did appeare      A ragd-soust-neats-foot with sick vineger:      And in a burnisht Flagonet stood by      Beere small as Comfort, dead as Charity.

Here, Herrick uses the comparative mode with good comic effect, at the same time carrying the "poor home-plain food" motif to an absurdity. Under these circumstances, the virtues of innocence and moderation are lost, and the guest goes home with the ague.

Auden's "Tonight at Seven-Thirty" examines the nature of the dinner party concentrating on a single aspect of the cena: the guests. The point of view, unlike that of most poems in the tradition, is that of the host. The poem begins incongruously: "The life of plants / is one continuous solitary meal." Ruminants scarcely stop eating, and predators are "ravenous most of the time." None of these "play host / to a stranger whom they help first," except man, that "supererogatory beast, / Dame Kind's thoroughbred lunatic." "Supererogatory" is the first of several sesquipedalianisms in the poem. Auden is reminiscent in his diction of Herrick, with his "liquefaction" and "cunctation," "circumvolving" and "excathedrated," but for Auden the polysyllables (usually Latinate) are a more prevalent characteristic of style.

It is hard to say exactly when one begins to realize that the loose lines, variable in length from four to fourteen syllables and frequently enjambed, constitute a stanzaic form, The indentation makes the lines seem less regular than they are, and the rhyme scheme is modulated through the use of near rhyme and the rhyming of lines dissimilar in length. Auden's sustaining of a fourteen-line scheme over six stanzas rivals the virtuosity of John Donne and perhaps of any poet in the language. I will quote the second stanza for closer examination. It begins with the conclusion of a sentence from the first stanza, "Only man … can do the honors of a feast …"

          and was doing so       before the last Glaciation when he offered           mammoth-marrow       and, perhaps, Long Pig, will continue till Dooms           day           when at God's board       the saints chew pickled Leviathan. In this age           farms       are no longer crenellated, only cops port arms,       but the Law of the Hearth is unchanged: a brawler           may not          be put to death on the spot,       but he is asked to quit the sacral dining areainstanter, and a foul-mouth gets the cold          shoulder. The right of a guest       to standing and foster is as old           as the ban on incest.

The rhyme scheme, with frequent off-stress rhyming, is a, b, a, c, b, d, d, e, e, c, f, g, f, g. This configuration defies division into quatrains and couplets, or into alternating and enclosed patterns, yet it is certainly not random, as examination of other stanzas will demonstrate. The effect of this complex stanzaic form is that of the baroque, properly considered: an impression of elaborate ornamentation and activity beneath which (or within which) operates a definite sense of form and order.

The formal tension in this poem between looseness and constraint reflects the interplay between the colloquial and the erudite language, which one encounters frequently in Auden's poems. Against phrases like "Long Pig" (a euphemism of Polynesian origin for human flesh as meat), "saints chew pickled Leviathan," and "only cops port arms," we have "dine en famille" and "the sacral dining area." This sort of tension, in both form and language (and therefore, in content), works best, I think, in the satiric poem where, as I mentioned earlier, the poet is exploring the tension between the ideal and the real.

In modern times farms are not walled, and only the police are armed (Auden appears not to be thinking of the United States in this context), but the rules of hospitality are unchanged: although a "brawler" is not "put to death on the spot," he may be dismissed instantly ("instanter" being the legal term) from the dining room. In effect, then, the cena retains certain natural rules of decorum. It is an institution of civilized man who does not need to wall himself in or arm himself against his neighbors. The guest has rights (the term "foster" derives from the OE, fóstor, meaning "nourishment" or "food"). If man is indeed a "supererogatory beast" and a "thoroughbred lunatic," he is still superior to the plants, ruminants, predators, and pack-hunters of the first stanza. It is against the understood decorum of the hospitality code, after all, that the Roman satires on the cena are offered. Without such a code, there could be no tension between ideal and actual behavior.

In the third stanza Auden advises, "for authentic comity," an assemblage both "small" and "unpublic," as opposed to "mass banquets where flosculent speeches are made / in some hired hall." Under such circumstances, he points out, we think either of ourselves or of nothing at all. Both "Christ's cenacle" and "King Arthur's rundle," he continues, "seated a baker's dozen," but today, when the host must be both chef, servant and dishwasher, even a dozen is too large a number. In fact, the "Perfect Social Number" these days is "six lenient semble sieges, / none of them perilous." The Latin (sometimes via French) of the latter phrase translates: "six soft assembled seats" ("siege" derives from OF for "seat," and ultimately from the Latin sedere, "to sit"). The play on "Siege Perilous," of course, refers to the vacant seat at the Round Table, which could be filled only by Sir Galahad, who was to find the Holy Grail, and which was fatal to anyone else.

In the fourth stanza Auden makes it clear that he is speaking of a "dinner party" and not just a casual supper or a covered-dish social. It is "a worldly rite that nicknames or endearments / or family / diminutives would profane." The language throughout the poem (e.g., "sacral dining area," "Christ's cenacle") has suggested that such a dinner retains some qualities of religious ritual. "Two doters," therefore, "who wish / to tiddle and curmurr between the soup and fish / belong in restaurants," and children, of course, belong in bed. The guests must be mutually agreeable; therefore, "married maltalents" and melancholy singles are to be avoided.

"Not that a god, / immune to grief, would be an ideal guest," the next stanza begins. A god would simply be "a bore." Here, Auden offers a portrait of the ideal guest, the "funniest" and "kindest" of mortals, "those who are most aware …"

      of the baffle of being, don't kid themselves our care       is consolable, but believe a laugh is less           heartless than tears, that a hostess       prefers it. Brains evolved after bowels, therefore,         great assets as fine raiment and good looks           can be on festive occasions,         they are not essential like artful cooks             and stalwart digestions.

Auden gives in these lines the perspective which any good satirist must have. It is not sufficient simply to indicate the sort of guests one should avoid (brawlers, foul-mouths, doters, et al.). The ideal guest knows the pain of the human condition, but he believes in laughter rather than tears as a response (plays Democritus rather than Heraclitus).

In the concluding stanza Auden gives a portrait of the ideal set of guests for a cena:

          I see a table       at which the youngest and oldest present           keep the eye grateful     for what Nature's bounty and grace of Spirit can        create:           for the ear's content     one raconteur, one gnostic with amazing shop,     both in a talkative mood but knowing when to        stop,     and one wide-traveled worldling to interject now        and then         a sardonic comment, men     and women who enjoy the cloop of corks,        appreciate      dapatical fare, yet can see in swallowing        a sign act of reverence,      in speech a work of re-presenting          the true olamic silence.

The acceptance of both men and women into the dinner party immediately sets Auden's banquet apart from the Roman and seventeenth-century English cena, but much of the same spirit of camaraderie remains. If Auden himself is not the "raconteur" and "gnostic with amazing shop," then he is certainly the "wide-traveled worldling" of that triumvirate.

The words "dapatical" and "olamic" are not to be found in standard lexicons, not even in Webster's Third New International Dictionary, but "dapatical" is listed in the OED as a synonym for "sumptuous," dating to the seventeenth century, and "olamic" is listed as a relatively recent coinage (1872 is its first appearance in English) from Hebrew meaning "vast" or even "perpetual." The erudite etymologies contrast interestingly with the echoic colloquial "cloop of corks." The allusions at the end of the poem are not merely eucharistic, but something more primitive. They refer to a cyclic concept of nature and time, in which man's relationship with other living things of the earth (as in the first stanza) is being asserted. Lévi-Strauss observes that the "gustatory code" occupies a "privileged position" in primitive mythology "since it is through myths explaining the origin of fire, and thus of cooking, that we gain access to myths about man's loss of immortality." Moreover, Lévi-Strauss continues, cooking marks "the transition from nature to culture."

"Tonight at Seven-Thirty" is not, of course, a true cena in the Roman satiric tradition. We have no recounting of boisterous, all-male feasts, no comparison of luxurious with simple fare, no scrumptious catalog of edibles indulged for its own sake. The Roman tradition forms the foundation for this poem, but the direct source for some references is neither Horace nor Johnson, but the woman to whom the poem is dedicated, the noted gastronomist M(ary) F(rances) K(ennedy) Fisher. Her five most famous books, beginning with Serve It Forth (1937) and including the provocative title, How to Cook a Wolf (1942), had been reprinted in a single volume, The Art of Eating, in 1954 and again in 1963. Auden praised Fisher's prose and proclaimed that "The Art of Eating is a book which I think Colette would have loved and wished she had written." The last book of the volume, An Alphabet for Gourmets (1949), concludes with a brief essay entitled "The Perfect Dinner," from which Auden probably derived both the idea that six was "now a Perfect / Social Number" and the line-up of ideal guests in the concluding stanza quoted above:

A good combination would be one married couple, for warm composure; one less firmly established, to add a note of investigation to the talk; and two strangers of either sex, upon whom the better-acquainted diners could sharpen their questioning wits.

Fisher adds that "it is ridiculous to threaten an evening's possible perfection in the name of democracy, gastronomical or otherwise."

But the cena offers a good perspective from which to examine "Tonight at Seven-Thirty," especially because Auden makes explicit what has conventionally remained tacit about the banquet. In the Cena Trimalchionis, the Cena Nasidieni, the banquet poems of Juvenal and Martial, Jonson and Herrick, very little is said about what one needs in order to have an ideal dinner party. One does not, implicitly, want a host like Nasidienus or a guest like Trebius, but what are the desiderata? From the Roman poems one sometimes supposes that a properly cooked lamprey and a well-chosen wine are all. From the seventeenth-century English poets one might gather that simplicity and moderation are the essentials. Auden argues for a thoughtful selection of guests, for a proper guest-host relationship, and more: he insists that amidst the "sardonic comment" and the "cloop of corks" there be a mutual reverence for humankind, that "supererogatory beast" which remains the only one capable of doing "the honors of a feast." At the end of "The Horatians," Auden speaks for Horace's odes:

                  "… We can only     do what it seems to us we were made for, look at       this world with a happy eye       but from a sober perspective."

Principal Works

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Poems (poetry) 1928Poems (poetry) 1930Paid on Both Sides (drama) 1931The Orators: An English Study (poetry) 1932The Dance of Death (drama) 1933The Dog Beneath the Skin; or, Where Is Francis? [with Christopher Isherwood] (drama) 1935The Ascent of F6: A Tragedy in Two Acts [with Christopher Isherwood] (drama) 1936Look, Stranger! (poetry) [published in the United States as On this Island, 1937] 1936On Hunting Fathers [with Benjamin Britten] (libretto) 1936Letters from Iceland [with Louis MacNeice] (poetry) 1937Spain (poetry) 1937On the Frontier: A Melodrama in Three Acts [with Christopher Isherwood] (drama) 1938Selected Poems (poetry) 1938Ballad of Heroes [with Randall Swingler and Benjamin Britten] (libretto) 1939Journey to a War [with Christopher Isherwood] (poetry) 1939Another Time (poetry) 1940The Double Man [republished as New Year Letter] (poetry) 1941Paul Bunyan: An Operetta in Two Acts and a Prologue [with Benjamin Britten] (libretto) 1941For the Time Being (poetry) 1944The Collected Poetry (poetry) 1945The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue (poetry) 1947Collected Shorter Poems, 1933–1944 (poetry) 1950The Enchafèd Flood; or, The Romantic Iconography of the Sea (criticism) 1950Nones (poetry) 1951The Rake's Progress: Opera in Three Acts [with Chester Kallman and Igor Stravinsky] (libretto) 1951The Shield of Achilles (poetry) 1955Homage to Clio (poetry) 1960Elegy for Young Lovers [with Chester Kallman and Hans Werner Henze] (libretto) 1961The Dyer's Hand and Other Essays (essays) 1962About the House (poetry) 1965The Bassarids [with Chester Kallman and Hans Werner Henze] (libretto) 1966Collected Shorter Poems, 1927–1957 (poetry) 1966Collected Longer Poems (poetry) 1968City Without Walls and Other Poems (poetry) 1969Epistle to a Godson and Other Poems (poetry) 1972Forewords and Afterwords (essays) 1973Thank You, Fog: Last Poems (poetry) 1974Collected Poems (poetry) 1976The English Auden: Poems, Essays, and Dramatic Writings, 1927–39 (poetry, essays, and drama) 1977

Alan W. France (essay date Spring 1990)

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SOURCE: "Gothic North and the Mezzogiorno in Auden's 'In Praise of Limestone,'" in Renascence: Essays on Value in Literature, Vol. 42, No. 3, Spring, 1990, pp. 141-8.

[In the following essay, France examines Auden's historical perspective and juxtaposition of Latin and Gothic Christianity in his "In Praise of Limestone."]

Critics of W. H. Auden's "In Praise of Limestone" have often been lulled by the poem's casual voice into overlooking its seriousness. It has been said, for example, to betray a "frivolity [that] has modulated into a quixotic, religious playfulness" ([Richard] Johnson) or the "indulgent … humor" of a "family portrait of Mother Nature" ([Edward] Callan).

A good reading of "In Praise of Limestone," it seems to me, should account for the poem's centrality to the Auden corpus (it introduces, but one, both Nones and the concluding quarter of Collected Shorter Poems); such a reading should also incorporate our understanding of Auden's historical, cultural, and religious concerns of the post-war decade. The poem presents, I believe, a panorama of Western history, stretching from antiquity into the so-called post-Christian era, the poet's perspective being specifically, though only anecdotally, Christian.

"In Praise of Limestone" at once calls to mind several attributes of Eden from Auden's paradisical wish-list in the The Dyer's Hand:


Limestone uplands like the Pennines plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast.


Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way. Lots of local saints.

Auden remarks, as well, in a discussion of the sacred: "Many of us have sacred landscapes which probably all have much in common, but there will almost certainly be details which are peculiar to each." He makes it clear that his own sacred landscape is historical, "a world of unique events and unique persons," and that "tradition now means a consciousness of the whole of the past as present." Significantly, however, Auden blames Luther and Descartes for the destruction of "sacramental analogies" to the "phenomenal world." "In Praise of Limestone," I am suggesting, is the poet's attempt to rediscover the sacramental quality in nature, a quality still animate in the "under-developed" regions of the Mediterranean South—in particular Italy below Rome, the Mezzogiorno—but thoroughly extirpated in the Germanic North by Protestant asceticism and modern science.

If this is so, "In Praise of Limestone" refutes the orthodox, "Whiggish," positivistic understanding of post-Reformation European history. The idea of the progressive enlightenment of the North is particularly evident in J. A. Symonds' massive Renaissance in Italy, a work Auden would most probably have known. Interestingly, Symonds used geological tropes to distinguish Latin, Mediterranean Europe as "backwaters and stagnant pools" of superstition from the scientific and rationalistic North, driven by the "tidal stress of cosmic forces." In the century-long religious struggles, Symonds imagined that northern Europe "heaved like a huge ocean in the grip of a tumultuous gyrating cyclone." "In Praise of Limestone" is a re-vision of this positivistic, Protestant understanding of modern history, a re-valuation of Europe's southern, cultural backwaters.

In "Good-bye to the Mezzogiorno," Auden calls Germanic Europe the "gothic North" and the Latin, Mediterranean world the "sunburnt otherwhere." "In Praise of Limestone" extends the place-centered "psychic geography," paysage moralise, into the realm of spiritual history. The locus of the poem is the South—Ischia, presumably, but many other Mediterranean shores could serve as well. Limestone forms the geological substrate of the Latin South, and, more significantly to the poet, Latin culture is itself a substratum of the spirit: geological elements symbolize profound spiritual differences between North and South that have grown out of the particulars of European history.

The cultural contrast between North and South is represented most clearly in the poem's insistent distinction between voice and vision. The poet speaks from within the spiritual tradition of the Gothic North, although he is a loving barbarian. The Latin South remains the observed "otherwhere," envisioned but voiceless.

"In Praise of Limestone" begins by attributing to the Mediterranean world the qualities of limestone; the poet, by contrast, is of other mettle: "If it form the one landscape that we, the inconstant ones. / Are consistently homesick for, this is chiefly / Because it dissolves in water…." Limestone is, of course, a sedimentary rock, nicely connoting the sedentary, domestic qualities of Mediterranean civilizations: stratum accreted on strata like Minoa or Schliemann's Troy. It is a calcium compound rich in recycled organic material, shell and bones accumulated and compacted over eons. In its strata are traces of the individual organisms left as a fossil record of the past. The mineral is thus a geological metaphor for history. And the civilizations shaped by the Mediterranean are, with good reason, identified with limestone, since the calcium makes the stone water-soluble and, therefore, easily eroded by the action of tides and waves.

The result is life-sustaining: "caves and conduits … a private pool for its fish … / Its own little ravine whose cliffs entertain / The butterfly and the lizard." The poet then begins to invest this nurturing environment, the Mediterranean region in general and Latin civilization in particular, with a distinctly maternal personality:

      What could be more like Mother or a fitter background        For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges       Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting        That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but       Extensions of his power to charm?

The poet sees Mediterranean civilization as an expression of sibling rivalry, "a child's wish" domesticating the limestone substance of nature. "From weathered outcrop / To hill-top temple," formalizing "appearing waters" in "conspicuous fountains," transforming "a wild to a formal vineyard." Figuratively, the male in Latin cultures is the child who builds to please the eternal Mother, and the structures reflect the life-sustaining domestic concern of that Mother as the limestone itself is "built" into ecological niches, caverns, ravines, and basins by the Mediterranean mother-figure.

Lines 21-43 characterize the fundamental human qualities, spiritual as well as social, that limestone-based Mediterranean cultures nurture. The poet notes the innocent warmth and anarchic volubility of the

      band of rivals as they climb up and down        Their steep stone gennels in twos and threes, at times       Arm in arm, but never, thank God, in step;        … knowing each other too well to think       There are any important secrets….

These indulged child-rivals play under the eye of the eternal feminine; they share an understanding that enforces rivalry at the same time it encourages unspoken intimacy. Most important, it precludes their conceiving of abstract causes and dicta that enlist both the best and the worst of human allegiances, and they are therefore "unable / To conceive of a god whose temper-tantrums are moral / And not to be pacified by a clever line / Or a good lay." The double entendre of the latter propitiation, suggesting both hymn and the readiness to coax with sexual favors, reinforces the female quality of Mediterranean religiosity.

According to the poet, then, Latin theodicy makes no provision for an angry God-the-Father, who, unmoved by ingratiating gestures, drives the sons out of the house into the cold homelessness, "the granite waste" of an alien universe: "They have never had to veil their faces in awe / Of a crater whose blazing fury could not be fixed." Here the poem suggests the rumblings of an angry God as well as the phallic symbolism of a volcanic cone erupting with the pent-up energy of irrepressible anger. In contrast to this primal, undomesticated power of patriarchal aggression, the Mediterranean Urmutter, whose "rounded slopes" conceal a "silent system of caves and conduits," is comfortingly humane.

Pampered and protected, the sons of Mediterranean nurture occupy a locality "Adjusted to the local needs of valleys / Where everything can be touched or reached by walking" and have never had to look out "into infinite space." They have always stayed home, insulated from the world of uprooted nomads, who must bump into evil, without and within: "born lucky, / Their legs have never encountered the fungi / And insects of the jungle, the monstrous forms and lives / With which we have nothing, we like to hope, in common." The "we" of this last line again enforces the sense of otherness or "Northern-ness" of the poet's voice and identity and, by extension, his identity with the God of moral temper-tantrums, blazing fury, and infinite (perhaps inhuman) enormity.

Unacquainted with the possibility of profound evil, however, the adolescent "band of rivals" is itself incapable of enormities: "when one of them goes bad, the way his mind works / Remains comprehensible." Neither absolute evil nor absolute sanctity is a possible outcome of Mediterranean spirituality: "to become a pimp / Or deal in fake jewelry or ruin a fine tenor voice / For effects that bring down the house, could happen to all / But the best and the worst of us…." Again, "effects that bring down the house" suggests the domesticity of evil in its Latin manifestation and the local, familiar, almost familial, psychological purpose it serves: "To receive more attention than his brothers."

In the first half of the poem, that preceding the ellipsis at line 43, the poet has spoken publically as a representative of his tradition, using the first person plural. He has spoken also in a sermonic imperative: "mark these rounded slopes"; "hear the springs"; "examine this region"; "Watch, then, the band of rivals." The rhetoric has been discursive and public; the perspective, historical; the audience, fellow communicants of Northern spirituality. In the latter half of the poem, another voice is heard, one that most often speaks privately, as "I." The audience has shrunk from a cultural community addressed sermonically to a single intimate addressed as "Dear."

In the latter half of the poem, Auden gives the Northern terrain voices, but the limestone landscape of the Latin South remains the observed object of the ode. The poet speculates about the reasons that extremes of good and evil seem to prefer colder climates: "… I suppose, / The best and worst never stayed here long but sought / Immoderate soils where the beauty was not so external, / The light less public and the meaning of life / Something more than a mad camp." The spiritual attributes of the Gothic North are personified by means of geological metaphors in lines 47-59. The hard ascetic sanctities of Protestantism are "granite wastes" that cry to the indolent, indulged sons of Latindom: "Come!… How evasive is your humour, how accidental / Your kindest kiss, how permanent is death." The Faustian temptations of science and technology and the monsters, the "Intendant Caesars" of political and ideological empires are "clays and gravels" purring "Come!… On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers / Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb / In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both need to be altered."

The real animus of modernity is natural force, personified as "oceanic whisper"; it is "an older colder voice," this faceless power that erodes limestone and all the human jetties and levees against nihilism. This voice of benign indifference whispers and fetches "the really reckless": "I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing; / That is how I shall set you free. There is no love; / There is only the various envies, all of them sad."

Anthony Hecht has recently associated the triad of geological voices—the call of granite and of clays and gravels and of oceanic whispers—with the three temptations of Christ in Luke 4:1-13, respectively, spiritual pride, worldly powers, and the existential freedom implicit in suicide. The context of the poem relates these temptations to modern, post-Christian equivalents, which the poet suggests have grown out of the ascetic Protestant tradition of the Gothic North.

The Dynamo, as Auden calls the faceless forces of modernity in his essay, "The Virgin and the Dynamo," represents the regimenting, arithmetical power of science, bureaucracy, and the state. The Mediterranean world of limestone—"the sweet home"—cannot maintain a separate identity against these corrosives of modernity. It cannot possess "the historical calm of site / Where something was settled once and for all." The "settled" here again calls to mind the sedentary domesticity of Mediterranean cultures and the sedimentary stratification of their historicity.

But the Mezzogiorno is not merely a "dilapidated province" for German tourists (or English poets), an otherwhere "connected / To the big busy world by a tunnel." Its very existence questions the legitimacy of all Gothic abstractions on which modernity is based; "it disturbs our rights," the poet insists, our aesthetic, ethical, and spiritual "Great Power" assumptions. Even poetry has become the exponent of those modernist orthodoxies, naturalism and subjectivism. The poet is now "Admired for his earnest habit of calling / The sun the sun, his mind Puzzle, is made uneasy / By these marble statues which so obviously doubt / His antimythological myth…."

The Northern abstracting mind is distracted not only by marble beauty but also by hot carnal pleasure readily at hand: "these gamins, / Pursuing the scientist down the tiled colonnade / With lively offers, rebuke his concern for Nature's / Remotest aspects." Here, one is reminded of Mann's Death in Venice: the melting of Germanic will; the danger that the embrace of sordid pleasure poses to the Gothic sense of self; the contagion of disease corrupting that most abstract of entities, the soul. In this context, the reference to a young man "displaying his dildo" (line 12 of the poem as it appeared in Nones before Auden excised the phrase from the version in Collected Shorter Poems) fits much better.

The poet, assuming his private voice to the intimate, confesses his own Gothic vulnerability to forbidden pleasure: "I, too, am reproached, for what / And how much you know." He prays for protection against moral dissolution, which threatens to destroy the basis of his human freedom, to reduce him to the level of "beasts that repeat themselves" and elements "whose conduct can be predicted." Against this threat, the poet invokes "our Common Prayer, whose greatest comfort is music / Which can be made anywhere, is invisible, / And does not smell." "Common Prayer," of course, alludes to the Anglican liturgy, but beyond that, the "our" suggests a wider reference to Protestant spirituality of which the Prayer Book is an expression. The invisibility and incorruptibility of music calls to mind a line from Lincoln Kirstein's "Das Schloss": "Bach begs nothing but absolute all-mastering order." It is in this order, I think, that the poet finds at once the glory, the consolation, and the danger of Gothic spirituality. All-mastering order is superhuman, and the superhuman is in constant danger of hardening into the granite of the inhuman. Thus, the abstractions of science threaten to reduce humanity to something sub-human, a beast without freedom or a substance obedient to natural forces. The substantiality of limestone transformed into art is a spiritual declaration of independence from this naturalistic determinism.

In the concluding lines, the poet turns to the spiritual possibilities of human substance. Death, material dissolution, is a natural force, and one that is as certain and abstract as science. The "we" of the poem confirms this Gothic mortification of the flesh: "In so far as we have to look forward / To death as a fact, we are right." Death is a biological force, just as erosion is a geological force. The poet clings to "our Common Prayer" as the only hope for human freedom, and yet he is reproached by the worldly beauty of the Mezzogiorno.

"In Praise of Limestone" finally transcends these two partial views through the promise of resurrection. Resurrection raises humanity out of the geological metaphor, as the sculpting of stone into athletes and fountains raises stone out of the purview of natural forces.

      … if bodies rise from the dead         These modifications of matter into       Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains.         Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:       The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,         Having nothing to hide.

Resurrection will reconstitute the individual corporeal elements, cleansed and transmuted by faith, into permanent form. Both elements of Auden's complex analogy are thus brought together. In nature, human material is formed into civilization as the forces of geology formed limestone: by sedimentation. The human art of sculpting marble—limestone transformed by fire—into human and aesthetically humane forms is like the resurrection of the human material into a purged and permanent form. As the vehicle of both metaphors, limestone is to be praised.

The poet concludes in his voice of private address to the intimate: "Dear, I know nothing of / Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love / Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur / Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape." Resurrected nature, as distinguished from the resurrecting power, is imaginable in this world only in the beauty and pleasure of icons. Their provision is the Mezzogiorno's "worldly duty which in spite of itself it does not neglect." The poet associates this Latin spiritual vision with the eternal feminine; he perceives the Urmutter—sedentary, domestic, and fertile—in the civilization of the Mezzogiorno. It is a foreign, if beatific, vision and one he can only learn as second-sight.

The resurrecting power, the Word, is understandable to the strictly Gothic sensibility only in terms of abstractions of music and moral systems, notions of divine justice and majesty. The poet speaks from within this Gothic tradition of spirituality; but what he sees, finally, is the glory of the world and, thereby, the complementary nature of the two personalities of Western Christianity.

Further Reading

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Boly, John R. "Auden and the Romantic Tradition in The Age of Anxiety." Daedalus 111, No. 2 (Spring 1982): 149-71.

Examines Auden's reaction against and assimilation of romanticism as reflected in the major themes, artistic concerns, and structure of The Age of Anxiety.

Bozorth, Richard R. "'But Who Would Get It?': Auden and the Codes of Poetry and Desire." ELH: English Literary History 62, No. 3 (Fall 1995): 709-27.

Explores the significance of private allusions, coded language, and ambiguity in Auden's poetry as an expression of his homosexuality.

Bryant, Marsha. "Auden and the 'Arctic Stare': Documentary as Public Collage in Letters from Iceland." Journal of Modern Literature XVII, No. 4 (Spring 1991): 537-65.

Examines Auden's interest in documentary filmmaking and the politics of representation as reflected in Letters from Iceland.

Christianson, Scott R. "The Poetics and Politics of Eliot's Influence on W. H. Auden." Essays in Literature 19, No. 1 (Spring 1992): 98-113.

Considers the genealogical and political influence of T. S. Eliot's poetry and literary criticism on the development of Auden's own poetry and critical perspective.

Mendelson, Edward. "'We Are Changed By What We Change': The Power of Politics of Auden's Revisions." The Romanic Review 86, No. 3 (May 1995): 527-35.

Examines the ethical significance of Auden's frequent revisions of his poetry as indicative of his respect for the politics and shaping power of language.

Pascoe, David. "Auden and the Aesthetics of Detection." Essays in Criticism 43, No. 1 (January 1993): 33-58.

Explores Auden's interest in English detective fiction and elements of the genre in his poetry.

Riffaterre, Michael. "Textuality: W. H. Auden's 'Musée des Beaux Arts.'" In Textual Analysis: Some Readers Reading, edited by Mary Ann Caws, pp. 1-13. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1986.

Examines the principles and function of literary intertextuality through analysis of Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts."

Spears, Monroe K. "The Divine Comedy of W. H. Auden." Sewanee Review 90, No. 1 (Winter 1982): 53-72.

Examines the development of Auden's poetry and artistic concerns in relation to the three books of Dante's Divine Comedy.

Spiegelman, Willard. "The Rake, The Don, The Flute: W. H. Auden as Librettist." Parnassus 10. No. 2 (Fall-Winter 1982): 171-87.

Discusses Auden's interest in operatic forms and the artistic principles applied to his adaptations of The Rake's Progress, Don Giovanni, and The Magic Flute.

Patrick Deane (essay date Summer 1991)

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SOURCE: "'Within a Field That Never Closes': The Reader in W. H. Auden's 'New Year Letter,'" in Contemporary Literature, Vol. XXXII, No. 2, Summer, 1991, pp. 171-93.

[In the following essay, Deane explores Auden's theoretical assumptions, linguistic techniques, and open-ended relationship with the reader in "New Year Letter."]

In October 1941, the pages of Scrutiny registered the appearance of W. H. Auden's New Year Letter with characteristic acerbity. The long poem from which the volume as a whole took its title came in for particular excoriation, Auden's "wit" being described, somewhat condescendingly, as the sort of thing one might expect from "a theological student at a Scottish university." The conclusion of the reviewer. Raymond Winkler, was that "another edition of this book omitting the 'Letter' and the notes [to it] would detract less from Mr. Auden's deserved reputation." But even that last concession to the poet's stature evaporates under the heat of what is actually being proposed: the excision of approximately 140 of the book's 188 pages.

The attack at times dissipates itself in silly innuendo—as in the comment on Auden's fondness for quoting from "suspiciously fashionable authors like Kafka, Kierkegaard and Rilke"—but it does eventually come to a point: namely, that "New Year Letter" inverts "the usual practice of good verse" by neglecting to "precipitat[e] … ideas" through "the concrete situation." I think this means that Auden abjures obliquity in favor of directness, that he does not "evoke" ideas and emotions through an Eliotic "objective correlative" or a Poundian "image" but instead expresses them in apparently abstract terms. Distrust of the abstract was of course at the base of Scrutiny's divergence from Eliot himself after 1939; and one sign of the journal's consistent animus against "unprecipitated" ideas is the fact that Auden's reviewer was later to write a general article lamenting what Francis Mulhern has called "the eclipse of the early 'empiricist' criticism by doctrinally induced generalization and abstraction." In 1941 Winkler's attack on "New Year Letter" focused repeatedly on the "simplicity" of Auden's ideas and the "bludgeoning" directness with which they are conveyed. "One is reminded," he writes, "that the Ministry of Information has lately found the same verse-form a convenient vehicle for National Savings propaganda."

What is quite obviously behind this attack is a hostile understanding of the "poetic," amounting almost to a repugnance for overtly "philosophical" poems, no matter by whom they are written or in whatever age. This aversion comes through especially in the disparaging comment that "it's only a matter of months before … ["New Year Letter" is] described in one university or another as a 'twentieth-century "Essay on Man"' or 'another "First Anniversarie."'" In fact, the Augustan character of the poem had already been remarked upon—six months before and in the pages of the Nation—by Randall Jarrell. In that case the review was a cordial one. Jarrell saw the appearance of Auden's poem as an indication of the new life and direction of twentieth-century poetry, the norm of modernist poetic performance—"experimental, lyric, obscure, violent, irregular, determinedly antagonistic to didacticism, general statement, science, [and] the public"—having finally "lost for the young its once obsessive attraction." "New Year Letter," he perceived as clearly as did Scrutiny, was a poetic performance of almost the opposite sort. It was, he wrote, "a happy compound of the Essay on Man and the Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot, done in a version of Swift's most colloquial couplets. Pope might be bewildered at the ideas, and make fun of, or patronizingly commend, the couplets; but he would relish the Wit, Learning, and Sentiment—the last becoming, as it so often does, plural and Improving; and the Comprehending Generality. Love of Science, and Social Benevolence might warm him into the murmur, 'Well enough for such an age.'"

Jarrell praises Auden for leaving behind the obscurities of Pound and the high modernists and for making a "thoroughly readable" and accessible long poem "out of a reasonable, objective, and comprehensive discussion." In contrast, Winkler looks at the same thing—the discursive quality of the verse—and announces, somewhat puzzlingly, that "the effect is to hang a curtain between author and reader." One is tempted to probe more deeply the ground of this difference of opinion, but of greater interest for the moment is the single point on which these two appear to agree: namely, that the "New Year Letter" is a modern text in the Augustan tradition.

Auden's debt to the Restoration and eighteenth century in this and almost all of his poems has generally been regarded as one of the least problematic aspects of his art—theoretically the least problematic, I should say, since there have always been hairs split about precisely which Enlightenment figure is at any point the strongest influence. But unlike Eliot, whose acknowledgment of the importance of Dryden and Johnson is enigmatically impersonal, and whose imitations of Pope and the Augustans were largely edited out of his published poems, Auden's recognition of his debt has always been forthright, one of the few critical "facts" on which it appears possible to found an interpretation. For example, in "Criticism in a Mass Society," an essay more or less contemporary with the "New Year Letter," Auden includes the name of Pope among the three writers who have been the greatest influence on his own work. A similar acknowledgment is to be found, of course, in Part 1 of the "New Year Letter," where the poet imagines Dryden in attendance at Auden's own literary trial: "There Dryden sits with modest smile, / The master of the middle style." Such acts of self-criticism have surely encouraged the formation of a kind of consensus on this issue. A. Alvarez wrote in 1958. "Of all twentieth-century poets Auden would feel most at home in the age of Dryden, the age of informed, satiric, and slightly gossipy occasional verse." This was the view adopted and expanded by Monroe K. Spears in his influential study of Auden in 1963, and it remains largely accepted, although "the age of Dryden" is usually extended to include the eighteenth century as well.

The Augustanism of "New Year Letter" is overt and seems on the surface to raise few problems. The poem is a Horatian verse epistle displaying many of the characteristics which typify eighteenth-century adaptations of the form. Its rhyming couplets, its wit, and its discursive style all seem to confirm Auden's temperamental and artistic affinities with the Age of Enlightenment. But they are also poetic characteristics which, as Paul Fussell has shown, are frequently linked to "social commentary or depictions of social or ethical action." That this is the case in Auden's poem is borne out by the responses of some of the early reviewers. Malcolm Cowley, for example, commented that the poem is marked by "a fanciful but fundamentally serious eloquence" and that its subject is moral. Charles Williams, whose Descent of the Dove was acknowledged by Auden as the source of "many ideas" in "New Year Letter," wrote that the concern of the poem "is with the building of the Just City" and that "it is, after its own manner, a pattern of the Way; that it dialectically includes both sides of the Way only shows that it is dealing with a road and not a room."

If this proposition is true we have even firmer ground for linking the work with those of Dryden, Pope, and Johnson. What Williams is describing is a poem defined and conceived as rhetoric, a verbal contraption—to use Auden's own phrase from the essay "Making, Knowing and Judging"—which is intended to construct something beyond itself in the world of human and spiritual action. Or to develop Williams's other metaphor, the poem is a road intended to take the reader toward some perception or state of mind quite different from that in which he or she began reading. This concentration on the text as vehicle for the edification of the reader is an idea as peripheral to the poetics of modernism as it is central to the poetics of neoclassicism. It is what lies behind Dryden's commitment, in the preface to Religio Laici, to the "middle style"—the language of ordinary, worldly affairs—and it would seem to provide a compelling motive for Auden's preoccupation with the middle style in his poem. The essence of Auden's Augustanism in the "New Year Letter," I would argue, is what Winkler identified when he compared the piece to government propaganda: namely, that the raison d'être of the poem is to accomplish some sort of mental reorientation in the reader that will have ramifications in the world beyond poetry.

At first glance this seems a relatively straightforward claim. It would take a very obtuse reader not to notice that much of the poem is given over to sententious moralizing and that it is very conscious of its audience, and of its effects on that audience. At the end of Part I there is the wish expressed that the letter be sent as a "dispatch," in the midst of global turmoil, "to all / Who wish to read it anywhere" and that its message be "En Clair." That last wish of course accounts for the prominence in the poem of Dryden, "the master of the middle style." But as we consider this passage, we may well reflect that its overt gesture toward the poem's audience is still somehow less active and involving than the kind of thing suggested in Charles Williams's comments on the text, with their gerundial and present continuous forms and their preference for metaphors of process—"the Way," "a road and not a room."

Related to this discrepancy and not the smallest problem with the end of Part I is that it runs against the drift of the argument 243 lines earlier. Having been told that "To set in order—that's the task / Both Eros and Apollo ask" ("Art and life agree in this. / That each intends a synthesis"), we are cautioned that

     Art is not life, and cannot be      A midwife to society,      For art is a fait accompli:      What they should do, or how and when      Life-order comes to living men,      It cannot say, for it presents      Already lived experience      Through a convention that creates      Autonomous completed states.

If that is so, one might ask, what is the point of sending out a poetic dispatch to the world? And doesn't that phrase "autonomous completed states" contradict Williams's emphasis on Auden's art of process? Faced with this, one clings—with some justice, as we shall see—to the possibility that there is an equivocation in that word "states," a suggestion of some persisting connection between the "true gestalt" of art and the Just City. At the same time, however, one hears Auden's voice from twenty years later warning that "All political theories which, like Plato's, are based on analogies drawn from artistic fabrication are bound, if put into practice, to turn into tyrannies" ("The Poet and the City").

We can find a useful gloss on this section of the "Letter" in "The Public v. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats," which Auden published in the Partisan Review in the spring of 1939, less than a year before he began work on the poem:

art is the product of history, not a cause. Unlike some other products, technical inventions for example, it does not re-enter history as an effective agent, so that the question whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal … the honest truth, gentlemen, is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, not a bar of music composed, the history of man would be materially unchanged.

A more familiar, potted version of this argument is to be found in the famous second section of "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," which Auden added a month after the poem had first appeared in March 1939. "Ireland has her madness and her weather still," we are told, "For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its saying where executives / Would never want to tamper." That valley is another version of the autonomous completed state referred to in the "New Year Letter," and the poem appears to be making the same point as the essay: namely, that art, when completed, becomes in some sense detached from history and cannot "re-enter history as an effective agent."

Far from relieving the contradiction in "New Year Letter," these two contemporary works appear to aggravate it. We have a Horatian verse epistle, the very form of which bespeaks at least some confidence in the ability of the text to act as an agent in history, which contains within itself both a denial of and a commitment to its own historical efficacy, and also from the same period we have Auden's obiter dicta on the subject, which are often taken to be an uncompromising rejection of the more "engaged" poetic which he had practiced during the thirties. The extent to which that rejection was compromised I will consider later, but it is unquestionably true that in the spring of 1939 Auden resolved "Never, never again … [to] speak at a political meeting" and almost simultaneously made the declaration of independence from politics that we have seen in his writings on Yeats. Given that, there is surely something perverse in his return soon afterward to the worldly and outwardly directed form of the verse epistle with which he had first experimented in 1937.

In that instance, paradoxically, the recipient had been someone already removed from history—Lord Byron—whereas in 1940 the "New Year Letter" was directed at Elizabeth Mayer, still very much alive and well at her home on Long Island. The choice of form appears particularly contrary when we consider that Auden's poetry of his self-confessedly political period was in the main not characterized as we might expect by the lucidities of the "middle style," nor by a compelling univocality. World events enter the realm of those poems obliquely, for the most part, and the perspective is marked by that intractable subjectivity which Lukács lamented is the distinguishing mark of literary modernism. Even "A Bride in the 30's" (November 1934) and "Spain" (April 1937)—in which the threat of war is felt relatively strongly—are the work of what Joseph Warren Beach characterizes as "a typical 'modern' poet, who sedulously avoids the 'frontal attack' on his subject, whose thought is characteristically rendered by the 'oblique' or indirect method, the terms of his discourse being, not philosophical abstractions and plain statements of fact, but symbols, myths, and implications, and whose effects are complicated by the use of such rhetorical devices as irony, 'ambiguity,' and dramatic impersonation."

How odd it is to find that whereas Auden's poetic strategies as an avowedly socialist poet effect what Lukács would call an "attenuation of reality and dissolution of personality," "New Year Letter," his first major work after his rejection of "engagement," appears by its direct methods and singular perspective to affirm that "unity of the world … as a living whole inseparable from himself" which in Marxist thinking provides an antidote to the bourgeois doctrine of alienation. And yet there we run aground—unsalvageably, it seems—on the content of the poem, on that idea, expressed very early on in the "Letter," that works of art are "autonomous" and complete—"alienated," in some sense, from the processes of history.

All of these contradictions will continue to seem insurmountable so long as we assume that Auden's rejection of a "political" role for poetry necessarily involved the adoption of a formalist aesthetic. Winkler pointed, in his review of "New Year Letter," to reaction as an important element in the content of the work; he argued that the author's "method implies reaction in Mr. Auden's system of ideas." And the point is not invalid, since the adoption of an eighteenth-century style is in some sense atavistic, evidence of a nostalgia for past values. In aesthetic terms, however, it does seem logical that reaction against the failure of political activism in art would be more likely to lead toward formalism than toward the didactic modes of the eighteenth century. But here it is necessary to look beyond the internal logic of criticism and toward certain facts about Auden's attitudes—facts which are often ignored as critics attempt to read the poet's life and career as a kind of "moral fable," illustrating either the reassertion of bourgeois values and the betrayal of the proletariat or the inevitable demise of socialist ideas and the triumph of liberal humanism.

The first of these facts is that Auden did not, in 1939, cease to hold the political views he had held before that date. Humphrey Carpenter tells us of the poet's answers to a questionnaire completed during that very summer, one of which declares "I believe Socialism to be right" but goes on to express the view that for himself ordinary political activity is no longer productive. Another, perhaps more important continuity in Auden's work and thought from before 1939 to the "New Year Letter" has to do with his attitude to language. One of his central documents on this subject is the essay "Writing," originally published in 1932 as part of a curious primer for children of all ages, An Outline for Boys and Girls and Their Parents. Edward Mendelson was quite recently the first critic to point out the extraordinary extent to which that essay "offers a premature exposition of the central themes of structuralist literary theory and its successors." Auden sees the origin of language in a sense of absence and alienation; he argues that language, both written and spoken, is an attempt to fill the void, to bridge the gap between speaker and auditor, writer and reader; but then he also makes important distinctions between written and spoken language; and he insists on "the antagonism and difference between language and its objects." "All these," writes Mendelson, "are aspects of a late romantic theory of language, brought to a crisis by modernism, and agonized over by the young Auden a generation before Derrida and Lacan." Mendelson's point is convincing. The poet's views on language clearly have a great deal in common with those that are currently influential, and Stan Smith's recent "rereading" of the entire oeuvre is exciting testimony to Auden's amenability to poststructural approaches.

In his essay, Auden does not imagine a paradisal language in which sign and signified were ever identical. Language instead originates precisely as a result of a sort of internal dissociation of sensibility. We are told that "at some time or other in human history, when and how we don't know, man became self-conscious; he began to feel, I am I, and you are not I; we are shut inside ourselves and apart from each other" ("Writing"). Speech begins as an attempt to remedy the problem: "Words are a bridge between a speaker and a listener." This is extended in an interesting way under the rubric "Writing":

The urge to write, like the urge to speak, came from man's growing sense of personal loneliness, of the need for group communication. But, while speech begins with the feeling of separateness in space, of I-here-in-this-chair and you-there-in-that-chair, writing begins from the sense of separateness in time, of "I'm here to-day, but I shall be dead to-morrow, and you will be active in my place, and how can I speak to you?"

To this idea of language as bridge across space and time, Auden adds another crucial element, which he deals with—rather curiously—under the rubric "Meaning," and which he calls "Intention": "Apart from what we say or feel we often want to make our listeners act or think in a particular way." The issue is elaborated under the heading "Why People Read Books": "Reading and living are not two water-tight compartments. You must use your knowledge of people to guide you when reading books, and your knowledge of books to guide you when living with people…. Reading is valuable when it improves our technique of living." This stress on the nonliterary efficacy of writing and reading is an essential part of Auden's conception of language as a bridge between the limitations of a monadic psyche and the possibility of a fruitful society.

Auden's other essay called "Writing," the more familiar one published in The Dyer's Hand exactly thirty years later, differs from the first in many ways, but there is still that original insistence on language as a social agent. Auden talks about the debasement of language in modern culture, and about the particular dangers which this presents to the poet, though not to the composer or the painter. "On the other hand," he continues, "he is more protected than they from another modern peril, that of solipsist subjectivity; however esoteric a poem may be, the fact that all its words have meanings which can be looked up in a dictionary makes it testify to the existence of other people. Even the language of Finnegans Wake was not created by Joyce ex nihilo; a purely private verbal world is not possible" (Dyer's Hand).

The fundamental point to be made about Auden's theories, then, is that in them language, which is in fact an index of the gap which separates subject and object, tends also to be thought of as the nemesis of that gap, the hope of escape from solipsistic subjectivity. One last gloss on this idea is to be found in "The Sea and the Mirror," written between 1942 and 1944. In the third and last principal section, "Caliban to the Audience," we have a long disquisition on the conditions and aims of art. Toward the end, Caliban has this to say about the "aim and justification" of a "dedicated dramatist"—surely a type for all writers:

what else exactly is the artistic gift which he is forbidden to hide, if not to make you unforgettably conscious of the ungarnished offended gap between what you so questionably are and what you are commanded without any question to become …?—the more he must strengthen your delusion that an awareness of the gap is in itself a bridge, your interest in your imprisonment a release, so that, far from your being led by him to contrition and surrender, the regarding of your defects in his mirror, your dialogue, using his words, with yourself about yourself, becomes the one activity which never, like devouring or collecting or spending, lets you down.

Caliban's point is that even though art may be eternally isolated from life, and even though it may never be really possible to bridge the gap between writer and reader, it is imperative that we continue to work at bridge-building. In the most basic terms of Auden's belief, no bridge means no society at all, socialist or otherwise. And there we surely have one reason why Auden's retreat from active politics was not also a retreat into formalism. Some of his poetry in the thirties was written to "serve" socialist ideals, of course, but that was only part of a more fundamental intention to serve the construction of society in general. When socialism as an active political philosophy was discredited in Auden's eyes, the commitment to a "social" use of language remained unchanged. Indeed, a determination to reassert that commitment may lie behind his almost instantaneous decision—seemingly "perverse," as I said earlier—to adopt the sociable form of the Augustan verse epistle. The poem's own doubts about its historical efficacy may have something to do with what went wrong with European politics in the 1930s, but they are certainly connected with the more profound fear, expressed by Caliban in "The Sea and the Mirror," that thinking that "awareness of the gap is in itself a bridge" may be simply a delusion. What remains, though, is the conviction that "your dialogue, using [an author's] words, with yourself about yourself, becomes the one activity which never … lets you down." This appears to me to point us directly into the rather troublesome realm of the psychology of reading, and so it is to the place of the reader in the poem, and that reflexive dialogue envisaged by Caliban, that I now wish to turn.

Here it is necessary to go back to both the "New Year Letter" and Auden's elegy for Yeats and to notice that in each case the denial of an effective historical role for literature carries with it a description of the way in which a text in its "autonomous completed state" will relate to the world around it. In the "Letter" this is relatively simple. We are told that once art is "realized" and separate from life, it can no longer function as a direct agent of the author's intention. It is, "though still particular,"

      An algebraic formula,       An abstract model of events       Derived from dead experience,And each life must itself decideTo what and how it be applied.       (emphasis added)

The corresponding passage in the elegy for Yeats is somewhat more colorful but on the surface probably no more encouraging. Every reader of poetry is probably familiar with the lines, from Part 1, which tell us that "The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living," very much the point made in those lines from "New Year Letter" which I just quoted—except for the added suggestion that whatever dialogue occurs between reader and text is not purely a matter of the mind. But in the inserted second part comes another relevant passage which, as Stan Smith has rightly commented, is much less frequently quoted. Poetry makes nothing happen, yes, but "it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth."

"This strange, dehumanizing metonymy," writes Smith, "insisting on the act of speech while simultaneously detaching it from any human hinterland in a speaking subject, catches the paradox of … [the text's] double historicity. A poem can be read at any time, and, in reading, it enters into a precise historical moment, the moment of the reader quite distinct from that of the originating author." This explication of the line seems to me entirely accurate, and it reveals the thread of hope that remains for Auden once the currents of history are resolved in the "true gestalt" of poetic art. It is precisely because "art is a fait accompli," which is treated on the surface as a matter for grief, that it is able to "survive." And surviving, it presents itself to all humanity not as a spoken thing, with a "meaning," but as a means of speaking. More than that, it provides a way of speaking, and speaking comes to define being, so the poem is "a way of happening" (emphasis added). This stress on the read text as the source of a subconscious experience rather than a specific "meaning" is supported by Auden's comment in Secondary Worlds (1968) that "in so far as one can speak of poetry as conveying knowledge, it is the kind of knowledge implied by the Biblical phrase—Then Adam Knew Eve his wife—knowing is inseparable from being known."

This line of argument effects a rather surprising refinement of the idea of language as a bridge. Entrenching that concern with the materiality of words which is already very evident in the "Writing" essay of 1932, Auden comes to think of language as something which is most powerful not when you have "decoded" it but when you are on it or in it. In the idea of poetry as "a way of happening" he is extending in a similar direction what in 1932 he had inappropriately called the fourth form of "Meaning": the intention "to make our listeners act or think in a particular way." Although the direct line of influence between writer and reader—his power to compel us through the expression of ideas—has become somewhat attenuated, an indirect one still persists. In the process of reading, the text becomes "the other" in a self-reflexive dialogue conducted by the reader, who for the duration will "be" as the poetry "happens."

This phenomenon in Auden is adequately but not perfectly rendered by Louis Althusser's term "interpellation," describing the process by which an ideologically fraught discourse constitutes, "recruits," or "transforms" its own subject. One important consequence of regarding "New Year Letter" primarily as an instance of interpellation is that the ambiguities and contradictions which ordinarily appear to surround the choice of its form, the Horatian verse epistle, no longer matter to quite the same extent. For if Auden wanted in his poem to construct a poetic "way of happening, a mouth," through which a subject position could be realized that was simultaneously ideologically well defined and yet also somewhat open, he could hardly have chosen better. That these two things—definition and openness—were important to him is testified to by a passage in Secondary Worlds, where he moves from a discussion of the sort of person who uses words as "Black Magic"—as "a way of securing domination over others and compelling them to do his will"—to make the point that "politics and religion are spheres where personal choice is essential." Propaganda he defines as an exercise of words without allowance for choice, and in that sense political and religious propaganda are unacceptable in his view. But writing in the service of those two human concerns, writing which does exercise some ideological power in the sphere of politics and religion—that is to him acceptable, and probably necessary, provided it makes an allowance for choice.

In a verse epistle, the "voice" which we become when we read is quite strictly defined. The reason must partly be the striking occasionality of the form. One is usually prompted to write a letter, even a very literary one, by some sort of external event—and what is more important, by a very specific response to that event, the kind which brings it all to the point of a pen. In Auden's poem the occasion is New Year's Eve 1939, the night when "a scrambling decade ends." His response is to revive and revolve upon the question of "who and where and how we are." And all of this adds up to a sense in the reader that the "mouth" with which we have begun to speak is not entirely detached—or detachable—from a historical "body."

More important than this, however, is the fact that the verse epistle is, conventionally if not theoretically, univocal. This particular example of the genre is emphatically so. The voice we hear when we set the "mouth" that is the poem in action is one very familiar from Auden's shorter poems: urbane, witty, outrageous—and for all that, remarkably consistent. The form of the octosyllabic couplet, persisting through over seventeen hundred lines, exerts a powerfully leavening influence on Auden's extravagant and colorful lexicon, and it asserts the continuity of his discourse. Indeed, even the eclecticism and eccentricity of the language seem to entrench our sense of the single voice; this is a powerfully individual speech, and every quirky linguistic gesture makes it less and less possible for us to efface the historically defined subject position of the poem, to make this "mouth" entirely our own. The total effect is a curious one: while the consistent univocality of the text facilitates the adduction of the reader to the position of speaking subject, the very way in which that univocality is realized (through the use of an intractably individual vocabulary and historical references) insists that adduction must also to some extent involve a translation, of the text by the reader but also of the reader by the text. This is a point made explicitly by Auden in Secondary Worlds, where he writes that "every dialogue [which, as Stan Smith has noted, includes the act of reading] is a feat of translation." Smith explains the nature of the translation in reading as "an exchange of subject positions," but in this particular case it is perhaps more correct to talk of a mutual modification of subject positions. How profoundly appropriate, one reflects, was Auden's original title for the whole volume—The Double Man.

A further important way in which "New Year Letter" entrenches its apparent univocality is through self-reflexive commentary. I have already alluded to numerous instances of this: the discussion of the relation of poetry to history in Part 1, for example, and the closing lines of the same part, where the speaker expresses the hope that "This private minute for a friend" will be the "dispatch" that he intends "to all / Who wish to read it anywhere." But these are only two of a great many instances, occurring particularly in that first part. There is, for example, also the ninety-line section in which the speaker imagines himself appearing before "That summary [literary] tribunal which / In a perpetual session sits." This, as I said earlier, is a form of metapoetry, in which the discourse of the poem and discourse about the poem are consubstantial. And then there is commentary on the peculiar tone of the whole piece, that typically Audenesque mixture of flippancy and high seriousness:

     Though language may be useless, for      No words men write can stop the war      Or measure up to the relief      Of its immeasurable grief,      Yet truth, like love and sleep, resents      Approaches that are too intense,      And often when the searcher stood      Before the Oracle it would      Ignore his grown-up earnestness      But not the child of his distress,      For through the Janus of a joke      The candid psychopompos spoke.

If Auden's position in the Yeats elegy is valid, and if in reading the poem we are, in some fundamental sense, merely reading ourselves, these moments of overt self-reflexivity both underline and exacerbate the solipsistic condition. "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" talks of individuals imprisoned—poetry notwithstanding—"each in the cell of himself," and in the "New Year Letter" the pervasive tenor of self-awareness does indeed make reading an act concentrated inordinately upon that "self" which the text constructs and which we assume. In all its complexity, that process is the essence of what I have been calling the poem's "univocality": its deliberately cultivated association with a purportedly coherent and exclusive "self." And yet, as the Yeats elegy again hints, the solipsistic experience of reading such a work is paradoxically at the root of whatever efficacy the text may eventually enjoy in history and in human affairs outside of literature. The reason is that although the poem appears on the surface so inseparable from one man's experience at one period in history—and thus of limited application to ourselves and our own time—the subject position defined by the text is so precise and so coherent that the "way of happening" which it provides future readers is quite exactly determined. The text may exist only as a "mouth," but the body which is implied whenever it is made to speak will always in some way be the same. Thus, rather surprisingly, what Caliban refers to as "an awareness of the gap" between the text and history, between one subject writing and another reading, turns out indeed to be "in itself a bridge" across space and history ("The Sea and the Mirror"), a way in which an author can—albeit obliquely—make something intentional "happen." This he does, in Auden's practice, by accepting that while lexical "meaning" will always be subject to alteration by time, significance inscribed in the processes of the text will enjoy greater power and endurance. Thus the work must be constructed in the awareness that once it is complete, it will be less important as a statement made than as "an infinite series of its own self-generating occasions."

Insofar as that is an accurate account of the status of the text of "New Year Letter," a complementary account of the status of the reader is implied. For if the essence of the text is process, and if the process is subject to potentially infinite repetition, the constructed subject position which "is" the reader (for the duration of reading, at least) must be inseparable from that process, and also infinitely repeatable. And interestingly, this is precisely how "New Year Letter" defines the problematic notion of "self":

             each great I        Is but a process in a process        Within a field that never closes.

It would be difficult to summarize the reader's position in the text more effectively. This passage is doubly important for us, however, because it so happens that it is here that the content of the poem also comes to its sharpest point. While Part 1, as we have seen, takes art and its relation to history as its central concern, Part 2 explores our relation to time and space in a more abstract way. And it is here that Auden formulates the weltanschauung on which the more practical resolutions of the final, third part of the poem will be based. The passage I have quoted comes very early in Part 2, and its immediate context is a discussion of the difficulties involved in coping with life in a post-Einsteinian universe. The question of "who and where and how we are" is answered in part: we are "The children of a modest star, / Frail, backward, clinging to the granite / Skirts of a sensible old planet, / Our placid and suburban nurse / In Sitter's swelling universe." Auden catches the challenge which that universe poses to us in a characteristic and wonderful paradox. We find it hard, he writes, "to stretch imagination / To live according to our station": we find it difficult to think of ourselves as other than stable, to grasp that our reality is elastic and subject to constant change and that "we are changed by what we change."

A great deal of what comes before and after this point in the text finds its focus here. All of the intellectual temptations explored in Part 2—and they take up almost the whole section—involve false conceptions of stability, spurious arguments against the idea of a relativistic universe, self-limiting applications of logic, and crude empiricism. Such things, it is implied, are persuasive to a nerveless people, "The patriots of an old idea. / No longer sovereign this year." For the enlightened,

        all our intuitions mock      The formal logic of the clock.      All real perception, it would seem,      Has shifting contours like a dream.

And furthermore,

            The intellect      That parts the Cause from the Effect      And thinks in terms of Space and Time      Commits a legalistic crime,      For such an unreal severance      Must falsify experience.

At one point Auden has the devil argue in glozing and ingratiating fashion a position that is nevertheless taken by the poem to be fundamentally correct: namely, that Eden was lost when "the syllogistic sin took root." Adam and Eve became "Abstracted, bitter refugees," who "fought over their premises, / Shut out from Eden by the bar / And Chinese Wall of Barbara"—"Barbara" being "a mnemonic term for the first mood of the first syllogistic figure, in which both premises and the conclusion are universal affirmatives" (Shorter Oxford). Our longing for stability and certainty is thus the greatest impediment to our happiness.

Although we are told that to think "in terms of Space and Time" is to commit "a legalistic crime," the poem readily accepts that to think consistently in other, more comprehensive terms is perhaps beyond the present abilities of the human mind. In fact, a rather hard-nosed pragmatism in this regard reveals itself at various places in the text; for example, Auden denigrates the attitude of the zealot, his politics "perhaps unreal," who is tempted to martyr himself for a probably unrealizable dream. In physics, as in politics, nympholepsy is abjured. We are told that "we are conscripts to our age / Simply by being born, we wage / The war we are"; our task is to learn "how / To be the patriots of the Now." This statement has many meanings, but for the poem it represents an important acceptance of historic time as the apparent medium of our lives and actions:

              In Time we sin.       But Time is sin and can forgive,       Time is the life in which we live,       At least three-quarters of our time       The purgatorial hill we climb,       Where any skyline we attain       Reveals a higher ridge again.

Auden goes on at length to develop this analogy between temporal sequence and the hill of Purgatory. The basic position is very clear, however: acquiescence in "the formal logic of the clock" is, in the first place, our only choice, and in the second, it alone offers hope of an escape from this limited conception of time. Notice, though, the paradoxical suggestion that the possibilities for escape (forgiveness of "sin") seem to increase with the endlessness of time.

This is a most odd proposition, not at all unlike the kind of theological paradoxes which Auden was in fact shortly to re-embrace. But what it means in terms of theology, metaphysics, or indeed the new physics is not our immediate concern. The point is that at the root of this rather peculiar rapprochement between pre- and post-Einsteinian conceptions of time, there is a very simple pragmatism: "Time is the life in which we live," and though continuing to think in terms of the clock is "a legalistic crime," it is a necessary one. Throughout "New Year Letter," pragmatism seems to triumph over theoretical purity in Auden's treatment of this complex relationship. He begins Part 2, as we have seen, establishing as our context "Sitter's swelling universe," and he not only explores with some relish the full and disconcerting implications of the general theory of relativity, but he also dwells with amusement on those "patriots of an old idea" who react against the new cosmos thus brought into view. Very soon, however, the dialectic between old and new ideas is translated into much more simple and comprehensible terms. Standing in the way of our advancement is "the Prince of Lies," "the Spirit-that-denies," and he encourages us to mourn the passage of time, "claiming it's wicked to grow older." This is not at all an argument against the world view of the new physics but simply a resistance to temporal process, traditionally conceived. In Part 3, all these ideas come to a focus in the passage which I have already cited, the one dealing with the necessity of our life in time. It will not do to simply argue that Auden's understanding of Einsteinian physics was naive and that he misread relativity through Heraclitean eyes; on the contrary, we can see in certain lines—such as the reference to the "legal crime" which separates space and time—evidence of a quite confident knowledge of contemporary physics. Indeed, that reference alone tells us that he knew how the theory of relativity had discredited the notion of time as sequential process, replacing it with the more comprehensive, four-dimensional concept of space-time. I think the way to resolve this problem is to concentrate on his pragmatic acceptance of clock time as one of the grounds of our thought. He seems to latch on to the opposition between process and stasis as a more manageable analogue for the relationship between an Einsteinian and a Newtonian conception of reality. He uses temporal process as a rather traditional metaphor for a wider ranging and more radical press toward indeterminacy and instability.

Here I am talking about "use" at the level of content, but Auden also makes a similarly pragmatic "use" of temporal sequence at the formal level. If, as I have been arguing, the poem's commitment to an Einsteinian world view becomes concentrated (however illogically) on the idea of process, it seems natural enough that one of the non-rational ways in which the poet will seek to communicate that world view will be through constructing a text that seems in some sense essentially process—or, perhaps, essentially sequence. Whether or not it is pure process is not relevant; what matters is that when we read it we feel ourselves, to a very great degree, implicated in a linguistic and intellectual movement of potentially infinite extension: "a process in a process / Within a field that never closes."

Precisely how Auden sets out to accomplish this in linguistic, stylistic, and rhetorical terms is, of course, a complex question that I can only begin to answer in the space available. Among the formal techniques he employs to evoke in us a sense of inexorable process, perhaps the most important is the rhyming couplet—linked, invariably, to a grammar and syntax of proliferation. Let us look briefly at the passage which immediately follows the introduction of the purgatorial hill as a metaphor for that "Time [which] is the life in which we live":

            however much we grumble,        However painfully we stumble,        Such mountaineering all the same        Is, it would seem, the only game        At which we show a natural skill,        The hardest exercises still        Just those our muscles are the best        Adapted to, its grimmest test        Precisely what our fear suspected,        We have no cause to look dejected        When, wakened from a dream of glory        We find ourselves in Purgatory,        Back on the same old mountain side        With only guessing for a guide.

In terms of "New Year Letter" as a whole, this is a very typical sentence, its length not at all unusual. There are, as I reckon, at least four places in this passage where we seem to have arrived at a syntactical terminus. Three of those coincide with a line-ending, so our expectation of closure is especially strong. But in each instance, the momentum flows over and beyond the point of possible arrest. That this happens three times after the first, and that in each case an apparently certain terminus is breached—all of this surely means that when we do finally reach a period, we can have no confidence in its integrity. This is where the rhyme scheme becomes especially important. It has, of course, participated in the subversion of stasis throughout the passage. For example, although the sense seems to reach a terminus at the word "skill," the rhyme scheme does not. "Grumble" has its "stumble," and "same" has its "game," but "skill"—if we stop there—lacks a partner. The idea of lexical partnership has been so powerfully entrenched in the previous 465 rhyming couplets that we are bound to look around for a companion to "skill," and by the time we find him at the end of the next line we are already drawn beyond that first periodic structure. What happens at the end of the passage I have quoted is very similar to this. Although we have a real syntactical terminus in the full stop, and although the end is strengthened by the completed rhyme—"side" and "guide"—the established pattern of rhyming couplets surely makes us expect that more will follow, as indeed they do to the number of 431.

From that example I think it is plain to see why this particular verse form suited Auden's purpose in the "New Year Letter." The effect is of a reading experience that is potentially open-ended, and this is true not only of Auden's appropriation of the form but of others' as well. In a very interesting passage on Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes." Ezra Pound, for example, remarks on the sort of confusion induced by rhyming couplets. "The cadence comes to a dead end so frequently," he writes, "that one doesn't know the poem is going on." Perhaps more apposite in the context of Auden is this comment, again on Johnson's "Vanity," but by T. S. Eliot: "We do not ordinarily expect a very close structure of a poem in rhymed couplets, which often looks as if, but for what the author has to say, it might begin or end anywhere" (On Poetry). Paul Fussell is surely concerned with the same impression when he argues that "such couplets can be called stanzas only by courtesy. They could perhaps more accurately be called something like additive units, and perhaps a poem in heroic couplets is best thought of as essentially stichic, with a 'line' of twenty rather than ten syllables." Composition by "additive units," rather than strophes, makes simple succession appear to be the principal ground of coherence.

The couplets of "New Year Letter" are, of course, not heroic but Hudibrastic, and the pointedly crude rhymes and octosyllabic line which typify the Hudibrastic form also contribute strongly to the sense of process as we read. The relative shortness of the line (compared with the decasyllabic heroic, that is) naturally increases the prominence of the end rhyme, something which is then further enhanced by self-conscious and unlikely choices in the end words themselves. To the reader, the principle of composition by "additive units" becomes in the case of this form even more apparent; the text reads like a potentially endless procession of discrete structures, which complete themselves quickly and disappear into oblivion. Stan Smith makes the further point that while "the stately heroic couplet of Pope and Dryden … is a spacious enough measure to allow for sense to be repeatedly contained within its formal antitheses," the Hudibrastic form "is constantly in its compactness overflowing its couplets, spawning a syntax that can find its resolution only after a proliferation of sub-clauses and amplifications, which seems to move in a permanent future tenseness. Such a style is flexible enough, but its pace is considerably more urgent and impulsive than the pentameter." In those words "urgent" and "impulsive" and in his description of that feeling of a "permanent future tenseness," Smith has caught the quality of affect engendered by the form of Auden's text, and it is very much in harmony with the reification of process which occurs in the poem at the level of content.

Smith has also pointed out the destabilizing effect of Auden's play with words. His tendency to make extensive use of foreign words and phrases serves "to break open the closed verbal universe of the poem," and his fondness for puns and other forms of wordplay frequently has the reader moving in two interpretive directions at once. The impulse behind the poem, as we saw earlier, was to approach truth "through the Janus of a joke," and linguistic two-sidedness is one of the text's most distinguishing characteristics. The act of reading is an almost constant negotiation of opposites. At the end of Part 2 the speaker sets himself apart from "The either-ors, the mongrel halves," whom he defines in the notes as "the impatient romantics," romanticism being defined in turn as "Unawareness of the dialectic." And a pervasive construction of dialectical relations is one of the most crucial ways in which the text nurtures our sense of process. At a rhetorical level this is particularly true. Edward Callan is correct to point out that Auden resembles Pope or Dryden in using the rhyming couplet as a vehicle for "reasoned argument," but his method of argument differs from theirs in being dialectical in the specifically Hegelian sense. In the poem we explore contradictions in order to approach a truth that in some way comprehends them all. Thus Auden says of the devil:

         he may never tell us lies       But half-truths we can synthesize:       So, hidden in his hocus-pocus,       There lies the gift of double focus,       That magic lamp which looks so dull       And utterly impractical,       Yet, if Aladdin use it right,       Can be a sesame to light.

Here we have another angle on the text as an ideologically powerful "contraption." Constructed as it is according to a consistent "double-focus," it may prove more "practical" than it at first appears. (Remember the Yeats elegy and its stand on the "impracticality" of art, the assertion that on the surface "poetry makes nothing happen"). Used "right" and by an Aladdin-type reader, it can open a way to new perceptions, "Can be a sesame to light." Aladdin, of course, did not unlock the secret power of his lamp by intellectual interrogation or by interpretation. He rubbed it, and in that way his experience foreshadows the one which Auden envisages for his reader: a continuous molding of the mind to the surfaces of the text; a horizontal and in the best sense superficial exploration of its inward and outward curves.

What is particularly interesting in the case of "New Year Letter" is that the verse epistle is appropriate to Auden's intention not only because of its expressive potential but also because its characteristic features—its rhyming couplets, its directedness and specificity, its dialectical substance—all seem to work affectively to produce in the reader a nonrational sympathy with the poem's world view. Thus the poem exercises an ideological power which can potentially be felt even beyond the specific historical occasion which produced it. When we shift our focus from Elizabeth Mayer, the historically specified recipient of the letter, onto that unspecifiable reader who will encounter the poem at some uncertain point in history, we see that the gospel of process, the vision of a new cosmos that the poem seeks to communicate, will to some extent still be available to a reader even after conventional interpretation has become problematized by the alteration of historic circumstances. For the ideational power of the text will continue to be exercised through its form, which as we have seen is peculiarly well suited to provoke in the reader a sense of the way, according to Auden, things ultimately are. It is less remarkable that Auden found the Augustan verse epistle a useful tool for expressing his post-Einsteinian vision of the universe than for affecting us with a sense of it.

James Held (essay date Winter 1992)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1534

SOURCE: "Ironic Harmony: Blues Convention and Auden's 'Refugee Blues,'" in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, Winter, 1992, pp. 139-42.

[In the following essay, Held discusses the significance of Auden's appropriation of blues music convention in "Refugee Blues."]

All art, Walter Pater declared, aspires to the condition of music. However, Pater's oft-quoted dictum hardly anticipates its ironic implementation in W. H. Auden's "Refugee Blues." "Refugee Blues" adapts the conventions of the blues to Auden's portrait of exiles in flight from Europe on the eve of the Second World War. Yet beneath the modifications which Auden grafts to it, the poem retains a core of integrity as a blues in form and theme.

"Refugee Blues" directly reflects Auden's experience of his new home after his emigration to New York in 1939. The city harbored thousands of refugees from Europe's upheavals, many of them persons of high attainments, as is the speaker of "Refugee Blues." Moreover, the city had become, with Europe's capitals effectively off-limits, the cultural nexus of the West, a fertile soil hospitable to artistic hybrids such as "Refugee Blues."

It is not possible to determine precisely what blues songs or performers Auden may have known; it is possible, however, to establish the ubiquity and popularity of the blues by 1939. Auden's familiarity with the blues forms and themes is manifest in the seamless mesh of his theme and lyric voice with the conventions of the blues.

The blues is essentially a lyric form; its "message is delivered from a first person point of view." As lyric, the blues has an exceptional capacity for the expression of emotion. The scholar Paul Garon, paraphrasing a comment of André Breton's writes that "the blues represents a fusion of music and poetry accomplished at a very high emotional temperature." The primary characteristic of the blues, says Barry Lee Pearson, is the singer's involvement in "the subjects of his song through subjective presentation and emotional intensity."

The themes of the blues can be separated into two broad and necessarily simplified categories: suffering and celebration. David Evans notes that the primary themes which emerge from individual blues consistently reflect this basic dichotomy. Evans also identifies as hallmarks of the blues an overarching cynicism toward life, coupled with a secular outlook that places little hope in spiritual deliverance from suffering.

It is immediately clear that the tale of exile and persecution presented in "Refugee Blues" capitalizes on the emotional power of the blues, its theme resonant with the blues' great themes of suffering. The poem's debt to the blues extends, moreover, to the most fundamental levels of construction, a debt manifest in Auden's handling of blues conventions.

The basic stanza form of the blues is a three-line construction (AAB). The first line is repeated (with some variation), and the third line replies to the previous two, as in Robert Johnson's classic "Me and The Devil Blues":

     Early this morning when you knocked on my door      Early this morning, wmh, when you knocked on my door      I said, "Hello Satan, I believe it's time to go."

"Refugee Blues" is composed of three-line stanzas but does not exhibit the classic blues line sequence, although its rhyme scheme is AAB. Each third line of Auden's stanzas features a similar construction: a repeated statement of negation or exclusion bracketing the phrase "my dear." Auden appears to be inverting the classic blues stanza, with his first two lines now distinct and the third compressing the repetition of the AAB form into a single line. It is also possible that he is adapting a more obscure blues form, the AB-refrain stanza, in which a constant third line serves as a refrain throughout the song. In "Refugee Blues," the phrase "my dear" employed in each third line performs an analogous function; however, the relative rarity of this form makes it a less likely model than the classic AAB form.

Whatever the changes that Auden rang upon the blues form, the stanzas of "Refugee Blues" retain what Evans calls "blues logic": the last line of each stanza answers the first two. Blues logic derives from the ancient African call-and-response pattern enshrined in the blues and exploits a sense of tension between the two parts:

     In the village churchyard there grows an old yew,      Every spring it blossoms anew;      Old passports can't do that, my dear, old passports can't do that.

The images of this stanza's first two lines suggest home and renewal; the tension of rising hope is released, and the hope dashed, by the third line's reply.

"Refugee Blues" also demonstrates attributes of the blues in matters of poetic diction and metre. The speaker of the poem in some lines omits the first-person pronoun or inverts the order of pronoun and verb:

     Went to a committee: they offered me a chair or:      Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors.

Despite Auden's practice of excising the unnecessary word, in the syntax of these lines he deliberately echoes "the peculiarities of phrasing of the blues," as, for example, in Blind Blake's "Steel Mill Blues":

     Workin' in the steel mill, makin' pig iron all day.

The chief metric similarity of "Refugee Blues" lies—ironically enough for the poet who "'gave the caesura its freedom'"—in its placement of pauses. Many of the poem's lines are bisected by coordinating conjunctions or semicolons marking a natural caesura in mid-line, the standard point of placement for the caesura in the blues. The phrase "my dear" interjected in each third line also enforces a mid-line pause between the repeated halves.

"Refugee Blues," like its models, is iambic but only very roughly so; in the blues, considerable deviation results from individual style, or in this poem's case, from the demands of a conversational delivery.

There is a final technical parallel between Auden's poem and the blues that proves most intriguing of all: the relation of the interjection "my dear" to the blue note. The blue note is the insertion of a flattened or descending note, usually the third, but at times the seventh or fifth, into the diatonic scale. It is a practice derived from African music, and it is used to express powerful emotion. I believe that the "my dear" of "Refugee Blues," while in one sense evoking blues apostrophes such as "lord," "baby," or "well, well," is more properly understood as a blue note. The first two lines of each stanza generate a tension that is released or exacerbated by the repeated statement in the third line. The interjection separating the initial statement from its repetition forces the reader to pause and consider the emotional consequences of this first reply to the preceding two lines; following the shock imparted by the first half of the third line, the interjection serves as a descending note on an emotional scale declining into despair, as the reiteration of that initial statement drives its import home with finality.

The kinship of "Refugee Blues" to the blues is thematic as well as formal. The poem's themes are manifestly those of the "suffering" blues: exile, self-pity, exclusion, and persecution. The lyric perspective of "Refugee Blues" conforms to the traditional stance of the singer of the blues; both express the personal impact of larger events. The speaker does not directly attack Nazism or racism (mention of Hitler notwithstanding), but focuses instead on the results of those evils in the lives of the speaker and of the woman whom he is addressing. It is also noteworthy that the speaker does not offer any prospect of redress; such hope in progress or ultimate justice is "alien to the spirit of the blues." The tone and impact of the poem's blues logic are unremittingly grim:

     Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,      Saw a door opened and cat let in:      But they weren't German Jews, my dear, they      weren't German Jews.

The message of the last stanza,

     Stood on a great plain in the falling snow,      Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro:      Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me,

seems hardly different in concept, tone, and imagery from Robert Johnson's "Hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail."

The imagery of "Refugee Blues" is not predicated on logic or narrative clarity; rather, its emphasis is placed, as in true blues imagery, upon a "wealth of unstated associated meanings permitting a maximum of content with a strict economy of means." Auden chooses his images for their evocative power: the churchyard yew conjures a mix of hope and nostalgia; the fish, freedom visible yet forever beyond reach; the ten thousand soldiers, relentless pursuit by an implacable enemy.

The poem's irony stems not from any disjunction between the origin and nature of the blues with Pater's assumptions about music, with Auden's classicism or political commitment. It evolves, rather, from the perfect harmony of the blues with Auden's thematic concerns. The irony of "Refugee Blues" extracts its power from the moral bankruptcy of the European culture from which Pater's aesthetic pronouncements derive. Europe's pretensions to cultural grandeur prove empty in the face of the persecution of the Jews; the vehicle of Auden's indictment is the unschooled music of another minority much despised and exploited by the West.

Alan Jacobs (essay date Winter 1995)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8606

SOURCE: "Auden's Local Culture," in Hudson Review, Vol. 47, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 543-68.

[In the following essay, Jacobs examines Auden's communitarian sympathies and moral vision. According to Jacobs, "Auden understood both the costs and benefits of choosing to cultivate local knowledge and local attachments better than almost any political thinker writing about such issues today."]


One of the more interesting developments in American political and social thought in the last decade or so has been the emergence of communitarianism—in large part because, though no one knows exactly what communitarianism is, people do tend to think good thoughts about the notion of community. As Wendell Berry writes, "Community is a concept, like humanity or peace, that virtually no one has taken the trouble to quarrel with; even its worst enemies praise it." Perhaps some communitarians have chosen not to define their aims and goals too specifically because they know that the cold light of specificity tends to dispel the warm fuzzy aura that surrounds that word "community."

But some attempts at definition have been made. According to Christopher Lasch, who should know, communitarianism "proposes a general strategy of devolution or decentralization, designed to end the dominance of large organizations [this means multinational corporations as well as the U.S. government] and to remodel our institutions on a human scale." Communitarians, then, inveigh against the old habit of thinking of the polis largely in national terms, and advocate its replacement by more localized forms of attention.

A curious trait of communitarians is that few of them seem to have arrived at their position willingly. Rather, they have become communitarians only because more grandiose and universal systems (whether Marxism, old-fashioned liberalism, or state capitalism) have, in their view, failed us all. In this regard the paradigmatic communitarian, it seems to me, is St. Francis of Assissi. After he discovered the Biblical principles on which he and his followers would base their brotherhood—by picking three verses at random from the Gospels—he sought again and again to bring his message to other parts of the known world. But each time he prepared to voyage forth to make his message universal, some barrier (whether a Pope's edict or the collapse of his health or God's unmediated will) would prevent him from living Italy; thus he was forced, until quite late in his career, to cultivate the Franciscan spirit of community only in his native Umbria. Like most communitarians, then, Francis became one by default. No one, it seems, wants cultiver son jardin as long as changing the world remains a viable option.

This is especially the case for intellectuals, because, as Karl Mannheim pointed out many years ago in his Ideology and Utopia, intellectuals in Western societies form a distinct class "whose special task is to provide an interpretation of the world." An intellectual, then, by definition thinks globally rather than locally; so much so that to accept the validity of local concerns is to court excommunication from the church of the clerisy. This danger may best be seen, I think, in the example of Albert Camus. Think of some of his most notorious statements about the Algerian conflict in which his family was endangered: "I believe in justice, but I will defend my mother before justice." "Love is injustice, but justice is not enough." "If anyone … thinks heroically that one's brother must die rather than one's principles, I shall go no farther than to admire him from a distance. I am not of his stamp." If the virulence with which such statements were repudiated by the French intelligentsia seems shocking today, that is only because in the intervening thirty-five years we have lost confidence in the mental and moral detachment of the intellectual. Even if the detachment and objectivity of the intellectual is a fiction, it remains (if Mannheim is right, and I think he is) necessary to the very concepts of "intellectual" and "intelligentsia." To the adherents of that fiction, the celebration of local culture and local knowledge is anathema.

These reflections apply quite directly, I believe, to one of the more interesting, if largely unacknowledged, predecessors of the contemporary communitarian movement, the poet W. H. Auden. Though Auden settled on communitarian principles with great reluctance, after the defeat of his universalist hopes he articulated those principles with remarkable force and clarity in twenty-five years of beautiful, but to this day largely unappreciated, poetry. Moreover, I contend that Auden understood both the costs and benefits of choosing to cultivate local knowledge and local attachments better than almost any political thinker writing about such issues today. For that reason alone his work on this subject deserves our attention. But it also repays study because of certain conflicts into which Auden's particular brand of communitarianism drew him—conflicts that may have been inevitable.


What we need here is a vantage point from which to survey both the early and the later Auden, and that point is provided by "New Year Letter," the first long poem Auden wrote after he moved to America at the outset of the Second World War. One of the most notable and surprising features of this poem is its celebration of local culture. Auden's conception of what local culture is and what it does develops throughout the "New Year Letter," but finds condensed expression near the beginning, as Auden remembers a recent gathering of friends at the home of Elizabeth Mayer (to whom this "letter" is written). After describing the various objects and actions which with a "neutral eye" the sun observes on earth, he writes that this same sun

     Lit up America and on      A cottage in Long Island shone      Where BUXTEHUDE as we played      One of his passacaglias made      Our minds a civitas of sound      Where nothing but assent was found,      For art had set in order sense      And feeling and intelligence,      And from its ideal order grew      Our local understanding too.

The phrase "ideal order" comes from T. S. Eliot's famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent": "The existing monuments [of European art] form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them." But while Eliot's concerns are merely intertextual, describing only how these "monuments" are organized and deployed in relation to one another, Auden's interests are markedly different: the question for him is. How does art help us (if indeed it does) to set our lives in order? For Eliot the ideal order is to be contemplated and celebrated; for Auden it is to be used. And it finds its use in the formation of "local understanding," of small groups of people united, if only temporarily, to become citizens of their own tiny republic.

Later in the poem, at the beginning of its third and last part, Auden returns to the same message:

     And SCHUBERT sang and MOZART played      And GLUCK and food and friendship made      Our privileged community      That real republic which must be      The State all politicians claim,      Even the worst, to be their aim.

I quote this passage too because otherwise it might not be clear how such an apparently high view of art's utility could be reconciled with that famous opinion Auden had pronounced for the first (but certainly not the last) time almost exactly a year before, in his famous elegy on Yeats: "Poetry makes nothing happen." Does Auden now mean to say that if poetry can't make anything happen music can? There were certainly times in his later career when he came close to saying just that, but in the context of the "New Year Letter" I think the point is that art, while it cannot of its own power enforce any alteration of consciousness or morality, can help those who would be joined together to find their desired unity. Artists can never become the legislators of the world, either acknowledged or unacknowledged—Auden often expressed scorn and repulsion for Shelley's famous claim—but they can become after a fashion public servants. Yet even this they can only do successfully if the public they serve is small enough for real commonality of purpose to be possible: art can promote "local understanding" in a miniature civitas, but cannot change the world. And this is true not because art is weak, but because, in Auden's view in 1940, all dreams of universal or even national unity, dreams which he himself had tried for a decade to share in, are fundamentally absurd. Art can serve only local understanding because local understanding is the only understanding there is.


One of the more interesting points to be made about Auden's conclusion here is that he had been confronted with just such an example of perfect local understanding—an example even more perfect, and certainly far more dramatic, than he found in Elizabeth Mayer's Long Island home—less than seven years before, and had been unable to accept it. He did not provide a full account of the experience until 1964, thirty years after it had occurred, and even then he did not openly admit that the experience was his own. The account needs to be quoted at some length:

One fine summer night in June 1933 I was sitting on a lawn after dinner with three colleagues, two women and one man…. We were talking casually about everyday matters when, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, something happened. I felt myself invaded by a power which, though I consented to it, was irresistible and certainly not mine. For the first time in my life I knew exactly—because, thanks to the power, I was doing it—what it means to love one's neighbor as oneself. I was also certain, though the conversation continued to be perfectly ordinary, that my three colleagues were having the same experience. (In the case of one of them, I was later able to confirm this.) My personal feelings towards them were unchanged—they were still colleagues, not intimate friends—but I felt their existence as themselves to be of infinite value and rejoiced in it.

I recalled with shame the many occasions on which I had been spiteful, snobbish, selfish, but the immediate joy was greater than the shame, for I knew that, so long as I was possessed by this spirit, it would be literally impossible for me deliberately to injure another human being. I also knew that the power would, of course, be withdrawn sooner or later and that, when it did, my greed and self-regard would return. The experience lasted at its full intensity for about two hours when we said goodnight to each other and went to bed. When I awoke the next morning, it was still present, though weaker, and it did not vanish completely for two days or so. The memory of the experience has not prevented me from making use of others, grossly and often, but it has made it much more difficult for me to deceive myself about what I am up to when I do. And among the various factors which several years later brought me back to the Christian faith in which I had been brought up, the memory of this experience and asking myself what it could mean was one of the most crucial, though, at the time it occurred, I thought I had done with Christianity for good.

This story fits nicely with the celebration of "local understanding" elaborated in "New Year Letter": here indeed is a tiny Athens, even a miniature New Jerusalem. But when Auden wrote a poem about the experience, soon after it happened, his chief concern was to articulate his sense that the acceptance of such an excessively local culture was morally and politically indefensible.

The early stanzas of the poem, which Auden would eventually give the title "A Summer Night," show no sign of uneasiness:

      Equal with colleagues in a ring       I sit on each calm evening         Enchanted as the flowers       The opening light draws out of hiding       From leaves with all its dove-like pleading,         Its logic and its powers:       That later we, though parted then,       May still recall these evenings when         Fear gave his watch no look;       The lion griefs loped from the shade       And on our knees their muzzles laid,         And Death put down his book.

But as the poem moves on its center of interest shifts: what about those who are not so fortunate as to be enclosed within such an Edenic "ring"? How does an acknowledgement of their existence affect the comfortable insiders? Or is life in such an enchanted circle dependent on a studied ignorance of those outside? Perhaps the insiders, "whom hunger cannot move,"

       do not care to know,       Where Poland draws her eastern bow,        What violence is done,       Nor ask what doubtful act allows       Our freedom in this English house,        Our picnics in the sun.       The creepered wall stands up to hide       The gathering multitudes outside        Whose glances hunger worsens;       Concealing from their wretchedness       Our metaphysical distress,        Our kindness to ten persons.

This vision of love and community, then, may not be a free gift in which to rejoice, but a dangerous temptation to social quietism: it is at best a "doubtful act." What the Auden of 1964 celebrates as a blessed inability to harm others, the Auden of 1933 fears as an insidious tendency to be satisfied with one's "kindness to ten persons" while the "gathering multitudes" outside starve. The perfect local understanding which the Auden even of 1940 celebrates as an incalculable gift, the Auden of 1933 finds a scandal precisely because it is local and not universal.

How, then, did Auden get in less than seven years from the one position to the other? One might begin by describing his disillusionment with Marxism and his return to Christianity, a return which was not yet complete when "New Year Letter" was written but was nearly so. But we should be careful here. That Auden rejected Marxism and became a Christian is certainly true; but there is no necessary connection between Christianity and the embrace of local culture exemplified in "New Year Letter." In fact, it would be more accurate to say that Marxism and Christianity alike stand opposed to such localization of culture, which finds more sympathy in certain ancient Greek and Roman modes of political thought (Aristotle rather than Plato, Horace rather than Virgil). The cultivation of "local understanding," as is manifest in the passages quoted from both "New Year Letter" and "A Summer Night," requires as an essential, perhaps the essential, component the cultivation of friendship—and friendship, while an Aristotelian virtue, tends to be suspect both to Marxism (which opposes to it the ideal of "comradeship") and to Christianity (which opposes to it the ideal of "brotherhood and sisterhood in Christ"). Jeremy Taylor, the seventeenth-century Anglican divine, wrote: "When friendships were the noblest things in the world, charity was little." In other words, when the ancient Greeks and Romans emphasized the great virtue of friendship, they neglected to care for those who stood outside philia's charmed circle: the "gathering multitudes" outside the "creepered wall." Likewise Samuel Johnson: "All friendship is preferring the interest of a friend, to the neglect, or, perhaps, against the interest of others…. Now Christianity recommends universal benevolence, to consider all men as our brethren; which is contrary to the virtue of friendship, as described by the ancient philosophers." One might easily argue that Marxism inherits this Christian universalism, while proposing alternative explanations for its practical failure and alternative means for its eventual realization. Thus it is by no means obvious that Auden's embrace of Christianity would naturally lead to an embrace of local culture and local understanding.

In fact, it seems to me that Auden's return to Christianity and his celebration of local culture form two rather distinct movements in his intellectual life that meet at only one point, a point which we will soon identify. First, it is vital to note that at no point in Auden's intellectual development does he deny that human beings are capable of creating universal evil. For instance, from "New Year Letter":

      And more and more we are aware,       However miserable may be       Our parish of immedicacy,       How small it is, how, far beyond,       Ubiquitous within the bond       Of an impoverishing sky,       Vast spiritual disorders lie.

Then follows a catalogue of those "disorders," from China to Spain to Ethiopia to Poland. But a grave spiritual and moral danger, Auden argues, arises from the recognition of such universal evil. "Who," he asks,

       will not feel blind anger draw       His thoughts toward the Minotaur,       To take an early boat for Crete       And rolling, silly, at its feet       Add his small tidbit to the rest?       It lures us all; even the best,Les hommes de bonne volonté, feel       Their politics perhaps unreal       And all they have believed untrue,       Are tempted to surrender to       The grand apocalyptic dream       In which the persecutors scream       As on the evil Aryan lives       Descends the night of the long knives,       The bleeding tyrant dragged through all       The ashes of his capitol.

One might with cause assume that Auden here is arguing for pacifism, claiming that the attempt to defeat Hitler will reduce the Allies to Hitler's moral level. But Auden, though he felt the appeal of pacifism, never embraced it, and soon after writing "New Year Letter" explicitly rejected it. Instead, Auden is warning the Allies that they are not immune to the forces that (as he wrote about Germany in "September 1, 1939") "have driven a culture mad"; the great if not inevitable danger of fighting the Nazis is that one may become contaminated by the very disorder one sets out to cure. Thus the little parable that, in the Notes which he originally appended to "New Year Letter," Auden attaches to the lines about throwing oneself at the feet of the Minotaur:

During the last war Frau M was in Tübingen. Walking home one cloudy night, she met two professors from the university, carrying rifles.

"What's the matter?" she asked.

"There's an enemy aeroplane overhead. Can't you see its pilot-light?"

"But that's not an aeroplane. That's Jupiter."

Having thrown themselves at the feet of what Auden calls in The Sea and the Mirror "the Minotaur of Authority," these men have lost their ability to make elementary moral and even perceptual discriminations. And let us not fail to note that these are professors, a fact that indicates that Auden's warning is chiefly directed against the intellectuals, who are in the greatest danger of all because of their conviction that their detachment and objectivity place them beyond danger. This is a lesson, I believe, Auden learned in Spain, where he saw how the Republicans (surely hommes de bonne volonté), consumed with hatred for anything associated with the old regime, had closed and in many cases wrecked or burned the churches of Barcelona—and without eliciting recognition of their act, much less disapproval, from their supporters among the intelligentsia.

Perhaps Auden's insistence upon the nearly infinite human capacity for evil would not have been so objectionable to the intellectuals of his time, were it not for his equally vivid insistence that it does not follow that humans are capable of equally great goodness. A consistent theme in Auden's work of this period is that we lack the power to undo the evil that we have the power to do. It is this belief that leads Auden to what would become one of the most persistent features of his poetry until his death: his praise of humility. This is the point at which his conversion to Christianity and his acceptance of the validity of local culture converge.


One of the first significant appearances of this leitmotif is in Auden's great sonnet sequence of 1938, "In Time of War," which grew out of his and Christopher Isherwood's visit to China. In the last sonnet of the sequence, for instance, Auden describes the hopes for human perfection in a perfectly innocent past of what Eliot would call "unified sensibility" and in a perfectly ordered future—these being the dreams, as he would later write in the "Vespers" section of the "Horae Canonicae," of the Arcadian and the Utopian respectively. But here he calmly rejects both visions of perfection as being incompatible with the fundamental human condition:

    But we are articled to error; we     Were never nude and calm like a great door     And never will be perfect like the fountains.

A full understanding of this inevitable fallenness requires not only humility but a recognition of the historical value of humility: in the verse "Commentary" to the sequence Auden writes of the importance of giving "Our gratitude to the Invisible College of the Humble, / Who through the ages have accomplished everything essential." Auden's conviction on this point finds its most perfect poetic expression about a year after the completion of "New Year Letter," in the penultimate (later, upon revision, to be the last) stanza of "At the Grave of Henry James":

     All will be judged. Master of nuance and scruple,      Pray for me and for all writers living or dead;       Because there are many whose works      Are in better taste than their lives; because there is no end      To the vanity of our calling: make intercession       For the treason of all clerks.

Auden's humble recognition of the profundity of human evildoing and the limited capacity for doing good has two major consequences for his thought: first, that the Christian belief in original sin and the concomitant need for salvation from God is, in all essentials, right; second, that one must do what one can, not what one wishes one could do, to make things better. In the famous phrase from "Tintern Abbey," Auden determines to cultivate and to praise "that best portion of a good man's life: / His little, nameless, un-remembered acts / Of kindness and of love"; and from Sydney Smith he learns (a phrase he would often repeat in prose and verse) to "take short views." This emphasis on limited aims, this desired reconciliation with inevitable incompetence, appears often in Auden's later poetry—to take but one example, in "Memorial for the City" (1949), in which a versified history of the failed Constantinian experiment of melding the City of Man with the City of God is followed by the voice of "our Weakness," a voice never acknowledged by the hubristic Constantinians whose best efforts culminated in the encompassing tyrannies of Hitler and Stalin.

Auden's replacement for these great dreams, his determination to cultivate his garden, may be chastised as a philosophy for the cosy, merely domestic ethics. But Auden is quite explicit in his belief that on these grounds and on these grounds only can meaningful culture—and moreover, the kind of culture which both safeguards us from as a culture being "driven mad" in the way the Germans were, and minimizes the danger of becoming like the Nazis in fighting them—be achieved. It is, of course, precisely this view that has caused so many critics to scorn the "new" Auden and long for the earlier, politically-committed Auden. Randall Jarrell, for instance, in a famous attack upon Auden in a 1945 issue of the Partisan Review, sneers at "that overweening humility which is the badge of all his saints" and condemns Auden for "moral imbecility" in seeking the salvation of his own soul while heedless of the world being destroyed around him. Jarrell feels that Auden should have somehow put his intellectual powers to work in the war against Hitler rather than criticizing, as Auden did in a 1944 review of a new edition of Grimm's Märchen, "the Society for Scientific Diet, the Association of Positivist Parents, the League for the Promotion of Worthwhile Leisure, the Coöperative Camp for Prudent Progressives and all other bores and scoundrels." To which Jarrell: "In the year 1944 these prudent, progressive, scientific, coöperative 'bores and scoundrels' were the enemies with whom Auden found it necessary to struggle. Were these your enemies, reader? They were not mine."

Auden did not respond to Jarrell's attack; he never responded to attacks. But someone should; therefore, the prosecution having made its case, I will now take the part of the counsel for the defense (on the model of Auden's own "The Public vs. the Late Mr. William Butler Yeats").


Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, it is customary at this point for the defense attorney to praise the eloquence of the prosecutor. That I cannot do, for it seems to me that despite the customary brilliance of his wit he has spoken neither well nor to the point. He has accused my client of a virtually treasonable disregard of his social and political duty as a writer, and this accusation, with all its unreliable inferences and misleading implications, it is my duty, and my pleasure, to refute. I think you will soon see, ladies and gentlemen, just how insubstantial these apparently weighty charges really are.

Where to begin? The distinguished prosecutor has made so many errors that I struggle to decide which to dispose of first. Perhaps we had best begin by clearing up a potential misunderstanding about the accusation itself. Members of the jury might be forgiven for assuming that the distinguished prosecutor meant at times to chastise my client for having failed to enlist as a soldier—whether of his native Great Britain or of our United States—and to fight in the most literal sense against Hitler's armies. But this cannot be what Mr. Jarrell intended: if such had been his charge, he would have complained that Mr. Auden was writing at all, rather than complaining about the specific content of his writing. (And Mr. Jarrell could not make a general attack on writing in wartime without, like King David, standing condemned by his own judgment.)

No, the essential charge the prosecutor levels against my client is the charge of frivolity: the allegation is that Mr. Auden fiddles while Europe burns. The cause of this frivolity, or rather its justification, according to the prosecutor, is Mr. Auden's belief in the Christian doctrine (traditionally, if not accurately, identified with Calvinism) of human depravity: because Mr. Auden believes that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, he has ceased to make moral discriminations, and this is inexcusably frivolous—especially in the midst of this war, when moral distinctions between the monstrous Hitler and his opponents are vital.

Were this an accurate representation of my client's views, he would indeed be guilty of, in Mr. Jarrell's memorable phrase, "moral imbecility." But it is a wildly and irresponsibly inaccurate account. Mr. Auden has time and again, in public and in private, expressed his opposition to Hitler and Hitler's cause. However, unlike Mr. Jarrell, he does not believe that in so doing he has exhausted his moral responsibilities, because, again unlike Mr. Jarrell, he does not assume that we have all honor and virtue thrust upon us merely through being attacked by an evil force. Mr. Auden never, even for an instant, questions whether the force that has attacked the Allies and Western civilization itself is evil; rather, he asks us to be watchful lest (possessed by a "grand apocalyptic dream" of revenge) we become infected with that same evil ourselves. What the doctrine of human depravity does for Mr. Auden is simply and constantly to remind him that no one can assume himself or herself to be invulnerable to the forces that led, first to the Nazis' supremacy in Germany itself, and later to the Nazis' determination to conquer all Europe. Mr. Jarrell, on the other hand, seems never to doubt his moral standing, and appears unaware that the war offers to him, or to any loyal citizen of the Allied nations, any moral temptations whatsoever. This is especially odd when one considers Mr. Jarrell's poems about the life of a common dogface soldier, which indicate his comprehension of the evil that can be done at least by the leaders of an army, even when that army fights in a just cause.

Moreover, the prosecutor has not just misrepresented Mr. Auden's understanding of evil and its manifestations in the current war; he has also simply missed the essential point of the writings by my client that most offend him. The key issue for Mr. Auden is not what the ordinary citizen can and should do in the war, but rather what responsibilities the artist, in particular the poet, must carry out. It is clear that Mr. Jarrell believes that the poet should in some way turn his or her talents to the fight against Hitler; but he does not, or cannot, explain just how this could be done. If he believes that Mr. Auden should be active in translation or propaganda, he should say so. Does he believe that Mr. Auden should write poems about the war? Well, Mr. Auden cannot, like Mr. Jarrell himself, write poems about the experience of being a soldier; what sort of poems, then, should he write? Whatever our prosecutor's answer might be, it appears that he has not thought seriously about Mr. Auden's striking claim that there is nothing a poet, qua poet, can do to fight against Hitler. "Poetry makes nothing happen," he has famously said; moreover,

art is a product of history, not a cause. Unlike some other products, technical inventions for example, it does not re-enter history as an effective agent, so that the question whether art should or should not be propaganda is unreal. The case for the prosecution [of Yeats, my client's distinguished predecessor in the dock] rests on the fallacious belief that art ever makes anything happen, whereas the honest truth … is that, if not a poem had been written, not a picture painted, not a bar of music composed, the history of man would remain materially unchanged.

If Mr. Auden is wrong in this belief, then he is honestly wrong; and even the most cursory review of the history of Europe will suffice to show that the burden of proof rests on those who disagree. It is understandable that Mr. Jarrell would want to believe that art has the power to change the world, and thus that the writer qua writer can be a significant weapon against the evil incarnated in Hitler; but it is less understandable that he would exercise such virulence and scorn against a fellow poet who happens to disagree with that assessment of art's power.

Why does Mr. Auden write at all, then, given his skepticism about the power of art? Because while poets are not and can never be the unacknowledged legislators of the world—that job, Mr. Auden says, has been applied for by the Gestapo—they can serve their own community by calling certain important but easily neglected facts to remembrance, and by warning against some equally easily neglected dangers. Poets cannot fight against Hitler, but they can fight against the people and the tendencies in their own society which corrupt that society from within and on the foundational levels of family and locality. Moreover, it is not inconceivable that some of these corrupting forces are precisely those—"the Society for Scientific Diet, the Association of Positivist Parents, the League for the Promotion of Worthwhile Leisure, the Coöperative Camp for Prudent Progressives"—whom Mr. Jarrell explicitly claims not to oppose. It is evident, then, that while there is opposition between Mr. Jarrell and Mr. Auden it does not take the form that Mr. Jarrell claims it does: it is not Jarrell's concern for the world versus Auden's concern for his own personal salvation; rather, it is disagreement over which enemies may profitably be fought, which superindividual concerns the poet may effectively engage in.

Two conclusions, then, emerge from my exposition of the real ideas of the real Mr. Auden, as opposed to the prosecutor's imaginary versions. First, that if my client has sinned, it is only against Mr. Jarrell's high view of art, and not against English or American society, or against the Allied war effort. And second, a man who goes out of his way, and against the current cultural grain, to warn us of the moral dangers that we face as we fight against Hitler, is guilty of anything but "moral imbecility," anything but frivolity. Mr. Auden's is a voice we need to hear, and not, as Mr. Jarrell would counsel, to suppress.


What we have done so far, then: first, to trace the history of Auden's conviction that significant culture is and must necessarily be local rather than universal; and second, to defend this conviction against certain misunderstandings, especially those which conceive it to involve a quietistic or even fatalistic withdrawal from all forms of superindividual concern. But what also emerges from reflection on this period of Auden's career is his equally important conviction that this local culture must be deliberately and personally chosen. Now, normally those who emphasize the inevitable chosenness of culture (for example, T. S. Eliot) tend also to emphasize its universality, while many communitarian devotees of local culture (for example, Wendell Berry) tend to avoid the question of choice. It is Auden's combination of these two positions that makes him particularly important today.

Let's look at Auden in contrast to the two representative figures I just mentioned. Eliot writes, in a famous passage from "Tradition and the Individual Talent," that tradition "cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour." Presumably, in light of other things he was writing at the time, Eliot means us to understand that this need to obtain tradition only through heroic effort and deliberate choice is the peculiar curse of the modern age; certainly it would not have afflicted John Donne, who (or so Eliot thought at the time) "could feel his thought as immediately as the odour of a rose," living as he did in an age of unified sensibility. It is incidentally important to understand Eliot's later career, his claim to classicism, traditionalism, and so on, to see these positions as choices rather than inherited givens. As Robert Langbaum wrote in The Poetry of Experience some thirty years ago: "Are not, after all, even our new classicisms and new Christian dogmatisms really romanticisms in an age which simply cannot supply the world-views such doctrines depend on, so that they become, for all their claims to objectivity, merely another opinion, the objectification of someone's personal view?" I am not sure that Eliot fully understood the implications of this point, but Auden did. The dialectic of choice and necessity is, as many critics have pointed out, an obsession of Auden throughout his career, but it is summed up with exemplary clarity in the prayer that concludes "In Sickness and in Health," written just a few months after "New Year Letter": "O hold us to the voluntary way."

But in any case, what most clearly distinguishes Auden from Eliot is the fact that Eliot's chosen tradition is universal and objective: the "ideal order" of all great works of art, the forerunner of Northrop Frye's archetypically organized "imaginative universe." It by definition cannot be confined to a place; it repudiates the insular and parochial—opprobrious terms which in its dialect are synonymous with the local. But as we have already seen, for Auden it is precisely the locality and particularity of the gathering at Elizabeth Mayer's home that enables those people to come together as a genuine, if tiny, civitas.

Auden may equally well be contrasted with Berry, who relentlessly and eloquently has argued for the beauty of the local and its necessity as a foundation for significant culture. But Berry's consistent emphasis is on the need to conserve and protect existing communities, or to restore those that have fallen into neglect and disrepair; he always assumes a history of relations which, if they are not currently active, can be reestablished. In essays such as "The Work of Local Culture" and "Writer and Region"—many others could be cited here—Berry posits memory as a necessary component of healthy community. In Berry's scheme, it appears, Auden's first move toward community would have to be a return to England; yet England is the one place where, Auden believed, he could not find genuine community, in part because there was no place in England which he could think of as home, but also and more importantly because the English intelligentsia rejected and scorned the convictions he had come to find essential. (In 1940 Auden told Golo Mann, "The English intellectuals who now cry out to Heaven against the evil incarnated in Hitler have no Heaven to cry to; they have nothing to offer and their protests echo in empty space.") Berry cannot, or does not, explain how Auden might find significant local community in America, in New York City of all unlikely places. It is the creation of new community that Auden is concerned with—as he often tried to explain, in letters from this period, to his puzzled English friends—not the restoration of the old; and thus the question of choice, which Berry neglects but which is formulated so eloquently by Langbaum in the passage quoted above, is paramount for him.

From the preceding paragraph it becomes evident that, while I have identified Berry and Auden alike as proponents of local culture, "local" does not mean the same thing to both. There are common points; local culture as both men use the term is restricted in scope, humble in its aspirations, dedicated to preservation and conservation; moreover, it emphasizes and celebrates the social and communal formation of all personal identities. But for Berry—again see "Writer and Region," also "Poetry and Place"—healthy local culture must necessarily be rooted in a particular physical environment, a place. Auden does not seem to think so. For more than twenty-five years he lived in New York City, but for only half the year; the other half being spent first on the tiny Italian island of Ischia, later in his beloved home in the village of Kirchstetten in Austria. Auden thought often and wrote beautifully about these localities, but clearly felt the need, as Berry perhaps does not, to maintain his community solely in his own mind and work. The nature of his profession—it is vital to remember that Berry is a farmer as well as a poet, and would necessarily have a very different understanding of community and local culture if he only wrote poetry—and of his apparently rootless way of life forced Auden to confront a difficult fact: if he were to experience the blessings of communal, local culture at all, he would have to find a means to cultivate such experience that would seem quite alien to more traditional local cultures.

Which is another way of saying that Berry's emphasis on memory does eventually come to be essential even to Auden's peculiar form of local culture: Auden does not have the luxury of beginning with a substantial history, but he soon develops one. From about 1940 on Auden very consciously builds a community of friends and colleagues that he sustains and memorializes through his poetry. No other major poet dedicates so many poems to his friends; the reader of Auden's correspondence, especially letters from the last twenty years of his life, finds that he spent an extraordinary amount of time typing up drafts of his poems for friends, and asking them if he could dedicate those poems to them. And often the themes of these poems involve Auden's reflections on the very issues of this essay: under what conditions communities can thrive, what dangers (internal or external) threaten those communities, and, especially, the importance of being continually thankful for the blessings of friendship and "local understanding." Thus a chief purpose of Auden's later poetry becomes the making of a permanent record of the nature and history of his friendships, that is to say, his community. Poetry—for Auden and, he hopes, for his friends—resumes an ancient (and by Auden much-lamented) function, as a mnemonic device. What must be remembered through poetry, however, is not the number of days in April, but rather the character of one's friendships and the virtues of one's community. Like the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci. Auden builds a memory palace, but this one does not remain a Prosperian "insubstantial pageant": it is inscribed on solid paper and bound between hard covers.


Earlier I mentioned, briefly, "Memorial for the City" as a poem in which Auden repudiates the Constantinian project. But the very title suggests that Auden retains as part of his conceptual framework the notion of a political entity larger than the tiny civitas made up of his friends and colleagues. Every local culture, Auden frequently implies, though it is a polis unto itself, also participates in that larger entity more usually called the polis. It does not often participate well and meaningfully, largely because it remains unconscious of its responsibilities to the greater City, but in the ideal commonwealth the smallest and largest politics will understand their relation: as he writes near the end of "New Year Letter," "The largest publicum's a res, / And the least res a publicum."

One practical consequence of this view is that each local community must recognize the validity of other such communities and accept that each has a place in the fabric of the whole, Berkeley and Orange County alike. In "Vespers," the fifth of Auden's "Horae Canonicae" (that great and potently condensed sequence of poems that he worked on for about seven years, from the late forties to the mid-fifties), Auden described a brief but significant crossing of paths. At dusk in "our city," the poem's speaker, an Arcadian devoted to contemplation of a charming and idealized past, meets his future-directed Utopian "anti-type"; however,

Neither speaks. What experience could we possibly share?

Glancing at a lampshade in a store window, I observe it is too hideous for anyone in their senses to buy: He observes it is too expensive for a peasant to buy.

Passing a slum child with rickets, I look the other way: He looks the other way if he passes a chubby one.

The playful tone of the poem should not obscure the underlying seriousness of its theme: "You can see, then, why, between my Eden and his New Jerusalem, no treaty is negotiable." But this collision of opposites is not the poem's conclusion. It may be, muses the speaker as they move on in their different directions, that this twilit meeting, far from being an accident, is "a rendezvous between two accomplices," each of whom reminds the other "of that half of their secret which he would most like to forget." For "a fraction of a second" each remembers "our victim," a victim both human and innocent, whose blood enables the "secular wall" of the city "safely [to] stand." This victim—Auden says "call him Abel, Remus, what you will, it is one Sin Offering," but these are clearly shadowy types of Christ—in his innocence recalls the unspoiled perfection of Eden, the restoration of which is now the city's hope and goal; but this restoration is only made possible by the shedding of that very innocent's blood, for as St. Paul says, "without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sin"; and this is a fact only the Utopian, willing to make sacrifices for an imagined future, is able to face. Thus these two enemies are in fact equally necessary members of their city, "our dear old bag of a democracy."

The challenge that Auden presents in this poem, then, is to maintain simultaneous allegiances to one's local culture and to the greater polity—assuming that that polity is a democracy, because only in democracy (thinks Auden) can such exceedingly varied and even contradictory local communities be formed and sustained. But it is extraordinarily difficult, even in times such as ours in which there is (supposedly) no higher virtue than toleration, to acknowledge and even celebrate the role one's political opponents play in the constitution of the society. And sad to say, as Auden got older the vision of this great twilit meeting receded and was replaced by withdrawal into the most local of all cultures, the garden cultivated only in the mind.


I have already said that Auden's lack of attachment to a place causes him to think of the formation of community in terms of thankfulness, remembrance, and inscription: to write poems to and for his friends is to remember and give thanks for their friendship, to build a community on the page that cannot, thanks to the international character of Auden's life and his connections, be built in a single location. But however necessary this form of community-building was for Auden, he pursued it with such vigor and determination that it gradually assumed a kind of perverse life of its own, so that the local culture that he conceived in his mind and memory became preferable to any more material kind. This tendency he was perfectly aware of, though it is not easy to tell if he regretted it. For instance, in "Thanksgiving for a Habitat" (written mostly from 1962–64), Auden writes that one of the greatest blessings of his Austrian home, a dwelling-place "I dared not hope or fight for," is that there "I needn't, ever, be at home to / those I am not at home with," which is pretty understandable; but he adds these curious lines in the third poem of the sequence, "The Cave of Making," to his recently deceased friend Louis MacNeice:

          I wish you hadn't     caught that cold, but the dead we miss are easier to talk to: with those no longer     tensed by problems one cannot feel shy and, anyway,      when playing cards or drinking     or pulling faces are out of the question, what else is there      to do but talk to the voices     of conscience they have become? From now on, as a visitor      who needn't be met at the station,     your influence is welcome at any hour in my ubity     ...

MacNeice's ghost might well be pleased at being named a "voice of conscience," but perhaps a little uneasy at being considered a more welcome friend now that Auden doesn't have to go to the trouble of meeting his train, and presumably feeding him and finding him a bed. It is true that the dead, as friends, are remarkably little trouble, but even to hint that this makes them better friends is to betray an unhealthy pleasure in keeping the garden of one's daily routine well-tended and undisturbed.

Such a tendency provokes a disturbing question: is something like this fate inevitable for forms of local culture that are not, as Berry would have them be, rooted in a particular place? Is the project of building local culture in poems of recognition and gratitude an impossible one? "The houses of our City," Auden writes in another poem from "Habitat," "Grub First, Then Ethics,"

        are real enough but they lie        haphazardly scattered over the earth,         and her vagabond forum        is any space where two of us happen to meet         who can spot a citizen        without papers.

But is this good enough? Can a polis worthy of the name be sustained by occasional meetings of cognoscenti and equally occasional poems from one cognoscente to others? It seems that Auden feared just that, since the poem goes on,

             So, too, can her foes. Where the        power lies remains to be seen,       the force, though, is clearly with them: perhaps only        by falling can She become       Her own vision, but we have sworn under four eyes        to keep Her up …

This is a curious passage, because it suggests that Auden's attitude toward the local culture he had striven to build closely resembles his attitude toward the poetic art to which he had dedicated his working life. To Louis MacNeice's ghost he writes,

            … Speech can at best, a shadow echoing        the silent light, bear witness       to the truth it is not …,

but this is an old idea with him. From "New Year Letter":

      Yet truth, like love and sleep, resents       Approaches that are too intense.       And often when the searcher stood       Before the Oracle, it would       Ignore his grown-up earnestness       But not the child of his distress,       For through the Janus of a joke       The candid psychopompos spoke.

This idea finds its fullest development in The Sea and the Mirror, where Caliban, "beating about for some large loose image to define" the experience, recorded in The Tempest, of the disillusion of magic and the acceptance of bounds, finally settles on this: "the greatest grandest opera rendered by a very provincial touring company indeed." Paradoxically, it is the very poverty and ineptitude of the production that makes it valuable to its actors, for even though "there was not a single aspect of our whole performance, not even the huge stuffed bird of happiness, for which a kind word could, however patronisingly, be said," nevertheless it is "at this very moment [that] we do at last see ourselves as we are." At the moment when all pretense to aesthetic achievement helplessly falls away, and the actors are confronted with the authentic selves which they had used their performances to escape, they come to see God precisely in their distance from Him:

… we are blessed with that Wholly Other Life from which we are separated by an essential emphatic gulf of which our contrived fissures of mirror and proscenium arch—we understand them at last—are feebly figurative signs … it is just here, among the ruins and the bones, that we may rejoice in the perfected Work that is not ours.

It is just when the would-be proximity of mimetic art to truth fails that the distance of analogy, with its "feebly figurative signs," manages somehow to succeed.

In "Thanksgiving for a Habitat," Auden seems to be saying something quite similar about the City of which he is a voluntary and self-selected citizen: "perhaps only / by falling can She become / Her own vision." A chief purpose, then, of all humanly built cultures is to produce recognition of the gaping chasm that separates all earthly cities from the City of God, all earthly communities from the Communion of the Saints. The failures of such cultures, then, are not only to be expected but to be welcomed—but only if the effort to perfect them (or at least "keep them up") has been genuine. As Simone Weil never tired of saying, you can confront your weakness only if you have reached the actual limit of your abilities; failures due to laziness have no educational value.


Is this a perverse and fatalistic conclusion? Or, to the contrary, an unrealistically hopeful one? For the reader who can share Auden's belief in an eternal City of God, his message is chastening but ultimately reassuring: "All will be judged," he says to Henry James, but in the (later excised) last stanza of that poem he also finds comfort in those words from the Prayer Book about "Him whose property is always to have mercy, the author / And giver of all good things." For the reader who cannot share that faith, Auden may seem to rest too comfortably in his own inevitable failure to sustain any ideal order, however restricted in its scope and aims. Members of either party, however, should, it seems to me, give thanks to Auden—as I have said, he was always one for giving thanks—for having shown us just how complex and difficult a project the formation of community is, and just how many and how serious are the virtues required to keep it alive and well.

Nicholas Jenkins (essay date 1 April 1996)

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SOURCE: "Goodbye, 1939," in New Yorker, April 1, 1996, pp. 88, 90-4, 96-7.

[In the following essay, Jenkins provides an overview of Auden's literary career and the significance of his expatriation in the United States.]

No episode in the century's English-speaking literary world came as more of a surprise than the poet W. H. Auden's abrupt departure, in January of 1939, from Britain for the United States. Auden was the first major English-language poet to be born in the twentieth century (in 1907); now, as the century drains away, it seems likely that he will turn out to be the only poet of world stature born in England in the last hundred years. He is more widely read than he has been for many years, both here and in England, and Auden scholarship is flourishing. (A multivolume Complete Works is under way and, along with several memoirs, two major biographies have been written: the most recent, from Pantheon, is Richard Davenport-Hines's absorbing Auden.) Auden was perhaps the most important English poet since Tennyson, and yet he never aged into the role of National Fossil, like the author of "Idylls of the King." In 1892, Tennyson was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, attended by the Foreign Secretary, the Lord Chancellor, Henry James, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1973, Auden was buried in an Austrian village graveyard, watched over only by family members and close friends. "In relation to a writer, most readers believe in the Double Standard," he once commented tartly. "They may be unfaithful to him as often as they like, but he must never, never be unfaithful to them."

Although the state of exile became a virtually de-rigueur element of the modernist condition, none of the major literary expatriates before Auden had left their own countries voluntarily while they were at the height of their reputations. (Joyce, Pound, James, Eliot, Stein, and Conrad all emigrated before they hit their stride.) For Auden, who by the end of the thirties was distressed and exhausted by his public role as the poetic spokesman for a set of left-wing causes he believed in only half-heartedly, his move was a kind of dying and a kind of rebirth. The first poem he completed in America was an elegy for W. B. Yeats, who had just died. But in it he also mourned his former self, his British readership, his familiar cityscapes. Within the space of little more than a year in New York, he entirely recast the terms of his life and his career. He started the process of becoming a United States citizen; he lost his faith in the power of politics to alleviate unhappiness; he fell in love for the first time; he went back to the church he had been in flight from since childhood; and he gained literary access to an inner world that he had never before been able to write about directly.

This may sound like a triumph, but to Auden's enemies and venerators alike the consequences of his migration looked very different. Many British critics felt—and feel—that he was never as great a poet once he left England. (They conveniently forget that most of the poems they think of as his best work were written when he was abroad for long periods in the thirties.) Young readers felt abandoned by their spiritual leader, and members of the literary establishment raged—often for decades. When Auden died, the novelist Anthony Powell peered over the top of his newspaper at Kingsley Amis and announced, "No more Auden." Amis murmured something about the shock, and Powell fired back, "I'm delighted that shit has gone…. Scuttling off to America in 1939 with his boyfriend."

Throughout the thirties, Auden, though never a Communist Party member, had given expression to the emotions of a broad coalition of liberal and left-wing anti-Fascists and anti-imperialists. His emigration in 1939 came to be seen as the first in a sequence of notorious leftist betrayals: he belonged to the disaffiliated generation that included the spies Burgess, Blunt, Philby, and Maclean—the first important clutch of traitors in British political life for hundreds of years. Auden's offense was, of course, vastly different from that of the spies, but he felt his dissidence had similar causes. In the fifties, he told a friend, "I know exactly why Guy Burgess went to Moscow. It wasn't enough to be a queer and a drunk. He had to revolt still more to break away from it all. That's just what I've done by becoming an American citizen." At a single stroke, Auden generated an enduring parable of the edgy relationship between writer and audience. And, in doing so, he established his own rootless modernity.

Auden grew up on the outskirts of industrial Birmingham, Britain's "second city," the third son of a cultivated doctor father and a highly religious (and highly strung) mother. They were Anglo-Catholics, and Mrs. Auden loved to inveigh against the feebly progressive notions of the Birmingham church hierarchy; Auden wrote that on Sundays in that grime-caked city their life was suffused with "music, candles, and incense." In this intense, cloistered atmosphere, Auden picked up a fascination with "medicine and disease, and theology"—the sicknesses of the body and the spirit. "Health is the state about which Medicine has nothing to say," he later noted. "Orthodoxy is the state about which Theology has nothing to say." Happiness, he might have added, on the evidence of his own work, is the state about which Poetry has nothing to say.

Like most upper-middle-class English boys, he was sent away to prep school while still young, and it was there that he met the future novelist Christopher Isherwood, who was to become his closest friend. Auden wrote his first lyrics at the age of fifteen, and at sixteen he began reading Thomas Hardy fanatically, studying him under the bedcovers and writing Hardyesque poems during study periods. He also began getting up early and going to his desk unwashed, setting rigorous schedules for his literary projects—treating writing, he said later, not as an inspirational mystery but as "a real occupation like banking or fucking, with all its attendant egotism, boredom, excitement and terror."

Auden went up to Oxford in 1925 as a scientist, but he soon switched to English, and spent his free time in his rooms, reading and writing poetry, much of it bad. Nonetheless, he impressed his college acquaintances with his intellectual authority, and in 1930 he burst onto the British poetry scene, under the sponsorship of T. S. Eliot, who was an editor at Faber & Faber, with a volume of cryptic lyrics called simply Poems. Over the next few years, Auden's writing established him as the leader of a group of young, more or less left-wing poets including Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, and Cecil Day-Lewis. What united these poets was not their largely ineffectual political attitudes but their fascination with the look and feel of modern Britain. (Literature's first television set appeared in Auden's work, in 1932.) One critic called them "communists with an intense love for England." In Auden, that love was particularly sensuous and direct. He produced huge vistas of England's mines and millscapes, and the jagged, deserted upper reaches of the northern Lake District—and he invested these scenes with a reverent, filial longing.

The counterpoint to this tender side in Auden's early poetry was a tone of laconic, sometimes portentous toughness. Like Kipling, he loved to preach and playfully hector. "Something is going to fall like rain / and it won't be flowers"; "Go down with your world that has had its day"; Auden could reel off lines that reeked of threat and outrage. To a generation of young readers, dismayed by the economic conditions in their country and by the long slide of history toward the Second World War, Auden seemed to possess a communal voice, an imagination that was eerily in contact with their own hopes, fears, and resentments. The thirties was a time of weak political leadership in Britain, and an early phrase of Auden's about England—"this country of ours where nobody is well"—soon became a touchstone. As he became more famous, even his casual opinions were noted in gossip columns.

Auden was tall and thin, with a pale complexion and a cowlick of sandy hair that often fell over his brow ("the great big white barbarian" is how he imagined himself); his accent was plummy and Oxonian. He was often messily clothed; torn trousers, ragged tie, frayed or stained shirt cuffs and collar. (The economist John Maynard Keynes described him as "very dirty but a genius.") He smoked almost nonstop, and his nails were bitten down to the quick. Late in life, Auden would write, "The way he dresses / reveals an angry baby, / howling to be dressed."

He was relentlessly self-critical, partly, no doubt, as a result of the guilt programmed into homosexuals by British society. And yet his feelings of inferiority were tangled, overdetermined; sex was only a part of the configuration. On one occasion, he said that he felt embarrassed in the presence of anyone who was not in some respect his superior ("It may be a large cock, it may be sanctity"); indeed, for all his awareness of his own powers he thought of himself as clumsy, myopic, timid, sentimental, and overintellectual—a stranger to the world of physical sensations and strong feelings who, consequently, was obsessed by them.

From the summer of 1936, the year of Auden's second celebrated collection, Look, Stranger!, until the winter of 1939, when he left England permanently, Auden was never at home for more than six months at a time. In those two and a half years, he became a compulsive wanderer, circling the globe with Isherwood and spending substantial amounts of time in Iceland, Belgium, Spain, and China. And even while his reputation soared in Britain (George VI himself presented Auden with the King's Gold Medal for Poetry in 1937) Auden's work, and his comments to his friends, had begun to take on a pessimistic, sardonic flavor. When New Verse, the most influential poetry magazine of the decade, published an "Auden Double Number," which was entirely devoted to pieces about Auden and his work, Auden contributed "Dover," a deliberately flat poem that offered an entropic picture of George VI's "Great" Britain. "All this show / Has, somewhere inland, a vague and dirty root," he declared. For all "the vows, the tears, the slight emotional signals" that have become routine here, England, he said coolly, has become "of minor importance." It was a calculated diminishment of his own poetic cult and of the country that had exalted him.

In reminiscences of Auden from these years, one often finds him sitting alone by a window brooding, or keeping ostentatiously silent in company. In mid-1938, Isherwood saw the poet who the year before had written a poem in praise of a one-night stand "in tears, telling me that no one would ever love him, that he would never have my sexual success." Auden had had boyfriends, of course, but, partly because he was usually attracted to teenagers, had so far had no enduring love. Loveless, faithless, and successful, he was in the grip of a strange predicament. When he was abroad, he wrote brilliant poetry, and was often personally happy. When he was at home, he lectured and exhorted, his poetry grew brittle, and he was filled with a gloom bordering on despair. He spent most of his time in England living, like an overgrown simpleton, at his parents' house in Birmingham. "I felt that I had to make some kind of radical change, not knowing what it would be exactly," he told an interviewer late in life. "I would say that I felt the situation in England for me was becoming impossible. I couldn't grow up." Duty and responsibility kept drawing Auden back to England but, though he was writing prolifically, he felt that his sources of inspiration were drying up.

Around this time, Auden got a letter from a young poet who was sending him some poems. When Auden replied, he gave the young man some advice that he himself was having trouble following:

Remember that another poet's work is not a pair of spectacles, but a key with which to unlock one's nature and find its unsuspected treasures. Ask yourself constantly and remorselessly "What am I really interested in?" "What do I know for myself?" "What, in fact, are my experiences?" And however boring or silly those experiences may seem at first sight, those and those only can be the subject matter of your poems. Make the fullest use you can of your own visual and emotional experiences.

In January, 1939, Auden and Isherwood were on a French liner, the Champlain, as she labored westward. (The same ship, celebrated at the end of "Speak, Memory," would ferry Vladimir Nabokov and his family to the New World the following year, before she was sunk by a mine near Bordeaux.) In the midst of featureless North Atlantic waters, the two men found themselves shuffling off the coils of a decade's worth of public aspirations. They had reached a state of emotional exhaustion with the leftist rallies, the speeches, the petitions, the worried dinner-table discussions. "'You know,'" Isherwood remembered telling his friend as they stood on deck, "'it just doesn't mean anything to me anymore—the Popular Front, the party line, the anti-Fascist struggle. I suppose they're okay but something's wrong with me. I simply cannot swallow another mouthful.' To which Wystan answered, 'Neither can I.'"

The ship ran into a blizzard off Newfoundland and, Isherwood recalled, sailed into New York Harbor "looking like a wedding cake." On the morning of January 26, 1939, he and Auden stood on deck—tiny pristine bride and bridegroom figures perched high on the tiers of snow—and watched the skyline emerge, like a photographic print, out of a fresh storm. To Isherwood the image was a terrifying vision of "the Red Indian island with its appalling towers…. The Citadel—stark, vertical, gigantic, crammed with the millions who had already managed to struggle ashore and find a foothold." But for all its prestige as the center of an advanced civilization, Manhattan was still recognizably Whitman's "City of the sea! city of hurried and glittering tides!" There were cannons and steamship offices at the end of lower Broadway, and stores there where you could buy a sou'wester; the port's channels brimmed with a slew of vessels—ferries, barges, tugs, liners, and fishing boats.

Like most English people arriving in the city. Auden and Isherwood fell among the English. They moved into the George Washington Hotel, on Lexington Avenue, an unfashionable edifice with an ornate, toffee-colored facade (it is still there, sagging among exercise studios and welfare hotels). The manager, Donald Neville-Willing, was a queeny English émigré who exulted in the news that he and Isherwood had mutual acquaintances in Cheshire. The results soon began to flow: special weekly rates, free late-night toddies, invitations to parties in Neville-Willing's sitting room.

Auden liked the George Washington so much that he eventually wrote a valedictory poem about it, and he explained to Benjamin Britten that New York itself was one "grand hotel" in a world so destabilized that everyone had become a traveller. A friend who went to see Auden one morning found him busy in his "cell-like room, puffing cigarettes amid suitcases, books, papers, old clothes and grounded wall-decorations." In this clutter, Auden set about extricating himself from his roots. Besides his elegy for Yeats, he composed memorial poems for the socialist playwright Ernst Toller, who hanged himself in the Barbizon Plaza Hotel, and for Sigmund Freud. Together, the subjects of these poems formed a trinity representing the secular ideologies of cure that he had toyed with throughout the thirties: visionary poetry, Marxist politics, and psychoanalysis. In prose, Auden soon added an elegy for his first master and "poetical father," Thomas Hardy.

For a few years, Auden had barely kept up with his own father. But in February of 1939 Auden got a letter from Dr. Auden which was mildly critical. In a recently discovered reply, now in the Bodleian Library, at Oxford, Auden argued back at length. "Sorry you didn't like the little poem in the New Statesman," he began, and he went on to provide answers to the accusations that would later be levelled against him by his English audience. To his father's Why? Auden responded with a Because:

You say you would like to see me the mouthpiece of an epoch: so, of course, would I, but I want to explain to you what being a writer looks like from the inside…. Basically the writer's problem is that of everyone, how to go on growing the whole of his life, because to stop growing is to die…. Because the actions which express his growth, ie his writings, are public, there are peculiar temptations for a writer.

1. If he does something which is successful, the public want him to go on doing it. Now he often Can. When you say, for instance "I liked your work before you turned away from the Romantic," I know that I could quite easily go on turning out the kind of Romantic poetry I was doing, but it would be destruction for me to do it, however popularly successful it was. I don't say that my work then was worse than now. Very likely it was better; but to go on doing it when I feel different would be to be false to myself and to art.

As Auden foresaw, he was to suffer a lifetime of such reproaches. He went on:

If he wants to be the mouthpiece of his age, as every writer does, it must be the last thing he thinks about. Tennyson for example was the Victorian mouthpiece in "In Memoriam" when he was thinking about Hallam and his grief. When he decided to be the Victorian Bard and wrote "Idylls of the King," he ceased to be a poet….

What an age is like is never what it thinks it is, which is why the best art of any period, the art which the future realizes to be the product of its time, is usually rather disliked when it appears.

The letter from Dr. Auden must have hit a nerve; Auden soon composed a poem about Matthew Arnold's dutiful and self-mortifying relationship with his headmaster father, the Victorian patriarch Thomas Arnold, and he inserted a third section into the elegy for Yeats, adding his famous and oracular definition of his art—"Poetry makes nothing happen." He wrote that poetry survives as "a way of happening, a mouth." It is a strange, almost erotic image: poetry was to be not a hard, impersonal artifact—the "mouthpiece" his father had spoken of—but the warm, vulnerable, yielding organ of song, speech, and love.

For a while, Auden continued to be tempted by his old English role, that of the political prophet. Then, in March, 1939, at a dinner at the Commodore Hotel to raise money for people who had fled from Franco's forces in Spain, he realized how terrifying and nihilistic the experience of prophetic power could be. He gave a talk on the significance of the Spanish conflict in which he castigated intellectuals for being "so damn conceited, selfish and lazy." What, he asked, is the real meaning of democracy? He answered himself with a burst of humanitarian boilerplate about decency and caring. And then he ended by envisaging the apocalyptic dissolution of his own class. He exhorted his listeners to behave more like democrats in their private lives. If we don't, he said, it will be "our own people who will say 'To hell with talk, to hell with truth, to hell with freedom,' will rise up and sweep us away, and by God, ladies and gentlemen, we shall deserve it." His listeners erupted.

Auden's initial reaction was a sense of exhilaration. The poet who a few years before had been guiltily aware of the gap between himself and his English admirers discovered an audience that he could feel transmitting a surge of ecstatic energy to him. He explained to a friend, "I suddenly found I could really do it, that I could make a fighting demagogic speech and have the audience roaring. And, my dear, it is so exciting but so absolutely degrading; I felt just covered with dirt afterwards." The contact high that Auden had intermittently sought from his audience throughout the thirties suddenly revealed itself to him as a demonic temptation.

When Auden asserted in his Yeats elegy that poetry makes nothing happen, part of what he wanted to convey was that, in a world so full of active evil, he hoped that poetry—especially his own—was not responsible for making anything happen. "Never, never again," he swore to a friend, "will I speak at a political meeting." In fact, Auden's comments at his next major public appearance in New York, a month later, were an almost explicit refutation of the Commodore Hotel speech. He and Isherwood were booked to participate in a reading on "Modern Trends in English Poetry and Prose" at a social club called the Keynote, in midtown, run by the Marxist-dominated League of American Writers. The writer Selden Rodman, who was a member of the audience that night, wrote in his journal that Auden's first words came as "a bombshell." The famous left-wing poet opened with his new aesthetic creed:

I don't want there to be any mistake about the responsibilities of the writer or the limitations of art. Two hundred years from now nobody will care much about our politics. But if we were truly moved by the things that happened to us, they may read our poems. In his time Dante was a reactionary. It is also deplorable that Yeats' last poem calls for war. But because Yeats was one of those most rare writers who continued to be moved by what happened to him right up to the day he died, his work will always have that authentic ring we recognize as poetry.

After Auden, Isherwood, and Louis MacNeice took turns reading, there was a beer-and-pretzels party, at which Auden and Isherwood met a fleshy blond undergraduate, Chester Kallman, and his boyfriend, Harold Norse. "Our first impressions of Auden, slovenly in rumpled tweed, were of disbelief," Norse remembered. "His shirt was unpressed, heavy woolen socks bunched limply around his thick ankles, and untied shoelaces flopped over his shoes." When he got a chance, however, Norse edged his way over and introduced himself to Isherwood, who gave him a card with the address of the apartment that he and Auden were renting.

When Kallman turned up at the flat two days later, Auden was disappointed. "It's the wrong blond!" he whispered to Isherwood. But Auden, who had been instructing his audiences in the necessity of "being interested in your fellow human beings not as 'subjects for reform' but as equal human beings," was ready for something to fill the hole left by the collapse of his political ideals. Kallman proved to be an adept (and funny) conversationalist, as well as a desirable sexual trophy. He stayed to tea and came back a couple of days later. By the beginning of June, Auden wrote to his brother, "It's really happened at last after all these years. Mr Right has come into my life. He is a Roumanian-Latvian-American Jew called Chester Kallman…. This time, my dear, I really believe it's marriage."

Auden told another friend that he was "mad with happiness"—and insecurity. A few years later, he explained, "I never really loved anyone before, and then when he got through the wall, he became so much part of my life that I keep forgetting that he is a separate person, and having discovered love, I have also discovered what I never knew before, the dread of being abandoned and left alone." Kallman's reactions were divided. He was exhilarated by the affair at first ("Auden is in love with me!" he crowed to Norse), but he was only eighteen, and almost straightaway his eyes started to wander. Even on their "honeymoon" trip ("honeymoon" was Auden's term: "Such a romantic girl" was Kallman's comment) to the Southwest in the summer of 1939, Kallman wrote to Norse that he "almost precipitated a domestic crisis by groping a boy sitting next to me between Jacksonville and Tallahassee…. Wystan was quite rightly exasperated."

While Kallman delighted in his emotional hold on Auden, he was intimidated by Auden's literary powers. Staying at a ranch outside Taos, Auden worked at his prose and Kallman, who had literary ambitions of his own, tried to write poetry. But he complained that his efforts were subjected to ruthless scrutiny: "Wystan reads them like a foreman and god I suffer under that clinical gaze…. He hardly approves at all, except for lines here and there—and almost never the ones I liked."

Kallman's sense of the distance between his own efforts and Auden's rapidly increased: Auden wanted to devote himself to Kallman; Kallman wanted to absorb Auden's talent. In a notebook of Kallman's dating from 1939 or 1940, there is a page covered by false starts—more writhing than writing. One quatrain has a callow, gloomy pathos:

     Upon the porch my inspiration ceases      But upstairs Wystan paces      Like a horse before it races      Intoning one by one his quickie masterpieces.

As Auden and Kallman headed back East from their honeymoon, the political realities of 1939 became inescapable. Sitting in a railway carriage in the middle of Kansas at the end of August, Auden wrote to a friend, "There is a radio in this coach so that every hour or so, one has a violent pain in one's stomach as the news comes on." He arrived in New York just in time for Europe's descent into the maelstrom. Hitler invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and that night Auden went, apparently alone, to a place called the Dizzy Club, on West Fifty-Second Street. It was probably there, in the noisy bar—"packed to the rafters with college boys and working-class youths" is how Norse described it—that Auden began one of his most famous poems, "September 1, 1939." It was another elegy, this time a farewell to his generation's "clever hopes," aspirations that he had in part been responsible for molding. The thirties had been called "the Age of Auden"; now Auden himself wrote off the entire "low dishonest decade." Yet, oddly, given that this is one of Auden's most sombre poems, the opening cadence is borrowed from one of America's great comic poets, Ogden Nash. Auden, in his early months in the States, had self-consciously searched for American local styles, and had written to a friend about his discovery of Nash's idiom, misquoting from the poem "Spring Comes to Murray Hill": "As I sit in my office / On 23rd Street and Madison Avenue." Auden's new poem begins, "I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-Second Street."

But Nash's equable comic accent is drowned out by a more strident rhetoric as the American bar scene gives way to the supercharged power of global indictment:

     Into this neutral air      Where blind skyscrapers use      Their full height to proclaim      The strength of Collective Man,      Each language pours its vain      Competitive excuse:      But who can live for long      In an euphoric dream;      Out of the mirror they stare,      Imperialism's face      And the international wrong.

Auden wrote the poem over a weekend, but he would spend a good part of the rest of his life regretting it. He soon came to loathe what he felt was its sanctimoniousness and (as he saw it) the frivolity of its famous assertion that "we must love one another or die." In a letter to a friend who had admitted that she found it memorable, he fumed. "The reason (artistic) I left England and went to the U.S. was precisely to stop me writing poems like 'Sept 1st, 1939' the most dishonest poem I have ever written. A hang-over from the U.K. It takes time to cure oneself."

But poems, like children, defy their creators. Auden later made dogged attempts to extirpate "September 1, 1939" from his canon, but it has become one of his most quoted works. You can see why Auden was dissatisfied. After presenting a despairing picture of individual isolation, Auden asks portentously:

     Who can release them now,      Who can reach the deaf,      Who can speak for the dumb?

There is no explicit answer, but the implication is that it is the poet who can restore contact and community to the lonely and the self-immured. Yet, in spite of this remorseless self-elevation, "September 1, 1939" continues to be an important poem. Not since Andrew Marvell's "Horatian Ode" had a poet made equivocation and doubt in the face of a major political event seem so representative a condition. As a piece of emotional reportage, Auden's threnody is a perfect register of the strangely muted onset of the century's worst event, and as long as we read poems for what they describe as well as for what they diagnose, it will remain one of the century's key lyrics.

The final, harsh epiphany of Auden's first year in the States occurred in early December, in a movie theatre in Yorkville, a predominantly German neighborhood on the Upper East Side and a stronghold of both Nazi and anti-Nazi activism. Throughout the year, Auden had been drawing parallels between the power of the poet and the power of the dictator ("The Dictator who says 'My People': the Writer who says 'My Public,'" he scribbled in a bitter comment), and in Yorkville he saw a dynamic illustration of the state of violence that a dictator could whip up in an audience.

Among the films showing that day was a newsreel accompaniment to a sappy German comedy, "Das Ekel." The headquarters of the local Nazi Bund was above the cinema and, as Auden later told his old tutor Nevill Coghill, who asked him why he became a Christian, "Every time a Pole appeared on the screen, the audience shouted, 'Kill him!' What was remarkable about the film was the lack of hypocrisy. Every value I had been brought up on, and assumed everybody held, was flatly denied. I was forced to ask myself: 'If I think their values are wrong, what basic reason can I give?'"

A reviewer for the Post (at that time a liberal paper) was struck by the same thing as Auden. He reported in his column that, after a melee of shots from the battlefield, "there was a picture of Hitler reviewing his troops." Then, "As the solid blocks of soldiers marched past, goose-stepping almost off the ground … the 86th Street Garden Theatre burst into sudden and violent applause."

In a review Auden wrote shortly afterward he excoriated the contemporary world for "an ecstatic and morbid abdication of the free-willing and individual before the collective and the daemonic." He went on, "We have become obscene night worshipers who, having discovered that we cannot live exactly as we will, deny the possibility of willing anything and are content masochistically to be lived." Within a few months, though, Auden had "willed" a momentous decision: in downtown Brooklyn, he took out the first set of papers necessary to change nationalities. In a draft of a poem he was working on at the time, he wrote, "'England,' 'La France,' 'Das Reich,' their words, / Are like the names of extinct birds."

"Nineteen thirty-nine was a very decisive year for me," Auden told an acquaintance on the first day of 1940. He had begun the transition from subject to citizen, from liberal progressive to orthodox Episcopalian believer. (In the fall of 1940, he tentatively started to go to church again, in Brooklyn Heights.) Little more than a year before, Isherwood had heard Auden complaining that no one would ever love him. But now, in his new collection, he wrote of surveying the Manhattan harbor "with a lover's eyes." And yet his happiness was short-lived. Since the first summer of their relationship, Kallman had been unfaithful, and in July of 1941 there was a showdown during which Kallman told Auden that he had taken another lover, and that he would never sleep with Auden again. (That seems to have been the one vow in life which Kallman actually kept.)

For a while, Auden went to pieces—weeping, raging, even contemplating violence against Kallman and his new lover. After one savage row, Kallman woke up to find Auden's nicotine-stained fingers squeezing his throat. Auden quickly relented as Kallman pushed him away, and, though they were to live together on and off for the rest of their lives, their now sexless relationship was never free of emotional and practical tensions. Auden tried to persuade himself that he was grateful for the torments; as he explained to a friend in January of 1942, Kallman "makes me suffer and commit follies, without which I should soon become like the later Tennyson."

In fact, by 1942 Auden was very far from being treated like the Victorian Poet Laureate by anyone in his old country. In February of 1940, Cyril Connolly, for instance, had written silkily of two "far-sighted and ambitious young men with a strong instinct of self-preservation, and an eye on the main chance, who have abandoned what they consider to be the sinking ship of European democracy." And Auden was attacked by the right wing as ferociously as he was decried by his old left-wing friends. The week before his new book of poems, Another Time, was published, during the period of the Battle of Britain, a Tory M.P. asked questions about Auden and Isherwood in Parliament, demanding to know whether they would be recalled for armed service. (Both had offered to return to Britain, but the government had told them to stay where they were.)

The assaults continued throughout the war. And shortly afterward the august Sir Desmond MacCarthy described Auden and Isherwood as "leaders of the young, champions of the oppressed, beacons of the future, thinkers, who, when civilisation and their fellow-countrymen were in danger, promptly left for Hollywood!"

The resentment, for some, remained intense even after the war began to fade into history. In 1955, the poet John Wain wrote that for a young poet "the Auden line" was no use after the war: "It was worn out even before it got smashed, and what smashed it decisively was not the war, but Auden's renunciation of English nationality." And in 1960 Philip Larkin declared that Auden had "lost his key subject and emotion … and abandoned his audience together with their common dialect and concerns."

Larkin was right—Auden had abandoned his bond with his English audience. It was a decision that he never regretted. After moving around the States for several years in the wake of the crisis with Kallman, Auden made his home in Manhattan, until the very final years of his life. Like Yeats, he had "remade" himself; and he went on doing so throughout his life. "Who am I now?" he asked in a poem in 1967, called, defiantly, "Prologue at Sixty." His answer suggested that while he had given up his English nationality, he had not become an American. He defined himself instead as a citizen of a polyglot world of transients; he wrote that he was "a New Yorker."

Even as Auden endured the jeremiads launched at him and his work, there is no evidence that he ever felt that he was anywhere but at the center of his era. It was almost as if he suffered while he was still alive the decline in interest that hits most writers only after they die. Now, though, his status is higher than it has been for more than fifty years. Since his death, his words have been "scattered among a hundred cities," sometimes in ways that would have dismayed him. At least four of the past seven Presidents (Johnson. Reagan, Bush, and Clinton) have quoted Auden publicly to drive home political points. And the recent resurgence of his reputation has carried him beyond the confines of the merely "literary" audience. A couple of years ago, a pamphlet of Auden poems, Tell Me the Truth About Love, sold over two hundred thousand copies in Britain.

At first glance, the rise in Auden's stock makes sense. The qualities once singled out by hostile critics—his un-English fondness for philosophical theory, his religiousness, his homosexuality, his fascination with the marginal and the neglected, his rootlessness—now look eerily contemporary. But some of Auden's coolly skeptical qualities are being forgotten or glossed over, and the old, approachable communal bard of the thirties is again in the ascendant. This adds up to a limited notion of his significance. Auden wrote some of his greatest verse after he emigrated—vivid poetry full of slang and archaism, which stands at a slight angle to the world of the "normal" and the "natural" so as to cut into our everyday pieties.

But these are literary issues on which one can agree or disagree. The lasting significance of Auden's decision to emigrate to the United States is not the insoluble calculus of whether he would have written better had he stayed at home. After all, many writers stay put and slump disastrously. The main point about Auden's departure is simply that he left. And, in leaving, he did perhaps more than anyone else ever has to extend the horizon for British writers. He made it possible—made it mandatory, in fact—to conceive of a literary map on which London was not at the center of the world; he defined cultural allegiances as something provisional and chosen; he gave a faint but indelible italic slant to the word "home." It wasn't a particular place, Auden wrote riddlingly in 1942. Instead, home was

     A sort of honour, not a building site,      Wherever we are, when, if we chose, we might      Be somewhere else, yet trust that we have chosen right.

Charles Berger (essay date Fall 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3755

SOURCE: "Auden in Time of War," in Raritan, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall, 1997, pp. 79-89.

[In the following essay, Berger examines the content, structure, and central themes of "In Time of War."]

Auden's poetry of the thirties is suffused by a sense of diffuse crisis, or crises—economic, social, military—so there is no clear line of demarcation separating peace and war in his poetry. In fact, there is very little represented peace in the early poems; moments of refuge are always shadowed by the sense of what they defend against. Early on, Auden tries to imagine the role of poetry during revolution, or in a postrevolutionary society. This is the plot of "A Summer Night," written in 1933. By the end of the decade, however, revolution has given way to war and the concept of a social avant-garde seems already to belong to an unrecognizable past. Auden's journeys to the various sites of wars in Spain and China are balanced by his journeys away from these hot spots—to Iceland and New York. In any event, the journey often seems more important than the destination. Although it inhabits so many named places of contention, his poetry nonetheless seldom seems topical, except perhaps for the masterful "Letter to Lord Byron," whose satirical brio feeds on direct hits. The common reader in all of us latches onto those titles and poems where the reference to historical time and place is most recognizable—"Spain 1937," "September 1, 1939"—which might be one reason for Auden's disavowal of them. But it is more characteristic of Auden to blur spatial and temporal markers. He assigns and disperses blame and guilt, equates and differentiates nations. Stances, attitudes, are identified as inimical to "our" health, but who exactly the enemy is remains unclear, nor can we easily identify who "we" are. The aggressor may not be identified, but the burden of the victim is clear, as in "Refugee Blues," where Auden brilliantly uses the literal "burden" of the ballad, its tailing refrain, to accentuate the lament of the refugee and his lack of a responsive audience: "But they weren't German Jews, my dear, but they weren't German Jews."

The sonnet sequence "In Time of War," later titled "Sonnets from China"—though apparently only one of the poems was actually written in China—plays as many variations upon the dialectic of topicality and distancing as one might imagine. First published in the Isherwood/Auden volume Journey to a War (1939), an account of the collaborators' fifteen-week "tour" of China in 1938 during the Sino-Japanese war, the twenty-seven poem sequence displays an acute sense of the difference between journeying to, and standing in the time of, a war. Auden takes extraordinary care to distinguish between observers and participants, but he also complicates the category of the observer, not limiting it simply to the touring poet/journalist who seldom came close to the front. (Indeed, the threat of Japanese air attacks behind the lines extended the concept of the "front.") One of the poem's most durable discoveries involves locating ways in which strategizing generals and tactical technocrats are themselves observers—with the power to send others to their deaths. Auden displays a sharp sense, even in 1938, of how bureaucratized the coming war will prove to be, how strong a role in slaughter will be played by "the intelligent … with all their instruments for causing pain"; by "the conversation of the highly trained"; by "bombardiers remote like savants." The world of difference between Auden and Yeats can be compressed into their contrasting representations of modern aerial bombardment. In "Lapis Lazuli," written in 1936, no expertise is required to "Pitch like King Billy bomb balls in / Until the town lie beaten flat." No comparison I know of has been made between "In Time of War" and "Lapis Lazuli," though such a cross-reading would be a valuable one. Think of Yeats's Chinamen, with their "ancient glittering eyes," perched above it all. Auden's exemplary Chinese man, on the other hand, is the dead soldier of the sonnet, "Far from the heart of culture he was used," who "added meaning like a comma, when / He turned to dust in China."

Before turning to a sustained reading of the sequence I need to say a word about which text I am using, for this is, after all, Auden, which means that the textual situation is a complicated one. "In Time of War" is the title of the "full" twenty-seven poem sequence as it appears in Journey to a War. Readers of Auden's Collected Poems will find a revised, rearranged twenty-one poem sequence called "Sonnets from China." Those using the Edward Mendelson edition of the Selected Poems will find the "original" longer poem once again under the title "In Time of War." But there is still another choice, the text of the poem in Mendelson's The English Auden, where we find the full sequence plus the crucial dedicatory sonnet to E. M. Forster, which served as the dedicatory epigraph to the whole volume, Journey to a War. I characterize the Forster sonnet as crucial because Auden himself chose to end "Sonnets from China" with a revised version of the poem. Mendelson makes the sonnet to Forster something of an epigraph for the sequence, which strikes me as an inspired move. So, it is this fullest version of the poem, the one in The English Auden, that I regard as giving the reader more interpretive choices than any other. This is important, because I share Mendelson's opinion that "In Time of War" is "Auden's most profound and audacious poem of the 1930's." But it seems to me that readers are kept from realizing the full power of this poem when they cannot even be sure what to call it, nor how many sonnets it contains, nor where it really begins and ends. Tedious textual untangling of the sort that I have just had to perform can only get in a reader's way.

The opening dozen sonnets of "In Time of War" enact that Journey to a War of the volume's title, for they describe a genealogy and a chronology, if not a history, of civilization that, while inexorably forward marching, also demonstrates, at every turn, the inextricable involvements of culture with violence, progress with error. (Error, especially, is a crucial term in the sequence; its closing poem announces that we are "articled to error," as if this were an inherited fallibility.) The sonnets from this first movement of the sequence, though marked by archaic tokens and topoi, avoid any reference to specific place and time, thereby keeping a sehematic open-endedness, an allegorical applicability to all times and places; they belie their prefatory stationing in the poem by their ever-present descriptive usefulness.

     VI      He watched the stars and noted birds in flight;      The rivers flooded or the Empire fell:      He made predictions and was sometimes right;      His lucky guesses were rewarded well.      And fell in love with Truth before he knew her,      And rode into imaginary lands,      With solitude and fasting hoped to woo her.      And mocked at those who served her with their hands.      But her he never wanted to despise.      But listened always for her voice; and when      She beckoned to him, he obeyed in meekness.      And followed her and looked into her eyes;      Saw there reflected every human weakness,      And saw himself as one of many men.      VII      He was their servant—some say he was blind—      And moved among their faces and their things;      Their feeling gathered in him like a wind      And sang: they cried—"It is a God that sings"—      And worshipped him and set him up apart,      And made him vain, till he mistook for song      The little tremors of his mind and heart      At each domestic wrong.      Songs came no more: he had to make them.      With what precision was each strophe planned.      He hugged his sorrow like a plot of land.      And walked like an assassin through the town,      And looked at men and did not like them,      But trembled if one passed him with a frown.

These are not moments to be put behind us, for we have overcome nothing they emblematize. "We," now, are equally that "he" of poem after poem who begins by exerting his strong predilections, but ends, time and again, defeated, implicated, bewildered. As Stan Smith describes it: "Each of these crises of disappointment is a social and an epistemological one, and 'In Time of War' links the two by situating each sonnet as a moment of knowledge in a particular knowing subject—a moment which carries with it, too, a complementary ignorance, that finally puts an end to that moment." The only concession Auden makes to the historicity of these vignettes comes by way of the speed of his narration, as the rise and fall of cultural actors and actions, the completion of cycles, are captured in portrayal, if not fully apprehended. They become, therefore, examples of poetic historiography, as opposed to history proper.

Within the sequence as a whole, the present, the in-time of war, arrives in sonnet 13, interestingly enough, with a song of praise: "Certainly praise: let the song mount again and again / For life as it blossoms out in a jar or a face … Some people have been happy: there have been great men." Though "history, always, opposes its grief to our buoyant song," though Auden has presented the genealogy of culture operating with a kind of machine-like precision, the story is not predetermined or fatalistic. Men and women, as sonnet 2 tells us, were not expelled from the garden: "They left." From sonnet 13 on, "In Time of War" is studded with references to the present, to the here and now; within this particular sonnet there is a strong homophonic pun on "hear" and "here": "But hear the morning's injured weeping." The fourteenth sonnet might be said to initiate full moral cognition of history's lesson to the autobiographer: the calamities that have happened to others can indeed happen to me, "who never quite believed they could exist, / Not where we were." This poem also marks an interesting counterpoint to a moment narrated by Isherwood in another passage from the book. Passing a Japanese gun emplacement, Auden and Isherwood were somewhat disappointed when the guns did not open fire. In a remark perfectly poised between a lament and a boast, Auden says: "You see, I told you so … I knew they wouldn't … nothing of that sort ever happens to me."

Three poems later in the sequence there is a stunning rhyme of "now" with "Dachau," pointing to the unreadability of the still-to-be-revealed present. The sonnet in which this rhyme occurs, "Here war is simple like a monument," tells us much about Auden's attitude toward the poet's task and the poet's limits with respect to representing a violent or evil present. The sonnet points to the growing abstractness involved in the conduct of a modern war, with its emphasis on communication, with indeed the predominance of communication, so that "a telephone is talking to a man." Auden concentrates on the distant, removed strategist of war, the engineer or tactician with his penchant for maps, plans, ideas, he who most tellingly embodies the abstracting tendency of culture itself, as predicted in the earlier genealogical sonnets. Occasionally, the map points to a place whose name alone does indeed mean something: "Nanking, Dachau."

     But ideas can be true although men die,      And we can watch a thousand faces      Made active by one lie:      And maps can really point to places      Where life is evil now;      Nanking, Dachau.

The close conjunction of life and evil points to the latent material or graphic pun spelled out by the word evil itself: live spelled backwards, the reversal of life, the turning of life against itself. Evil is a strong word for Auden; his customary terms of reproach more often involve words such as error or mistake. But the map simply points. The poet/observer follows the pointing, takes the point. It is worth nothing that Nanking and Dachau are the first named places to enter "In Time of War." They disturb the poem's level anonymity. These named places cannot yet be schematized, nor can they simply be equated with earlier places. They punctuate their present uniqueness with the simple punctuation of a period. They breed no commentary, as yet. They mark a point of silence.

"In Time of War" searches constantly for what the poet might indeed say—not so much in order to change history, as to avert, or interrupt some persons from their destructive course, and to cheer up others who are tempted to despair. Those familiar with the poem might recognize in my words allusions to the poem's overt gestures toward two modern writers never before or since conjoined, but here placed alongside each other as complementary figures who show, each in his different way, some strong use of his art to save, in a limited sense, himself and some others. These figures are Rilke and Forster. Rilke died in 1926, Forster, though living until 1970, published his final novel, A Passage to India, in 1924. When we note how many of Auden's poems from the mid-thirties through the early forties are addressed to writers, we should also observe that almost all of these figures were dead. This cannot simply be explained in terms of some elegiac imperative, for many of these poems were not addressed to the recently dead—witness the poems to Melville, Byron, Voltaire, Rimbaud, Edward Lear, Henry James, Rilke. The better question is: why was Auden so open to commemorating dead writers? What equation between the writer and death struck him so forcefully that he sought these subjects? And how might it have been related to his sense of imminent, or arrived, global catastrophe?

Rilke and Forster float to the surface in Auden's account as if they were the modern avatars of those anonymous, genealogical ancestors limned in the first part of "In Time of War." Of the present time, they are granted features, marks of identity, no longer recognizable in their precursors, though vestiges of schematic or anonymous portrayal still remain. But the question arises: do they change in any way the balance of power between poet and prince?

To E. M. Forster      Here, though the bombs are real and dangerous,      And Italy and King's are far away,      And we're afraid that you will speak to us,      You promise still the inner life shall pay.      As we run down the slope of Hate with gladness      You trip us up like an unnoticed stone,      And just as we are closeted with Madness      You interrupt us like the telephone.      For we are Lucy, Turton, Philip, we      Wish international evil, are excited      To join the jolly ranks of the benighted      Where Reason is denied and Love ignored:      But, as we swear our lie, Miss Avery      Comes out into the garden with the sword.      XXIII      When all the apparatus of report      Confirms the triumph of our enemies;      Our bastion pierced, our army in retreat,      Violence successful like a new disease,      And Wrong a charmer everywhere invited;      When we regret that we were ever born;      Let us remember all who seemed deserted.      To-night in China let me think of one,      Who through ten years of silence worked and waited,      Until in Muzot all his powers spoke,      And everything was given once for all;      And with the gratitude of the Completed      He went out in the winter night to stroke      That little tower like a great animal.

I have already discussed the different positioning of the sonnet to Forster in the different versions of the sequence. But it is important to mention that in the ordering of The Collected Poems, the Rilke sonnet is third from last, so the two poems are more openly connected. Auden changes some of the lines but the explicit dedication to Forster remains. Rilke, on the other hand, is never named directly, only kenningly referred to by way of Muzot, his Swiss minicastle. Rilke and Forster emerge, necessarily, as differing paradigms, but it is also important to think about the peculiar way each is invoked within the poem. Auden's quirky way of summoning each figure into the poem might put us on guard against glorifying mere aesthetic solutions to political and social problems.

The poem calls on Rilke without naming him openly, relying on the reference to Muzot, or perhaps to the tower, to spark recognition. This obscure, insider's reference asks the reader to acknowledge the myth of Rilke, or at the very least his celebrity, all of which is nicely supported by the heraldic tower, site of sublime poetry from Milton to Yeats. (Could one ever imagine Auden inhabiting a tower?) Yeats, a more pertinent example for Auden than Rilke, garners more critique than homage in the famous elegy. But Rilke, whose politics were fairly problematic in their own right, whose appeals to versions of organic selfhood could only have aroused skepticism and alarm in Auden, whose very pose as poet was so theoretically inimical to Auden—this same Rilke comes close to standing as a lonely figure of resistance, a rallying point for all who feel "deserted." He is said to have been "Completed" by his vision—quite a Yeatsian condition—which of course means that death was soon to follow. This sheds some light, perhaps, on Rilke's curious position in the sequence, for two sonnets earlier Auden writes: "The life of man is never quite completed." The kind of completion achieved by Rilke, and sought here by Auden as consolation in a moment of political despair, represents a profound renunciation of the poet's role in struggle as enunciated in "Spain 1937," or the poet's role in the evolution of society, as seen in "A Summer Night" from 1933. But perhaps the most interesting way of contextualizing the example of Rilke is by reading him back into those earlier portraits of poet figures from what "In Time of War" leads us to believe is an earlier historical time. Sonnets 6 and 7, which I quoted earlier in the essay, excavate ancient models of sublime poets who are undone when they discover that they are "one of many men," or "tremble" if they are disapproved of. The independent, interpretive reader is led by Auden, I believe, to tie Rilke back into these examples, or to read those examples forward toward him, as a way of gaining perspective on the modern poet's supposed singularity. Rilke's greatness is cast in the image of the ancient. He is dangerous because alluring, and especially alluring in time of war, yet Auden nonetheless calls on him.

The example of Forster, whether placed at the head of the sequence in the form of a dedication, or used as the final, coda-like poem, is less generic than Rilke. Nothing about Forster, at first glance, appears to be in the high-heroic mold. Here is Isherwood from his 1961 book, Down There on a Visit, explaining what Forster stood for in 1938—to him and, presumably, to Auden as well:

Well, my England is EM: the antiheroic hero, with his straggly mustache, his light, gay, blue baby eyes and his elderly stoop. Instead of a folded umbrella or a brown uniform, his emblems are his tweed cap (which is too small for him) and the odd-shaped brown paper parcels in which he carries his belongings from country to town and back again. While the others tell their followers to be ready to die, he advises us to live as if we were immortal. And he really does this himself, although he is as anxious and afraid as any of us, and never for an instant pretends not to be. He and his books and what they stand for are all that is truly worth saving from Hitler; and the vast majority of people on this island aren't even aware that he exists.

Forster threatens to break the mold; nothing in the genealogical scheme of the opening sonnets prepares us for an artistic figure who interrupts us. The word bears thinking about: to interrupt is to break continuity, which is what a modern novelist like Forster might be said to do—far more so than Rilke. He checks us. One way he does so is by reminding us that the inner life shall pay, even as we lose ourselves in Hate, which Auden seems to equate with engagement in International Evil—either to resist that evil, or to promote it. Forster might seem an odd sponsor of the inner life but it is precisely because he avoids "the little tremors of the mind and heart" that he captures, according to Auden, the true measure of inwardness. Forster's distance from song, from melos, his channeling of his writing spirit into characters, leads Auden to make the reader dwell on the particulars of Forster's fictional world. Named fictional characters enter the poem—Lucy, Turton, Philip, Miss Avery—who serve as guarantors of the artist's engagement with the materiality of the world. Furthermore, this is a world seen not as international evil but as local complication. The enemy, as the example of Forster teaches, is abstraction—though Auden himself is much given to it, as the first part of "In Time of War" demonstrates. Forster cannot be read abstractly; his characters must be hasped onto.

The example of Miss Avery, outside her context, is unintelligible. She is the ghostly housekeeper of Howard's End who appears in the garden at the end of the climactic chapter 41, after Charles Wilcox has hit Leonard Bast with the blade end of the sword: "They laid Leonard, who was dead, on the gravel; Helen poured water over him. 'That's enough,' said Charles. 'Yes, murder's enough,' said Miss Avery, coming out of the house with the sword."

By citing so peculiar a moment, so idiosyncratic an event—though one that ends with emphasis on the prototypical sword—Auden advocates a kind of pointed, nonabstract warfare. This sword-in-hand moment comes by means of a fictional character, a woman, who only uses the sword to rebuke the lie of a man who claims not to have really used it. Auden says that Miss Avery "comes out" as "we swear our lie," thus equating us with Charles Wilcox. The point here, I think, is that the sword gathers authority for Auden as long as it is not used for what it was intended. Auden—through Forster through Miss Avery—invokes the sword only to use it against the grain.

This is how writers resist, as writers, In Time of War, according to Auden in 1938.

Robert L. Caserio (essay date Fall 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5419

SOURCE: "Auden's New Citizenship," in Raritan, Vol. 17, No. 2, Fall, 1997, pp. 90-103.

[In the following essay, Caserio discusses Auden's attitudes toward civic allegiance, the significance of his emigration to the United States, and the association of homosexuality with exile.]

W. H. Auden underwent two conversions: one to Christianity, one to American citizenship. We treat the first conversion seriously. We have no serious account of the second. Is it a sign of our confused or divided attitudes towards citizenship that we gloss over the poet's manner of belonging to—or of appearing to own—one political state rather than another? Yes, we acknowledge Auden's civic voices. But as we work out the meanings of the poet's civic dimension, our understanding of the poet's feelings about civic attachments gets obscured by a typically Audenesque sleight-of-hand. We ask the post-1938 Auden to show us his proof of citizenship, his passport, so that we can examine the impact of concrete national allegiance on his civism; and what Auden extends in response are ambiguous identity papers from some timeless zion. Accordingly, we leap into spiritual dimensions, and read the poems, in spite of their relation to modern nationalism and the function of national citizens, not in terms of the realities of secular pledges of allegiance, but in terms of relatively unreal cities or city-states: with reference either to a sacred Kingdom, or to a secular civic model that is highly abstract and generalized. Criticism's preponderant attention to the spiritual city-state informs Anthony Hecht's recent study of Auden; and the abstract model, which turns citizenship into an exemplary habit of reading, not tied to historical national conditions, informs John R. Boly's Reading Auden. I cannot hope to compete with Heeht's grace or Boly's analytic power. And there is certainly good reason for the critical tradition of connecting Auden to the city of God and utopia. But we have to think more about how Auden's abstract ideals are built upon the specifics of his shifting national ties.

As a start, I argue that Auden, even as he turns from one national citizenship to another, acts out, in his own terms, a conversion of citizenship itself, a new paradoxical—indeed perverse—characterization of it. Taking out American citizenship papers, Auden repudiates detached political neutrality; at the same time, by becoming a U.S. citizen during the wartime composition of New Year Letter, For the Time Being, and The Age of Anxiety, the poet uses the poems to redefine what it means to be a modern national. The redefinition limns the uncertainty of one's political passport. Auden's new citizenship strikes me as better figured by the displaced person, the real counterpart of the mythical Wandering Jew, than by the citizen who has a local habitation to which he can securely give a name. The subject and the origin of Auden's civic voice canonizes not a state of inclusion, but a state of allegiance-on-the-move, a refugeeism, whereby neutral citizenship is both canceled and reinstated. The refugee isn't settled by citizenship papers. Instead, Auden's new version of citizenship canonizes eccentric exile and involves a temporary act of allegiance at whose center a pledge of allegiance is absent. This is no merely abstract or spiritual condition. The poet's life as well as the poet's poems work to make his reader see that the dignity of citizenship inheres in a concretely enacted state of being between or among nations, and not in or of one. The state of wandering is one's refuge; and this state is what a new idea and practice of citizenship needs to admit, and be owned by. It's a pure inversion of the norm. The elevation of the refugee as the model, and not the antitype, of citizenship is influenced in Auden's case by his homosexuality. A refugee eros, no less than a refugee status and no less than a Christianity that is more renegade than orthodox, constitutes the passe partout that identifies citizen Auden.

Before moving to the verse, since I want Auden's life to bear on the readings to come, I need to rehearse the facts of Auden's conversion to the American State. In the fall of 1938, crossing the U.S. upon his return with Isherwood from China, Auden decided to emigrate from England. Once in New York at the start of 1939, and having fallen in love with Chester Kallman, Auden's intentions gained a motive: "I shall have to become an American citizen, as I'm not going to risk separation through international crises." But instead of international crises. Auden's taking on paying jobs in America violated his work visa, and risked the separation. To repair the violation, U.S. immigration advised Auden, in the fall of 1939, to go to Canada, and to return to the States as one of the quota of British immigrants from north of the border.

Thus by November of 1939, on returning from Canada, Auden had emigrated to America twice. He applied for citizenship, and registered for the draft in 1940, concurrent with the writing of New Year Letter. Auden's next long poem, For the Time Being, spans the end of 1941—not long after Auden discovered Kallman's secret infidelity (since late 1940) with an English merchant marine sailor—and September, 1942, when Auden was rejected by the draft board on account of his homosexuality. For the Time Being, as we shall see, uses the Nativity story in order to meditate on fidelity and infidelity in gay marriage, and on citizenship and exile; and the start of The Sea and the Mirror belongs to the moment of the draft board rejection. During the composition of these poems, Auden's citizenship application was in suspense. In 1943, still not a citizen, Auden began The Age of Anxiety; then, in the spring of 1945, with the war in the East continuing, Auden signed on to the Morale Division of the Pentagon's U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey in Germany. The rejected applicant to the draft board thus became a uniformed major, investigating, in a whirlwind five-month tour, the effects of American destruction on German civilians. It was not until May, 1946, six months before finishing The Age of Anxiety, that Auden became a citizen. One of the benefits of citizenship was eligibility for the Pulitzer Prize: The Age of Anxiety won in 1948–49. If we want to see the history of Auden's citizenship as the story of a successful reattachment of a civic voice from one nationality to another, it is notable that at this time the U.S. Navy reportedly purchased numerous copies of the poet's work.

These are the bare facts about Auden the citizen. But they are barely the facts. Apart from the erotically driven reason for citizenship, they give us no facts about Auden's motivations. And the facts show signs of factitiousness. Consider the story of the Navy's tasteful bent for Auden's poetry. Humphrey Carpenter's biography says the Navy bought eleven hundred copies of The Collected Poetry of 1945; Richard Davenport-Hines's biography says that the Navy ordered one thousand copies of The Age of Anxiety, the Pulitzer-prize winner. Are these two different purchase orders? The biographies don't answer, for the biographies don't document the orders—they say only that Auden is the source of the story; and they do not say where or when Auden tells this tale. Could the military purchases be an Auden fantasy, the result of his wishful thinking that The Age of Anxiety be a grammar for a new American citizenship? It would be a grammar ratified by the very armed forces which had treated queer Auden with the same anxiety with which, in Auden's poem, the U.S. Navy man, Emble, treats the sexual desire evinced for him by the poem's Canadian flier, Malin. For the Navy to be enamored of The Age of Anxiety, given the homosexuality in the poem and what we will see to be the poem's version of citizenship, is a sort of joke Auden well might have invented.

Humphrey Carpenter complains that in 1940–41 Auden's thoughts about citizenship had "no apparent consistency." But Carpenter's complaint is unreliable, for he can not accept the consistent neutrality exhibited by Auden towards both citizenship status and enlistment, even as Auden pursued them. Auden "does not seem to have faced whether he had a moral duty to help … in the fight against Hitler," Carpenter asserts, thereby echoing Erika Mann's infuriation in 1940–41 at her husband Auden's "neutral manner" towards the conflict. (We must remember that Auden had married the refugee Mann in 1935 to make her an English citizen.) Auden's neutrality expresses itself in 1940 when he tells E. R. Dodds that America gives one the chance "to live deliberately without roots": a phrase in which Auden nicely fuses citizenship with permanent rootlessness, and a neutral manner with non-neutral opposition to virulent nationalism. And Auden also associated America with an embrace of loneliness, of a common loneliness, in a community whose essence is detachment. Again in 1940, in an essay on Rilke, Auden writes of the "courage" of political neutrality, and of a person's neutral dissociation from the state, which dissociation he says is "not to be confused with selfish or cowardly indifference." And while in 1941 Auden expresses to Spender an absolute impatience with pacificism, Auden's ties with Isherwood, who just then was about to become a conscientious objector, might have set up within him a check on his impatience. At the very time of the draft board rejection in 1942, Auden in Ann Arbor writes a poem, apparently lost, called "In War Time," expressing distrust of the combat. On patriotism's erotic front, meanwhile, we should probably include Auden's surprising love affair with Rhoda Jaffe in 1945–46 as entangled with the move towards citizenship: the affair not only avenges Kallman's infidelity, it shows the draft board, three years later, the stupid inflexibility of their erotic criteria for assessing a person's public value; and, understood as a masculinist experiment, it sets the stage, perhaps, for Auden's signing on with the Pentagon Survey team. Yet, no less than the Navy's book orders, this signing on resists explanatory documentation. Neither Carpenter nor Daven-port-Hines can tell us how or why Auden undertook this Pentagon job. And Auden's report of his work has vanished. We only know (from a letter to Tania Stern) that he saw horrible effects of "wicked" American bombing, that on the verge of citizenship he documents his new country's depredations.

Perhaps the capstone irony of Auden's changing national allegiances is the fit between the moment of his Pulitzer, and his simultaneous struggle to award the Bollingen Prize not to the echt-American William Carlos Williams but to the traitor Ezra Pound. For this successful action Auden was widely abused in the press, so that we see in 1948–49 a repetition of attacks made on him in 1938–39 by the English press, and by some members of Parliament, for his alleged indecent desertion of the State and of a citizen's responsibilities. Thus within ten years of emigration, and within two years of the ratification of his new citizenship papers, Auden is already moving into the next expatriation. In 1951, in an essay on Auden and Rilke, D. J. Enright attacks Auden for using the imagination as a form of "dereliction of duty … even treason"; in the same year Auden finds himself involved, innocently, in the defection from England by the queer traitors Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. Auden sympathizes with them, to the point of identifying his American citizenship with, of all things, a defection to Russia. "I know … why Guy Burgess went to Moscow," Auden explained in 1959, twenty years after leaving England. "It isn't enough to be a queer and a drunk. He had to revolt still more…. That's … what I've done by becoming an American citizen … crossed to the wrong side of the tracks." By 1959, however, Auden already had long crossed over from, or double-crossed, his American tracks. Isn't putting it this way justifiable, given that Auden's first trip to Ischia—his first voyage of disengagement from America—takes place in 1948? Carpenter quotes a poem from 1948, "A Walk After Dark," and approvingly quotes a critic who calls the poem "a fitting farewell to [Auden's] American period." It's a sign of how little attention criticism has paid to Auden's acting out of the meanings for citizenship in the American period that Carpenter can notice this "fitting farewell" without blinking an eye. The poem is the farewell of a citizen whose American period lasted, legalistically speaking, for two years.

The Age of Anxiety, written along the way of Auden's path to citizenship, winner of a prize reserved for American citizens, is about the way in which, for Auden, real citizens—those worthy of the name because they redeem the name—have no national roots. The true citizen, the one we now need to value and to identify with authentic public virtue, is the one without a country. Of the poem's four characters, only Emble is American-born—and the narrative function of the poem's other characters is to exorcise Emble, to banish or exile the one man who is legally, by birthright, most American. The other characters are Malin, the queer Canadian airman; Quant, an Irish-born son of a refugee father who assassinated a landlord during the Troubles; and then, most importantly, Rosetta, the woman without a home or a country. Since Rosetta describes herself as Time's stone or bedrock, presumably Auden wants us to think of her as Rosetta née Stein: although her home once was a tight little Island, she also has lived in Babylon and, at the poem's end, sits on her light luggage, waiting to leave if called to some new exile. The refugee who is a Wandering Jewess is the new muse—the new type and not the antithesis of citizenship. After all, the poem's part 2, which is about "The Seven Ages" of life, suggests that universal temporal patterns neither explain nor assuage "a sad unrest / which no life can lack." Explanation and assuagement seem promised, rather, by a seven-stage quest for "rare community" which Rosetta initiates in the poem's third part. But the quest is baffled. "The penultimate step is the State / Asylum"; but the ultimate state is always a stage yet to come, is transitional and transitory. The sad unrest is to be re-envisioned, and embraced. "To get on," to move on, "though passports expire," is a goal and a value for the poem's picture of community as well as for Rosetta. Only by emphasizing a passport-less goal for the poem, and the rootlessness of the Rosetta-Quant-Emble trio, can we approach the poem's motives.

Motives are always what's lacking, or rather what's always cunningly hidden, in Auden's life and in his poetry; above all, Auden's ventriloquial style—his ventriloquial obsession—loads his work with incitements for us to question his motives. What's his motive for becoming an American citizen? What's his motive for writing about it this way in The Age of Anxiety, for choosing these archaic metrics, this weird, anticolloquial, scarcely civic diction? As Boly points out, the difficulty of following the sense of the forward movement of Auden's verse tends to block, even to overrule, our usual questions about why it goes forward in the mode it does. We just want to keep hold of the sense, which is invitingly there, in spite of the complex voices in which the sense is distorted. But our grasp of Auden's sense can't go forward until we push back against the ventriloquism, until we hypothesize reasons for the disruptive voices or the discontinuity of tones that constitutes the headlong Auden intricacy.

In The Age of Anxiety a celebration of rootless refugees, of postnational wanderers, motivates the intricate vagaries of the poet's voices. But the style of the poem covers up, no less than it expresses, the motivation. It is as if the style plays for the verse the part that citizenship is supposed to play for the uprooted. The style appears to give the wanderers' voices and their wandering sense a permanent home. The style, as it were, repatriates the erring sense. But the repatriation is, as Auden works it out, itself the error. Repatriation is no stopping-place, repatriation takes no hold. No wonder one of the poem's mottos—at the start of "The Seven Stages"'s baffled search for a settled community—is, from Verdi's Aida, "O Patria, patria! Quanto mi costi!" Fatherland and motherland cost too much because their stability and security does not pay. In exiling Emble's presence from them, the others in The Age of Anxiety exorcise repatriation itself.

To put it this way gives one a key to Auden's motive for casting the exilic finale of The Age of Anxiety in a style that ventriloquizes Finnegans Wake. Edmund Wilson, excited into incoherence by his enthusiasm for Auden's poem and by his simultaneous disgust for Auden's assumption of Joyce's voice—an assumption that clogs the forward wandering transit of the poem's sense—in 1947 fired off a letter to Auden: "Your regurgitation of the last pages of [The Wake] in [Rosetta's final] speech over the sleeping [Emble] … is [your] only misstep." "Aside from the echo of Joyce," Wilson concludes his letter, "The Age really rivals Finnegans Wake." Aside from the echo of Joyce, Wilson thereby complains, Auden is the same as Joyce. Wilson's illogic shows him struggling with the hiddenness of Auden's compositional motives. Why does Auden's finale turn up the Joycespeak already mutedly present in the poem, so that Rosetta talks like Joyce's Anna Livia Plurabelle? One reason is that the Joyce style allows the verse to be composed in the key of exile. The Irish refugee's offspring Quant has a propensity to translate life into myth: in his figure, therefore, Joyce the mythmaker is encoded. Rosetta is something like a female emanation of Quant, for her vocation is to "make up mythical scenes" in which to enwrap ordinary citizens: the kind who like Emble think they're at home in any nationality-centered residence. She makes up "the Innocent Place where / … the leaves are so thick" that everyone can think patria is Eden.

But Auden's use of Joyce is double-edged. It suggests that insofar as Joyce makes myths, Joyce uses his A.L.P.-Rosetta, and his Wake to turn our world back into myth, and to relocate displaced Eden in a rediscovered hermetic-Edenic garden of historical and etymological "roots." In contrast Auden's uprooted Rosetta-A.L.P. reveals the illusion that is her own mythmaking. In fact her mythology aims to enclose the world's Embles in the delusion they pursue. What is the delusion? Emble is a male coquette, wanting men like Malin as well as women like Rosetta to desire him. He is not a willful tease—he just can't help it, any more than those smitten by him can help being smitten. He desires to be consumed, erotically, by both genders; but he is afraid of bisexual passion, for his desire cannot bear to be rootless and homeless. For Emble to be at home, he needs to repatriate desire, to bring it out of exile and to give it refuge within domestic limits, which typify a national home. The national home is a shabby delusion, however, Rosetta prays that Emble gets what his fear hopes for. "Make your home / with some glowing girl; forget with her what happens also." While Rosetta is thus praying for Emble, she also is cursing him, weaving the delusive scenes of a myth in which he seeks to be embowered. "What happens also" is outside the bower. What happens also is unruly eros, and historical time, each the antithesis of myth and rootedness; what happens is a reality covered over by the Joycean (and the archaicizing) leafage, underneath whose camouflage Auden outruns leafy speaking.

To be sure, when Rosetta—for whom home is a "light elation," and, as she says, is a hope that has ended—takes up the burden of being an exile, she does so in a long monologue that ends with the most sacred name (in transliterated Hebrew) of a nation-centered He. He is not the Christ we expect from Auden, but Israel's God. But for Auden, Israel's God does not appear to be a Zionist. He is invoked as the divinity of ceaseless wanderings, not of a settled national homeland. For better or worse, He is a God of wanderings because He is the God of time—of time's dispersals and disseminations. Emble at home in a nation hides both from the Eros that creates homelessness, and from the temporal dimension that, just like Eros, makes one, in all anxiety, a refugee, perpetually on a frontier where "His ragged remnant," as Rosetta describes them, "seep through boundaries / Diffuse like firearms through frightened lands, / transpose our plight … / … time-tormented." And if we feel it is perverse not to say that Rosetta's long speech converts itself to orthodox theology rather than remains faithful to antimythological rootless temporality, we must look again. The sense of the monologue clings to an ironic or sarcastic repatriation. The He whom Rosetta finally invokes has been characterized by her as a lying shiftless nobodaddy: she recounts his infidelities, and wonders how he could have loved his new wife, Stepmother Stupid. "I shan't be at peace / Till I really take your restless hands / My poor fat father." Rosetta says. She does not lead him to a resting-place, however; although weary, she leads him on, blessed in restlessness.

This unsettling metamorphosis of He into "poor fat father," this counterconversion from theodicy to banality, is what I call ironic repatriation. It takes the supreme patria-figure and relocates him into banal secular self-division, alienation, displacement. Repatriation in Auden, like conversion, first allies itself to a god-term, a father-term (like fatherland), then counterconverts the god-term into distance from divinity and from the great good Innocent Place. The God who is prayed to at last is a god who is himself on the lam, an exile. Malin takes up the concluding meditations in The Age of Anxiety, and speaks as a new Rosetta. He speaks in her and Auden's "own / Contradictory dialect, the double talk / Of ambiguous bodies," who are "Temporals … finite in fact yet refusing" to recognize their inevitable double talk. Patrias and "patriations" refuse the double talk, the eternal dislocations that for Auden should invest all citizenship. When Malin's last words breathlessly fall forward into invocations of Rosetta's He, and sound the counterexilic note of infinite salvation—as if time were not the poor finite and displaced father that it is—Malin is fooling himself. He is not as anchored by assured salvations as his prayerful allegiances presume.

Here is the point at which Auden's civic voice, motivated by the impulse to value enduring expatriation, converges with Auden's religious voice. The religious voice complements the civic voice. The two voices both utter "double talk," because their author is conscious that, no less than nationalism, even theology might be an emblem of Emble—a woven defense against cosmic and ontological homelessness, a defense too against Eros's resistance to domesticity, and a defense against the temporal devolution of Our Father into the real old man. Yet precisely "double talk" in another sense, the incessant wavering between patria and expatriation, or between civism and refugeeism, is Auden's vital center of civic and religious belief. Consider the religious and patriotic virtue of doubleness implied in Auden's Kierkegaard-inspired version of "the existential." "I am free to make choices," Auden writes in "Soren Kierkegaard"; but "I cannot observe the act of choice objectively. If I try I shall not choose." Choice is a differentiation and commitment, and a leap in the dark. Translated into the realm of state allegiances, this means that one's civic and national ties and commitments always are partly blind choices. The blindness that inheres in these commitments produces edgy anxiety in us; but the anxiety perhaps is a disguised consciousness of the need to distrust commitments, in order to continue to be free. Harbored within both choice and anxiety is a need to maintain a mobile, vitally neutral perspective on even one's passionate attachments.

Like The Age of Anxiety, For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (1941–42) is motivated by Auden's impulse to undermine the settling and stabilizing functions of nationality and religion. But For the Time Being is even more joined to a homosexual inspiration than the poem about Emble the flirty Navy man. We know about the inspiration thanks to Dorothy Farnam's publication of Auden's letter-poem to Kallman, dated Christmas Day, 1941, in which Auden elaborates point-for-point likenesses between the Nativity story characters and the Auden-Kallman marriage. The elaboration, at once impious—from a Christian convert of scarcely two years!—and earnest, identifies Kallman with Mary: "Because mothers have much to do with your queerness and mine, because we both have lost ours, and because Mary is a camp name; As this morning I think of Mary I think of you." With this Mary at the center, all Christmas becomes Christian High Camp. Because Auden recently had discovered Kallman's infidelity, Auden identifies with Joseph, who represents jealous male "vileness" and "conceit" at the discovery that his Mary has had intercourse elsewhere. He identifies with Herod, too, because Herod, jealous like Joseph, wants to kill whoever threatens devotion to him. (Significantly, Auden combines these identifications with a studied neutrality towards Joseph's and Herod's fixed, jealous attachments.) Auden also identifies his marriage to Kallman with "the Holy Family" ("because you are to me emotionally a mother, physically a father, and intellectually a son") and with the Paradox of the Incarnation ("because in the eyes of our … friends our relationship is absurd"). Since in the context of Auden's allegory, the Incarnation, whereby god becomes man, also sounds like a literalizing of gay awe at the advent of male beauty ("He's divine!"), perhaps it's not surprising that in Auden's fantasia even the shepherds at the crèche turn out to be gay sailors and rough trade.

But without knowledge of this letter, For the Time Being surely can't be read in this queer way. Hecht admires the letter's "very moving declaration" and its "brilliant ingenuity"; but he quotes it outside of his chapter on the poem. He doesn't know how to fit the letter into his interpretation. It is not easy. After all, the only gay man explicitly represented in For the Time Being is George, the soldier of fortune who reenlists in the Army "Just in tidy time," as the camp song about him says, "to massacre the Innocents." With homosexuality looking like an opportunistic, murderous arm of Herod, Auden has intruded homosexuality into the poem shockingly. He gives no explicit motive for assigning just this sexuality to the soldier. By identifying a homosexual figure with the villainous massacre, he seems to retract—homophobically—the Christmas letter's theologizing of queerdom. What is Auden up to? If the reprehensible George is gay, we aren't likely to read dear Mary as "Mary." In contrast to him, isn't she too good to be gay?

One answer emerges out of the shocking intrusion. Until this point in the poem, Auden's revisions of the Nativity stay within the story's conventional bounds. George breaks the bounds. But when a conscientious writer introduces material that seems purely disruptive, he might be inviting a reader to test the possible relevance, after all, of the irrelevance. This is just what Hecht does, unintentionally. By chance he calls George a refugee. Having called him this, however, Hecht does not note that George's public villainy reaches its apex when the refugee has stopped wandering, and enrolls himself as a solid citizen. George's wanderings are scarcely blameless; but the solid state of citizenship, the service to Herod, is the one in which the queer becomes vicious. George was without a country before he became a gay in the military and a good citizen. His intrusion in the poem suggests an equation between being a better queer and being a refugee. The better citizens, those more potentially the bearers of a redemptive public virtue, are migrating or in exile. This perverse suggestion lies behind Auden's burdening us with George. From this suggestion, the queer allegory of the letter to Kallman gets into the poem. Mary and her kind—that divine boy included—must migrate out of citizenship, become strangers in a strange land, because this is the nobler public-minded thing to do.

It is indeed an inversion, this idea that a citizen's virtue is best realized only before one has acquired one's national identity papers and one's passport, or only after one has left them behind. Still, in one of the poem's most moving passages, section 4 of "The Summons," For the Time Being insists on the idea. "We are not unlucky but evil, / … the dream of a Perfect State or No State at all, / To which we fly for refuge, is a part of our punishment," the poem says. I take this to mean that we are to recall how the imagination of man's heart is evil from its youth, and especially so when the imagination takes two political forms. One form is instanced by the refugee who insists on building and entering what he takes to be Utopia. The Utopia might be Brook Farm; it might be no more than complacent national allegiance. In either case, the refugee will find himself, inevitably, in Herod's house, enlisted in some slaughtering activity. Moreover, it is to be remarked that the Perfect State probably is also the Perfect Religious State, which Auden encapsulates in For the Time Being in "The Meditation of Simeon." Hecht takes much too earnestly this tour de force theodicy, which is undercut by its pedantic, assured assertiveness.

Simeon, I submit, is Herod doubled as a theologian. He is scarcely Kierkegaardian. In Simeon logical demonstration slaughters belief. But, alternatively, the refugee from Perfection will be wrong to dispense altogether with imagining civic values and ideals. To dream of No State at all is to be merely antisocial, or chaotic, and so to miss—for better or worse—incarnations and holy families like Auden-Kallman's. There is a middle (and paradoxical) ground between the evil alternatives of Utopia and the antisocial war of all against all. The Shepherds describe the paradox of the middle ground as "our lucky certainty / Of uncertainty." The Wise Men indicate the same middle when they say that love fraternizes with anarchy, but "vividly expresses obligation / With movement and in spontaneity." Exemplary citizenship would fuse obligations to the commonwealth with their spontaneous performance and vivid expression. (But this ideal model might indulge the evil of Perfection.) It is Mary and Joseph, in exilic movement, in between Perfect State and No State, who most vividly express obligation to the new citizenship. Once the pair has fled into Egypt, and are safe, their safety worries them. Safety is not responsive to the refugee's blessed, migratory intermediacy, to the queerness that feels most conscious of its responsibilities in a condition of political and national displacement. "For all societies and epochs are transient details." "Safe in Egypt," sing the gay Jewish couple Joseph and Mary, "we shall sigh / For lost insecurity; / Only when her terrors come / Does our flesh feel quite at home." To gestate and to enact the promise of public well-being one must resist the security of patriation.

Not just Auden's private letter to Kallman but an important literary influence bears on For the Time Being's identification of Kallman with Mary, and helps shape Auden's new citizenship. In this influence the rebellious oddities of Auden's religious and national conversions converge. The Mary of For the Time Being derives, I submit, from Walter Pater's interpretation of Botticelli's Maries in Studies in the Renaissance. Pater tells us that Botticelli's virgins are inspired by Matteo Palmieri, the author of "La Città Divina," a poem which represents the human race as the incarnation of the angles who, during Lucifer's revolt, were neither for Jehovah nor for his enemies. In Botticelli's paintings, the Virgin too, Pater writes, "though she holds in her hands the 'Desire of all nations,' is one of those who are neither for Jehovah nor for his enemies; and her choice is on her face…. Her trouble is in the very caress of the mysterious child … who has already that sweet look of devotion which men have never been able altogether to love." A characteristic Paterian acid here, corroding theology, is too extreme to apply to Auden's Christianity. Still, as the source of a tradition of which Auden is a product, the acid bites deep. Not repatriation but re-Pateriation contributes to the neutral, in-between citizenship and the Ahasuerus-like burden of wandering in which Auden invests the desire of all nations.


W. H. Auden Poetry Analysis


W. H. Auden Contemporary Criticism (Vol. 1)