W. H. Auden

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W. H. Auden Contemporary Criticism (Vol. 3)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10049

Auden, W(ystan) H(ugh) 1907–1973

Auden, an Anglo-American poet, essayist, composer, critic, playwright, and teacher, succeeded Eliot as the "greatest living poet." His poetry is rooted in the tradition of English poetry—from Anglo-Saxon and Middle-English verse through Pope, Hopkins, and Eliot. The recipient of many important honors, he was also awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1948 for The Age of Anxiety. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

I doubt whether any man living has read everything published by W. H. Auden, probably the most prolific poet-critic of the twentieth century. Not only the quantity but the range of Auden's writing is the most extensive of any contemporary poet's; what is more remarkable, everything he writes is readable. The luxuriance of the Auden bibliography, even in his mid-years, recalls the Victorians, who provided not only the high literature of their time but the popular literature as well. Auden, however, is not popular, any more than T. S. Eliot is popular. Like all Moderns he has eschewed popularity….

There is a pervasive and convincing pastness about Auden's writing which always leaves me wondering whether he really is a twentieth-century man or one of those creatures flung over the time barrier by a nineteenth-century time machine.

Auden is probably the most English poet since Thomas Hardy died in 1928, the year Auden published his first book. Internationalism has never sat on him well; nor has Americanism (Auden has camped out in America for many years); he is indeed the chief ornament of English letters in the twentieth century. But English poetry is to this day largely "nineteenth century" compared with American or French or Spanish poetry….

The fact is that Auden was never as much interested in the social revolution or in religion as he was in psychology; it is Auden's fascination with psychological behavior that makes him readable, charming, and, it may be, lasting. The retreat of Auden is the retreat from poetry to psychology, an almost total sacrifice of the poetic motive to the rational motive…. There is in him nothing of the visionary or the seer, everything of the conversationalist and the classroom wit. Auden, moreover, is an intellectual through and through, and poetry to him is a species of talk. The retreat of poetry into talk, which Auden has made a respectable poetics, is part of the canon of Modernism….

Auden is the editor of the best general anthology in English poetry, among his other numerous anthologies, and he knows the tradition in a true sense, and loves it. He is part of it; he is heir to it. In fact, one can understand Auden best by seeing him in the role of curator of the tradition of English poetry. One of the reasons Auden fled England must have been his fear of being recognized as a traditional English poet to the manner born. He has Poet Laureate written all over him….

In his work we see an enormous mass of unrelated poems and verses covering every possible category of the poem, as the textbook and anthology classify the English poem. The poet's hallmark is always evident; the turn of phrase, the vocabulary, the rhythms themselves are always distinctively his, so characteristic that one can spot them in a second. And these forms run from the smallest to the largest, from the minutest epigram to the oratorio, libretto, verse play, prose-poem; everything, in fact, except the modern "epic" like the Cantos or the straight narrative, like "Roan Stallion." Yet we cannot find a particular form which we identify as Auden's, one he has invented….

Auden's great...

(This entire section contains 10049 words.)

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achievement, on the other hand, is the modernization of diction, the enlarging of dictional language to permit a more contemporary-sounding speech. In this endeavor he has created a revolution in English poetic speech for our timewhich is in effect part of the counterrevolution of T. S. Eliot. In Auden's case this was an honest and perhaps inevitable development, not a scheme to rule the poetic roost. The Eliot-Pound "form" is, as we know, barren, and nothing new has grown out of it. Its failure permitted Auden to return to the standard forms….

Auden is a dictionary poet, one who refers to the authority of the lexicon and the authority of the anthology. He is himself a scholar and superb editor, with a tremendous grasp of his material. Even his theorizing is handsomely documented.

But Auden has no poetic direction; his theory as well as his practice of poetry reverts to play; he develops a kind of self-defeating technique which prevents even his followers from making him the center of a poetic cult. He would like to be as dogmatic as Blake, for instance, but cannot; as flamboyant as Byron (or Dylan Thomas); or as desperate as Rimbaud. But he is in fact too much a poet of debts and obligations, too happy with books, and too civilized a man to kick over the card catalogue and run howling to his Muse….

One finds it impossible to do more than to praise Auden for his extraordinary competence, and after that to talk about the significance of this competence. Each work of his achieves its own perfection; and there is probably no poet in English who has written so much whose successes are so many. In this excellence Auden is like a superb athlete, unaware of his own agility, and spectacularly lucky…. [It] is Auden more than any other poet who has stamped the modern poem with a style. To Auden belongs the honor of having brought to perfection what everyone nowadays calls the Academic Poem….

Auden's achievement is thus far that of the great stylist, not that of the primary poet, the actual creator of poetry like Hopkins or Rimbaud or, among his own contemporaries, Dylan Thomas. Auden is more than a literary movement; he is practically a period of literature all to himself. But his is a period of re-examination—of forms, of vocabularies, of ideologies. He is the great amateur of our time; he has taught us all how to improvise. But one would be hard put to find the small handful of poems which are the core of Auden, the man himself, the poet himself.

Karl Shapiro, "The Retreat of W. H. Auden," in his In Defense of Ignorance (copyright © 1960 by Karl Shapiro; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1960, pp. 115-41.

[A Certain World] is an excellent source book for the Auden who, when the brouhaha over his political life finally goes wherever brouhahas go to die, will be seen to be, and to have always been, worthy of our most serious attention: it is the Auden of the inquiring mind, the Auden of scientific investigation, the rational man, the intelligent poet, and the discursive philosopher. It was before the influence of Goethe became apparent that this Auden emerged, but his use of science, of psychoanalysis, and of whatever he understood by Marxism, was at that stage chaotic. During the war his attitudes became affected by the ludicrous guilt about his past, and also quite radically by Christianity. But what emerged after the war, what one might call the Goethean man, is of quite a different stature. It is this man who brought the realization to bear on his poetry that our appreciation of the world around us is not either sensual and emotional (for our poetry) or scientific and logical (for everything else). It is he who transformed the language of poetry so that it could deal with a vast new range of subjects, appreciating at once their sensual and philosophical aspects. One notices how infinitely more rich the present writers of his school are than the Audenites of the 1930s. This is because the equipment with which he has provided them is capable of doing so much more, and because he himself has used it comparatively little.

"Instead of a Life," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), June 11, 1971, p. 664.

W. H. Auden, the rebel of poetry thirty years ago, has not had his last kick yet. The critical reception of his last book, City Without Walls, was generally and deservedly tepid. The tricks and catches were all there, but the spring was missing. It often seemed that Auden was trying to seem sage, and instead appeared derelict. Epistle to a Godson is more than a recovery. Many readers would agree that Auden wrote his best poetry over a generation ago. Epistle to a Godson will eliminate that kind of generalization. The book is new Auden, really fresh Auden, no matter if he is past retirement age….

Auden has reacquired the art of the sardonic, and has re-exerted mastery over an otherwise motley assemblage of subjects and techniques. His complaints about the current world are reserved, controlled, handled with authority without indecent force. He has looked upon, judged, and survived the sump of modern life, managing to retain sanity and sane voice.

When Auden protests, he does it trenchantly, between grins. When he lauds, he does it with dignity. An elegy for one doctor and a eulogy for another are relaxed poems of recumbent thought, thoughts wide awake, but remembering….

To poets and readers of poetry, Epistle to a Godson must serve as a quiet, definite encouragement. Auden has used his age, writing without tremor or waste. His poetry has turned in every direction as his life marched in one. His latest book cannot be his last.

W. G. Regier, "'A Past, Subject to Judgement'," in Prairie Schooner (© 1973 by University of Nebraska Press, reprinted by permission from Prairie Schooner), Winter, 1972/73, pp. 363-65.

The greatest modern verse technician, Auden long ago ran out of metrical rules needing more than a moment's effort to conform to. Technically, his later manner—which involves setting up a felt rhythmic progress inside an arbitrary syllabic convention—is really a way of restoring to the medium some of the resistance his virtuosity earlier wiped out. This technical mortification is closely allied with the ethical stand forbidding any irrationalities, all happy accidents. No automatic responses, no first thoughts….

All conscious artists feel the urge to refine what is unique in their work, but few interpret this call to refine as a command to eliminate. Unless we are dealing with a self-destructive enthusiast—and Auden on the face of it can scarcely be categorized as one of those—then we are up against that most disciplined of all artistic adventurers, the man who gets sick of his own winning streak….

[His] was a Shakespearean gift, not just in magnitude but in its unsettling—and unsettling especially to its possessor—characteristic of making anything said sound truer than true. In all of English poetry it is difficult to think of any other poet who turned out permanent work so early—and whose work seemed so tense with the obligation to be permanent. In his distinguished essay on Auden, John Bayley penetratingly pointed out that it was not, in Auden's creative stance ever to admit to being young. What has not yet sufficiently been noticed is that it was not in the nature of Auden's talent to win sympathy by fumbling towards an effect—to claim the privileges of the not yet weathered, or traffic in the pathos of an art in search of its object. Instant accomplishment denied him a creative adolescence….

Epistle to a Godson is like About the House and City Without Walls in being utterly without the excitement we recognize as Audenesque. And yet it, like them, gives a peculiar satisfaction: the patriarch grunts, having seen much and come a long way. The book is flat champagne, but it's still champagne. Part of Auden's genius was to know the necessity of chastening his talent, ensuring that his poetry would be something more enduring than mere magic. The resource and energy he devoted to containing and condensing his natural lyricism provide one of the great dramas in modern literary history. Pick up Look, Stranger! or Another Time—they read like thrillers. Every poem instantly establishes its formal separateness from all the others. Through Auden's work we trace not just themes but different ways of getting something unforgettably said: the poem's workings are in the forefront of attention. Finally the contrast between the early and the late manners is itself part of the drama. To understand Auden fully, we need to understand how a man with the capacity to say anything should want to escape from the oppression of meaning too much. Late Auden is the completion of a technical evolution in which technique has always been thought of as an instrument of self-denial. What Auden means by the fetters of Self is the tyranny of an ungoverned talent, and his late poetry is a completed testament to the self-control which he saw the necessity for from the very start—the most commendable precocity of all.

"A Testament to Self-Control," in The Times Literary Supplement (reproduced by permission), January 12, 1973, pp. 25-6.

Admittedly, it is not the usual thing with a work of literary criticism to speak first of the pleasure it offers. But Auden is not your usual critic, for in addition to being intelligent, wise, humane, and a master of prose, he is also blessed with a highly individual, not to say eccentric, way of responding to what he reads. [In Forewards and Afterwards, pleasures] abound, whether the subject is Shakespeare or Goethe, A. E. Housman or Virginia Woolf. And much that is instructive and much that is provocative and, sometimes, an occasional silliness (as on the subject of biography) to remind us that even the wisest men have their blind spots.

Saturday Review of the Arts (copyright © 1973 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), April, 1973, p. 95.

Even T. S. Eliot's poetry got crochety there toward the end. How marvelous that the work of W. H. Auden gets younger all the time. In Epistle to a Godson Auden is speaking to young people, as he says in his dedication: "at Twenty I tried to vex my elders, past Sixty it's the young whom I hope to bother." Fine. But more importantly Auden is speaking with a young voice….

Auden is safe, his reputation is safe. He could work within the framework of all the traditional and acceptable forms, as he did in the stilted "Musée des Beaux Arts," or in the prophetic "Unknown Citizen." But he is better than that. He digs newness; he is onto nowness. Auden is a wrinkled, wizened young poet, bless him. And bless especially his marvelous imperfections.

Peter D. Zivkovic, "News, Views, and Reviews of the Muse," in The Carleton Miscellany, Spring/Summer, 1973, pp. 147-49.

"It is the young whom/I hope to bother," Auden announces in the dedication to his consequently titled volume [Epistle to a Godson], which like its predecessor is so largely concerned with limits, with boundaries and pales, those marks which show where we are just because we have been somewhere else already and let it be known. Indeed that is the entire justice of his verse—a turning back on itself, a recurrence, a sign of recovery; hence the primacy of prosody, the passion for numbers, that old name for verses. Auden is interested in everything, of course, but not everything interests him enough to be remarked—to be marked over and over…. [In] the center is that passion for measuring out and marking off, for signing and signifying, exceptional enough—in a period when the popular arts are so determined to escape identification, enclosure—to make Auden interested, further, in bothering the young. It is, precisely, the young who have a useful expression for what the last master of expression to refuse self-expression is doing: he is doing a number on their heads, or doing numbers, and thereby creating something which is wickedly beyond the pale of our open, naked, fetterless bards: he is interested in those energies instituted by an acknowledgment that there is all that out there, as well as something in here….

[We] must remember the origin of bother, as Mr. Auden doubtless does: it comes from the word for dung, and refers to that process by which the fields are made to fructify.

This matter of numbers, to speak oxymoronically, is crucial to the enterprise here, which is anything but free. It is no accident that the first person we encounter in the first and title poem is Cantor, the twentieth-century German mathematician who was the first to define real numbers. Counting, metering, amounting: these are the processes whereby Auden can praise enough (as he once asked to do) the world of his belief…. The enemy … is all that abhors measurement, all that is not, finally, musical. So much, then, for the opposition to W. H. Auden himself—one notices, in the reviews of his recent books (though of course not in my notices), a sort of exasperation with the old man for his insistence on so many orthodoxies, for his submission to so many requirements. The point has been missed: the poet invites requirements: the more he serves, the more he serves forth. He does bother our culture, which is of course a youth culture, for he insists on that discernment of experience which is a separation, a qualification, a discrimination…. There have been poets who, after sixty, have written more gorgeous poetry, but there has never been a poet who has written more interesting poetry, for to be interested, we are reminded by no less an authority than Martin Heidegger, means to be among and in the midst of things, to be at the center of a thing and stay with it.

Richard Howard, "Well On; Well Off," in Shenandoah (copyright © by Shenandoah; reprinted from Shenandoah: The Washington and Lee University Review with the permission of the Editor), Summer, 1973, pp. 86-8.

In Auden's view, nature is a great "savage" force, a current of energy and fund of building material at the source of all life and progress, but it is no goal in itself. By no means the peaceful shepherds' setting of Theocritus or Virgil or the harmonized composition of an idealized landscape painting, it absorbs a progressive and regressive historic process, extraordinary for its realism and activity. The "moralized landscape" which-Auden had used in early verse emerges again in Bucolics, and Piero [di Cosimo, the Italian Renaissance painter] appears as Auden's kindred spirit whose work elaborates the poet's antipastoralism in significant ways….

Auden, for his part, has been termed an "anthropologist"—the poet of anthropos—and even "primordial Auden." As for Piero, he is termed an "atavistic phenomenon" with the "subconscious recollection of a primitive who happened to live in a period of sophisticated civilization." It seems likely that Auden, who often presupposes an informed audience, was well-aware of the painter's significance as an effectual symbol of man's deeply inward retention of original wild modes of being. Certainly, Piero represents, in his art, a favorite "pastoral" device of this poet: a psychological probe objectified in "scenes" from collective early memory….

In these poems, Auden finds true art to be that which reproduces fundamental reality. His subjects go deep, "deep below our violences" to find reality in "our First Dad." Actuality does not alter with appearances, and the way of truth cannot be sophisticated—or brutalized—away, whatever the mortal artificer of words and ideas may attempt.

Virginia M. Hyde, "The Pastoral Formula of W. H. Auden and Piero di Cosimo," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 332-46.

Auden has always been a philosopher, with an enormous appetite for ideas and abstractions, and a hankering after world views. He has surely been more aware of more of the advanced thought of his time than any other modern poet, and he has gotten that thought into his work (as the notes to New Year Letter so copiously testify).

A thinking poet poses special critical difficulties, especially when his beliefs change. Eliot's conversion was such a difficulty, and Auden's development since the thirties has raised similar problems. For like Eliot, Auden has disappointed the teleological expectations of his early admirers by failing to develop toward an end that was implicit in his beginning. This is not simply a matter of a new religious subject matter, but more fundamentally of a new view of poetry based on religious beliefs. In Auden we are faced with a major poet who in his middle years decided not to take poetry too seriously, for doctrinal reasons (which are elaborately spelled out in the Caliban section of The Sea and the Mirror). As an act of faith, the decision is impressive, but it has made life hard for Auden's critics and the people who teach his poems. We have all learned by now what to say about the contents of Poems and Look, Stranger, and we have polished our lectures on "Doom is dark" and "Musée des Beaux Arts"; but the work after the war is troublesome. How are we to deal with the apparent loosening of the taut, elliptical manner, the reduction of surface tension, the disappearance of anxiety as a normal tone of voice? Like his Melville, Auden has sailed into an extraordinary mildness, and mildness is not a quality that our previous experience of Auden's verse—or of modern verse in general—has prepared us for. The playing with language (and, it would seem, with the OED) in the later poems, the antipoetic, camp remarks like "ever so comfy," the chatty pastoralism and the curmudgeonly posture, all these are hard to adjust to when one has grown up on "leave for Cape Wrath tonight."

Auden has thought his way to a poetry of acceptance and celebration, and it is that arrival, I think, rather than the apparent loosening of the style, that is really at the heart of the matter. To write a poem in praise of limestone (or of any other substance), to bless what there is for being, to assume a stance at once calm and avuncular, is to separate oneself from the main stream of modern poetry, or what we took to be the main stream. For surely we had all agreed: poetry should be dense, difficult, allusive, and concerned with problems like Identity and Belief. But Auden seems at ease both with who he is and with what he believes and content to record his contentment in a carpet-slipper style. In his mildness he has made poetry a game, and man a comic gamesman. The early urgency has become coziness, fear has become irascibility, and all the anxieties are trivial ones. In every aspect of the work the changes have been extreme; where would one find another poet who has altered so much, and who has so completely resigned from his poetic generation?

Samuel Hynes, "Auden and MacNeice," in Contemporary Literature (© 1973 by the Regents of the University of Wisconsin), Vol. 14, No. 3, Summer, 1973, pp. 378-83.

About the House, City Without Walls, and Epistle to a Godson [are] books written according to the principle that, whatever life is, poetry is a carnival. The poet begins with language, delighting in the exercise of its possibilities, and he stops short of Mardi gras only by requiring his language to recognize the existence of the primary world in which we live.

The poem makes a secondary world, according to prescriptions as congenial as they are ingenious. In Epistle to a Godson the primary world contains for the most part certain grand maladies of the quotidian: age, loss, grief, loneliness, violence, nuances of damage, bloody-minded monsters at large. The secondary world is still managed with the most charming intention, and a prosody of good humor, good taste, good luck. The dominant tone implies that the quest is now too perilous to be undertaken directly, better wait till morning and the possibility of "cleansed occasions." Meanwhile the poet writes short, brisk poems, a few smacks administered to the world's bottom, for its good….

Mr. Auden has become a crusty old fellow somewhat before his time; by my reckoning he is only sixty-six but he talks, in this book, like something carved on Mount Rushmore….

Naturally, most of the grousing poems are about man, presented as a nuisance, with rare exceptions. Still, He's all we have: besides, He's a miracle, God knows, "for who is not certain that he was meant to be?"

But the trouble is that man, this miraculous fellow, is a bore and, increasingly nowadays, a dangerous clown. He ought to live with joy and laughter, good food, good music. His books ought to be delightful, not "plain cooking made still plainer by plain cooks," to recite an earlier version of the poet's plaint. If "the truest poetry is the most feigning," poets should feign like mad, but take care not to go crazy. So Mr. Auden, it is well known and in part approved, has been making merry with the dictionaries in recent years. I suppose he thinks of them as pure poetry, containing thousands of words virtually untouched by human hands; marvelous words now archaic, obsolete, and for that very reason waiting to be resuscitated by a poet addicted to that pleasure….

Mr. Auden, who likes a lark as well as anybody, is not merely larking with the dictionary…. A grudging reader, faced with Mr. Auden's novelties, might refuse to acknowledge a serious purpose being pursued, might declare in anger that he writes thus not because it is necessary but because it is possible…. My own view is that for such a cause any reason is good enough….

Mr. Auden welcomes a theme only when it has given him some sign, however demurely, that if properly appreciated it will respond with affection. Courtship, thereafter, is a matter of style, and if it seems easy the appearance is deceptive: it takes a rich mixture of grace and luck to win, even with a smiling theme. If the theme keeps its distance, refuses to meet the poet's eye, then Mr. Auden leaves it alone: why should the aging eagle stretch his wings, he is not trying to write Paradise Lost….

Not as formally organized as The Dyer's Hand, [Forewords and Afterwards] retains many of the same themes, the nature of civilization, the hero, religion, beauty, and so forth. Most of the essays are literary, the rest are musical, mainly operatic. In prose, Mr. Auden is happiest with minor writers, because he can make the most of them: with major writers he seems to feel that only a miraculous leap of imagination would come at all close to them, and it is too late to go in for such athletics….

In the longer essays, as in The Dyer's Hand, Mr. Auden likes to set his mind working upon the distinctions between two rival forces often equally compelling: Eros and Agape, Body and Soul, Catholic and Protestant, Prospero and Ariel, Petrarch and Shakespeare (as sonneteers), humans and animals, France and England. Many of his grandest perceptions come from the practice of looking now upon this picture, now upon that: he is gifted in comparison and contrast, for the energy they release.

Denis Donoghue, "Good Grief," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), July 19, 1973, pp. 17-18.

[Journey to a War is] lively, inconsequential and irreverent, a Far Eastern companion to Auden and MacNeice's entertaining Letters from Iceland. After all these years, the pre-War intellectual chic has been eroded; but the solid qualities of pertinent comment and impressionistic observation remain. It's worth a dozen fact-filled theses….

The book is constructed rather like the way Italian ice-cream vendors sold their wares in the Thirties. Auden's poems resemble the crisp wafers, holding together the ice-cream of Isherwood's prose. The poems have been extensively revised for Auden has been 'shocked to discover how carelessly I had written them'. His verse 'Commentary' he now finds 'preachy' and he says that if he were to preach the same sermon today he would do it in a very different way….

Auden's poems show him at the peak of his early mastery; dry, unexpected, trenchant, witty. As he said of poets in general, he wears his talent like a uniform….

And Herr Issyvoo's prose? It's exactly what one might expect from the novelist who created Mr Norris and Sally Bowles, and viewed pre-War Berlin with a camera eye. He frequently points the contrast between his own nervousness and Auden's coolness.

Robert Greacen, in Books and Bookmen, August, 1973, pp. 130-31.

From the 1930 Poems one learnt, in a time when vers libre was fashionable among the avant-garde, that modern poetry could still be written using the traditional, effective, skilled means of English verse. What one couldn't pinch, because too personal to Auden, too dazzling and mysterious to a young provincial poetaster, was the language of the book (it was a slightly later Auden that was much more imitable—the Auden, typically, of Spain). The words are not surprising—indeed, are usually ordinary. Monosyllables abound. The observation is far from showy: well-hidden, in fact. The rhyming is often of daring wizardry….

Auden is not a failed Marxist, a deviant Freudian, a half-hearted Rilkean mystic, a senile Anglican, and so forth. His work is a relentless quest, not a series of false starts. Moreover, it follows that to dismiss any turn in his poetry would be impertinent—to argue that the real Auden is the popular Auden, the song and ballad-writer, for instance….

Obviously it's no mere pious phrase to say that Auden died at the height of his powers. The poet who goes on writing into his old age is singularly blessed. Auden was always aware of the privileged companionship of the Muse, though he was the reverse of the self-consciously poetic poet (just as his great erudition and brain, instead of despising the trivial things in life, simply got more out of them).

Roy Fuller, "W. H. Auden, 1907 to 1973," in The Listener, October 4, 1973, p. 439.

[Auden's] activity as a creator was of the kind which Rilke projected into the task of his Angels in the Duino Elegies: that of transmuting the visible world into the invisible realm of language….

What strikes one about Auden is the tireless energy with which he remoulded actuality into highly complex forms. Even when his theme was the Eternal City, he saw it in terms of the temporal city in which we live….

Auden disclaimed altogether the view that history could be influenced by poetry, even when it might appear that the intention of the poet in his poem was to state an attitude or belief. Another remark of Rilke was that a poet's relationship with his public was a sum of misunderstandings. For Auden, the chief of these (especially when he was in America) was that people took seriously the ideas and attitudes in his poetry as attempts to influence them. The same kind of misunderstanding led to his being thought of as having been in his youth the 'leader' of a 'movement'. But even as an undergraduate he hated literary movements, manifestos, politics and power. He thought up nothing corresponding to the Imagism of Ezra Pound or the Vorticism of Wyndham Lewis. He did not, like D. H. Lawrence, attempt to run his friends' lives. He was a bit oracular and something of a psychoanalyst, perhaps, in the minds of friends who went to him to show him their poems and to be provided with the psychosomatic diagnoses of their pimples. In the psychoanalytic role, however, he was as a young man, always extremely funny, buffoon-like, self-parodying. The best portraits of him in this manner are Isher-wood's Hugh Weston in Lions and Shadows and Cecil Day-Lewis's picture of him as Nigel Strangeways, the detective, in the novels which Day-Lewis wrote under the pseudonym of Nicholas Blake.

His great originality lay in his endlessly fertile invention of symbols, which did not float in the poetry unrelated to anything except by association, as in the work of the symbolist poets, but which, in the manner of Freudian dream symbolism, bodied forth psychological situations, private or social. On one level Auden replaced the 'symbol' in poetry by the 'symptom'. Yet the symbol-symptoms are not equivalents which represent situations outside the poetry. They have an independent, purely poetic existence within it as part of a completely imagined world. At his greatest, as in 'In Praise of Limestone', he achieves a complete fusion of the scene observed in nature with the psychological symptom-symbol, and the complete release of this object into that world of marvellous wit and distinction which is the language….

English Auden was a superb, magnetic wide-angled poet, but the poetry was in the blaming and warning.

American Auden, on the other hand, was a walking readers' digest: names—Rilke, Kierkegaard, Goethe, James—clung to him like Coney Island confetti. He spread easily into longer works, their themes our civilisation, the Christian story, the relation of life and art. Now part academic, part journalist, part international man of letters, his genius decreased in impact while maintaining, or even increasing, its productivity.

What held the first two together, and us to both of them? First, his unique blend of dedication and irreverence: poetry is a fine thing, but the poet—even one of Auden's stature—mustn't give himself airs ('in the end, art is small beer'). Secondly, a love of the English language ('I believe in the OED') that was still far from subservience (he sat on Volume X at meals). Thirdly, a personal toughness and isolation that, scouting self-pity in himself and others, recalled the life-style of his Anglo-Saxon ancestors.

Stephen Spender, "W. H. Auden (1907–1973)," in New Statesman, October 5, 1973, pp. 478-79.

[Auden] was, in a sense, the quintessential 'poet of exile' and his poetry acquired an almost scriptural force at greater remove. But Auden himself would perhaps have cavilled at any description of his 'exile', since the distance from his birthplace only seemed to increase his perception of a distinctively English Tradition. His poetry has all the peculiar virtues of the English spirit, whether we care to trace it in Kipling, Dryden or Herrick. It was a conversational ease combined with a strength of emphasis, and instinctive rightness of tone. Auden was the last great English traditionalist. He had a respect for literary form and history which he did his utmost to bequeath in his many essays and lectures.

His poetry was equally spare and unpretentious. Its unique voice stamped the English cultural climate of the 'thirties and 'forties, and it grew in repuation as it enlarged in range. It became, finally, unmistakable and could only be imitated or quoted. Auden did much to restore the nerve and spirit of English poetry during this period, and his political commitment has always offered a flawed but necessary example.

"W. H. Auden: 1907–1973," in The Spectator (© 1973 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), October 6, 1973, p. 454.

Until Wystan Hugh Auden died in Vienna … at 66, no contemporary writer struck so well or held so long and so humanely the characteristic poetic note of the age.

Ezra Pound changed English poetry by badgering it to speak in sharp images, in direct familiar tones. T. S. Eliot challenged it by showing that verse might use myth and nightmare to say something complex about 20th century society. Auden was a brilliant colonizer of lands they discovered; less remote but also less magical than Eliot; wiser and clearer-sighted than Pound; younger and metrically more inventive, with more humor too….

Slums and slag heaps, Freudian phrases and Marxian metaphors, the fall of prices and the Fall of Man—all found a place in Wystan Auden's writing. No poet more constantly and conscientiously tried to extend the domain of things poetical. "Rummaging into his living," he once said of his profession, "the poet fetches out the images that hurt and connect." Yet he came to regard poetry as a kind of graceful, skillful game…. The later Auden, in fact, swam in light verse like a seal in surf…. When people called him frivolous, Auden replied, "When you are labeled 'serious' in the U.S., you are expected to wear a long face all the time. I don't agree."…

[Auden's] work is … fascinating because it traces the course of a notably determined and characteristically 20th century quest.

That quest began for Auden with the belief that through science and poetry, man and society could be known and shown for what they are—and both vastly improved. When this happened, what he called "the just city" might be established. The hope was hopelessly ambiguous from the start….

As an archpoetic rebel and social critic, Auden was all bang and no whimper. The infected society "needs death, death of the grain … Death of the old gang." Nobody was better than he at describing a private attack of the hoo-has, personal angst, and a public sense of doom wrapped up in one….

His political quest for the just city began to take a decisive turn—back from politics to what had always been its central problems, guilt, anxiety and individual man. A poetic drama, The Ascent of F6, written with Isherwood, was crucial. It began as a political satire and ended up as a sort of medieval mystery play. "One saw oneself in the presence of evil—from the beginning," Auden would later explain, "and one realized how difficult it would be to change."

In the U.S., Auden soon found the crisis theology of Reinhold Niebuhr. It was a grim neo-Calvinism in which God is Wholly Other and man's individual guilt and anxiety can be submerged (if not assuaged) by a crushing awareness of general human depravity and the resultant difficulty in finding grace. In his most famous single work, The Age of Anxiety (for which, in 1948, he became the first foreign-born poet ever to win the Pulitzer Prize), he offered a repetitive, four-character charade running through all the ages and spiritual stages of modern man. Few are charming, none fruitful, all are lonely and stiff with daily dread. And at each turning, each character is unable to feel the flash of faith, or even the modest touch of terrestrial love….

Though Auden published his finest single poem in 1962 (In Praise of Limestone) and for the past twenty years poured out accomplished verse, as well as streams of essays, prefaces, and translations and libretti, the easy generalization has been endured that later Auden is a poor, doddering shadow of early Auden. History may reverse the judgment. For the late Auden, who spent his summers in Austria and his winters in a cluttered Greenwich Village apartment, was a graceful poet full of wisdom and knowledge, an awareness of human frailty, a persistent but not shrill hope, if not of heaven, at least of Judgment Day. He was also civilized, witty and endlessly inventive.

Timothy Foote, "Auden: The Sage of Anxiety," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; © 1973 by Time Inc.), October 8, 1973, pp. 113-14.

Wystan Hugh Auden … went through many changes in his lifelong effort to do the job that every major poet does—finding the language for a vision of man in his wholeness and integrity. When that is your job you become supersensitive to all the evidence that shows man to be not whole, not integrated, not healthy. You write poems about the vision of wholeness, and you write poems about the sick, scary, tragic, funny reality. Auden, a man whose face came to look like a relief map of the twentieth century, sized up the situation through science, through Marx, through Freud, through the Christian revelation—his final stopping point. But beneath all the changes of perspective, the shifting angles of the poet's riding eye, the energy and mystery called love was a constant….

Unlike T. S. Eliot, Auden did not compose one or two monumental works, like "The Waste Land" or "Four Quartets." Instead he poured forth poems in an astonishing variety of forms. In addition to the lyrics, from simple ballads to complex sestinas, there is his baroque eclogue, "The Age of Anxiety"; the Christmas oratorio "For the Time Being"; there are sermons, sonnet sequences, the brilliant "The Sea and the Mirror," in which characters from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" meet to discuss human destiny in the various voices of Auden. To the chagrin of some critics, Auden was not afraid to use "light verse" to carry his most important messages….

Throughout Auden's career he sniffed out the enemy—the spy, the gunman, the tyrant, the false teacher, the false lover and the perverse victim lurking voluptuously within ourselves. His final vision is of man eager to be a citizen, eager to take part in the life of a justly proportioned society, eager for the sensual and spiritual pleasures of thinking, feeling and loving. "We must love one another or die" has the authentic Auden rhythm. It is poetry. And it is still a daring and exciting message to Western man. It is truth.

Jack Kroll, "W. H. Auden: Mapping the Twentieth Century," in Newsweek (copyright Newsweek, Inc., 1973; reprinted by permission), October 8, 1973, p. 117.

Almost everything W. H. Auden wrote sprang from his intense apprehension of two separate spheres of being, what we would contrast as actuality with art, or even as experience with innocence, but what he called the Natural World of the Dynamo and the Historical World of the Virgin, or, again, borrowing from J. R. R. Tolkien, the Primary World of the senses and the Secondary World of the imagination. One world is necessarily public; the other, private. The two worlds differ most significantly in their concepts of justice, always the central problem for Auden. In the World of the Dynamo, justice is "the equality of all before natural law," which means anonymity and includes suffering and death, but in the World of the Virgin, justice is "the love of my neighbor as a unique and irreplaceable being."…

More than anything else, Auden regretted the loss of the sacred in the modern world and, in both prose and verse, searched to rediscover it by asserting the incalculable value, the preciousness, of every human being. "In a society governed by the values appropriate to Labor" he wrote, thinking mainly of America, "the gratuitous is no longer regarded—most earlier cultures thought differently—as sacred, because, to Man the Laborer, leisure is not sacred but a respite from laboring, a time of relaxation and the pleasures of consumption." But the poet's commitment is perforce otherwise. "The relation of a poet, or any artist, to society and politics is … more difficult than it has ever been because, while he cannot but approve of the importance of everybody getting enough food to eat and enough leisure, this problem has nothing to do with art, which is concerned with singular persons, as they are alone and as they are in their personal relations." It is this understanding, I think, that explains the joy we find in his critical writings, the joy of sharing an encounter that can never be duplicated, and explains as well the generosity and wisdom that pervade his teacher's voice.

Mark Taylor, "Auden's Vision of Eros," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), October 26, 1973, pp. 85-7.

At first glance, the obituary writers did W. H. Auden proud. But at a second glance, it is amazing how many of them glossed over his left wing past as if it was a sort of misspent youth—like frequenting billiard halls and twanging girls' knicker elastics. Auden himself helped, of course, in the last years of his life. I remember him on his last television interview, tantalising Dick Crossman with statements like: 'A poet has no duty to politics—only to the language.' It was a witty, crafty performance.

The Saturday the news came of Auden's death I was having a lunchtime drink with an assistant editor of one of the three posh Sunday papers. 'Auden's dead!' I said. We both looked at each other. He said: 'Tomorrow the bicycle races through the suburbs, but today the struggle.' And I said: 'O lurcher loving collier, black as night.' I don't name this as one of the year's great conversational exchanges, but it demonstrates how we, although not unacquainted with his later poetry, remembered Auden.

My political education really began in the 1940s. By then Auden and Christopher Isherwood had gone off to America. His political poems were several years behind him, but for me, trying to find an answer to so many things during those last long years at school, they were a light pointing to the shore.

Alan Forrest, in Books and Bookmen, November, 1973, pp. 10-11.

[Auden's] fellow undergraduates who were poets when he was also an undergraduate (Day Lewis, MacNeice, Rex Warner, and myself) saw in him a man who, instead of being, like us, romantically confused, diagnosed the condition of contemporary poetry, and of civilization, and of us—with our neuroses. He found symptoms everywhere. Symptomatic was his key word. But in his very strange poetry he transmogrified these symptoms into figures in a landscape of mountains, passes, streams, heroes, horses, eagles, feuds and runes of Norse sagas. He was a poet of an unanticipated kind—a different race from ourselves—and also a diagnostician of literary, social, and individual psychosomatic situations, who mixed this Iceland imagery with Freudian dream symbolism. Not in the least a leader, but, rather, a clinical-minded oracle with a voice that could sound as depersonalized as a Norn's in a Norse saga. Extremely funny, and extremely hard-working: always, as Louis MacNeice put it, "getting on with the job." He could indulge in self-caricature, and he could decidedly shock, but he did no imitations of other people's speech or mannerisms, though he could do an excellent performance of a High Mass, including the bell tinkling. His only performance was himself.

He was in no sense public and he never wanted to start any kind of literary movement, issue any manifestoes. He was publicly private….

We were grateful for a person who was so different from ourselves, not quite a person in the way that other people were. His poetry was unlike anything we had expected poetry to be, from our public-school-classical-Platonic-Romantic Eng. Lit. education at that time.

He seemed the incarnation of a serious joke….

Thinking now of … the later Auden, a great many things about him, quite apart from his appearance, had changed. He now mistrusted his past impulsiveness and rejected in his oeuvre many lines and stanzas which had been the results of it. His buffoonery was now sharpened and objectified into wit. His eccentricities had rigidified into habits imposed according to a built-in timetable regulating nearly every hour of his day. This was serious but at the same time savingly comic. He never became respectable, could always be outrageous, and occasionally undermined his own interests by giving indiscreet interviews about his life. These tended to disqualify him in the eyes of members of committees dedicated to maintaining respectability.

He had also perhaps acquired some tragic quality of isolation. But with him the line of tragedy coincided almost with that of comedy. That was grace. One reason for this was his total lack of self-pity. He was grateful that he was who he was, namely W. H. Auden, received on earth as an honored guest….

[Throughout] the whole development of his poetry (if one makes exception of the undergraduate work) his theme had been love: not Romantic love but love as interpreter of the world, love as individual need, and love as redeeming power in the life of society and of the individual. At first there was the Lawrentian idea of unrepressed sexual fulfillment through love; then that of the social revolution which would accomplish the change of heart that would change society; then, finally, Christianity which looked more deeply into the heart than any of these, offered man the chance of redeeming himself and the society, but also without illusions showed him to himself as he really was with all the limitations of his nature. Christianity changed not only Auden's ideas but also in some respects his personality. Good qualities which he had always had, of kindness and magnanimity, now became principles of living; not principles carried out on principle, but as realizations of his deepest nature, just as prayer corresponded to his deepest need….

We can be grateful for the intricate, complex, hand-made engines of language he produced, like the small-scale machinery he so loved of Yorkshire mines, or like the limestone landscapes of that Northern countryside of hills and caves and freshets where he spent his childhood. He made a world of his imagination and had absorbed into his inner life our outer world, which he made accessible to us in his poetry as forms and emblems to play with.

Stephen Spender, "W. H. Auden (1907–1973)," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1973 by NYREV, Inc.), November 29, 1973, pp. 3-4.

For a long time before his death, the fact that a homosexual was the greatest living English poet had the status of an open secret: anybody with better than a passing knowledge of W. H. Auden's writing must have been in on it, and in his later essays (one thinks particularly of the essays on Housman and Ackerley) he was teetering on the verge of declaring himself outright…. With Auden's demise, though, there has been a retreat into coy mummery—perhaps to protect his dedicatees still living, but more probably because no respectable literatus wants the responsibility of firing the gun that will set the young scholars off on their plodding race to re-explicate what any sensitive reader has long since seen to be one of the unassailably transcendental poetic achievements of the modern age. Poor scorned clericals, they will find that their new key turns with bewitching ease, but that it might as well be turning in a lake as in a lock. Auden is a long way beyond being a crackable case.

Nevertheless, the truth helps. It was an often-stated belief in Auden's later essays that knowledge of an artist's personal life was of small relevance in understanding his work. Insatiably and illuminatingly inquisitive, Auden transgressed his own rule on every possible occasion. The principle was the right one, but had been incorrectly stated. He was saying that to know the truth will still leave you facing a mystery. What he should have said was that to know the truth will leave you with a better chance of facing the right mystery. And it quickly becomes evident, I think, that to accept the truth about Auden's sexual nature does nothing to diminish his poetry—quite the opposite. Acceptance leads in the very short run to the realization that the apparent abstractness of Auden's expressed sensuality is really a lyricism of uniquely abundant resonance, and in the long run to the conviction that Auden's artistic career, taken as a whole, is a triumph of the moral self living out its ideal progress as a work of art. (I should say at this point, to ward off misunderstanding about the kind of salute I am making to Auden's memory, that my admiration for his stature as a sensual being translating his passionate nature into the universal doesn't make me a homosexual.)

Auden's first poems instantly revealed an unrivaled gift for luminous statement. Simply by naming names he could bring anything to life…. So formidable a capacity to elevate facts from the prosaic to the poetic had been seen rarely in centuries, and such fluent gestures in doing it had almost never been seen. Auden's poetry possessed the quality which Pasternak so admired in Pushkin—it was full of things. And yet in an epoch when homosexuality was still a crime, this talent was the very one which could not be used unguarded to speak of love….

The need to find an expression for his homosexuality was the first technical obstacle to check the torrential course of Auden's unprecedented facility. A born master of directness was obliged straightaway to find a language for indirection, thus becoming immediately involved with the drama that was to continue for the rest of his life—a drama in which the living presence of technique is the antagonist. There is no other example of this drama in English: the parallels are all Dantesque….

Auden had command of a linear simplicity that would have suited the lyric to perfection. As it was, however, he stuck mainly to poetry: and anyway it's probable that the pressure of his homosexual indirectness would have distorted his linear simplicity as thoroughly as, and less fruitfully than, it dislocated his pictorial integrity. Alone with pencil and paper, Auden was free to explore his technical resources. They were without limit, Mozartian. Auden mastered all the traditional lyric forms as a matter of course, bringing to some of them—those which had been imported from rhyme-rich languages and for good reasons had never flourished—the only air of consummate ease they would ever possess. At the same time he did a far more thorough job than even vers libre had done of breaking down the last vestiges of the artificial grip the lyric still had on the written poem. He produced apprehensible rhythmic unities which were irregular not only from line to line but within the lines themselves. Finally he penetrated within the word, halting its tendency toward slur and contraction, restoring its articulated rhythmic force: this is the technical secret behind his ability to sustain the trimeter and tetrameter over long distances, driving them forward not along a fixed lattice-work of terminal and internal rhymes but with an incessant modulation across the vowel spectrum and the proliferating concatenated echoes of exploded consonantal groups….

Everybody sensitive to poetry, I think, has known the feeling that Auden's early work, with its unmatched technical brilliance, is an enchanted playground. The clear proof of his moral stature, in my view, is that he left the playground behind when all were agreed that he had only to keep on adding to it and immortality would be his.

Auden's later books are a long—and sometimes long-winded—penitence for the heretical lapse of letting art do his thinking for him. In Homage to Clio, About the House, City without Walls, and Epistle to a Godson he fulfills his aim of suppressing all automatic responses. A blend of meters and syllables, his austere forms progressively empty themselves of all mesmeric flair. Auden conquers Selfhood by obliterating talent: what is left is the discipline of mechanical accomplishment, supporting the salt conclusions of a lifetime's thinking—cured wisdom. At the same time, Auden claimed the right to erase any of his early works he now thought were lies….

It is a common opinion among the English literati that Auden's later work is a collapse. I am so far from taking this view that I think an appreciation of Auden's later work is the only sure test for an appreciation of Auden, just as an appreciation of Yeats's earlier work is the only sure test for an appreciation of Yeats. You must know and admire the austerity which Auden achieved before you can take the full force of his early longing for that austerity—before you can measure the portent of his early brilliance. There is no question that the earlier work is more enjoyable. The question is about whether you think enjoyability was the full extent of his aim. Auden, it seems to me, is a modern artist who has lived out his destiny as a European master to the full, a man in whom all cultural history is present just as the sufferings of all the past were still alive in his lover's eyes:

A look contains the history of Man,And fifty francs will earn the stranger rightTo warm the heartless city in his arms.

Famed stranger and exalted outcast, Auden served a society larger than the one in which he hid. In his later work we see not so much the ebbing of desire as its transference to the created world, until plains and hills begin explaining the men who live on them. Auden's unrecriminating generosity toward a world which had served him ill was a moral triumph. Men who try to understand it too quickly ought not to be trusted with grown-up books.

Clive James, "Auden's Achievement" (reprinted from Commentary by permission of Commentary and A. D. Peters; © 1973 by the American Jewish Committee), in Commentary, December, 1973, pp. 53-8.

I … think of [Auden's] innumerable critical reviews as a form of monologue. Both in content and length, they are overgrown essays, though not in the sense of "attempts." Nor are they monologues in the classical sense of dialogues with oneself, but rather with the reader. Auden never argues with himself, never amends or modifies what he wishes to say. He puts his cards on the table; that is why I speak of his ex cathedra manner. Yet his style is never dictatorial; on the contrary it is intimate and friendly; relaxed is perhaps the best word for it. Nine out of ten of his pronouncements, taken at random, are so illuminating that to the reader it is as if the scales had fallen from his eyes.

He was the most intelligent man I have known, or rather, because "intelligence" only suggests insight and understanding, the cleverest, with a cleverness which was essentially creative. He thought truths out for himself. Many of them could have been expanded into whole books. But he only presented them, in his own particular way, unsystematically. So there is no Auden "philosophy."

He did not always obey his own principle, that the poet is principally a craftsman, but most of the time he did….

From Auden I derive my own definition of poetry: something which creates order and can be learned by heart. (I would not say that Auden was always faithful to the second condition. No one could possibly recite "A Letter to Elizabeth Mayer" by heart.) A Poeta Doctus? His virtuoso mastery of all poetic forms and styles; his erudite references to mythology, sociology, psychology, his insatiable hunger for good books, for truth, for ideas, might make one think so. But I would deny that the description fits him. It conflicts too sharply with the charm and brilliance, the mischievous gaiety of so much of his writing. He said of Goethe that he found it difficult to express himself in prose, and easy only in poetry. Both came easily to Auden….

It is well known that he began his career as a "Left intellectual" and a militant anti-Fascist. His knowledge of Marx, Freud, Brecht; his visits to China and to Spain at the time of the civil war; the poems written during the 1930s, are all evidence of this. In 1938–9, in America, he underwent a change. It was of a religious nature. Perhaps his reading may have played a part in this, in particular Reinhold Niebuhr's great work, The Nature and Destiny of Man, which he studied and to which he devoted one of his most deeply considered pieces of criticism….

I have no doubt that his decision was good for him, for his soul, for his way of life, for his work. It also made him even readier to help others, and with a readiness to help which was methodical, slightly severe, and protestant in spirit.

Consistent in all things, he revised his views of man, of society, of history in the light of his newly acquired faith. He remained, as before, politically aware….

After the invasion of Czechoslovakia, he wrote a poem—"August 1968"—which in a few lines conveys his violent sense of outrage. He no longer expected politics to provide any kind of salvation; disaster rather; and at the very best the avoidance of the worst disaster. What is known as "history" now seemed to him a fundamentally irrational, cruel, hopelessly idiotic process. Instead of the spirit of universal love which is characteristic of the Left, there came something which was close to global pessimism, modified by a deep sympathy for individual people.

Golo Mann, "W. H. Auden: A Memorial," in Encounter, January, 1974, pp. 7-11.


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


W. H. Auden Contemporary Criticism (Vol. 4)